The season of Epiphany is coming to a close, and in today’s gospel we see another visitation – this time not by kings from foreign lands but from Moses and Elijah. We also see once again a voice speaking from the heavens to name Jesus as beloved. The transfiguration story is a kind of perfect ending to Epiphany since it pulls together themes from the texts we’ve been reading over the last six weeks, and offers a response to the questions Mother Sara identified as Epiphany questions: “What kind of Messiah is this? And what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?”
The transfiguration story begins with the phrase “six days later” and you might well ask, six days after what? According to Matthew, it is six days after Jesus started talking to his disciples about the necessity of his return to Jerusalem where he would suffer, be killed, and then raised on the third day. Peter tried to forbid such a destiny, and Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus went on to say that those who lose their life for his sake will find it, and that the Son of Man would soon come into his kingdom. Now, on the seventh day, if you will, Jesus, Peter, James and John are standing on a mountain when before their eyes, Jesus is transfigured: his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. What’s more, Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus: Moses, who was entrusted with the law; and Elijah the greatest of the prophets. Their arrival brings with it the authority of the Law and the Prophets as if to say, “This indeed is the Messiah that we have foretold.”
Peter sees this remarkable thing unfold before his eyes and wants to build
dwellings or tents, saying, “Lord, it is good for us to be here…” but he is
interrupted as a bright cloud comes over them and a voice speaks from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
At this the disciples fall to the ground and are overcome by fear and Jesus has to say, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Suddenly the cloud, Moses, and Elijah are gone and only Jesus remains before them. They then head down the mountain with instructions not to tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. Again, Jesus speaks of his death and of his resurrection. This is the kind of Messiah he is. It cannot be escaped. Nothing that just happened on that mountain changes the journey that Jesus is taking toward the cross and emptied tomb. Nothing that just happened allows Peter, James and John to remain basking in a holy encounter at the top of a mountain.
Peter, James and John must continue a journey that involves wrestling both with what they understand and what they do not understand about Jesus and about what it means to follow him. They must continue on a journey of ongoing change and unanticipated new callings. They are not allowed to remain as they are, even if, as in this instance, where they are is wonderful – standing in the presence of a man who glows with the divine radiance, in the company of some of the great heroes of the faith. Who wouldn’t want to stay and live within that deep, assuring understanding of the presence of God? Who wouldn’t want to capture that moment, that way of knowing forever? Of course Peter wants to stay on the mountain! I don’t blame him. It is the temptation we face as individuals and the temptation we face as a church: to capture the moment when we most recognized the presence of God.
I have never been on an actual mountaintop receiving a revelation from God. However, I did have a profound experience of God in an airplane high in the clouds above India. Two weeks before, I had left Seattle for work in Delhi, just as Advent began. I arrived in Delhi bereft over the failure of my marriage and knowing that upon my return I would face the divorce hearing. But praying advent prayers for two weeks did something in me. Up in the air on my return, I suddenly had a deep sense of being held in the loving hands of God and I felt capable of compassion for myself and my husband. I felt dramatically released from shame and ready to enter the courtroom, and the rest of my life. I reached for my journal because I didn’t want to forget this moment.
The day of my divorce was extraordinary. Sitting in the courtroom I felt that we had both been transfigured – from brittle, guarded, angry beings into fleshy, gracious creatures once again capable of laughter and tenderness, even in our sorrow. Understandably, I wanted to build a tent on that mountain, to stay in that place of spiritual enlightenment, and embodied grace.
I liked who I was on that airplane, alight with the knowledge of God and freedom from shame. I liked who I was in the courtroom as Ben and I let go of the marriage with words of grace and mutual respect. Surely God would have had me stay in that condition, in that place. But no.
The journey needed to continue, and so I came back down the mountain, traveling into strange territories of death and life, pain and healing. Sometimes I look back with longing on that mountaintop experience of spiritual bliss, and almost resent the need to keep journeying, particularly into areas of discomfort – areas that reveal where I am messy, angry, hurt, and confused. But I can tell that God is doing a new thing and I can’t shake the desire to continue on this path to see where it leads. I also know that I am not alone, because I am part of a community of faithful people who are traveling this path.
Seasons of Epiphany and mountaintop experiences provide encounters with God that expand our theological imagination, that enliven our recognition of the divine kingship of the Messiah. But Lent is coming and Lent draws us deeper into a pilgrimage of transformation. Lent reminds us that the spiritual journey is one of ongoing change and unanticipated new callings. We are asked to keep moving, to surrender our yearning to capture a moment in time and to remain there, and instead, to keep our eyes on the horizon. Lent asks us to summon sufficient courage to descend the mountain and continue the journey – in fellowship with others – wherever God takes us.
Jesus told his disciples, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Jesus may be saying to us, today, “Get up, come to this table of mine, approach this Lenten season, enter this time of transition as a church. Do not be afraid. There will be death. There will also be resurrection and new things to learn about who I am and what I am doing in you. You are, after all, already my beloved.”