Transfiguration of the Lord 2020
I would not be surprised if at times the disciples looked at Jesus and said, “Seriously, Jesus, one more thing we have to get our heads around and understand?”
Like a coach at the end of practice surprising the team with more drills after the team has competed an arduous routine, Jesus shocks the disciples when they try to do right.
Disoriented, in an unfamiliar location, fatigued from the hike up the mountain, stunned by a vision, Peter, James and John stagger to do the right thing. Everything that makes sense to do, they try to do. And Jesus shifts the playing field. They had to be frustrated. Why not build shelter for the three prophets? That’s a hospitable, welcoming thing to do. Later, why not tell everyone what they have just seen? This experience seems like a pretty good example of why they were following Jesus in the first place.
Yes, this is a holy moment. The presence of Moses, Elijah and dazzling Jesus is proof of Jesus’ divine nature. So why does Jesus rebuke them? When Jesus’ face begins to shine, it is not because of a change in him. It is rather a disclosure of what is already true about him, a sign of his glory. The presence of Moses and Elijah pulls back the curtain of time to show that Jesus is a continuous part of God’s story.
Think of it this way, When someone stands on the bank of a lake and gazes into the water, often the glare of sunlight only allows the surface of the water to be seen. If a cloud passes overhead, however, suddenly the surface is made transparent and the depths of the lake are revealed. In the same way, the passing overhead of the divine cloud enables Peter, James and John, to see past the surface identity into the depths of the full nature of Jesus.
The difference between the surface and the depths, between the glare from Jesus that history can see and the profound Jesus revealed in this vision of faith is striking. Historically speaking, Jesus is on a death march, entering the gloomiest season of his life.
In the heavenly light, however, his face and clothes gleam with the favor of God. The earthly Jesus is headed for doom on the cross, but suddenly we see not a victim, but a victor. This is not one despised and rejected by the world, this is one beloved and well pleasing to God.
So, in declining the shelter, declining to allow them to brag about their experience, it may be that Jesus is pointing out that too often we act simply because it’s what were supposed to do.
For some time now the disciples have bene following Jesus, ostensibly learning from him, but as we have seen, continually tripping over their interpretations of Jesus’ words and actions. They represent all who would follow Jesus. They, as all followers must, become gradually transfigured as they move through the stages of faith. So here, in this mountaintop experience, this first stage, they are dazzled, astounded by this gathering of the great three, Jesus, Moses and Elijah. In this moment, like all new converts in the first blush of religious experience intensely joyful and feeling full and complete. The messianic age had arrived, hallelujah, let’s set up shop and stick around.
But there is more, this mountaintop vision is only a call to worship. There’s preaching to follow: The voice of God proclaims, “This my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; Listen to him.”
And with that, the joy of fulfillment turns to fear, as they fall on their faces. Fear is a common reaction to such visions. But what exactly frightened them? Certainly the presence of God. Certainly the voice of God.
But perhaps what really frightened them was the command to listen to Jesus. Perhaps they were frightened by the thought that every word of Jesus – especially that one that said take up your cross and follow…
The next time Peter, James and John will be mentioned together is at Gethsemane. Are they frightened because it dawns on them that following Jesus is more than sitting around debating religious ideas? Is it dawning on them that to follow Jesus, to be transfigured, transformed by Jesus, is to listen to him. To recognize that his words are ethical mandates to be obeyed. Did they fall down in fear because they want to fall down and stop?
To their fear, Jesus reaches down and touches Peter, James and John, “Get up (literally ‘be raised’) “and do not be afraid.” It is the same hand that will touch a leper, a fevered woman and a blind man, healing each.
It is the same hand that touches each of us and says “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid to shake things up. Do not be afraid to speak truth to power. Do not be afraid to overturn patterns of abusive behavior. Do not be afraid to open your heart to the stranger. Do not be afraid to do things as they have never been done before.
We are like Peter, desperate for an enduring transfiguration. We are desperate for God’s presence to settle on us, our neighborhoods, and our world. We wish a permanent transformation of society, the liberation of the world from the reign of sin. We want nothing less than the transfiguration of all things with the eternal goodness of God’s life. “Lord, it’s good to be here,” Peter says. “I’ll make shelter so you three can stay right where you are. In our midst.” And we seek to echo that thought.
But Peter soon realizes that he controls nothing when it comes to God. The vision does not stay. “It banished as quickly as it had come,” Karl Barth writes. “Jesus is again seen alone, and no longer transfigured before them.”
Peter followed Jesus down the mountain, a return to the unspectacular life they know—the day-to-day of discipleship. Listening to Jesus, as God commanded, loving neighbors and strangers, as Jesus showed them.
This moment on the mountaintop points us to the need to be discerning and open to the ways that Jesus may want us to be a presence of unexpectedness in the world. At the end of the gospel story, Jesus will once again gather disciples on a mountaintop. His resurrection complete, and their transfiguration complete. From that mountaintop he will send them out into the world, to us, to proclaim his message.
“Rise up, and do not be afraid!”