Transfiguration of Our Lord A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
2 Peter 1:16-21
In January of 2013, I and a group from Trinity Lutheran Seminary traveled to Israel and Palestine to spend a couple weeks touring the countries, seeing as many tourist and holy sites as we could, and also spending some time learning about the deep conflicts that happen there.
We had the joy of visiting a TON of archaeological and religious sites. Of course, wherever an important (or even semi-important) event occurred, somebody built a church. At various points in history, Christendom ruled the holy land, and they built church after church on these sites.
Many of the sites we visited were the very places in which Jesus walked, talked, and preached. We visited the Mount of Beatitudes, where the words we heard preached the last few weeks were spoken. We saw what is believed to be Simon Peter’s house in Capernaum. We walked Nazareth and Cana, Jesus’s hometown and the place where the Gospel of John records his first miracle.
We saw the house in which Mary lived, where she heard the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she was to be “theotokos”, the “Mother of God”. We sailed on the Sea of Galilee. We stood in the place where Jesus fed the 5000. We dipped our feet in the water in which Jesus was baptized. We even visited Mt. Tabor, where the transfiguration was to have taken place.
These are just some of the sites we visited on our trip. Ask me about them some time—I have over 850 photos all tagged and organized from the trip. It is one thing to hear these stories read on Sunday morning and to try to imagine what it looked like. It is another thing entirely to actually visit the places. I know what it looked like now. I have those pictures frozen in my memory. I can’t hear the stories the same way anymore.
And yet, as I walked through the many cathedrals, shrines, and national parks, and while I was immersed in wave after wave of history, it began to occur to me that that’s all it was—history. Everything we saw was an attempt to carefully preserve the past. God had been made known in these places, and we clung to that experience, never letting go.
At Mt. Tabor, the mount of the transfiguration, I couldn’t help but laugh at our own silliness. If you recall from the story, when Peter sees Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus, his first instinct is to build some booths, some dwellings, for everyone to stay in. He wants to keep this experience on the mountaintop and preserve it. He wants to memorialize and remember it.
Well, God steps in, interrupts him, and gives some different instructions. When Mark’s Gospel tells this story, Peter is even chastised for his idea. Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t go quite that far, but the point is, Peter’s first reaction is preserve the event. He has just experienced God in a way he’s never done so before. He has had an encounter with the Almighty that he knows will never happen again.
Bravo to Peter for recognizing, in this extraordinary moment, that God is breaking into the mundane around him. But the disciples, Peter included, aren’t always known for their ability to grasp the finer points of their walk with Jesus. For them, the transfiguration event is something that draws them in, that pulls them up away from the world into the realm of God. Is this God’s intent?
Jumping back to our visit to Mt. Tabor for a moment: Like most other sites, there is a massive cathedral built on the location to, you guessed it, memorialize and preserve the occasion. The best part is that there are two side chapels—one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Exactly what God told Peter not to do.
We just can’t help it, can we? We are just like Peter. I mean, this is our instinct. We know that things don’t always last, so we need to quickly find ways to preserve the memory. When we have these encounters with God, our natural response is to put that experience in a box and store it. We want to hold on to God, especially when the experience is profound, deep, and meaningful. It doesn’t get much more profound than God appearing in a fiery cloud with a booming voice. These past few weeks have been full of ways in which God is made known, but this one tops them all.
Today, the church season of Epiphany comes to a close. For the past few weeks, we’ve heard stories of these amazing encounters with God.
It starts with day of Epiphany itself, the day on which we celebrate the wise men from the East coming to visit the toddler Jesus at his house. They recognize in Jesus that something important is happening—a new reality is upon them.
Then we hear the story of Jesus’s baptism by John, in which the heavens are opened up and the spirit descends on Jesus like a dove and a voice from heaven declares: “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (hold that thought).
We move into Jesus’s ministry, hearing his first prophetic words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”, and listening as the call to his first disciples is extended to us as well: “Follow me.”
For the last few weeks, we’ve heard parts of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, one of his most famous blocks of teaching, which radically altered the interpretation of God’s intent for humanity.
And finally, we come to today, the Transfiguration, in which everything about the season comes together in this moment of glory. Can any other encounter with God be as awe-inspiring as this? Christ literally glows as he reflects a taste of the coming glory of God. The scene is eerily reminiscent of Moses speaking with God in the cloud on top of Mount Hebron, after which his face literally glowed (actually, I think the similarities are absolutely intentional).
In the transfiguration, Jesus shows himself to be the place at which heaven and earth intersect, where God and humanity come together. We get to see both the awesome, awe-inspiring, mighty God of legend, whose voice shakes the earth and whose presence lights up the sky; and we get to see God incarnate in a lowly human being, the gentle, loving God, who, with a gentle touch on the shoulder, causes fear and doubt to vanish into thin air.
I suggested a few minutes ago that, for all of its attractiveness and awesomeness, the purpose of the transfiguration was not to draw the disciples in and keep them there. No, God tells the disciples, “Listen to him!” This is no ordinary listening—Jesus didn’t just say nice things, he called people to action. The disciples—and we—need to be send out, because if they never leave the mountain, if they never open their little boxes of glory and let out the reality that is the transfiguration, the meeting of God and humankind, then what good is it?
What good are we as disciples if we never leave our mountaintop? How is the good news good if it is neither spoken nor heard by others? How does God coming to us in Jesus Christ matter if only three other people know it?
We come to worship to meet Jesus, for our own little transfigurations. We come to where God most assuredly comes and finds us, in the hearing of the Word, in the waters of Baptism, and in the breaking of bread. We know this to be true.
When Christ was baptized by John, a voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Those same words are spoken to us in our own baptisms. We are adopted as daughters and sons of God, we are God’s beloved. Even before we know how to respond to God, God is pleased with us.
When we were baptized, we encountered God coming to us and claiming us. When we gather for worship, we encounter God coming to us through Word and Sacrament. When we come to the table to be fed with the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, we encounter God coming to us in the most mundane of form, bread, wine, the body. This is our good news, and our gift to share.
So come: come to the table and be transfigured.