Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Two Sundays ago, while you were more than up to your knees in snow, I wasn’t. I was on the Florida Gulf Coast, having just completed my Homiletical Feast, my annual preacher’s workshop, with a bunch of clergy buddies. And all the flights back to Baltimore were cancelled.
So I had some spare Sunday morning time- to go to church. (What else am I going to do? – a busman’s holiday…)
Well, I drove up to St. Petersburg from Bradenton to visit Lakeview Presbyterian Church, where I had attended when I lived there and taught at the Canterbury School in the mid 1980’s. It’s a small neighborhood church, founded by members of the Eckerd College Community in the early ‘60’s, a pretty progressive place- where Tom Beason was the Pastor way back when. I remember that I helped teach the Bethel Bible Series with them then. It took me back a bit, revisiting a place I had been a part of now over 30 years ago… hmm…
Their 10:30 service was as Presbyterian and straightforward as you can get… As I sat in the pews, at the rear of the sanctuary, of course, I was curious to see what might come back to me…
I was caught off guard. An older guy sauntered in, wearing a vintage Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey (not unusual for Florida attire). I remembered that someone used to do just that, 30 years ago. Weird. So I started up a conversation with him after church. Turns out (of course) that he was the same guy- and he’s been a PSTA bus driver all this time (Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority).
George has been a faithful member of Lakeview all this time, too, active in local mission projects, now with his three grandkids in tow.
I didn’t really know him 30 years ago; it was like starting all over again… So I just had to ask him… “What has kept you coming back over all these years?”
He said something that I didn’t know would fit so well with this Transfiguration passage for today. He said “It’s the glory of this place.’ (mind you- their sanctuary is pretty humble, and just a little larger than the chapel.) ‘It’s the glory of the singing, the praying, God with us, and all of us together all these years. You feel like you’re surrounded by God.”
This, he said, worshipping with a group of 75 or so folks, with an OK, elderly choir— (well, most everyone is elderly in Florida), singing ‘chestnuts’ to the tune of a pretty old organ… but with spirit!
So, I can say that though this really wasn’t a classic ‘mountaintop’ experience, I learned again there & then that God is in the mind and the heart of the beholder; those who faithfully journey through thick and thin. And that’s what counts. God’s presence is measured not so much by the majesty of the place or the elevation of the journey, but by the Spirit that fills those who praise God.
That’s the right kind of story to start out with today…. because, for me to begin to attempt in a sermon any parallel of an experience of our lives with the epic scene described in Luke chapter 9, is, modestly stated, grossly inadequate. To try to find a suitable parallel of a transfiguration of Jesus’ experience in our lives- is massively daunting, and inappropriate.
Any application, however compelling, would trivialize the story. Have you climbed a barren, rocky peak, seen Elijah and Moses, heard them converse with our Lord? What earthly experience could ever compare?
The twin themes of the Transfiguration, though, of a ‘mountaintop experience’, however it is you get there, followed by a journey down below to the valley of service, can indeed point to the truth of the rhythms of life; times of inspiration followed by times of duty. That’s a solid, steady, healthy pattern for life.
God is in the heart and mind of the beholder, in the midst of faithful people who feel who themselves are changed from the inside out- not overnight- but perhaps over even 30 years or more…
That’s something of what is going on when Jesus takes Peter, James & John up a mountain.
What we can discover for in this story is something that tells us about God, face to face with Jesus, and what we discover about us, face to face with God, (we who are still telling this story of wonder & mystery 2,000 years later.)
So, what does this Transfiguration account tell us about God?
To begin with, to see Jesus up there with Moses & Elijah says that we don’t really know who God is for us without our connection to Israel and the Hebrew people. We don’t know who Jesus is for us, either, without this spiritual bloodline of connectivity. Jesus is the living covenant between God and God’s people, turned flesh and blood.
That’s why Moses is there in the first place, the one who had received the law, the 10 Commandments, upon that other mountaintop. And now, Jesus is that Spirit-filled living covenant.
And, every time that the Hebrew people broke the covenant and turned their back on God, God sent prophets to remind them what it meant to be loved, and to love others, too. That’s what Elijah was all about.
And right in the middle of the conversation that the three of them are having pops up a word about a ‘departure’, which in Hebrew is ‘exodus’; which signals to all with a memory how it was that God liberated the Hebrews from slavery; reminding us that Moses and Elijah were all about the people staying on track with the freedom and responsibility given them by God. Freedom from living as slaves and responsibility to God and service to others, as God granted them.
So Jesus’ presence with Moses and Elijah is our connecting link to freedom in God’s grace, the Spirit of mercy, the law of love.
This story also tells us about ourselves; and honestly, through the examples of Peter, James and John, we don’t come off looking so good, which doesn’t deter God from loving us as much as always. After trudging up the mountainside with Jesus, the three disciples almost slept through the whole thing, and then cluelessly wanted to build little huts for Elijah, Moses and Jesus to commemorate and immortalize this blessed event.
It’s not as complimentary a story as we would like to hear, about the disciples. Yet in it we still hear of God’s patience, love and understanding, despite how it is that the disciples never quite get it…
And through all the missteps taken at this moment of Jesus’ glory, God still wants us to be part of it. We can’t for the life of us begin to understand why, except for the fact that its part of the nature of God; to include us, forgive us, and to continue to ask us to travel on…
Jesus continues to ask us join him on his walk, aware that we will stumble and drift, that we’ll nod off from time to time, too. And Jesus continues to invite us not so much for the inherent goodness that lies in each of us, which is surely there, but even more than that, for the way that we reflect God’s glory when we faithfully follow.
God’s glory isn’t something that can be contained, controlled or commodified; it is beyond us…
Glory is something that belongs to God, is shown in Jesus and is passed along to us to share. God’s glory is at work, most particularly, in setting people free.
That’s what the Old Testament, the story of Israel, of Moses and Elijah, is fundamentally about. And that’s the gift that Jesus shares with all who will hear him; a gift of being freed, loosing the bonds of hopelessness, doubt, worry or fear, extending to us the gift of the Spirit which pulls us together when this common attraction would otherwise not exist.
And there’s one more thing for us to notice, easily overlooked. Jesus was transfigured went he went away to pray. That’s how this whole episode started.
So, what do you make of this? When you take time in prayer, here- or wherever, are you expecting, wanting, yearning, for God to transfigure you?
Because the biggest surprise in all of this may be that you- tired, terrified, doubting, inarticulate, unsure- will one day, and maybe before you expect it, be the focus of God’s holy attention, with your heart and mind and body caught up in the wonder, mercy, freedom and responsibility of God’s grace.
Let your life become a prayer, and then don’t be surprised to have others see the face of God in you, for real. Amen.