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Transformation

4 “O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.”

5 Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One. (Psalm 99)

We come to the last Sunday after the Epiphany. Epiphany is a season where light and revelation play a large role. It begins at the birth of Jesus when three wise men come from away following an unusual star. They find their destination, not in a palace nor in a large seat of power. They have to search for the One to whom the star points in an ordinary place, finding him in a small town, sheltered in a simple dwelling where animals are fed. And the one they call “the king of the Jews,” the one they kneel before and pay homage, the one they offer their treasure to is no pampered royal, but a vulnerable baby born of humble parentage. 

Over the weeks readings about Jesus’ baptism and early ministry point us to Jesus as the light of the world and how we as followers are also called to be light. Jesus is called the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased. 

Today we are taken up on a mountain where Jesus, accompanied by three disciples, witness his transfiguration allowing them to see Jesus in his fullness. It is known in the popular vernacular as a ‘mountaintop experience’—a stunning, glorious moment where Divine glory is revealed. It is an experience that can be seen in parallel with Moses’ encounter with God in clouds and fire on Mt. Sinai.

Peter, James and John must have been looking forward to their time away with Jesus.  They may have packed a good lunch of fish and bread and were expecting that they would have time to pray and learn in a more intimate environment than where they usually found themselves.  It had been hard to get time alone with Jesus what with all the people that always followed them.  Here they were going away, on a retreat, just the four of them. 

Their hearts must have been full and their minds must have been racing.  Finally they would have the time to ask him many of the questions that had been puzzling their hearts.  What was the meaning of his parables?  Did Jesus really mean that we should love our enemies, that we should pray for those who abuse and persecute you?  What did he mean that we had to pick up our crosses to follow him? And even more troubling why was he going to Jerusalem where he said he would undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed?

Their anxiety must have grown as they scrambled together over the rough rocks and tricky precipices ascending this high mountain. The mountain in all likelihood was Mt. Hermon, whose stately slopes rising 11,000 feet above the Jordan Valley can on a clear day, be seen from the Dead Sea over a hundred miles to the South. Looking down they might have feared for their safety and more than once wondered what Jesus had in store for them on this day!

They finally reached the top and were settling themselves in one of the few flat and secure spaces when they turned and saw that Jesus had been physically changed.  His dusty and torn robe, worn for so many months as they had traveled the dirt roads reaching out to the suffering people that clung to their group, had turned a “dazzling white”.  A white that they had never seen before. A white that seemed to be filled with light. Then they saw that Jesus’ face shone like the sun.  And while they could not stand to look away, it was difficult to look for long because the sight was blinding in its intensity.

Then there appeared two other figures and they were talking to Jesus. Moses and Elijah the twin peaks in Israel’s landscape. Moses-the great law giver– who had brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, who had helped to birth the nation of Israel, who had seen God and transmitted the law to the people so that they could glorify God in their lives.  And Elijah—the greatest of her prophets– the prophet who heard “the still small voice” of God among the terrible wind, the earthquake, and the great fire; who battled a king who refused to worship God; who raised from the dead the son of a generous woman; and who was lifted up to heaven in a whirlwind. Were they representing benedictions from the past? Were they there to bless Jesus’ heartrending decision, to say to him before his death what the Roman centurion said immediately after: “Surely, this was the Son of God”? 

Truly it was a wondrous moment. And if the details are elusive, the clarity of direction and the energy released by this intense experience of God’s presence can be imagined. They carried Christ through his passion and his crucifixion.

Peter wants to preserve this moment. We are used to hearing Peter be the first to speak and often the last to understand the impact of his words. He wants to honor these significant figures of Jewish history by building “dwellings”. But his good intentions miss the mark. The voice of God interrupts him to pronounce Jesus’ blessing, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 

The disciples fall to the ground in fear. And then Jesus is there, touching them, and telling them to get up, to not be afraid. His clothing has returned to the familiar. Moses and Elijah are nowhere to be seen. It is over in an instant. Jesus has revealed himself fully to his disciples. And now they must return to the valley to continue their ministry of teaching and healing. Six days before, Peter had declared that Jesus was the “Messiah, the Son of the Living God” and now Jesus had tried to show them in high def who he is and to give them the strength they will need for their journey as they carry his ministry into the world.

This is a mountaintop experience like no other. Reading it I am reminded of the words of the psalmist: ”Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain unto it” (Psalm 139:6) The question now is can the story serve us as well? I think it can. I think it must.

Mountaintop experiences are transformational. Having a vision or hearing a sound that directly connects us with the Divine can change us. It can open our hearts to a larger love, it can open our eyes to all the ways God is active in our world. 

Some of us have experienced just such life changing events. In prayer we may have heard a voice of guidance or comfort when we were seeking some clarity. At a bottoming-out-time in our life, we may have felt a surge of compassion that holds us and reminds us we are beloved. Feeling lost and alone we may have encountered a loving presence that filled our heart. 

We may long to have a physical and miraculous glimpse of God to help us feel confident in our beliefs, to help us navigate difficult times, to get us through the valleys of our life. 

But every morning, God is present, God the great “I am” and the tender shepherd is always drawing near. And ordinary moments transform us as well. 

Bruce Epperly, a pastor and teacher says that if we open our hearts and our minds, transfiguration is available to each of us. The moments may not rumble and shake, but he says, “everyday life is a window into infinity…the wonders of creation flow through every moment of experience. These mystical experiences and encounters with the divine, usher us into a world in which anything is possible, in which God is alive, and somehow we share in this divinity.”[1] The world is charged with the grandeur of God[2], as Hopkins says, and so are we.

The Celtic Christians and pagans speak of “thin places” that are translucent to the divine, places where “heaven and earth meet and God’s grandeur burst forth in a craggy rock or grove of trees”. But the Celts did not linger in certain places waiting for God to break through to them. They looked for God’s presence in everyday life—harvesting the fields, sweeping the floors, cooking meals, bathing children. God was not somewhere beyond, out of reach—God was not limited to a particular time or place. God was right here, right now, present in everyday life. God was in and through life, in and through people, everywhere.

God’s presence can be found everywhere for us as well—around dining tables, taking a walk in nature, sitting at the bedside of a dying friend, sharing the birth of a child, listening to beautiful music, looking into the eyes of someone you love, encountering a person’s story that opens your heart. In these moments Jesus shows us his fullness—his glory. God is present, we experience being embraced, we are reminded that we are beloved children, and we are transformed—we see life from this moment forth in a different way. 

The desire to glimpse Jesus in glorious and miraculous ways is understandable. Sometimes we could really use just such a life shaking experience. But even mountaintop experiences end, and we must eventually walk back down to ground level. Instead of waiting for God to be revealed to us in some extraordinary way, we can get up every morning and look for God’s presence throughout our days. God is there.

Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus will lead us to Ash Wednesday, the simple beginning of Lent. Today, we stand on this mountaintop with this text of dazzling light, communing patriarchs, hovering clouds, and the voice of God telling us to listen to Christ, his Son and his Beloved. 

Jesus knows that his disciples will face many trials as they journey toward Jerusalem and beyond.  Jesus knows that we face many challenges and obstacles as we seek to follow Christ.  The overwhelming vision will not last.  We must go back down the mountain. But God gives us grace on mountain tops and at kitchen tables, that will help us walk in the valleys. God’s love, grace, and overwhelming beauty is everywhere in our world. 

This is the way transformation works.  In a God-given moment that you didn’t expect and couldn’t have planned—you go looking for hope from someone with great power and instead find the light in a humble person with no reliable shelter, you are standing in a long line of weary and disheartened people trying to get through the day and Christ shows up beside you–you thought you were just going on a picnic and suddenly your life opens up and up and out and out and you find yourself experiencing a life opening radiance, feeling a rush of love that tells you, “You are my Beloved.” “Get up and do not be afraid.” And in the presence of this glory, we are transformed.

Amen


[1] Bruce Epperly. Living a Holy Adventure. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/

[2] Gerard Manley Hopkins. God’s Grandeur.