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.”
Today on Transfiguration Sunday we stand on the threshold of Lent, that forty-day journey with Jesus to the cross. The description of the Transfiguration appears in three of the four Gospels, so I suspect this story told year after year is fairly familiar to you. Today our wonderful quartet has definitely enlivened this Transfiguration day!
Jesus takes three disciples – Peter, James and John – and they go to a mountaintop, where something significant happens – Jesus begins to radiate light. Then the prophets Moses and Elijah appear. The disciples are overwhelmed by this display, and not knowing quite what to do, Peter offers to build dwellings, or tents, for each of these holy figures. Then a voice from heaven declares: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” In one great, stunning, mystical moment, Jesus’ disciples see who he is. God’s glory is revealed. Radiant beauty and splendor and lights and halos are often used to describe and define that glory. And again, today’s glorious music is certainly fitting for this occasion.
So this morning we are on the mountain where Jesus was transfigured. We accompany his disciples, who were transfigured as well. They saw who they, as his followers, were. The glory and transfiguration we see in Jesus is the glory and transfiguration that we too are meant to reflect.
Because we need transfiguration in our lives.
The Transfiguration is significant not just as a special event to mark the Sunday between Epiphany and Lent. Transfiguration is important because we need it in all our lives. We as human beings have a need for change, metamorphosis, transformation.
But transformation is hard! Change is difficult. To move from one way of being to another! How much easier to stay the same, to stay the course. We convince ourselves that what we’ve always known is enough, even when we’ve glimpsed what CAN be. So we just sit and wait. But for what? The right time? The right place? When all of our questions and doubts and fears have been answered? When we’ve got all our proverbial ducks in order?
Transfiguration is risky. And it can be sudden. The disciples were with Jesus, and the mountaintop exploded with light, God spoke, and everything changed. That’s how transformation happens – not necessarily at just the right time. It just happens. And we’re often left saying “what now?” What now, when everything is new and different? What now? No amount of preparation can make us ready for an altered reality or a radically new perspective.
And this is where Peter’s perspective is so important. In the Gospel of Mark’s version of this story, Peter doesn’t know what to say, the disciples were so frightened. In light of what Peter sees – literally in the dazzling, white light that he sees – all he can think to do is suggest building some dwellings. Not understanding what’s happening, Peter tries to create containers for them, placing the holy men each in their own tents or tabernacles. He tries to keep them organized, separated, preserved.
I suspect that one of Peter’s realizations was that if Jesus changes, if Jesus is transfigured, then Peter himself will be changed too. “I can’t be the same,” he’s thinking. “I’ll also be transfigured, transformed, and I’m not sure I want that. So let’s pitch some tents, keep things the way they are, hunker down until this whole thing just passes by…”
Isn’t that often our response as well? “Let’s just let it go…”
Yet the question remains: When other people close to us change, aren’t we also forced to change? When we feel upset by the changes that cause distress and upheaval among us – whether our families, our friends, our circumstances – we’re also challenged with the question of what it will take us to move, to change, to come out of our tents.
In the midst of all the light and dazzling commotion, Peter says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” At some level, Peter knows that this transformation, however frightening, is good.
Change. We say we welcome it, but when the possibility confronts us, we often respond with resistance and rejection. Or we tell ourselves that the change can wait, because it’s really not that necessary. That the timing isn’t right. We tell ourselves that the problems and difficulties that will result aren’t worth the risk of walking into the future and having to ask ourselves, “What now? What do I do next?”
We are constantly in the midst of change. In relationships – with family, with friends, with children. We have changes in our vocations – new jobs, new careers, retirement. We experience major life changes – graduations, children leaving home, the death of loved ones. What are the changes that YOU’re facing, or contemplating, or shying away from? What are the habits, compulsions, addictions that are calling out for a change in your behavior? What are the goals, or projects, or what seem like impossible dreams that are waiting for you?
Change is a simultaneous holding on to of what was, and a looking toward the hope of what can be. Change can be frightening, even painful. Change insists that you exist in a place you don’t want to be. Change demands that you live in a place of yet-to-be resolution, a moment of “what now?” Change may give us a feeling of grief over what was, but it also offers excitement for what is to come. When change comes, no dwelling in the world is going to give us the security we think we want or need. And when we build dwellings to protect us from harm, we also run the risk of keeping out that which is very good.
Peter knew that what was happening was good. However frightened, or surprised, or resistant he may have been to the Transfiguration, Peter knew it was good.
Today’s passage culminates in a cloud overshadowing the disciples. And amidst this cloud of unknowing, they’re able to hear God speak. Their moment under this cloud changes everything, and they see things differently. Mountaintop experiences aren’t always sunshine and light. Sometimes mountaintop experiences mean entering into the shadows and unknowing times that transfigure us.
As the disciples came down the mountain, I suspect they still had questions. They still asked “What now?” The disciples were probably still pretty frightened. But they had been changed. And they came down the mountain together. They were bound together as Jesus’ disciples.
Change – whether it’s frightening and unexpected, or whether it’s welcomed or even exhilarating – change in your life WILL come. However you face that change, wherever you travel on your Lenten journey, as you encounter and hopefully seek the transformation that awaits you, remember that you’re not alone.
As you are embraced by God’s love, and by the love of your fellow travelers along the way, remember Peter’s words: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Amen.