Mark 9:2-9; Matthew 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-35
In early February my brother Bruce and I were on top of Mount Tabor where this event, Jesus’ transfiguration, took place. We were traveling with a group of pilgrims following the path of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection in Israel/Palestine. Mount Tabor is north of Jerusalem, and about 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee. Mount Tabor is forested with pine trees and offering stunning, panoramic views. On a clear day, to the north and west you can see Lebanon; to the east, beyond of the Sea of Galilee, you can see Syria, Jordan, and Mount Hermon. Jesus and his disciples would have known the words of Psalm 89 about these majestic mountaintops: “The north and the south – you created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.”i And that is because these mountain tops are so beautiful and breezy. Mount Tabor is only about 2,000 feet above sea level, but that is a lofty height above the sea level of Galilee and the nearby desert of the Jezreel Valley. Mount Tabor is a place where you would like to stay; we certainly would have been glad for a longer visit. (I wanted to get information from the Franciscan guesthouse about staying there!) And so, on the one hand, it’s no wonder that Peter and James and John were coaxing Jesus to stay around and build some tents, which is how people then and now would set up camp out in the wilds.ii
But there’s more going on here than their wanting to take a vacation with Jesus on a mountaintop. Peter and James and John clearly wanted to save the moment. Something very significant happened here. Jesus’ countenance radiated light, and maybe for the first time, some things about Jesus’ teaching really made sense to these disciples Peter and James and John. They also became, as we say, “enlightened.” To use the language from the Letter to the Ephesians, “the eyes of their hearts became enlightened” about Jesus and about themselves: what they were called to do; who they were called to become.iii In the moment, it all made sense to them. And they wanted to stay put. Quite understandably. Amidst so much movement and change that they were experiencing with Jesus, they didn’t want to lose this moment. They wanted to stay “grounded,” as we say.
Now there’s two different ways to be grounded in life. One, a good way; one, a bad. It is no good to be “grounded” like a boat. These fishermen – Peter and James and John – would have known the dangers of being grounded on the rocks, which is to be stuck and at peril of death. It is quite another experience to be “grounded” like a tree, grounded in the soil in which the roots, very much alive, keep the tree centered and steady, actively drawing nourishment, and capable of bearing even raging storms without toppling over (like the pines of Mount Tabor). For Jesus and these three disciples to have stayed put on Mount Tabor would have been like the grounding of a boat. They would have been stuck in a fleeting experience. Jesus was insistent on claiming the experience, remembering the experience, and moving on. Grounded, not in an experience, but grounded in a relationship, to be “rooted and grounded in love,” again quoting from the Letter to the Ephesians.iv
We all have probably had a similar experience, and more than once. Given all the changes and chances in life, there will come these experiences of joy or delight or clarity or security or great beauty, when we have a mountaintop experience in some place or at some special occasion. It is so good, and we hope it will never end. But it does. The weather changes, literally and metaphorically. The weather of the heart, the weather of the sky changes. Clouds come in. That’s life. And so it was for Peter and James and John with Jesus there on Mount Tabor; it also happened to Bruce and me. The most beautifully sunny day turned cloudy before our eyes.
I think that Peter and James and John got grounded, got momentarily stuck, on this mountaintop with Jesus. Here we have three very common people, with very common needs and common desires and common hopes, three of Jesus’ followers who had been fished out of their simple boats by Jesus and shown another way. They had seen the prophesies of old being fulfilled by Jesus in ways that they could never before have imagined. The hungry were being fed, the blind being healed, the hopeless and forgotten being received. They themselves were being fed; they themselves were being healed; they themselves were being given a place in the Reign of God. And people, multitudes of people, were listening and changing and following. And all was right with their world, and all would be right in the whole world when Jesus got to Jerusalem and finally ascended the royal throne and assumed the kingly power… and they would be seated at his right hand and at his left. It would be the best of times, and it would have stayed the best of times… except for this one tragic dimension about Jesus. Jesus kept sort of name-dropping that there would be a terrible twist to his life (and to theirs!) when they arrived in Jerusalem.
Jesus kept talking about the doorway to the future having to pass over a threshold of suffering and death. In actuality, Jesus had talked about this quite an amount. He hadn’t merely hinted about his forthcoming death; he had talked about it a great deal, and in the very presence of these three disciples… But sometimes in life you simply can’t bear to hear what you hear, and so you don’t hear what you hear. We say in slang, that “something goes in one ear and out the other…” And I think the disciples could not bear to hear whatJesus had been saying all along. It’s almost as if they were pretending not to know what they knew that Jerusalem would bring to Jesus (and to them).
And so, on this particular day, there they stood on the mountaintop with Jesus, he was simply flooded with dazzling, mesmerizing light. And for a fleeting moment, for the apostles Peter and James and John, this moment salvaged the best of the past and it gave hope for the rest in the future to come. And they did not want that particular moment to end. Whatever was happening to them and to Jesus at that moment, they did not want it to end. They wanted to save it, to conserve it. We call it Jesus’ Transfiguration. But in actuality, it might be more accurate to call this the story of the transfiguration of the three apostles. Because suddenly they, too, were filled with this light: lighting their lives, lighting the darkness of their pasts, lighting their hopes and dreams and confusion and fears about the future. Suddenly the dim mirror through which they had been seeing life became clear.v They saw. They understood. It fit. Everything fit. Everything was going to be okay. It was an incredible experience, and Peter – I’m just guessing it was Peter who spoke for the three – Peter seized onto this experience and said to Jesus: Don’t move! This is it! Let’s hold this moment in “stop action.” Don’t change anything. “Master,” Peter says, “Let’s just stay here! Let’s set up tents here. Let’s stay put. Let’s keep everything as it is. Don’t move.” They clinging to this mountaintop experience, and they did not want it to end, and they were afraid that it would end… And it did.
We don’t know much about when or how they came down off the mountain top. But I suspect a new set of clouds rolled in, as clouds are want to do in life. The next time they would experience that kind of light would be on Easter, the Day of Resurrection. But we know that that transfiguring light finally soaked into Peter and James and John (and the other apostles), and they were able to get on with their lives with real meaning and with real power. How? Here’s the good news they discovered… and here’s the good news for you and for me about this transfiguration. Two things come to mind.
First, they were able to hear that Jesus would be with them always. Jesus is God Emmanuel, God with us. We do not worship a God whose presence is limited to a particular experience, nor to a particular place (like a mountain top, like a temple, or a totem, or a tenet, or a shrine, nor to a particular time). We worship God Emmanuel, in all times and in all places. God is with us, with you. That’s one thing that soaked into the apostles: that Jesus was going to stay with them. They didn’t have to go back to a mountain top to be with Jesus. They would be grounded in the light and life and love of Jesus, who was going to stay really present to them.
The second thing that soaked into the apostles was that if Jesus was going to stay with them, it was going to have to be in a new way… because he was still going to leave them. That was for sure. He was going to die and leave the dusty roads of Galilee and still be with them, but in some new way. And that’s true for us all, too. The apostles had seen the crying needs around them, and had seen the power of Jesus to transform their world, the power of Jesus working through them. And this had been their other fear: not that Jesus would leave but that Jesus would stay, that Jesus would stay with them, and that he would leave power with them. Which is also true for us all. We have been given the light and life and love of Jesus to transform the dark world that surrounds us: by our touch, by our words, by our real presence, we have been given power by Jesus to transform the world in which we live, in the very ways that Jesus spoke and worked.
The apostles had been first afraid of Jesus’ absence, that he was leaving them; and then they were afraid of Jesus’ presence, that he was going to stay with them, in new ways, in powerful ways. Were they up for it? Who were they? Simple little fishermen. And who are you? Simple little you? And yet I would say that God has great things in store for us all. God Emmanuel is with us, to transfigure our own darkness and the darkness of the world in which we live. Jesus abides with us; that’s his promise, always, even to the end of the world.vi
One last thought… and this comes from cinematography and television programming. How many movie and TV productions have there been in recent years where the central theme is about someone’s extraordinary power? About power coming through someone’s hands, power through someone’s eyes, power through someone’s mind, power through someone’s words. Why do these actors and plots captivate us? I think it’s because we recognize ourselves. We get in touch with the essence of our being. We recognize the power. It might even frighten us, because we know its truth.vii The invitation – the invitation in life – is to claim it. You have been given power, the light and life and love of Jesus. Let it flow. Let it go. Don’t deny it; don’t conserve, restrict, tie it down. Let it flow. Let it go. There’s always more. Claim the power you embody – the light and life and love of Jesus – and let it flow with great generosity and authority through your own hands, through your own eyes, through your own mind, through your own words. We remember the Transfiguration of Jesus today to remind us all about our own transfiguration. “Christ lives within you.” That is what we say. Today is also a reminder about your own transfiguration. Claim the power, and then don’t hang onto it. Let it flow. Let it go. The world is dying to know it.
iii Ephesians 1:17-19 “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
vii Inspired by Nelson Mandela who, in his presidential inaugural address, said: “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.” Mandela goes on, “We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are we not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others…”
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