Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." (Matthew 17:1-9)
“This is my son, the beloved. In him I am well pleased.”
And so, Epiphany ends the same way that it began at Jesus’ baptism – with a flash of light, a blaze of glory, and a voice from heaven.
After spending an entire season focused on light and revelation, today – Transfiguration – is a day of ultimate light and ultimate revelation. As we stand on the threshold of Lent, looking backward toward the birth of Christ, and ahead toward his death and resurrection, today, we celebrate the brightness of God-in-Christ, who has been revealed to us, and who is the source of all light and life.
Peter, James, and John ascend the mountain with Christ. While they are there, in an instant, his face shines like the sun, his clothes are made whiter than any white that had ever been seen, and the disciples stand face-to-face with the full glory of God in Christ. Not only this, but Moses and Elijah, descending from heaven, appear on either side of Christ, symbols of God’s past, present, and future salvation.
What a spectacular sight!
This should have been a moment of clarity for the disciples, seeing Jesus fully and clearly for who he is. Faced with such a dazzling display, we would expect them to stand there on the mountain, mouths hanging open, eyes wide with wonder, unable to speak or move or do anything except keep staring at the amazing spectacle unfolding before their eyes.
But what actually happens?
Peter sees Jesus, transfigured, chatting with Moses and Elijah, bathed in light, and he immediately falls all over himself, springing into action. Peter is pretty much like, “Ooh, shiny!...Now, let’s talk business. Should I build some tents for you all to sleep in? Let me work on some accommodations here. Do you prefer a double bed or a queen bed? How about room service? And maybe I should make some dinner reservations for us all as well…”
It’s not that Peter isn’t being thoughtful or hospitable – he certainly is trying to be a good mountaintop host. But Peter misses the moment. He misses the point of the spectacle set before him. Faced with the spectacular vision of the Christ whom he loved and followed and served, he skips right over it without so much as a moment of silence and rushes back into normal busy mode. We read that he’s so chatty and busy, in fact, that the voice of God has to interrupt him to get a word in edgewise.
“This is my son, the beloved. In him I am well-pleased. Listen to him!”
It’s as if God is saying, “Hey Peter – sit still for a minute and realize what is going on here! I’m giving you the clearest picture I can of who Christ is. He’s my son – the Son of God – and I’ve given him everything and more for the sake of my people. Put down your tools, stop putzing around, and just listen to him, okay?”
Ok, confession time. How many of us are like Peter? And how do we reconcile our busy lives with God’s desire that we sit on the mountain for a while, gazing on the brightness of Christ, taking time to listen to him?
Let’s think about what we know of Christ:
Christ is God’s son, beloved of the Father, sent in love to our fallen world. In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and yet he took the form of an ordinary mortal, coming among us as a baby born to a human mother.Christ is indeed a dazzling sight before our eyes – a brilliant vision of God’s love and salvation. But I suspect that in our day-to-day lives, we yet find ourselves keeping good company with Peter, too busy or distracted or uncomfortable to sit still – really sit in the glow of Christ and listen to his words.
Christ is the shining face of God-with-us, the savior of the world who has been revealed to us throughout the season of Epiphany as the one who will save all peoples and all nations.
Christ, robed in dazzling white atop the mountain, is the one who will soon find himself clothed in thorns and drinking sour wine atop a very different mountain called Golgatha.
Christ, now standing with Moses and Elijah at either hand, is the one who will soon head into the waiting arms of betrayers and authorities, to be hung on a cross, thieves flanking him on either side.
And Christ, appearing now in all his glory to Peter and James, is the one who will appear to women and disciples on Easter morning, shining anew with the light of the resurrection, having defeated death for the sake of our life.
So here is the honest question: Are you uncomfortable with the idea of sitting still in the presence of the brightness of God?
Is it the “sitting still” that’s the problem? When there are projects to be completed, laundry to be finished, homework to be turned in, and appointments to be kept, our schedules don’t encourage us to sit still. It takes intentional effort to create quiet spaces for contemplation and relaxation. It takes personal resolve to schedule “sitting still” moments into our days.
Is it the “brightness of God” the problem? Maybe you feel broken, shameful, or unworthy to dwell in the presence of God. Maybe you avoid prolonged exposure before the face of God in the same way that you avoid prolonged sun exposure. Maybe the brightness of God makes you feel vulnerable and so you fill your mind and heart up with tasks and worries to avoid seeing for yourself what God sees in you.
Is it the idea of “listening rather than doing” the problem? For some of us, it takes effort to believe that God would be pleased with our “sitting still” rather than jumping to action. We know that we are called to active lives of faith, where we don’t hide our light under a bushel, where we are salt for the world. But sometimes, it is easier to spring to action than it is to develop our faith. Sometimes collecting food, writing checks, and volunteering in the community are far easier than sitting in the presence of God. And it feels easier to “be a good person” than to cultivate an inner life of prayer and contemplation.
But Transfiguration teaches us that we are not always called to be busy bees. It teaches us that our relationship with Christ and the vitality of our faith depend upon those moments up on the mountain, where we carve out time to sit, admire, ponder, and listen.
I received an email last week containing the following story:
A church-goer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it no longer made sense to him to go to church every Sunday. "I've gone for 30 years now," he wrote, "and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can't remember a single one of them. So, I think I'm wasting my time and the pastors are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all."Maybe this is what heading up the mountain is all about. We head up the mountain so that we can be re-energized to head back down the mountain onto the plains of our daily lives. Each time we come into the brightness of God, each time we make the space to ponder the beauty of Christ and to listen to his words, each time we force ourselves to sit still and be quiet and vulnerable in front of God – each time we linger on the mountain top, we receive the strength of God that we need to revive our souls. In the same way that Moses went up to the mountain to meet God and came down, his face shining for all to see, we too go up the mountain and return, shining with God’s light.
This started a real controversy in the "Letters to the Editor" column, much to the delight of the editor. It went on for weeks until someone wrote this:
"I've been married for 30 years now. In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know this. They all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today!"
Worship is one place where we take time and space to sit in stillness and listen to Christ. Dedicated times in our days and weeks for prayer are places where we encounter Christ on the mountaintop. Set-apart moments of quiet or intentional times spent with art or nature are spaces where we linger around Christ’s brilliance. If you are not regularly making the time and space to linger, undisturbed, on the mountain, I would challenge you to do so.
Maybe this is the week that you schedule times for prayer just like you would schedule a meeting with your department. Maybe this is the week that you read the Bible instead of the newspaper over your morning coffee. Maybe this is the week that you say “no” to a new demand and instead take a meditative walk by yourself or with a friend.
It is time, my busy or burdened friends. It is time to let Christ draw you up the mountain, for he so desires to do so. It is time to let Christ show himself to you more clearly. It is time to gaze, unhurried, upon his brightness. It is time to open your heart to the ways that a glimpse of God’s glory will impact your journey back down the mountain. It is time to sit, to listen, and to have faith that each day of your life will be brightened by the light that shines upon you on the mountain top. For the one whom we gaze upon there on the mountain is none other than Christ; the one of whom God says:
This is my son. The beloved. In whom I am well pleased.
Listen to him.