Transfiguration of our Lord, Year B, February 15th, 2015
2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Transfiguration is a weird thing. Most of Jesus’ career is the sort of thing we can relate to rather easily: he wandered around with a group of friends, telling people about God. Some of us talk about God more than others, and some don’t talk about God much at all, but we can all relate to hanging out with your friends and travelling a bit, right? And he also healed people. Most of us can’t heal people with a touch as Jesus could, but we do have faith healers, and we pray for people who are sick all the time, and when we are sick we pray for healing. He had enemies who were trying to spread rumors about him—too many of us have experienced such a thing in our own lives. He ate dinner with a lot of people—we can relate to that, too! And then we have today’s story where he goes to the top of a mountain and gets lit up like a bonfire. And while I’ve seen such things done by special effects in science fiction TV and movies, I’ve never seen anyone glow with a heavenly light. I doubt any of you have, either.
So while it’s generally fairly easy to find a way to connect other Gospel readings to our everyday lives, I’ve always struggled with the Transfiguration. And I think that Peter and James and John did, too. Now, they lived in a day when people were far less skeptical about miracles and wondrous things, but that doesn’t mean they happened every day. Which is why Peter and James and John were terrified and confused and trying to search around for some way to fit this awesome thing into their heads. So Peter suggests building three “dwellings”—temples, tabernacles, booths, something like that. A chapel, maybe. So that people could come to the mountain to the special place and pray to God for whatever miracle they needed. As if it were the mountain that were holy.
That’s actually a pretty common human reaction to an encounter with God. Let’s set up a shrine to mark it! And tell everyone else about it, too, so that they could come up and see the special place where it happened! And pray there, because maybe God will be more likely to hear their prayers at that special place where special things happened! God is most likely to be there, on the mountaintops, right? In the special places? Where special things have happened? And if you go to the right place and pray the right way, you are closer to God than you are in your ordinary life, right? And if you worship in a beautiful church building you’re closer to God than when you worship in a mall or a hotel, right? It’s all about location, and ambiance, and going where you know people have encountered God before and hoping he’s still there. Peter’s confused and scared, he doesn’t know what’s going on, so he thinks “A special place needs a special building for people to visit. Let’s build some!”
It’s not necessarily a bad impulse; after all, we do need places to gather and worship together and celebrate God’s gifts and presence among us. It’s just not what God was trying to show the disciples. The point of the Transfiguration is not that mountaintops are holy, that particular mountain or any other. It’s not about the place. God is with us always, no matter where we go. God is in the most awesome locations—like mountaintops—but God is also with us in the nastiest, most horrible places on earth. That mountaintop is no more or less holy than any place else on earth, no matter what happens there. No, it’s not about location. It’s about connection to the past, to the future, and to God. And it’s about light.
The connection to the past is easy to spot. Moses and Elijah showed up! The two most beloved and awesome holy men of Israel’s history! Jesus is the culmination of what God has been doing in the Jews since he called Abraham out of Ur, since he called Moses through the burning bush, since he spoke through Elijah! God is doing a new thing through Jesus, but it’s not out of the blue. It’s all connected. For thousands of years God has been trying to teach his people to love God and to love one another so that they might be a blessing to the world, and Jesus is the fulfillment of that teaching, the manifestation of that love. No matter how much the religious leaders argued and quibbled and rejected Jesus, no matter how different he looked from what they expected the Messiah to be, Jesus is where the story has been heading all along. And now is the time the disciples most need to learn that.
You see, the Transfiguration is the turning point. The hinge, if you will, of Jesus’ ministry. Up to this point, he’s mostly been staying out in the hinterlands. The backcountry. With the hicks and the country people. And yeah, crowds came to see him, and the local community leaders are annoyed by him, but he’s not much threat to the powers that be, at this point. So he pretty much gets ignored by the authorities. But he’s about to set his face toward Jerusalem, and the sorts of trouble and stirring up crowds that’s acceptable out in the backwater of Galilee is just not going to be tolerated in Jerusalem. As Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and disagrees publicly with the political and religious establishment, things are going to get dire pretty quickly. And by “dire” I mean conspiring to have him crucified on trumped-up charges just to get rid of him. That’s what the disciples are going to be facing, when they walk down that mountain. Everything is going to get worse—a lot worse, as bad as things can possibly be—and it’s going to start with the religious leaders of their country trying to prove that Jesus is some sort of heretic.
If they’re going to go up against that—if these uneducated hicks are going to stand firm in the face of the disapproval of the most educated, powerful religious leaders of their day—they’re going to need some reassurance that Jesus truly is of their God and of their faith, and there’s not much better way to prove that to them than to have them see him with Moses and Elijah. In the dark days to come, the disciples are going to need to be able to draw on the faith of their forefathers and foremothers to help them survive and get through. And here are Moses and Elijah to reassure them. Put yourself in their shoes. Think about a time when remembering a faithful person has helped you when your own faith has faltered. Maybe it was someone from the Bible, maybe someone you knew personally. Even just remembering a story of their courage or commitment can help, can’t it?
But the faith of their ancestors will only carry the disciples so far. After all, this isn’t just a case of following the next prophet. God is doing a new thing, and that new thing—the salvation of the cosmos—is going to lead them to places they never dreamed, through hazards they can’t imagine yet. They’re going to go through some awfully dark places, and they’re going to need a light to carry them through. And the thing is, when you look at the story of the Transfiguration, it is really similar to some of the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Like, the blinding white robes, the two supernatural beings, it’s all very similar. They’re getting a foretaste of what’s coming. Not the horrors and death and despair that are in their immediate future, but the joy and wonder that will come after. They’re going to go through Hell on Earth for the next while, but they are not going to be facing it alone, and that hellish time won’t last forever. It can’t. God is going to win, in the end. The power of death and hate and fear will be broken forever. They don’t know it, but they are witnessing a foretaste of God’s victory. They’re seeing a little bit of the great party to come. They don’t understand what they’re seeing, but it’s going to help carry them through when they need it. Because they can’t just stay up there on the mountain in a nice pretty building remembering the good old days. They have to go back down the mountain and head towards Jerusalem. And this experience, this shared vision of light, is going to help them stay together and get through the dark days ahead.
Think back to your life, to the times when you’ve had dark times to walk through. The death of a loved one, or a serious illness, or abuse, or addiction, or depression, or isolation. We’ve all had dark times of one kind or another. How did God help you through them? What light did God give in your darkness? You may not have realized what it was at the time—the disciples didn’t get what was happening, either, and I know in my own life when I’ve had dark times, I was never able to see God’s presence until I looked back afterwards. God’s light may have come in many different forms. It may have come through the support of friends and loved ones. It may have come through memories of better times. It may have come through prayer or scripture or music or art or a good book. We look forward to the coming of God’s kingdom—when death will be no more, when we will be healed and made whole, when all evil will be wiped clean and all tears will be wiped away. But in the mean time—as we walk through dark places—thank God for the light. For the faithful ones of past years who have helped to shape us, and for the light even in the darkest place. May we see God’s light and be comforted by it.