So, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John on a little mountaintop retreat – time for a little prayer and reflection. Jesus often retreated into a quiet place to pray. Perhaps it was not uncommon for him to take his inner circle with him from time to time.
I don’t know what Peter, James, and John expected, but I am pretty sure it was not what happened.
They get to the top of the mountain, and admire the view while they catch their breath. Suddenly Jesus changes right before their eyes. His clothes are dazzling white and he seems to glow! Not only that, but there are two men with Jesus – Moses and Elijah!
The disciples don’t know what to think, or what to do. They are terrified. Peter, always impulsive, blurts out, “It’s good to be here! Let us build you guys some shelter.”
What a strange thing to say!
Peter is clearly not ready to go back down the mountain anytime soon. Perhaps he thought God’s kingdom was coming right now and he and James and John were privileged officials in that kingdom. Perhaps he thought they should build a shrine at this holy place so others could come and worship there. Perhaps he just wanted to make Jesus, Moses, and Elijah comfortable for their conference. Perhaps he just blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
Whatever Peter’s motives, the response was clear. A voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly beloved Son. LISTEN…TO…HIM!!!”
And just like that the experience was over. Jesus stood there alone, looking very much like he always did.
Pretty exciting stuff! Imagine being able to see Jesus revealed in all his glory. It was just the kind of image the disciples thought about when they imagined Jesus as Messiah!
Now remember, these disciples already had many revelations of who Jesus was. They’ve seen him heal and cast out demons. They’ve heard him teach with authority, besting the Pharisees. They’ve been sent out themselves on a little missionary journey, teaching about the reign of God and healing in Jesus’ name. They’ve participated in two miraculous feedings of large numbers of people with very little food. They’ve seen Jesus walk on water and calm the sea. And only six days before, Peter proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah!
And now this – to hear God’s voice telling them that they were in the presence of God’s son! Wow!
They start back down the mountain. What an experience – it was breath-taking, life-changing!
But you know what happens when you come back from retreat – it’s hard to hold on to all that stuff you learned, all those good feelings. The world presses in. That’s exactly what happens here: Jesus starts to talk to them about his coming suffering, death and resurrection - surely that can’t be right. There is a crowd at the bottom of the mountain wanting healing – so much work to do. And confusing teachings from Jesus on greatness – who ever heard of one being great by being a servant?
They don’t know it, but they are on the road to Jerusalem, and a meal, and a cross, and an empty tomb. The glory they saw on the mountain top quickly becomes overshadowed by life, and for awhile, they totally miss that God’s greatest glory is shown, not on that mountaintop, but on a dark afternoon on a cross, where a hated Roman, echoing God’s words from the mountaintop, proclaims, “Truly, this man was God’s Son.”
So what was the point of the Transfiguration? We often focus on what it says about Jesus – here, once again, Jesus is revealed as God’s Son. But…what if that’s not really the point? Or at least not the whole point? After all, the disciples have had lots of proof so far of who Jesus is, not that they really understand it.
What if this event was just what these three leaders among the disciples needed to strengthen them for those dark three days ahead? Sure, James and John go on to argue about who is the greatest, and want to sit at Jesus’ hand in the coming kingdom. And Peter, ever led by his impulses, sits frightened in the courtyard of the house where Jesus stands trial, and denies him. But what if something changed in those three on the mountaintop, something that gave them inner strength among the fear and confusion to gather everyone together, to try and figure out just what was happening to the Messiah of their dreams, to question again what all this talk about rising from the dead meant?
What if the Transfiguration became a point of reference for them? That night after a stone shut the tomb, and they huddled together in the upper room, listening for the tromp of soldiers feet coming for them too, did they remember seeing Moses and Elijah, and shielding their eyes against the brightness of Jesus’ clothes, and that thundering voice from heaven? In their fear and confusion, maybe they took heart remembering: “But God said this was his son! We heard it there on the mountaintop. There must be something more happening! God, show us what is going on here!”
We understand their fear – both the awe-filled terror Peter and James and John felt that morning on the mountaintop when Jesus was revealed in all his glory and the dread and shock of those dark days between Good Friday and Easter. We know fear in all its manifestation – we live in a terrifying world.
This week, we begin our book study on fear, acknowledging that we do live in a world where fear reigns. During our time together we will name our fears and look for those moments of Epiphany – where God is revealed to us – and for Transfiguration – how those revelations of God changed and strengthen us.
What are those places of Epiphany and Transfiguration where God is encountered? What is your mountaintop, where Jesus is revealed as Son of God and God speaks to your heart, reminding you to listen to what Jesus says and does?
Today is the last Sunday in Epiphany. Today, we stand on the mountaintop, in the presence of God. Coming down from the mountain top, Jesus led his disciples on the road to Jerusalem and to the cross. Wednesday, we will put ashes on our brows as we begin a 40 day journey that leads us also to the cross. We begin again to look at our own path as disciples. How has the revelation of God in our lives changed us and prepared us for the journey?
Right here, right now, we stand on the mountain top and hear God say, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” Jesus is revealed and the reign of God is lived out in this place. But in a little while, we descend with Jesus into the valley. How will you listen to him this week?