(Matthew 17: 1-9)
You will not find many preachers who enjoy preaching on the Transfiguration. It’s just an odd story. It’s one thing to give it a spot in our three-year lectionary rotation, but somewhere along the line someone decided to give it its own day – Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, right before Ash Wednesday and the arrival of Lent. Prior to beginning our forty-day journey to Good Friday and Easter, we have this Transfiguration thing. It’s an odd story.
And it’s not just odd for those of us reading about it some 2000 years after the fact. Can you imagine what it must’ve been like being there? Jesus comes to you one afternoon and takes you and two friends on a little mountain hike. In doing this, you’re leaving your other friends behind, which is odd because ever since you started following Jesus you’ve spent practically every waking moment together. But for some reason it’s just the four of you, going up the mountain.
Side note – mountains are big in Matthew. Some twelve chapters earlier, Jesus gives his sermon on a mount. Jesus is tempted on a mountain. A resurrected Jesus gives his final great commission on a mountain. Matthew likes to draw these comparisons between Jesus and Moses, who spent a good chunk of time himself communing with God and receiving the Ten Commandments…. on a mountain.
So again, there the three of you are; and you’re going with Jesus up the mountain. And when you get to the top, all of a sudden – and there are a lot of “all of the suddens” in the Transfiguration story – all of a sudden Jesus literally changes, right before your eyes – transfigured. Now that’s not a word we use very much. Probably the only context most of us might have for transfiguration comes from the Harry Potter books, where students at Hogwarts take a course by that name, where they learn how to change teacups into rats or flowers into candles. That’s not really what’s going on here; so for the record Merriam Webster’s defines transfiguration as “transforming into something more beautiful or elevated.”
Jesus is glowing here – not an “on fire” glowing; this isn’t the burning bush. It’s more like a “shining.” His face, his clothes, illuminated. It’s quite shocking to see. You turn to your friends to see if they see it. And when you turn back, all of a sudden, it’s not just shiny Jesus there, but now two other people, who happen to be Moses and Elijah!
Where the heck did they come from?! I mean, forget for a moment that Peter couldn’t have known what Moses and Elijah looked like – they didn’t do selfies back then. There’s also the fact that both lived and died centuries before. And yet here they are now, with Jesus. Where did they come from? And what are the three of them talking about? And how did Jesus get so shiny? And what in the world is going on here??
You would think these would be some of the thoughts bouncing around in Peter’s head, right? This sort of thing is nowhere to be found in the disciple manual. There’s no precedent here. Peter’s in unchartered waters, and that’s saying a lot for a fisherman.
But of all the responses Peter could’ve gone with, of all the possible solutions he might’ve offered, he winds up going with “build some huts.” Three dwellings he offers to make, for Jesus, Moses, Elijah. I can wrap my head around Peter the fisherman a lot easier than Peter the Contractor. And apparently I’m not the only one, for no sooner than suggesting it, a booming voice bellows from the sky – we assume it’s God – and all it says is, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Which apparently in God-talk translates to, no huts.
And then, as quickly as this whole scene starts, “all of the sudden” it comes to an end: Moses and Elijah disappear, and the four make their way down the mountain under stern orders not to tell anyone about any of this. Which, at the risk of stating the obvious, someone obviously did!
Do you know the sheer lack of preaching resources on this passage? Trust me, I looked. I mean, there are some that talk about the glory of Jesus and going up the mountain with Jesus and coming down the mountain with Jesus and how wherever Jesus goes, we go. I don’t know that that’s saying much of anything, to be honest. Maybe that’s all that needs to be said.
But let’s assume for a minute that there’s more going on here than mere metaphor; more that begs our attention. Maybe it’s not the mountain we should be paying attention to; maybe not even Jesus per se. I don’t know about you, but every time I read this passage, I keep coming back to those dwellings – those huts that weren’t even built. Granted, all they were was a suggestion, offered up by an over-eager Peter and quickly shot down by the Almighty. They barely register a blip in this story – and yet, I cannot not think about them. I wonder why that is.
This may be a good time to remember that each gospel was written with a particular message in mind; and that a great way of understanding that message is to pay close attention to the audience it’s being conveyed to. In Matthew’s case, that audience was a group of Jewish Christians – people raised in the Jewish faith but drawn to this man Jesus. So the whole intent of Matthew’s gospel from start to finish is to paint a picture where Jesus is front and center in the Jewish faith, and that following Jesus would not lead people away from their faith but in fact lead them deeper into it. This is why you have all these mountain references, all these parallels with Moses – and in our own story, hanging out with Moses, and Elijah thrown in for good measure.
And these dwellings. The word used here is skenai. It’s a Greek word, but it hearkens back to the Old Testament and the Israelites wandering around in the wilderness for forty years, and the tabernacle tent they set up for worship. Now, this tent wasn’t permanent, and yet it was still a fairly substantial structure: a rectangular enclosure hung with curtains supported by these long poles. Inside the tabernacle was a smaller enclosure; and it was there where the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments were kept. This tabernacle wasn’t anything like the grand temple Solomon would later build. But it was nevertheless important to those Israelites. And not just as a place of worship, but as a reminder of God’s constant, immediate and unwavering presence – and this is important – wherever it was they were, whatever was going on.
It kind makes you wonder – and stay with me here – it makes you wonder if Peter was possibly feeling a little wilderness-y on that mountain. Following Jesus had its ups and downs, don’t you think? By the 17th chapter, the honeymoon is most certainly over. Lots of people loved Jesus, but lots of others – powerful people – did not. Things were about to “get real” real quick. And here is Peter experiencing this crazy Transfiguration scene, which had to have felt a bit like wandering in the wilderness.
Maybe what Peter most longed for in that moment was to “tabernacle” this glory, to encapsulate it like a tent; so that whatever happened going forward he would know beyond a shadow of doubt that, as crazy as the world might get, God would always be right there with him, giving him a point of reference; like the fisherman he was, throwing an anchor in the water as the surf tosses about.
I mean, we seek to do the same sort of thing, don’t we? Try to bottle up the glory when we come upon it, save it for a rainy day? It doesn’t always work, does it?
A few summers ago, when my family and I were at the beach, I went on one of my early morning walks. If you wake up early enough and time it right, and if the clouds cooperate, you get to be out there when the sun rises. Slowly at first, just a tiny dot of light peeking over the horizon, that point in the distance where the water meets the sky. And then it happens “all of a sudden;” it rises and illuminates everything around you, no trees or buildings in the way.
One morning that summer, the sunrise was as glorious as I’d ever seen, and it took my breath away. And without thinking, I did what we do these days: I reached for my phone and took a picture of it. I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to get back to the condo and show the wife and boys. I practically shoved the phone in their faces: Look at this! Look at this amazing sunrise! I was expecting their excitement to mirror mine. Instead, it was met with a polite nod, a shrug.
And the thing is, when I saw the picture myself, I knew why. It was nothing spectacular. I mean, it was pretty and all, it would make a nice background pic on my phone. But what I saw in that picture was nothing like what I witnessed on the beach – the enormity of it all, the glorious illumination of creation surrounding me. This, this was just a tiny iPhone picture of a sunrise, like all the millions of pictures of sunrises on iPhones. Like all the millions of pictures of a beautiful Blue Ridge mountain vista, the expansive Grand Canyon, a first-time mother holding her newborn baby….
There are some “holy ground moments” in life that you are I are just not meant to tabernacle. We cannot capture them in a picture; we cannot push the pause button. Peter wanted to save his mountaintop experience – put it in a dwelling, house it up, save it for later. But there are just some things that cannot be tabernacled.
You and I, we gather in this gorgeous sanctuary every Sunday – our weekly mountaintop excursion. The sunlight pouring through the windows, the openness of this space, our liturgy and worship, the sounds that come out of that organ when Michael gives it a workout. It all is full of glory!
And yet, what God does in here could never be kept in here; never held captive inside these four walls and the roof above our heads. In fact, to try and do that, to make this gathering the end-all-be-all, would be woefully missing the point. God’s glory exists to burst out of our boundaries so it can reach the world beyond. Some things can’t be tabernacled.
Nearly a century after this, another Peter would write a letter to a small Christian community recounting this Transfiguration, telling them that it matters….
…because it is like a lamp shining in a murky place,
until the day breaks and the morning star rises to illuminate our hearts.
It is almost as if he is telling them – and telling us: You don’t have to understand God’s glory. You don’t have to try and figure it out. All you have to do is experience it and then get out of the way.
I wonder, my friends: I wonder how you are transfigured. What is it that shines in your life, shines bright enough to fill your skyline like a brilliant beach sunrise? I wonder what leads you out of darkness and into the light of a new day dawning?
And then I wonder what it is that gets in the way of that? Is it something outside of you that obstructs the view; that dims that glory? Or are you in fact your own obstruction – sabotaging your best efforts, covering up the brilliance of God in you, selling yourself short, letting pride or shame or fear get in the way?
It was writer Marianne Williamson who said it best:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine, as children do; we were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.
Look, I’m not saying Peter got it wrong asking to build three huts. I’m just saying that his story is often our story – the constant internal struggle between the glory of God that is in us, and the fear of just letting it shine. Every day, my friends, we are hiking up the mountain and being transfigured with Jesus. And we cannot tabernacle that. The glory of Christ, shining forth from you and from me, overwhelming us with God’s presence, filling the world with light and love, transforming into something more beautiful and elevated.
As the song says – let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
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