Today we come to The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the ancient feast the Church gave us as a climax of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ. Through Epiphanytide we have gone from the Magi discovering the King of the Jews in Bethlehem to the disciples discovering in various ways that Jesus is truly God’ anointed one. The expression of God. The manifestation of God.
For that we return to Mount Hermon in the upper part of Galilee, just six days after Peter disagreed with Jesus about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. The crucifixion did not fit into Peter’s plans for a restored Israel, so Jesus had to be set straight. Of course, we know it was Peter who was set straight.
Now, six days later, we find the inner three, Peter, James and John, with Jesus on the summit of Mount Hermon. They have gone, as many times before, for a prayer retreat. We like to think it was night for dramatic effect, I guess, but none of the evangelists who tell the story actually say it was night. Luke alludes to it by saying that the eyes of the disciples were heavy with sleep. At any rate it seems a common occurrence that when Jesus took these guys on prayer retreats Jesus did the praying and they did the sleeping.
Now is no different. Jesus is praying, Luke says, when great light beams all around him in a blaze of glory. Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet appear and speak with Jesus. None of the conversation is recorded, but Luke tells us they were speaking about Jesus’ upcoming departure from Jerusalem a few weeks hence. This had been the point of tension between Jesus and Peter the week before.
Meanwhile the disciples, heavy with sleep, awaken to see the dazzling display of light and the three men in conversation. They are absolutely amazed and awestruck, to the point of terror. It occurs to me this is the stuff of true worship. We come into the presence of a God we realize is in complete control and we realize he has our life in his hands. We are completely aware of our own inadequacies and fully aware of his grace to restore and cleanse.
Peter somehow recognizes the visitors to be Moses and Elijah, and rather than thinking on the significance of that, he opens his mouth to say something completely ridiculous. “Lord, it is good to be here with you and Moses and Elijah. What say we build shrines for the three of you?” I say it is ridiculous because it seems to me that instead of looking for ways to build idols Peter should be lost in wonder and adoration of something so grand and holy.
Peter is no different than many of us. Mark puts it well when he says Peter reacted because he did’t know how to respond. He became emotional, reactive, sentimental, and silly. We are emotional whenever we are reactive and not thoughtful.
As Peter was revealing his complete ignorance and emotional immaturity God was revealing something much bigger. Through a thick cloud God approached with a thunderous voice that interrupted Peter and changed everything. “This is my Son, whom I love dearly,” the voice said. “Listen to him!”
Suddenly the light is gone, the visitors are gone, and the disciples are left with Jesus alone. The bottom line is that the focus needs to be on Jesus. Not mountain-top experiences, not warm fuzzies, not favorite “worship music.” Jesus. And him crucified.
I am struck by the profound request conveyed in the collect for the Transfiguration in The Book of Common Prayer . . .
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Strengthened to bear our cross, changed to his likeness. The point of the Transfiguration is not Jesus changes to suit us, but that we change to see him differently.