By Rev. Stephen Baldwin
NT: Matthew 17.1-8
Today’s story is strange. Seriously strange. But…you know what? We just lived through a pandemic and the government shot down three UFOs last week. The way things have been going lately, that ought to make us feel right at home with it.
This is a strange, but…you know what? We slept with the window open this week. Many of you did as well I am sure. Slept with the window open in February, when the ground is usually frozen solid and there’s a thick covering of snow on the ground. Is this story strange? Sure is. The way things have been going lately, that ought to make us feel right at home with it.
You’ve heard the story. Casper the Friendly Ghost has recruited the top three Jewish prophets from all of history–Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—to dance around a mountaintop like the fog on a fall morning, together. One place at one time. Strange.
It doesn’t help that most people have never heard of the day on the church calendar this story commemorates—Transfiguration Sunday. No, it’s not on par with the big Sundays—Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. It’s not even on par with lesser-known Sundays like Higher Education Sunday or the infamous John Calvin’s Frozen-Chosen Ice Cream Social Sunday. Yet, Transformation Sunday is valuable.
Transfiguration Sunday is the final and climactic Sunday in Epiphany. Because the Epiphany season itself is the culmination of Advent and Christmas, Transfiguration Sunday is really the culmination of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. On this special Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ transfiguration (literally, his metamorphosis) on the mountain, where the disciples watched in amazement as the radiant Jesus spoke with the glorified Moses and Elijah. For on-lookers, this is a day that saves them. For Jesus himself, this is a day that seals his earthly fate. For those closest to him, this is a day that exposes Jesus for who he really is. I’ll say more about that later. For now, let’s look at the story in detail.
Verse one begins, “After six days…”. What happened six days ago? Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say another prophet. But Peter said, “You are the Christ; son of the living God.” That must have been as joyous as it was surprising for Jesus, that someone finally saw him for who he really was.
The mountain Jesus climbed for respite was probably Mount Hermon, which sits at 11,000 feet and overlooks the Jordan Valley. Moses climbed a mountain too and was forever changed. The presence of God even shone on Jesus’ face, just as it did Moses’. Have you ever seen someone with a special light in their eye, which seems to change everything about them?
Verse two says Jesus was “transfigured” before them. What does that mean? It means that he looked different. Some people believe he literally transformed; I believe he was seen for who he really was, who he always had been, and in that moment people finally saw to the heart of him. Perhaps it was the light—you know how the light can hit something just the right way at just the right time and create more beauty than we think possible–perhaps it was good timing, perhaps they were paying attention for the first time. But they saw him. They understood who he was for the first time.
Verse three says Moses and Elijah were present also. Were they literally there in some form? Were they present in spirit? Who knows. The point is that Matthew believes Jesus is just like these other two men, prophets from a priestly line who are sent by God to save the people.
In verse four, Peter suggests they all stay a while. If it had been late or they needed a break, that would have been a fine idea. But the Rev. Bill Coffin, the greatest American preacher of the 20th century, calls this an “inept” recommendation, because Peter assumes “the best moments in life can be frozen in place rather than enshrined in our memory.” We can and should treasure important moments, but we cannot live in them longer than intended. At some point, we have to move forward. It would have been nice to lay on the beach a little longer, but you cannot live moments longer than intended.
If verse five sounds familiar, it may be because God says almost the same thing on the mountaintop as when Jesus was baptized. “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” This should signal to us the importance of Transfiguration Sunday. This isn’t just another Sunday. This is the Sunday people just like us, who thought they had known Jesus, see him for the first time for who he truly is. And God reminded them, “Listen to him.” Do you know Jesus? Have you seen him for who he truly is? Do you listen to him? Who else do you listen to—your ego, your heroes, those advertisements on television, the loudest voice in the room?
These questions can lead to fear, perhaps frustration. Yet they are questions for people who come down from the mountaintop experiences of our lives and spend our days in the valley below. I know everyone is expected to have at least one mountaintop experience where you figure out your entire life in a moment of clarity—where you find your Christian decoder ring and learn how to use it! But we know that most days are spent wandering the valley. Trying to figure out who to be, what to do, and to whom we should listen.
This is a strange story. Which we have read in the midst of a strange week. What can we take away from this story? Barbara Brown Taylor says it better than I can:
It tells you that no one has to go up the mountain alone. It tells you that sometimes things get really scary before they get holy. Above all, it tells you that there is someone standing in the center of the cloud with you, shining so brightly that you may never be able to wrap your mind around him, but who is worth listening to all the same–because he is God’s beloved, and you are his, and whatever comes next, you are up to it.