February 23, 2020
Last weekend Brent played a gig with Les Kerr and the Bayou Band in Clarksville. Being a groupie of my husband, I went along to watch, listen, have fun and help out the band in whatever way I could. By help I mean that I took pictures during the show, carried instruments and other band accoutrement to and from the car, etc. I didn’t sing backup or anything.
Because the show was in Clarksville, and because Brent and I both graduated from Austin Peay, although at different times, we decided once the show was done, we would drive over to the university and look around.
Neither one of us had really visited the campus in years. I don’t think I’ve made a proper visit since I graduated. While Clarksville has not had quite the boom that Nashville has, it has still grown and developed and changed; so has Austin Peay.
It was dark by the time we left the gig, so that added to the challenge of finding our bearings while we drove around the campus. But did I say the campus has changed?! It has. Streets through the main campus were in places where they weren’t before. There were new buildings and a new stadium. We found the Trahern theater building, which is where Brent spent a majority of his time while in school. I was there some too. We got out of the car, and even though we couldn’t go in the building, Brent looked at the outside of the building and could figure out where the secretary’s office was, and where the professors’ offices were as well. We located the Green Room, and the set shop.
We also tried to find the campus radio station, where I spent a large part of my time when I was there. If Austin Peay still has a radio station, it’s not in the same place. But even as we were beginning to remember the location of some of our college haunts, we were still so disoriented and turned around. At least I was.
I kept telling Brent, “Where is the quad?”
He didn’t know what I was talking about.
And I was like, “You know that large area of grass in the middle of the main campus?”
He still didn’t know what I was talking about. We went looking for the library, and to our relief, it looked exactly the same.
When we found the library, I remembered that the quad I was looking for was not called the quad at Austin Peay. The large grassy space between buildings in the center of the main campus was called “the bowl.” Because at Austin Peay, it slopes downward like a bowl. And once we remembered that, other memories came back. We remembered our dorms. I had vivid memories of sitting in the bowl with friends on sunny days.
But as fun as it was to go back, it was so strange and disorienting to be in place that we both once knew like the back of our hands, and yet still feel as though we were standing on unfamiliar ground.
I realized that whatever disorientation I was feeling was nothing compared to the bewilderment and confusion that Peter, James and John must have felt when they followed Jesus up that high mountain and saw him transfigured before them.
That is what we observe today: the transfiguration. Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It’s the last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the last Sunday before Lent begins. It is the Sunday that we read, no matter what year and gospel we’re in, the story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up a high mountain. And there, in front of their very eyes, Jesus is transfigured. His clothes are changed. His face is changed. He literally shines. Matthew says that his face “shines like the sun.” And while he is in this state of metamorphosis, of being changed, Elijah and Moses appear with him. I have often wondered how it was possible that the disciples knew who these men were. It wasn’t like they had photographs of these two great leaders of their people. Yet, somehow, they recognized them as Moses and Elijah, standing there talking to Jesus, who has changed in a way that cannot fully be described in words.
Clearly, Peter, James and John were utterly confused and bewildered by what they were seeing. And it is that confusion that most likely made Peter decide to make his strange offer.
“Hey Jesus, since we’re all here already, why don’t I make three dwelling places, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
However, Peter had barely finished speaking when a great and bright cloud overshadows them. And from this cloud, a voice speaks to them.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
If Peter, James and John were bewildered before, they are absolutely terrified now. The sight of Jesus being transfigured and the sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah with him did not send them cowering to the ground. But the voice of God does.
Why do these disciples need to be told to listen to Jesus? Preacher and biblical scholar, Anna Carter Florence, once said that perhaps these three disciples were not so much the special ones in Jesus’ posse – as some of us might believe. No, perhaps they were the remedial group. Maybe they needed special help. They needed to be reminded to listen to Jesus.
Let’s think about the context in which the transfiguration is happening. This isn’t just an isolated incident, provided by each of the synoptic gospels so we could have a definitive Sunday of transition just before Lent begins; a proverbial bridge from one season to the next. And although there is speculation by some biblical commentators that this is actually an account of a post resurrection encounter with Jesus but placed beforehand for the purposes of the gospel writers themselves, we don’t have any way of knowing that. What we do know is that this story begins with the words, “Six days later.”
Six days after what? What happened six days earlier?
Six days earlier, Jesus turned to the disciples and asked them the most important question of their lives,
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter responded to this with his great confession of faith.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Jesus blesses Peter for his bold response. He will be the rock on which Jesus’ church will be built. But Jesus doesn’t let the conversation end here. He goes on to tell them that he will suffer, and he must suffer. He will suffer unto death. But even death will not be able to hold him. After three days he will rise again to new life.
This is not good news to the disciples. It makes them afraid and unsure. This is the Messiah, the Son of God. But the Messiah is telling them that he will suffer! He will die! This is not what they were expecting to hear, and certainly it’s not what they hope to hear. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that not only were they worried about Jesus suffering, but they might have also questioned if they would suffer. None of us, if we’re honest, want to suffer. Why would the disciples have been any different?
Peter is so worried about this that he rebukes Jesus, tells him to stop talking about this. You’re making everybody nervous, Jesus. I just told you that I know who you are; now stop all this suffering and death talk and let’s get on with healing people and leading the revolt against our oppressors.
But Jesus must literally and figuratively set his face toward Jerusalem. That is the direction he must go. That is the narrow path he must take. And no one, not even Peter, is going to stop him or stand in the way of his ultimate purpose. So how well has Peter been listening?
And now we come back into our specific text today. The transfiguration. My purpose in this sermon is not about how to try and describe what happened on that mountain. I don’t have the words; I don’t think anyone does. No, the purpose is not to describe what happened, but instead we have to figure out, as best we can, why it matters.
Why does it matter that Jesus took the disciples up another high mountain and was transfigured before them? Why does it matter that he stood there, talking with Moses and Elijah, two of the great fathers of their faith? Why does it matter that we continue to not only read this story, year after year, but that we make it a special day in the ecclesiastical calendar? Why does it matter that Jesus stood there on that high mountain and revealed his true self, his glory?
Does it matter because this is the moment when the disciples really knew and truly understood who Jesus was and who he was to them and to the world? Does it matter that this is the ultimate revealing of God, the divine Jesus as well as the human Jesus? Does it matter this is a mountaintop experience, and just like the disciples we are called to hold onto our mountaintop experiences, take what we learn from them, and go back down into the valleys of our lives with that learning front and center?
This is how this passage is often interpreted, but here’s the thing, the disciples were right there, witnesses to this moment. They experienced this liminal space between human and divine. They saw Jesus is in his glory and they heard the voice of God, but they still marched down off that mountain and messed up, time and time again. It should have been a definitive moment for them, in their relationship with Jesus, in understanding Jesus, in recognizing their own calling. But back in the valley they still didn’t get it. Not just Peter, none of them.
Are we any different? How many mountaintop experiences have I had, and I still don’t get it? I still mess up. Maybe I didn’t hear the voice of God as the disciples did, but I know to listen, yet I don’t. I know who Jesus is, but I fail in my following. I falter and I fumble. All the time.
And as far as this is a moment of divine revelation, hasn’t Jesus been revealing God all along? Hasn’t Jesus revealed the divine in every encounter, in every healing, in every moment of teaching and preaching? We have just left another mountain where Jesus preached a sermon that was all about the revelation of God and how God loves and who God loves. Every time that Jesus reached out to an outcast or ate with a sinner, God was revealed.
I think the transfiguration matters because this moment of glory does not stand isolated and alone. This moment of glory is intimately connected to suffering. Jesus told the disciples who he was and what must happen to him. His glory ultimately comes with his suffering.
One commentator said that the transfigured Jesus is the Jesus that we want. Shining, luminous, standing on a mountain talking with Moses and Elijah. But the Jesus that we get, the Jesus that we struggle with is the one lifted high on the cross. We don’t have one without the other. We can’t.
Next week begins the season of Lent. It is a season when we give up things, when we seek to deny ourselves something. It is a season when we focus on repentance, on how far short we have fallen, and what we must do to turn around and seek God once more. But it seems to me that this is also a season when we are called most particularly to pick up our own cross. We all bear crosses, every single one of us. Every person in these pews, the people in the choir, the person in the pulpit, we all are called to carry our own cross. And maybe that is our hope – that not only our savior carried his, but that we are not alone in carrying ours. We are not alone.
On this Sunday when we remember Jesus in his glory, look around you and also remember that we are all carrying our own crosses. We are not alone. We are in this together. If only we could see. If only we would listen. We are not alone on the high mountain or in the valley. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.” Amen.