Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus. Amen.
Recently, the father of a good friend of mine met Prince Charles. Y’know, Charles. The prince of Wales; the future king of England? That guy. I was pretty impressed.
My friend is English—or at least half-English. His mom was born in the UK. So he’s got all kinds of relatives on his mom’s side over across the pond, some of whom are very British: high-tea, stiff-upper-lip, hail-Britannia type people. And you know how these things work: one of them, apparently, knew someone who knew someone…yadda yadda yadda, long story short: my friend’s dad and mom both got invited to a reception with Prince Charles. The prince would be there; they would have a chance to meet him and make conversation with him for a while. They were pretty excited.
Once the excitement died down, however, my friend’s dad realized that he was actually facing a bit of a dilemma. He was going to get to meet Prince Charles—but then he would have to figure out what to say to him. He was meeting the one person with whom it would be just about impossible to make ordinary small talk. He’d never met royalty; what do you say? “Hey, hiya doing, Chuck. So, I understand you’re a prince….I’m in marketing…” The more he thought about it, the more worried he got.
When I heard about this guy’s dilemma, I sympathized immediately. All of us dream about meeting a really big wheel: someone famous, someone important. But sometimes when you come face-to-face with them, you just don’t know what to do or say.
Which brings us to today’s Gospel reading, the Transfiguration. The disciples in this passage, Peter, James, and John, were in the same situation as my friend’s dad. What do you do when you meet God? What do you do when you see Jesus light up like a Roman candle? What do you do when you see Moses and Elijah, the two greatest Israelite leaders and prophets, walking alongside him? I’ll tell you what you do: you freak out! (You say something along the lines of what Peter said: heeeey….Jesus. It is good for us to be here! Let’s build you guys three tents.) The Gospel puts it very appropriately: “He did not know what to say…they were [all] terrified.”
Of course, who wouldn’t be terrified after something like the Transfiguration? This is more than just a simple laser-light show: Jesus undergoes a profound and dramatic physical change. The Gospel says his clothes were shining like nothing the disciples had ever seen, like no bleach or washing machine could ever match. If you look up ‘transfiguration’ in the dictionary, this is what it says: “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.” That’s what happened to Jesus. Jesus was changed, altered, and the disciples are brought face-to-face with the reality that Jesus is the son of God. And, of course, one thing you see over and over again in Scripture is that people who have a close encounter with the reality of God wind up pretty freaked out.
Now, I don’t know about you, but nothing like the Transfiguration has ever happened to me. And to be honest, I don’t expect it to. My life has been pretty short on supernatural experiences, unless you count the Cubs making the playoffs a few years ago, and even that didn’t end too well. And if you’re anything like me, you struggle sometimes with scriptural stories like this one. The Jesus depicted by the Transfiguration is blatantly supernatural, and he’s also pretty intimidating. When I open up my Bible, I want ‘Jesus loves me, this I know’; I’m not sure I want a Jesus that shines more brightly than the sun; I’m not sure I want a Jesus that is terrifying.
But there he is, in front of the disciples and on the pages of Scripture. And if we press past whatever initial discomfort or skepticism we may feel with this passage, it has a ton to teach us about exactly who this Jesus is. During the Transfiguration, the disciples hear God’s voice saying: “This is my son, the beloved.” This isn’t the first time those words are used in the Gospel of Mark—God also speaks them to Jesus on the occasion of his baptism: “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” At the transfiguration, God uses the same words, but alters the script a bit: “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him!” Listen to him. The same man who is God’s beloved son is also the Lord we must hear and obey. The Transfiguration makes clear that Jesus is one with God, and that he speaks and acts and teaches with the same authority as God himself.
OK, fine. Jesus has the same authority as God himself. But is that it? Is that all we can take away from the Transfiguration? Well, maybe, but I don’t think so. After the Transfiguration is over, after Jesus has been unplugged from the electrical socket, and Moses and Elijah have disappeared, a funny thing happens. The disciples are left alone again with Jesus. Mark puts it simply: “Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” Superman is gone and Clark Kent is back in his place.
The Transfiguration reminds us of one of those curious and sometimes frustrating facts of the Christian life: some of us encounter God in more dramatic ways than others. Some of us are like Peter, James, and John: every once in a while, God invites us up on the mountain and does something amazing, something that really knocks our socks off. And some of you are more like me, and some of the other disciples: down at the bottom of the mountain, taking care of things, setting up the tents, making dinner, being faithful to the daily tasks of following Jesus. And every once in a while maybe we look up at the twinkling lights at the top of the mountain and feel a twinge of curiosity or even jealousy—or maybe we just look up there and breathe a big sigh of relief. Maybe you’re somewhere in between.
Different Christians have different gifts and different experiences. But at the end of the day, even Peter, James, and John are left only with Jesus. We may be mystics, we may mundanes, or we may be a mixture, but in any case all we are left with is Jesus. For many of us, there will be Transfiguration moments: moments when Jesus looks divine, filled with God’s beauty and power, ready to take on the world. But the Transfiguration is the exception, not the rule, and for all of us, there will be post-Transfiguration moments, moments when Jesus will look the way he looked after the Transfiguration: human, normal, not particularly powerful, maybe a bit shabby or unimpressive. And those are the moments that really give birth to our Christian faith.
This very same point comes up on the way down the mountain. Jesus tells his disciples: don’t tell anybody about this until after I’ve risen from the dead. And we might wonder why Jesus insists on all this secrecy, until we view it in light of the cross.
Jesus asks his disciples to keep a lid on what happened on the mountain, not because he doesn’t want people to know who he is, but because he does. Jesus is waiting for the definitive, clearest revelation of his identity. That revelation will happen not on the mountain of transfiguration but on the hill of Calvary. No one can really understand the transfiguration unless you view it through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
When I was researching this sermon, I consulted a couple commentaries, and I stumbled across some words by St. Jerome, an early church father. He helped translate the Bible into Latin from its original languages. This is what he has to say about the Transfiguration: “O Peter, even though you have ascended the mountain, even though you see Jesus transfigured, even though his garments are white; nevertheless, because Christ has not yet suffered for you, you are still unable to know the truth.” Unless you view the Transfiguration through the lens of the crucifixion, you won’t get the picture.
Most of us approach the Bible by asking it questions. What does this mean? What does this biblical text say? What is a ‘cubit’? Are we supposed to take this text literally, or is this just a metaphor? And asking questions of the Bible is extremely important; that’s what got me into my current line of work. But I think Scripture speaks just as powerfully when we let it ask questions of us. And the Transfiguration is a part of the Bible that’s really good at asking questions:
What would I have said or done if I was with Jesus up on the mountain that day? How would I have reacted? Would I be afraid, like Peter? Shocked, unable to speak? Overjoyed? Would I be skeptical, looking for the mickey in my drink or the hidden power cable? How would I respond to the reality that Jesus is the son of God? Do I believe that Jesus has the kind of power that the Transfiguration tells us he has?
What have the mountaintop experiences been in my life? What have been the times when I have encountered God in a surprising or powerful way? What about in my daily life?—how do I encounter Jesus there, in the midst of mortgages and marriages and laundry? Am I open to encountering God in a surprising and unexpected way, either on the mountaintop or in the still, small voice?
And lastly, do I view the Transfiguration through the lens of the crucifixion? Do I believe that the God whose glory was disclosed in the transfiguration is the same God who went all the way to the cross—for me, for you, for all of us? Am I willing, as best as I can, to imitate that costly love?
Use your imagination. Let the Transfiguration ask you some questions. One day all of us are going to meet a member of the royal family. This is your chance to think of something to say. Amen.