A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, Preached at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, Forest Hills MI.
Narratives in the Bible, as you may know can be read on multiple levels. There is the story being told but there is also the story behind the story. In some stories a walk up a mountain is just a walk up a mountain. But these narratives also have the true story contained within.For example, in Scripture whenever anyone walks up a mountain, be prepared for them to encounter the Holy One.
The transfiguration story is one of these stories within a story. On the surface, with only a plain reading, it’s an odd story. But it contains a story under/beneath the story. The truth behind and within the truth. It is a story that reaches back to Moses and forward to the coming kingdom of God.
All you liturgical geeks know we are at the end of the season of Epiphany. Epiphany comes at the end of the Christmas season and begins with the baptism of Jesus. That’s important in today’s reading. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent. So Transfiguration Sunday is the Sunday that the lectionary gospel readings turn from the revealing, the epiphany of Jesus to the darker, more somber season Lent, to the journey to Jerusalem and the cross. And finally to resurrection. So today we find ourselves, liturgically speaking at a turning point. A place of revelation, revealing and decision.
This odd story is told in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In all the gospels, the transfiguration is preceded by Jesus telling of his death and resurrection and the warning that Jesus’ followers must take up their cross. Today we have Matthew’s version.
Just before the Transfiguration Jesus tells his disciples the messiah will suffer and die. This is the first of four times he tells them. And you will recall, Peter refuses to accept that. Soon in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus and the disciples are on the way to Jerusalem. But before we begin that journey, we have another epiphany, another revealing of who Jesus- the story behind the story. Listen for the Word of God:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ Matt 17:1-9 NRSV
Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain.We know there is a story behind the story and so we know that whenever someone in the Bible climbs a mountain they are going to encounter God.This time it’s not just a mountain but a high mountain. And so we wonder, what’s going to happen?
Probably not what Peter, James and John expected.
Jesus is transfigured, He glows, He is dazzling, brilliant. What do you think the disciples thought? Can you imagine?
They have already been told Jesus is not the Messiah they were expecting, They were expecting a military or political leader who would restore Israel’s sovereignty, who would free them from Rome. But this Messiah is going to die. Not to stuff of success then or now. Dead Messiahs are failed Messiahs. Rome proved that over and over again.
But yet, they see Jesus transfigured. They see the story behind the story.
The Jesus behind the Jesus. He really wasn’t the Messiah they were expecting. Perhaps not even the Messiah they wanted. But here revealed was the Messiah they had. There was more, much more to Jesus than they realized.
You might think that the Transfiguration alone would be sufficient, but being the slow learners we disciples are, these disciples got more.
Moses and Elijah show up and chat with Jesus. How can that be? No wonder Peter babbles on about making dwellings.
Moses and Elijah are there for a reason, again the story under the story.
Moses, you recall travels up a mountain and receives Torah, the words that make Israel, Israel. Moses leads Israel through the wilderness for 40 years.
Elijah was a prophet during the reign of the worst king of Israel, Ahab. Elijah spends 40 days in the wilderness, as by the way, does Jesus and then goes up the same mountain as Moses and encounters God.
Moses and Elijah, each in their own way brings God’s word to Israel, through Torah and prophecy. Two towering figures in Israel’s history come speak to Jesus. But Moses and Elijah are not simply reminders of the past. They are eschatological figures, they point to the future.In Jesus time it was widely believed that both Moses and Elijah would return before the messiah. They would herald the Messiah’s coming. They link the story of what God has done with the story of what God will do.
Peter, sees Jesus and Moses and Elijah and starts talking, wanting to build dwellings. Perhaps he is excited. Perhaps he is confused or anxious and talking to try and make sense of things. Perhaps all that. But there is still more, as if the Transfiguration and then the appearance of Moses and the Elijah weren’t enough, a bright cloud overshadows them.
Sometimes a cloud is just a cloud but look for the story under the story. In the Bible when a cloud comes look for theophany, an encounter with God.
Moses enters the cloud on Sinai and talks with God and receives Torah. The cloud by day, as well as the fire by night, leads Israel into and through the wilderness.
So the cloud comes comes, and interrupts Peter. Peter who is busy talking about building dwellings. God interrupts with God’s own message. A cloud comes and the one that spoke to Moses and to Elijah now speaks to the disciples.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” Sound familiar?
These are the words that were spoken at Jesus’ baptism. As one of my seminary professors used to say, If it’s repeated it must be important. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
And they hear one more thing, “Listen to him”. And what has Jesus just told them? That he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed and then be raised on the third day. And he told them his followers must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him.A difficult word to listen to.
And like anyone and everyone who encounters the divine the disciples are overcome, the text says with fear, but we might also include awe and they fall on their faces.They are prostrate, bowed down before Holy God.
But then Jesus touches them and says those familiar words. Get up, and do not be afraid. To be in the presence of holy God is fearful and awe inducing, But the incarnate one, Jesus, Jesus is the one we can be around. We can be in his presence. Jesus speaks them and to us and touches the disciples and us.
They see that only Jesus is there and they get up and go down the mountain. At first glance a little anti climatic.
And in the next verses, not part of today’s reading they return to the crowds where Jesus cures the demon possessed boy. And then a second foretelling of the Passion.
Peter, James and John may have encountered, the transfigured Messiah, Moses, and Elijah; not to mention God but as soon as they come down from the mountain they are in the crowds and dealing with demons. And difficult demons, demons the disciples are not able to cast out. Demons they need Jesus for.
There’s a way Peter’s response to the transfiguration makes sense, “It is good for us to be here, If you wish, I will make three dwellings.” It almost sounds like Peter wants to stay there, up on the mountain, chatting with Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Who wouldn’t?
But they come down the mountain. They walk downhill. The walk down behind the walk down is what we all have to do. If we are going to listen to the beloved son, we follow him off the mountain. Jesus, in the gospels, takes more than one trip up a mountain. And so should we, go up the mountain to pray, to soak in the presence of God.
But we have to come down the mountain. Moses had to come down off the mountain and deal with the golden calf and 40 years in the wilderness. Elijah had to come down off the mountain and continue his work as prophet and deal with Ahab and Jezebel. Jesus comes down off the mountain and goes to Jerusalem to die. And Peter, James and John follow Jesus down the mountain.
They follow imperfectly, They continue to misunderstand. To get things wrong. They run away. But they follow because there is work to do.
As disciples we know there is a story behind the story. And we learn that deep story by listening to the beloved Son.
We listen and learn that Christian life is not a life of good times, and ease.We don’t remain on the mountain top with Moses, Elijah and Jesus and a chosen few disciples. We don’t get a pass from suffering. In fact, we are called into it. We are called off the mountain and into the crowd. Into real life with all its suffering, frustration and sorrows. As well as its joys. The life of faith isn’t an escape. It’s a calling into the deep story, the true story of the world.
We all get called into different places.Sometimes surprising places. No one who knew me 20 even 10 years ago would have expected me to be doing campus ministry. I always wanted to be a veterinarian, achieved that and loved doing it. And now? I’m in ministry at an art school? I am the least artistic person you know, really. But there I am.
I never expected I would be spending time with the LGBTQ students at GRCC but I am. Working ever so slowly to have queer students not be afraid of me and by extension other Christians.
Tuesday I talked with an African American woman about racism.
Thursday I talked with a young man who had deconverted. He was raised in a Christian family, he told me ministry is the family business. But he no longer considers himself a Christian. We had a great conversation about science, faith, the Bible, politics, his career hopes. He told me, more than once, he didn’t know there were Christians like me. He seemed to have grown up around some pretty strict, and controlling Christians. To be listened to and accepted was not what he was expecting.
Sometimes I think about what I do and I am amazed and even baffled. I’m in a completely different place that I expected to be. Sometimes it is an uncomfortable place. I’m using myself as an example, not because I am a particularly good example. I am not. I am the example I know best though. God works, God changes the world through us, not through grand schemes and programs. God works with and through us, as individuals and as congregations. Following Christ down the mountain leads us to unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable places. So I wonder to what unexpected place following Jesus down the mountain will take Forest Hills Presbyterian Church?
I don’t spend a lot of time here. But I don’t need to to I know you care deeply about children. You mentor children. You send mission groups to work with seriously ill children and their families. You have a preschool here.
Where will the Spirit and your love of children lead you? Will your love of children and Jesus cause you to speak and act for refugees? Will your heart break for children separated from detained parents? Will you advocate for access to health care for children? Or access to free lunch at school.?
I may be starting to make some of you uncomfortable. Sounds like I’m talking politics. But I don’t think I am talking politics. Oh these topics have been politicized, absolutely. But can you see through the politics? Can you see through the polarization and the rhetoric and see the story under the story?
Can you see that as Christians it isn’t about red states and blue states, left and right, Democrats and Republicans. Our call is to follow Jesus. To love God and our neighbor. This isn’t about who is right and who is wrong. This isn’t about name calling and vilification of others. This isn’t about winning and losing. We are not here to win. We are here to follow Jesus down the mountain and into the world of suffering and joy. Sorrow and love. Pain and healing. Reconciliation and peace.
Can you see through all the hype and bluster and see the call of Jesus to care for the children and the refugee? For the sick and the hungry? We may differ about how best to do that. And so we have to talk to each other. Talk and listen. Listen to each other with the same ears that hear Jesus. Talk to each other with the heart that loves Jesus.
I don’t spend a lot of time here, but I know you care about the hungry. You support a food truck and your local pantry and Kid’s Food basket. Does following Jesus down the mountain and into the world take you deeper into food insecurity issues?
These aren’t political issues. Not really. These are discipleship issues. Where are we to follow Jesus? It will make us uncomfortable. We may find ourselves amongst people with whom we disagree about things. We may find ourselves among people who think or live differently. But if that is where following Jesus takes us, then we go.
John Calvin believed that when we are in worship we are raised up heavenward into God’s presence. And I agree.We’re raised up and joined with the Saints and the Prophets and the faithful of all times and places. But when worship is over and we come back down, we come down following Jesus, Where are we to go?
I am not the one to tell you what to do, in spite of the fact that I just kind of did. You are the ones who discern what the Spirit is calling you to do. You are the ones to decide if you leave the mountain. You are the ones to decide if you just go partway down the mountain or all the way down.
You know Peter James and John didn’t have to follow Jesus down that mountain. They could have stayed up there and built the dwellings. Spent the rest of their lives talking about how wonderful it was to see Moses and Elijah, how powerful and awe inspiring it was to hear God’s voice. But they didn’t. They go up off the ground and followed Jesus down the mountain and into the crowd. They followed him to Jerusalem and to the cross. And then to the resurrection.
We, like Peter and James and John have seen the story beneath the story. We have seen the real Jesus, the transfigured Jesus. We have heard the voice of God commanding us to listen to the beloved Son. We have been on the mountain top and as uncomfortable , even as scary as it might be, because we have been on the mountain top, we know we have to follow Jesus down the mountain. As people who have seen the true Messiah. Not the Messiah the world expects, but the Messiah God sends. As people who see the story beneath the story. As people who know God is not finished with us or with the world. As people who have seen the vision of the Kingdom of God. We know what to do. We follow Jesus down the mountain, into the world.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.