For the past several weeks we’ve been with Jesus on a mountain being instructed in the ways of God’s realm. This morning we’re taking a brief detour to another mountain, where Jesus’ identity is more fully revealed to us. In this scene from Matthew’s gospel we watch as Jesus is transfigured and transformed, so that we might see more fully the presence of God in him. As we attend to this story, it becomes clear that understanding the gospels requires a bit of an imagination. Without imagination you might end up doing what Jefferson did and start cutting out the parts of the gospel that don’t seem to make sense to the rational mind. Now, I’m a rather analytical, rationalist type, and so this takes some doing on my part. Since I’m not much into poetry (though I do love music) and I don’t read a lot of novels (though I do like movies), I struggle with poet W.H. Auden’s suggestion that Christians need to be poets. Although I struggle with this word of wisdom, I believe he’s right – If we’re going to understand and appreciate the story of the Transfiguration, we must trust our imaginations.
1. The Revealing of an Identity
The story of the Transfiguration takes us to one of those “thin places” where the membrane separating heaven and earth becomes transparent and we can see the things of God more fully and clearly. In this story, we see Jesus unveiled. His full identity shines through, even if for only a moment.
If we go back a chapter, we’ll find the Disciples trying to answer the question of Jesus’ identity. Jesus asks them “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers the question with the “Confession” that we make when we join with this assembly and are baptized into Christ: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter makes this “Good Confession,” but we quickly learn that he doesn’t quite understand the meaning of his words.
Now, six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain where the question of identity is again raised, and to understand the meaning of this event we’ll need to look at reality a bit differently so that we can comprehend the glory and majesty of God who is present to us in Jesus. Writer Madeleine L’Engle, offers this poetic vision of the Transfiguration:
Suddenly they saw him the way he was,
the way he really was all the time,
although they had never seen it before,
the glory which blinds the everyday eye
and so becomes invisible. This is how
he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy
like a flaming sun in his hands.
This is the way he was — is — from the beginning,
and we cannot bear it. So he manned himself,
came manifest to us; and there on the mountain
they saw him, really saw him, saw his light.
We all know that if we really see him we die.
But isn’t that what is required of us?
Then Perhaps, we will see each other, too.
[Madeleine L’Engle, Glimpses of Grace, (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1996), 64.
2. A TRIP TO THE MOUNTAIN
As we try to imagine the scene on the Mount of Transfiguration, it might be helpful to view a parallel scene in the Exodus story. As I read this passage consider the similarities and the differences in these two encounters with God.
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (Ex. 24:12-18).
Later on in the Exodus story we learn that after Moses returned from the mountain with the Tablets of the Law, his face was so radiant from being in God’s presence that the Israelites were afraid to look at him, and so he veiled himself so that he could enter the community (Ex. 34: 29-35).
As I read these two stories together, what seems apparent is that Moses’ radiance is a reflection of encountering God’s presence in the cloud, but Jesus’ radiance comes before the appearance of the heavenly Cloud of Presence. Therefore, it’s not so much a reflection as an unveiling. Therefore, in that moment the Disciples catch a glimpse of Jesus’ full identity. Only then, do Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus, and in their appearance we envision representatives of the Law and the Prophets, who bear witness to Jesus’ mission.
3. PETER’S RESPONSE
At first Peter doesn’t know what to make of all of this. He reacts like many of us do when we’re around famous people or people we admire. He sort of makes a fool of himself. In trying to make sense of Peter’s response, an occasion comes to mind. While waiting with a family at a surgical waiting room in Santa Barbara, we discovered that actor John Cleese – of Monty Python and James Bond fame – was also present in the waiting room. You see, his wife was in surgery, and while our group recognized him, we didn’t bother him, but as always happens, somebody broke the rules. One woman just couldn’t help herself, and so she asked him for an autograph, which he of course refused. Our group lent a nod of understanding and support to his action, but I can understand how easy it is to get caught up in the moment when you’re around someone famous.
Peter was a bit like that autograph seeker when he realized that Moses and Elijah were present, and he just couldn’t contain himself. Overwhelmed, he blurts out:
“Lord this is wonderful! If you want me to, I’ll make three shrines, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. (Matt. 17:4 NLT).
Although it’s not really clear what Peter intended by this offer, because the Greek word can be translated as both tent and shrine, it seems as if Peter had a shrine in mind. Moses and Elijah surely were worthy of a shrine, but now it seemed as if Jesus might be worthy of one as well.
But there is another side to this story. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk and writer, suggests that maybe Peter wanted to prolong the experience, and so he offered to build tents for the three men, whom he now recognizes as being transcendent beings.
If we perceive the divine presence in some facsimile of this clarity, we are fascinated, absorbed, and delighted. Peter’s response was to want to stay there forever. The more profound the experience of union, the more one cannot help but wish to prolong it. [Thomas Keating, Reawakenings, (NY: Crossroads, 1992), 117.]
Like anyone who has experienced something as profound as an encounter with God, Peter lost all interest in the world below, and wanted to stay put. This is, of course, often true of our mountain top experiences. It’s hard to come down from the mountain. Moses experienced it, so did Peter.
4. THE VOICE OF GOD
Although Peter got caught up in the transformation of Jesus’ appearance and then Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah, what happened next transcended even these two earlier events. Even as Peter made his offer to Jesus, a cloud descends on the mountain, and a voice from the cloud speaks words that readers of the Gospel first heard at the baptism of Jesus:
This is my beloved Son, and I am fully pleased with him. Listen to him (vs. 5 NLT).
As this voice echoes from the skies, Peter and his companions discover that Moses and Elijah have disappeared, leaving Jesus alone with them. This voice demanded that they listen to Jesus, because he is the one who will speak for God in this new age. He is the new law giver and the new prophet. As we ponder this scene, Thomas Keating again offers a helpful interpretation:
Listen not just to his words to which they had been listening when they were on the plain, but “listen to him,” the divine person who is speaking to you. Listen to the divine presence that is incarnate in this human being. Listen to the infinite Silence out of which the incarnate Word emerges and to which it returns. (p. 118)
Having heard the voice of God, they fall on their faces in fear, but Jesus gently touches them and invites them to get up and not be afraid.
Having encountered the divine presence the three disciples follow Jesus down the mountain. They’ve experienced something too profound for word; something that they really can’t understand until after the resurrection. With that in mind, Jesus tells them not to talk about their experiences until after the resurrection. As Keating puts it: “There would be no point of talking about it because no one on the plain would understand unless they had climbed a similar mountain. (p. 119).”
In Matthew’s story of the transfiguration, we receive an invitation to climb the mountain so that we too might be transformed by our encounter with God. In a moment we will gather at the Table, and we as break bread together we will encounter this presence, even as the disciples experienced it on the road to Emmaus – as Luke’s Gospel tells the story of the post-Resurrection unveiling of Jesus (Lk 24:13ff).
As we hear this story, may we let loose our imaginations, those precious gifts that allow us to see beyond what is rational, so that we might join Peter, James, and John, in seeing the fulness of God’s splendor revealed in the person of Jesus. Then we too will be transformed, as Paul puts it, by the renewing of our minds, so that we might discern the will and purpose of God (Rom. 12:2).