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Exodus 24:12 + 15-18 AND Matthew 17:1-9
It is Transfiguration Sunday – a high holy day in the Christian tradition, though you wouldn’t know it. There are no Transfiguration Sunday dresses or ties, no special Transfiguration bonnet, and no one, I suspect, is having the family over after this for Transfiguration ham. Or maybe you are – no judgment. We have poinsettias at Advent and Lillies at Easter, but what flowers do you choose for the bright radiance of this Sunday? What best symbolizes the blinding light of this mountaintop experience for the disciples? Maybe we just set this decoration on fire?
In the flow of the gospels, this story stands next to Jesus’ birth, his baptism in the Jordan, and his resurrection as the moments we are told, in no uncertain terms, who he is and, quite specifically, that we should listen to him. It may not be a parable, or a miracle, there’s no feeding of thousands or healing of a child, those are things we can grasp. Yet, it’s clear that for the gospel writers it is one of the markers of his importance as messiah-figure, made gloriously clear in this remarkable and mysterious encounter on a mountaintop, the seminal place in Bible-speak, for an encounter with God. But it’s just a weird story full of strange images and improbable experiences.
However, we really must begin the mountaintop story before they go up on the mountain, for the events in the previous chapter reveal a very odd scenario that we could help us see the transfiguration in a new light, pardon the pun. It is chapter 16 in Matthew’s gospel that finds the disciples gathered around Jesus and he asks them – who do you say that I am? And when Peter answers, “the messiah”, Jesus tells him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Then he warns them not to tell anyone else about this whole messiah business, which seems strange since he’s just praised Peter and given him the “keys to the kingdom”, as it were, for his announcement of something that he now wants to keep silent.
Then, Matthew says, Jesus begins to show his disciples that he, “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And Peter – you remember Peter, the whole “rock on which I will build my church” guy – Peterpulls Jesus aside and rebukes him for this news, saying, “nope – can’t happen to you, Lord.” And Jesus jerks back, hand up and says, “Get behind me, Satan!” And in about two sentences, Peter goes from being the foundation of the church to being the antichrist.
My, how things change.
It is into this context that we hear that just six days later Jesus takes his three most trusted disciples up onto the mountain, including Peter, who is now out of the dog house apparently. And they experience this amazing, bizarre, even downright freaky thing. Supernatural, glowing light in the middle of the night…famous people like Moses and Elijah come back from the dead like Yoda appearing as a “force ghost” alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi…a voice speaking from inside a cloud, standing the hairs on the back of the neck straight up. It all makes, at bare minimum, for a pretty weird Bible story, supernatural and ghostly. Oh, we can recount it here, quoting the Bible, but don’t go saying that this happened to you on the top of Turkey Mountain, because you won’t get amazed interest from this congregation, you’ll likely get intervention. Things like that are best left to another kind of Christian, not us rational, intellectual types who know the difference between supernatural and real. We’re more likely to explain it away – much more probable that it was just a meteorological phenomenon, or maybe last night’s Thai food.
We rush to explain, to rationalize this story. But, like many in our Bible, it resists that. God comes to people in a cloud, obscured from clear vision often in our scripture. The bit from Exodus that we just heard, where Moses is also taking a trip up a mountain, and God comes to him in a cloud…everything is socked in for 6 days. In 1 Kings, Solomon dedicates the temple in Jerusalem and it is filled with a great cloud, so thick that the priests couldn’t see what they were doing, as if God’s presence didn’t require the priests’ ritual mechanics. Ezekiel has his visions of God’s presence surrounded by clouds with brightness and fire surrounding them. God digs the clouds. And if you have ever been on a mountaintop before, camping, and you wake up at a high enough elevation, stepping out of your tent into an actual cloud…not fog, but a cloud…you know what a powerful moment it is. It does feel “otherworldly,” like something else has arrived in camp, while you’re trying to get the fire going.
Again and again, our stories tell us that this is what God’s presence looks like – an indistinct, formless thing that obscures rather than revealing, light that blinds instead of illuminates, and an encounter with the holy that is upsetting, even scary, before it’s helpful, challenging before it’s transformative. We seem to think in so many ways that we have to know before we do, that we have to completely understand in order to move forward. Dr. King once wrote, “faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” This from a man who was entrenched most of his adult life in a terrifying and confounding struggle for something that had never been in our country, literally making up strategies as they went along…actively trying to set aside their fear in favor of purpose.
That’s why I think this experience in the cloud can only come after the disciples have experienced the things they have on the ground – the Sermon on the Mount, the healings, the feeding of the five thousand, the embrace and the denial. Living the way of Jesus is very difficult, and I’m not sure we understand our way there. At best we experience Jesus’ upside-down teachings. I’d hazard a guess that most of us here can accept the rationality of “love your neighbor,” but living it is a challenge. We can intellectually accept “love your enemies,” until someone – you know the someone – replies to our Facebook post. Oh, the cloud is a distant memory then, the mountaintop giving way to the deepest valley, as far from the presence of God and holiness that we might be able to get, for knowing is one thing…but doing is another. And, Jesus reminds us again and again – doing is better. Doing, not understanding, is how we build faith.
Jesus has to take the disciples a few thousand feet up to pray and be subjected to a laser-light, fog machine, special-effects show in order to get them to some small measure of faith…he also immediately removes them from that experience, taking them back down the mountain, and telling them not to tell the others about it at all. This, Jesus is saying without saying it, is the center of faith…it comes without knowing. If you know, you don’t have any need of faith. And we need faith, especially in these days.
Peter, as he witnesses this magical apparition in front of him, surrounded by this glory, wants to stay there, enclosed in this cloud. He wants to build tents and stay as close to that Presence as he can, because it’s a close to understanding as he’s been. It’s a familiar feeling. We all want God to be clear and present and relevant – a tour guide for our lives who tells us precisely where to see the good stuff and also where the bathrooms are located. Neither Peter nor we get that. Instead, we get mystery. We get presence, but presence that only shows up in the corner of our eyes, before disappearing when we turn to look at it. We get support, as much from one another, we followers of the lit-up cloud, as from the cloud itself. For in my mind’s eye, the disciples don’t come down off the mountain and never speak of it again…they talk of it often, sharing with one another their deep rootedness in the presence, the stories of God being with us from generations past, of the interconnectedness of the human and the Holy, granting a peace that passes all our understanding.
It is our last Sunday before Lent begins – Fat Tuesday is a couple of days away and then we gather for Ash Wednesday this Wednesday. This marks the final moments of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons, this time of joy replaced with a time of reflection.
I’ll be here in the sanctuary to mark you with ashes from 7-8am on Wednesday morning, again from noon-1, and then we’ll have our full service at 7pm that night, with ashes and communion. Why invest so highly in this? Well, because, like the cloud, the ashes mark us with God’s presence, which is something we never fully understand. The ashes help us to hold onto what Paul set forth when he wrote that, “now we see through a glass, but dimly.” Not only do we not see God clearly, we don’t even see ourselves clearly. This Wednesday we remember our mortality as a way of reminding ourselves we aren’t the be-all, end-all. We are limited, even on our best days. Such humility is not meant to belittle our humanity, or to make us feel bad about ourselves. It makes us feel small in the very best meaning of that word – part of a a much larger whole, like witnessing the stars in the sky on a clear night, when you feel a tiny part of a vast universe. We say, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” because it brings some strange comfort to embrace our finitude, it centers for us how much we don’t understand, and that our forward movement isn’t dependent on our complete understanding, just like we were standing on a mountaintop surrounded by mysteriousness and hearing the voice of God telling us exactly what we should trust in.
The story today reminds us that we are to go back from our moments of connection with the Holy, to take those moments with us, remembering them when we have the more frequent encounters with the less-than-holy. It helps us remember that God’s presence is not something we can tie down, or control, or bend to our will, and that there’s no way to walk through life without fear. Life is scary…as the famous Breton fisherman’s prayer says – O God, your sea is so great and my boat is so small – which awakens in us our sense of faith, of holy dependence, of the good and meaningful need for one another. The voice in that cloud reminds us to listen to Jesus, who tells us in so many ways, almost as often as anything else – don’t be afraid. It is the same message of Joy – we sing the Christmas classic “Joy to the World” not because it mentions the birth of Jesus, it does not, but because it announces his world-transforming presence. By singing it we sing away the fear, embracing the teachings of Jesus, even beyond our understanding, welcoming in a whole kind of way, with truth and grace, Jesus showing us the wonders of God’s love.
As we enter the season of Lent, I hope that we find ways to focus on this, to remember, or even make room for, our own mountaintop experiences, and that we seek the one who stands in that great cloud of unknowing with us – for he is God’s beloved, and you are his, and whatever comes next, God is with us, our faith is strong enough, and we are up to it. Thanks be to God. Amen.