Transfiguration A – 2-26-17 – Matthew 17:1-9
Most of us are familiar with today’s Gospel story. We hear it every year on this Transfiguration Sunday. This Sunday gets its name from Jesus being transfigured on that mountaintop, of course, but if you were not raised in a mainline Protestant congregation, you may find the word a little strange…
But then we use a lot of strange words in this place that aren’t used in the “real world.” This may look like a stage, but it’s called a chancel. This garment is called a chasuble (which is the Latin word for tent). Sometimes pastors wear the scarf-like garment which is called a stole – and that gets us into conversations far removed from where we want to be.
This piece of furniture could be called a pulpit or a lectern or an ambo, but not a podium.
The communion plate is called a paten. The cup is called a chalice. The napkins are actually purificators. The banner that hangs over the altar is called a parament.
In most cases, these words are ancient and only used in the church. We give worship things special names which separates them from the ordinary things around them. It makes this place and these things special.
So too does the word Transfiguration. It is a name which makes this Sunday in the church year special, a day set aside because on this day something special happened to Jesus.
In this denomination, Transfiguration is always celebrated on the last Sunday of the church season of Epiphany -- the season of light. You may have noticed that we have sung many songs about light during these weeks. We are celebrating the light of Christ spreading around the world. On Wednesday, we will begin another season, but before we do, we are invited to climb a mountain with Peter, James, and John, and see Jesus in a new and special way.
God used this transforming mountaintop experience to reinforce Christ’s identity as the Son of God and to show that, while Jesus was a man of about 30 years of age, he had been present throughout history. It was clear that he knew Moses and Elijah and that they knew him. They probably looked like old friends conversing on that mountaintop –because they were old friends!
My youngest stepson Scott will turn 20 this year! As we prepared to move to Wichita, I looked through his toy chest again and took out a few more things that I know he won’t appreciate right now. We gave some of his Legos to the kids across the street. I carefully collected all of his Matchbox cars and boxed them up for the next generation. But I can’t quite put away his Transformers. In fact, I usually sit and transform them just like I did with Scott more than a decade ago. The genius of these toys is that you really can’t predict what the transformation will look like until you turn the pieces around. Some vehicles turned into superheroes while others turn into monsters. The technology has greatly improved over the years, but according to my friend Everett who is 5, they are more awesome than ever.
On that mountaintop, Jesus was transformed into a timeless superhero and Peter was so overwhelmed by the experience that he was transformed into a blubbering idiot.
Thankfully, God breaks through by enveloping them in a cloud and saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” These were words also said at Jesus’ baptism, but the disciples may not have been at the Jordan River that day – we don’t know. If you line up the stories of the four Gospels and try to put them chronologically, then Jesus went from his baptism into the wilderness, so the disciples weren’t called to be disciples until at least 40 days later. And we know that, in spite of their calling and commitment, the disciples sometimes needed a little help understanding what was going on with Jesus. So the transfiguration for them was like a hint from God:
OK guys, you’ve seen Jesus in dazzling white, you’ve seen him talking with Moses and Elijah, you know there’s something supernatural about him. Don’t just sit there gawking, listen to him! He has a lot to say to you and to the world. You’re going to need to spread the word once he’s gone.
If you or I had been there, we might well have been like Peter, so overwhelmed and not knowing what to say. He wanted to hold onto the moment forever. He wanted to live on top of that mountain with Jesus, Moses, Elijah, James, and John. But God had other plans. They needed to come down from the mountaintop experience and, much to their chagrin, they needed to not tell anyone about what had happened… at least not yet. Not until Jesus was transformed from earthly rabbi to resurrected Messiah. THEN they could tell what had happened on that mountaintop. Then the story of this day -- together with the stories of other days together with the empty tomb -- would put the pieces together for humanity then and now.
As we experience the mountaintops of this earthly journey, we may want to savor them forever, too, but we also are called to come down from the mountaintop experiences of our lives – not to forget what happened, but to live differently because of what we experienced there. On this day, we celebrate not only Christ’s transfiguration, but also our transformation – a work in progress. Amen