a sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year B]
Two friends of mine who are married to each other have a competition every Valentine’s Day to see who can find the cheesiest, tackiest, most-over-the-top Valentine’s Day card. In the early days of their life together they used to purchase these cards, sign them and give them to one another and then circulate them among their friends and family so that we could vote on which one we found the sappiest. Nowadays, my friends upload them to their Facebook page and let dozens of people weigh in, and at the end of the day they reveal who won the most votes. The whole event is a lot of fun, and it’s really generous of them that they’ve allowed so many other people to join in the love they have for each other this way.
Let me tell you, there are a lot of doozy Valentine’s Day cards out there—ones with cutesy poems, ones with obscene amounts of glitter and shine, ones that have surprise sound or music coming out when you open them up— but my friends really have a knack for finding ones that really go over the top. I can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with today.
In the transfiguration of Jesus, God really goes over the top, you might say, to get the message across. It’s flashy, it’s bright, there’s a lot of shine. There’s even a surprise sound coming out of the clouds at one point. And, quite literally, he takes them over the top—over the top of a mountain somewhere in the region of Judea. Some people say it was Mount Carmel, but others point out that Jesus may have taken them up Mount Hermon or Mount Tabor. Regardless of which specific peak it was, that this happens on a mountain is important because in Scripture mountains are places where people traditionally receive messages from God. Jesus selects just three of his disciples, likely his closest friends, and goes out of his way up on this mountain, away from the crowds, in order to reveal something about himself.
Mountain peaks usually have this type of mystique about them. They offer perspective. Sometimes people go on retreats on mountains for this reason. The air is thinner and feels cleaner to breathe. We feel above the fray, away from it all. The views from the tops of mountains also often give us a sense of where we are in relation to everything else. This past summer my family got to visit the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. At 14,415 feet it is one of the highest drivable summits in the U.S. We were there on a crystal clear day—spacious skies— and it was easy to see why the view inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write “America, the Beautiful” after she visited there in 1893. We couldn’t linger and admire the view for very long because our son passed out from lack of oxygen, but we were so high up that it felt like we could see half of the country up there, the fruited plain stretching out endlessly one way and the purple mountain majesties the other.
On the mount of transfiguration, the disciples get perspective on Jesus, the beautiful. It is not so much the view from the mountain that God focuses them on, but the view on the mountain. Jesus changes somehow. Maybe his face is different, or the shape of his body, but what the gospel writers remember most is that his clothes become dazzling white. The Greek word actually means “glittered.” He stands there, so bright to look at, too much to take in. This is over the top already, but then suddenly Jesus is joined by two of Israel’s all-stars: Moses on one side and Elijah on the other.
These are two figures that loomed so large in ancient Israel’s history and mindset that their presence would have immediately raised Jesus’ street cred in the eyes of the disciples. Based on Peter’s reaction, we can tell that suddenly they think Jesus is a bit more important than they had probably up to this point. Moses represents the beauty of the law, that long and holy tradition of following God’s commandments. Elijah represents the beauty of the prophets, that long and holy tradition of hearing and heeding God’s Word among in community. Flanked by these two, Jesus is seen in a new perspective, and this is the message of God’s over-the-top card: Jesus is not just some guy who comes to heal the sick and teach Scripture. Jesus is not just a Messiah who will march onto the scene and violently overthrow the powers-that-be. He is at least as great as Moses and Elijah, at least as beautiful as the two ways God has, up to this point, related to God’s people.
In fact, by the end of the transfiguration, God’s message is even clearer. Jesus does shine fairer, Jesus does shine purer. A voice thunders from the midst of the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Moses and Elijah mysteriously disappear. We are left with only Jesus.
How often do we place Jesus just on equal level with so much else in our lives, as just another commitment in our calendar, just another authority among many? I think that is a temptation, even for people who follow Jesus, maybe especially for those who follow him. Jesus means to be everything for us because we are the ones he loves. Richard Graham, former Lutheran bishop of the Metro-DC Synod once said, “Jesus is the light of the world. Christians don’t advance the conversation [in a helpful way] when they say to the world, ‘Jesus is just an interesting option.'” The transfiguration is the over-the-top message that says Jesus is more than just an interesting option. There is no one equal to him.
Therefore, we listen. We listen to the way Jesus speaks to us, the way Jesus reaches out to people. We listen to the way he speaks to people who are hurting, the way he speaks truth to those in power, the way he calls out the hypocrisy of religious leaders. We listen to his invitations to children and others who are often overlooked. And foremost, we listen to his words about what’s going to happen to him, the very message he has already tried to get across to his disciples, although they don’t seem to hear it. He tells us that he will go into Jerusalem and be handed over to the chief priests and elders suffer, and die, and then rise again on the third day.
In fact, he commands Peter, James, and John not to mention this transfiguration until after that point, until after all that hard stuff has happened and he’s risen from the dead. He has given them on the mountain a glimpse of the final glory promised in him. They will need that glimpse as they traipse with him through the grueling road of suffering ahead. It gives them the perspective they will need—that the love of God in Jesus will be victorious over all the dark and devious things the children of God encounter. Jesus will once again shine purer and fairer after the tragedy of the cross.
This pandemic feels like we’re all in a deep valley. It’s like the opposite of a mountaintop, the air is stifling here, and I’m not sure any of us have any real perspective on how it is changing us as a society and as individuals. People talk about how it will leave a permanent mark on us, what we’re learning. Maybe it will change our lifestyles in certain ways for a long time to come. There is a lot of speculation about this, lots of predictions about how this time will affect us all. I’m not sure we can really say anything about that yet with any certainty. It’s fun to predict and say international travel will never be what it once was, or that facemasks will always be part of our wardrobe, or that people won’t use office buildings anymore. But I have a sneaking suspicion we won’t really know what that future life will really be like until we actually up from this valley on the other side. It would be nice to have a vision of that post-pandemic life, so we could plan an all, but until then we just trudge through. Perhaps the end is more near than we realize.
Jesus’ transfiguration is a vision of that final, future life, when he is finished with the suffering and the dying. when the cross and the nails are behind him. This shining moment in the thin mountain air is the vision of that distant time when we are all finished with our grief and our sorrows, when we’ve come out of this long valley of confusion and death to a new summit we will never leave. Perhaps that glorious end is more near than we realize, too.
This is the time of the year—the Sunday of the Transfiguration—when Pastor Joseph and I fulfill a yearly Epiphany tradition. We haul out the big ladder and climb to the top of things to hang the purple drape on the cross for Lent. Thankfully neither one of us is really afraid of heights, so we’re not against doing it, but there is a bit of danger involved so we try to be very careful. My ears don’t pop as I go up, and the oxygen isn’t thinner, but the middle of the cross is the highest point in the sanctuary, higher even than the balcony. Every year I am taken aback by the view from up here, the perspective from this cross in this particular room. From here, as I hang this drape and try not to fall, I can look out and imagine all the people of God’s kingdom, all the people who sit in these pews and in churches across the world and be reminded of the long vision of hope Jesus gives us.
May you stand here, just for a moment, and take in with me this year that God really goes over the top in his love for us. In his transfiguration, on the cross, Jesus, the beautiful—the most beautiful—goes totally over the top. And all of us win.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.