The Transfiguration of Christ (March 3, 2019)
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
The experience that Peter, James, and John seem to have had is what some call a “mountaintop experience.” They’ve been on a whirlwind tour throughout Galilee. They’ve already witnessed Jesus healing, teaching, and feeding the crowds and offending plenty of people, too; his hometown crowd tried to push him off a cliff, and he’s already roused the ire of the Pharisees and Herod’s court. People are starting to talk… So Jesus and his disciples have started to have their own conversations about who he is and what will happen to him once they get to Jerusalem. And now, Jesus takes them on a hike, a retreat of sorts. He takes them up to the peak to pray.
And thank God! It’s about time to take a break! Or so they thought…
In a sleepy haze, out of nowhere, Moses and Elijah appear. And the two of them and Jesus are bathed in resplendent glory, the most brilliant of white light. Imagine, if you can, a vision like this. You see the two most revered figures in the history of your people: Moses, the liberator of God’s people from bondage and the giver of the Torah; and Elijah, that fierce prophet for whom fire rained down from heaven. There they are on either side of your Teacher, who has amazed you already by his mighty deeds and paradoxical lessons. This rabbi from the boondocks is flanked by the Law and the Prophets personified. And Jesus was bathed, no drenched in the glory of God herself.
So what does Peter do? “Let’s pitch a tent around each of you and let’s all stay right here!”
This is what some folks call a “mountaintop experience.” It’s a moment of pure joy, and utter clarity, and a sense of wonder, and maybe even bliss. Transcendence. However you describe it, it’s a moment worth holding onto… forever.
Where I grew up, these “mountaintop experiences” were often associated with, of all things, camp. For me, growing up in southern Presbyterian youth world, that meant Camp Calvin (south of Atlanta) in middle school and Montreat (in Western North Carolina) in high school. Those were places of intense bonding; everybody just felt so close for those weeks, whether that was in the group back home or in the small group of former strangers turned friends. And God felt so palpably present in those places; the music was moving and the preaching was powerful. These were pinnacle moments. But then… one had to trek down the mountain, back into the calamity of adolescence. Back into the valley of normal.
Transfiguration Sunday brings back memories like these for many a preacher who grew up in church culture. Thus a colleague suggested the sermon title for today: “The Disciples go to camp.” The message being that they have this profound experience, but couldn’t hold onto it forever, so they have to go back down the mountain to the real world.
And my mind wandered in that direction because there’s some truth in that line of thinking. If we’re fortunate enough, we experience these moments in which the truth of God and of our lives is so clear, and we want to, like Peter, build a dwelling to hold onto it all. But the brutal truth is that we can’t. Those moments don’t last forever. My mind drifted in that direction for a while… until I realized I had essentially preached that sermon three years ago!
So this is a different sermon, and it lands on that verse: “While [Jesus] was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and [the disciples] were terrified as they entered the cloud.”
Did you catch that? The disciples were utterly terrified. This is no trip to summer camp!
This is a moment of glory in all its beauty and its terror. You see, in the Bible, glory is one of those themes that we tend to domesticate, or maybe skate over. Glory—God’s glory—when it appears in these stories is overwhelming in its transcendence, in its otherworldliness. It’s what the religion scholar Rudolf Otto called the “numinous,” the tremendous, mystery that provokes attraction and awe. And in this particular mountaintop experience, Jesus is enveloped in glory, if just for a moment. The disciples quake, wonderstruck! They feel what the witnesses to the boy’s exorcism felt; as it says, “all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
So I’ll ask you, when was the last time you were astounded at the greatness of God?
There might not have been looming, swirling clouds and a voice from on high, and you might have not been on a literal mountain, but you might have been chilled with goosebumps on your skin. You might have been rendered speechless and the only response you could muster was silence. Or just amazed at the sheer beauty of the thing, whatever “the thing” might be. Or overcome with a sense of connection—connection with the people around you, with the earth itself, with nature, or with the Creator of it all. Maybe it was intense in a powerful way or just a soft whisper. But it astounded you. Maybe it even changed you or the course of your life.
I think sometimes we forget about the glory of God. In an attempt to make God relatable, we’ve domesticated the Sacred. The writer Annie Dillard captured that sense when she wrote:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets… For the sleeping god may may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
As a friend of mine, a person who is an avid hiker and climber, described his yearning: “Give me the God who carved the mountains, not one that helps me find a good parking spot.”
Or as Professor McGonagall warned her students in Harry Potter: “Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts. Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back. You have been warned.”
The God of glory. To be cear, by that I don’t mean, the God of power, as in the ways we normally think about power—power in terms of domination, “power over.” Because it’s also true that the God of glory is the same One who said about Jesus on Mount Tabor, “This is my Child, my Beloved, listen to him!” The Jesus who revealed God in flesh and who taught us how to love.
A God who astounds us with greatness… of overflowing, even overwhelming love… there’s some value in that. That One who is the carver of the Catalinas and the sculptor of the Sonoran desert. That One spun the galaxies in their courses and numbers the hairs on your head. That One cannot be put in our pocket or be beholden to our agendas because she/they/he is beyond what our minds can conceive or our hearts can hope for.
Put plainly: God is bigger than our imaginations.
When I read the news and pay attention to what’s happening around us these days, I think we’re due for a recovery of that awareness. You may have heard that the United Methodist Church had a special General Conference this past week. Homophobia and transphobia was entrenched in a narrow vote and the church tightened its policies on same-gender marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ people. Since I have so many Methodist colleagues and loved ones, I follow the developments and was heartbroken. I wanted to shout, “God is bigger than this!” For the sake of our siblings in Christ who are LGBTQ+, for the sake of an institutional church in the US that is crumbling, we desperately need to witness to the God of glory whose awesome love and amazing grace is so much bigger.
And when I think about what’s happening with immigration issues, as one person put it, the Borderlands have become our nation’s “sacrificial altar” for a broken system. We need a God who is bigger than imaginary lines in the sand, a God who pushes us past our nativist fears.
And when I think about the valleys of our own personal challenges, the “demons” that plague us, what sustains us in the valleys, what heals us, what raises us up is the God of the mountaintop.
Glory to God. Amen.