August 6, 2017

Transfiguration Sunday Year A

A family is fishing on one of the beautiful lakes in the Ozarks, parents with a nine year old who is already very interested in science and a five year old full of wonder. The sun is setting and the western sky is full of colors; red, purple, orange.  The five year old asks, “What makes the sky so pretty?”  One of the parents answer saying something about God creating natural beauty for our enjoyment and to remind us of the presence of the holy in the world around us. And the nine year old says, “Well, actually it’s just the sun reflecting off dust particles and moisture in the atmosphere.”  And the five year old says, “God must be really good at science!”

The Transfiguration is one of those stories in the Bible that mystifies us. If we had been there and saw what Peter and the others saw, we would probably have been terrified as well.  As it is, we can stand back from the story and try to figure out “what really happened?” We want a “dust particles and moisture” answer, and there isn’t one. And looking for such an explanation will keep us from seeing the holy in the midst of the extraordinary in this story. As Mark Twain once said: "You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus."

A more fruitful question for us to think about is “Why did Matthew think it important to tell us this story?” And “Why did he tell it to us in this way?” This is one of those times when it’s important to step back and look at the big picture, at the overall story of Jesus, and the ways Jesus’ story connects with the story of Moses. Matthew’s gospel has as an underlying theme that Jesus is the new Moses. Matthew employs many parallel images of Moses in telling us about Jesus.  The reading from Exodus makes some of those connections easy to see; holy mountain, voices from heaven, clouds, fire, over shadowing.  Even Peter’s suggestion of the dwellings recalls the Feast of Booths, a Jewish festival during which people lived outside in little tents to recall the time when the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness – following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Focusing in a little closer, we remember that we’ve heard that voice, those very words before.  When was that?  Of course, it was at Jesus’ baptism, at the beginning of Jesus ministry.  And right after he was baptized he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil over what it meant to be the Son of God.  And here we are, after a couple of years of Jesus’ teaching and preaching, at the Transfiguration.  Just before this, in chapter 16, Jesus has asked the disciples his famous, “Who do people say that I am” question.  This leads to Peter’s famous “You are the messiah” statement.

After this, Jesus explains that being the messiah means he is to suffer and die, and you will recall, Peter didn’t like that idea and protested, which lead to Jesus’ pronouncement, “Get behind me Satan,” which is an echo of his temptation in the wilderness.

And now, we come to this moment, six days later, of Jesus going up the mountain with Peter, James and John. There is a cloud, something happens and Jesus glows with holiness and divine glory, and Moses and Elijah appear talking to him.  While the disciples shrink back in fear and wonder, a voice thunders, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”  And then it’s over and Jesus reaches out and touches the disciples and tells them everything is okay.

At the climax of the transfiguration, when the disciples are prostrate with awe, Jesus comes and touches them and says, "Rise, and have no fear.” Every other occurrence of the word "touch" in Matthew is connected with healing. So here, the worship of these disciples is an experience of healing. They rise from it to resume the way to the cross with Jesus in a world full of suffering, as do we. But we have seen who Jesus really is and he has shown us that we do not need to be afraid.

What are we to make of this miraculous event?  Put another way, what difference does all this make to us?  Is this just a bit of the sun reflecting off dust and moisture; or is there something here about Jesus and God’s holiness, God’s beauty and, even more, God’s love?

At the very end of the Gospel lesson, there is this peculiar little line where Jesus tells the three witnesses not to tell anybody about what they’ve just seen and heard “until after the son of man has been raised from the dead.”

There are a couple ofways to understand this. One is that it would be difficult to get anyone to believe you. This would be a first century equivalent to telling people about being abducted by aliens.  It’s just too strange to be believed.  Healings and casting out demons and the feeding of thousands of folk are one thing; but Jesus being lit up like the sun and talking with Moses and Elijah just seems too far fetched, unless you were there.  So, Jesus says, keep this to yourselves.

But, after the resurrection, this day on the mountain with Jesus is another piece of evidence about who Jesus is, and what God is doing through him. So, as we see in our second lesson, Peter backs up his preaching about Jesus and the resurrection with his testimony about the miracle he saw and the voice he heard.  Then it becomes a piece of the long story of God reaching out to all of us with a message of love, compassion and steadfast mercy.

And, truth be told, if we would take a good look in the mirror, most of us can find ways we have been changed, transfigured, by the presence of the holy in our lives.  For most of us, it’s not been a dramatic change – at least not as dramatic as Jesus shining as bright as the sun, or even Peter’s change from cowardly denier of Jesus on the night of his trial to brave preacher of Christ on the day of Pentecost; but we have all been changed in some way.

Maybe we are less selfish and more generous than we used to be.  Less judgmental and more tolerant, less anxious and more trusting, maybe we are less self-righteous and more accepting of other people’s faults because we recognize our own and have experienced God’s forgiveness. If we look back at the long story of our personal relationship with God, we will find that we have been “transfigured” by God; smoothed out, reshaped, and formed more and more into the image of a Jesus follower.

And like Peter, we are called to tell the story of our encounter with the holy, we are called to give our testimony of the voice that has claimed us as God’s beloved child, and the glow of joy that fills our lives when we remember how God has loved us in spite of ourselves.