Rev. Rebecca Heilman
(Matthew 17)

Bear with me for a minute as I recycle a story from an adventure I had on a mountaintop that fits our Scripture perfectly today. So you might have hear this before. When I was in college, I traveled to Malawi, Africa every summer to spend a few weeks or months in a mission mountain town named Nkhoma. One week, I heard that a few other women were planning to hike Nkhoma Mountain, the peak that is seen at almost every angle of the town. It’s enormous and at almost 4000 ft of elevation. I was in a phase in my life where I wanted that picturesque mountain top experience, that God changing moment, that moment where all become clear in my life. Hah, if only it was that easy. I packed my bag and we hiked halfway to a small hut where we stayed the night. The plan was to hike in the dark the next morning to see the sunrise. We went to bed early on the front porch, after having to wrangle an intoxicated and incoherent man into a closet. Another story for another day. I barely slept that night, full of excitement. At around 4am, we packed our bags secured our headlamps and started our truck through the bush at the base of the rocky peak. As we made our way through the brush and trees, we heard rustling…and then came the whooping noise. Hyenas! They were as awake as we were and we could tell they were circling us from a distance, hiding in the thick wilderness of Nkhoma. We continued forward, hoping we wouldn’t see yellows eyes and bared teeth. At one point, I fell and nastily scrapped my knees. One woman turned her ankle as we were lifting each other, in the dark, on to boulders. Another woman asked that we come back for her. Several headlamps gave out and someone left their water back at the hut. We were in the thick of things, fully unprepared. The limbs and bushes were so dense at one point, we were sure we were lost. But we kept going, knowing the mountain was a head of us and we just had to climb in the middle of it. So, we climbed and climbed, thankfully seeing no hyenas. Then suddenly, there was fresh air and this cool, soft breeze swaying the tall grass at the top of the peak. A glint of light in the distance. We miraculously made it to the top with bumps and bruises, stubbed toes and scratches all over. And it was a gorgeous, blinding sunrise and I had never been more grateful for light. It would make for finding the path back down the mountain so much clearer and easier. But I was so exhausted and overwhelmed, it wasn’t a mountaintop experience at all. Mostly, just grateful to have made it. It was nothing like Peter, James, and John’s experienced in our story today. No life-changing God moment. I’m not sure I figured the purpose of my life. My faith didn’t really shift any. Mainly I was just there, on a mountaintop.

Six days before Peter, James, and John’s mountaintop experience, Jesus reveals to his disciples that his death is coming. Peter, as Peter does, physically takes hold of Jesus and blurts out, “God forbid, Lord. This won’t happen to you.” Jesus reminds him that he is God and Peter is thinking like a human. “It’s going to happen, Peter. I am going to die.” And so, six days later, Jesus takes his closest disciples up to a mountaintop, which already shows that something special is about to happen since Jesus often prayed alone when he climbed mountains. While up there, Jesus changes in appearance and a bright light shines through his face while two dead men join him on either side – Elijah, representing the prophets and Moses, the laws. Peter again, in all his Peter-ness or human-ness, speaks without thinking and blurts out, “I will make three shrines for each of you!” While Peter is talking, a large bright cloud rolls in, interrupts Peter and overshadows the group. A voice from the cloud, that I’m sure would raise the hair on the back of our necks, says, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” The disciples fall to the ground mirroring the religious culture they know so well. And then poof, as quickly as this weird encounter came, the bright cloud, Elijah, Moses, and the shining light are gone.

Jesus, back in image the disciples recognize, kneels down, touches their backs, like a mother rubbing the back of their crying child, and extends his hand to help his beloved disciples up off the ground. I imagine this touch reassures the disciples of their safety and God’s gentle presence. A simple human touch of genuine love discards all fear and worry. For as John Calvin sees it, this simple human touch of genuine love, well, it’s the great genius of God. God, who is the intricate creator of all things great and small, all things diverse and beautiful; God, who is somewhere between the uncanny and the marvelous; God, who is more powerful than our minds know, but who is loving enough to know our broken thought-filled minds. God, who we belong to, well that God thinks outside of the box of power as we know it and brilliantly mirrors our shape to walk among us, reach out, and gently touch our shoulders so that our fears are calmed and our faith is nourished. Jesus’ hand on the disciple’s shoulder is God’s own touch. The disciples saw, in a very short moment, the vastness of God – a booming voice from the cloud, a blinding beacon of light that was then tucked away inside the body of Christ, and a gentle touch on the shoulder letting them know that God is with them, no matter what, there’s no need to be afraid.

William Sloan Coffin, a theologian, Presbyterian Pastor, and activist writes about this transfiguration, saying, “we are not saying that God is confined to Christ, only that God is most essentially defined by Christ. So when we talk of the divinity of Jesus, it is well to recall that what is important is not that Christ is God-like but rather that God is Christ-like.” And I would add in my own words, that God chose to be Christ-like, that is to say, God put away the fireworks and gave us Jesus, wrapped in flesh and love, extending God’s hands to a world desperately in need of his gentle touch.

And so I go back to MY mountaintop. Years later and with spiritual maturity under my belt, I now realize God was in the midst of the community hiking that mountain. Transfiguration reveals the incarnation. What I mean by that is on our 4am hike, God, AKA Jesus, was in every hand and muscle extended to pull the other up onto a boulder. God, Jesus was in the hand and kind words that lifted each of us out of a fall. God, Jesus was in the bread we broke at dinner. God, Jesus was in the sighs of relief and in the tense hugs as we reached the top. God, Jesus was in the laughter we shared days later as we realized how crazy we were to hike in the dark. And so, on this Transfiguration Sunday, we might be tempted to lean towards this grand, glorious, perfect, unexplainable mountaintop experience where God dazzles through Christ. And while it’s true, God dazzles through Christ in ways we can hardly understand, Jesus also reveals God’s authentic nature by extending a comforting touch and a helping hand. God reveals that God can show up in a cloud and in a bright light, but God is more than those powerful images, God shows up in love. God shows up in gentleness. God meets us where we’re at as humans. God comes to us with a kind touch and a hand extended so that we can be pull up off the ground.

After this transfiguration moment, that is kept secret among the group, God, Jesus heads back down the mountain slowly walking towards his death that has now been revealed to his disciples. And as he walks, he extends his hands and all of himself, to transfigure others – to heal the sick, empower the weak, scorn the powerful, he breaks bread, blesses the children, welcomes the outcast and embraces the stranger. He knows his end is coming, but that does not stop him and it should not stop us either as we look towards Lent. In fact, we should embrace it as our own spiritual practice. Sloane Coffin, the theologian, called upon Christians to extend more than just a hand. He wrote, “…people are going to have to do more than just that thing they know how to do; they are going to have to extend themselves. Most of us live in [a city], a city of every conceivable form of brutality, where women are beaten by men who once were children beaten by their fathers and mothers; a city demoralized by idleness, where to most people love appears as another form of luxury. Well, for our potentially glorious city to be humanized, people are going to have to extend themselves.” Sloan Coffin then asks, “and who are the people to do God’s work, to extend themselves…?” Christians, people like you and me, who can once again, across the centuries, hear and heed the voice from the cloud saying, ‘this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!’” Listen to him, follow him, mirror him, be like him. We know what it means to extend more than just our hands. We hear about it weekly and Steve talked about it last week. It’s more than just forgiveness or reconciliation, but finding something new in each other, in our relationships, in how we see God in this world. Extending all of ourselves is more than providing shelter to people experiencing homelessness, it’s opening a conversation towards learning more about each other. Extending ourselves is more than providing the basic human needs, but seeking justice, real justice so all lives are treated with dignity. Extending ourselves welcomes vulnerability, hard conversations, outcasts in society, children into our midst. Extending ourselves might be stepping into the uncomfortable while embracing our faith and trusting God will be there to gently touch our backs and help us up when things get too hard.

And so today, this week, we’re standing on the mountaintop and surveying the 40 days of Lent ahead. We’re facing 40 days while war rages in many parts of our world, where politics divide, and where a pandemic keeps us exhausted. Take a deep breath, stretch yourself, extend yourself – and remember that the journey through ashes, wilderness, and sorrow is never for its own sake. It’s for the sake of transfiguration. It’s for the sake of a radiant new life and a dazzling new world where all are gathered around the Table in the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s for the sake of the world where WHEN we extend ourselves, we see God in the face of the other and hearts, souls, and relationships begin to transfigure into the incarnate. May we desperately extend ourselves, so this world is a gentler place to live.

Pray with me. Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief, Amen.


[1] Patrick Willson, “Matthew 17:1-9,” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 455.

[2] William Sloan Coffin, The Collected Sermons of William Sloan Coffin, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 134.

[3] Coffin, The Collected Sermons of William Sloan Coffin, 136.

[4] Ibid.