The story of Jesus’ transfiguration, or perhaps a better word is metamorphosis, is shrouded in complexity and great mystery. Just as Peter, James, and John didn’t understand what was really going on, I’m not sure if we are meant to either. How can we really fully grasp what it means for us and the world that Jesus is God?
(Photo: Mt. Reynolds, Glacier National Park — Used by permission: Anoop Nair from Google Picassa)
Grace and peace to you from the One who says to us: “Get up and do not be afraid.” Amen.
It is so good to be with you once again, Heart River, especially after such a whirlwind journey to Haiti over one year after the earthquake. I am so grateful for your prayers and your presence in my life. Thank you.
It is true that one never knows where Jesus will lead them. Certain places or seemingly chance encounters can be filled with awe and everything we consider to be good. It is easy to be thankful for and give credit to God for these experiences, and rightly so.
But what do we do and how are we supposed to feel when Jesus leads us to less than desirable places and people, taking us where we do not wish to go?
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration, or perhaps a better word is metamorphosis, is shrouded in complexity and great mystery. Just as Peter, James, and John didn’t understand what was really going on, I’m not sure if we are meant to either. How can we really fully grasp what it means for us and the world that Jesus is God? If we want hope for any kind of “normalcy” in our lives we generally try and keep a safe distance from stories like this one.
Here we have Jesus completely becoming something other and then chit chatting with 2 people, Moses and Elijah, who lived hundreds of years before. Next, God’s voice comes from a cloud, which terrifies the disciples, and then Jesus all of the sudden changes back to the Jesus they’ve come to know, trust, and love, and tells them not to be afraid. Then they head back down the mountain and continue on with their work and lives. Can you imagine Peter, James, and John, trying to tell the rest of the disciples what just happened? I think it’s one of those, “Guess you had to be there stories.” Some things simply leave us without adequate words. It is hard to pay this story the reverence it calls for.
So I thought the most reverent (or perhaps irreverent) thing I could do was bring a visual. Let me introduce you to night light Jesus, complete with its own on/off switch. It “plugs into any standard wall outlet and provides security and safety.” Like it says on the back of the box, “a little light at night for SAFETY AND CONVENIENCE.”
Yes, it is okay to laugh a little at the thought of night light Jesus. As silly as it can be, or as helpful when trying to get a glass of water in the night, there is an eary truth to people wanting Jesus to be safe and convenient. If only Jesus could have an on/off switch, right.
The most interesting character in our Gospel reading today for me is Peter. In chapter 16 Jesus asks Peter, “…who do you say that I am?" Peter answers, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16.15-16)." Then Jesus goes on to say “that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you. (Matt. 16:21-24).”
Peter cannot handle the reality of Jesus’ suffering and death. And now today we find ourselves on the mountain with Peter staring wide-eyed at a shining and transformed Jesus. If Peter had any doubt as to who Jesus was, it was laid to rest on that mountain top. Yet it in the echoes of the mountain, we remember even in that glorious moment, Jesus words of suffering and death. And what does Peter want to do? He wants to build tents and stay on the mountain top where it is safe. Who wouldn’t? “Let’s just stay here, Jesus, where it is secure, where you won’t suffer and die. I will even build you a place to live.”
So often in our life time we long for that direct encounter with the living God, the mountain top experience, the resurrected Jesus. We think that if we could just see God, we would believe. If God would just speak to us, we wouldn’t mess up any more in our lives. But the reality is, is that no one really knows what to do with a direct encounter with God or a transfigured Jesus, including the disciples. Their response is fear and a desperate attempt to preserve and protect what they don’t understand.
Later in the Gospel, even after this mountain top experience with Jesus, we know that Peter falls asleep when Jesus asks him to stay awake and pray with him. We also know that Peter ends up denying Jesus three times (Matt. 26) when Jesus needed someone the most in his trial and death. Then Peter weeps bitterly upon his third denial of the One who is the Son of the living God and then he abandons Jesus in his death.
I don’t know about you, but Peter gives me a lot of hope because I know that Jesus loved Peter no matter how many times he messed up. Sometimes Peter got it right, but not that often. Through it all, Jesus remained committed to the redemption of human beings, which could only come through his own suffering and death. And for this, he had to go back down the mountain.
Are there any people here who like to climb mountains? Well, if you have, you know that going back down the mountain is more dangerous than going up. I have gotten myself into quite the pickle a number of times on mountains, but there was one climb in particular in which I tried to prepare myself to die. I was with six other friends and we climbed a mountain in Glacier National Park in NW Montana, called Mt. Reynolds. Mt. Reynolds is above the tree line and much of the base of the mountain is scree, which is fragmented rock and very difficult to climb up. One of us had a guide book and once we got up the scree we were to look for carins, which are piles of rocks that tell you if you are going the right direction.
Well, long story short, we went the wrong way and ended up climbing up the face of the mountain in an area in which we should have had ropes. We all eventually made it to a ledge that was just big enough for us to sit together and see the 1500 ft. drop in the direction we were headed. We realized we had no choice but to go back down the dangerous way we came up. So we read Psalm 91, said a prayer, and cried a little before making our way back down. The clearest memory I have of sitting on that ledge waiting my turn to start the decent was thinking it was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen, while at the same time wondering if it would be the day I would die.
Clearly, I didn’t die that day, but looking back on it, I know it was not a day in which I needed a bright, shining, transfigured Jesus. I needed the Jesus who was familiar to me who says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” I needed Jesus to climb back down that mountain with me and face death.
The truth of our lives is that we are usually in the everydayness of life, or we or our loved ones have the harsh realities of mortality thrown in our faces. Again and again Jesus speaks of suffering and is so clear about assuring us that that is where he goes. And it is precisely in suffering in which the gentle touch of Jesus and his words of “do not be afraid,” are hard to recognize. We want the clear, audible voice of God. We want the glory of Jesus in the mountain top experience because we think that if we get it, it might change the reality of our lives and make them better.
Immediately before our Gospel reading today in Matt. Chapter 16, Jesus tells his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matt. 16:24-25).” This is not a safe and convenient Jesus who we can hit the off switch when he starts saying things like this. A life with Jesus is very dynamic. It is unexpected, difficult, joyful, surprising, life-giving, suffering, resurrection, and ultimately transformational both in this life and in the one to come.
We don’t know why God works the way God does. All we really know is that God loves us and we kno
w this because Jesus went back down the mountain. “The transfiguration,” in all of its mystery, “offers the disciples the paradox that while there is nothing they can do to save themselves from suffering, there is also no way they can shield themselves from the light of God that sheds hope in their darkest moments (Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz , Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, Advent through Transfiguration, p. 456).”
Sometimes Jesus leads us up mountains to experience the vastness of God in beauty and light and to give us clarity of the promise we have in the resurrection of Jesus. For all other times in our lives back down in the everydayness, Jesus tells us every morning, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” Amen.