I always feel inadequate when it comes time to preach on the Transfiguration every year. I expect that’s because the experience of Peter, James and John on that mountaintop with Jesus is so far afield from anything I have ever known. Looking back, it seems that most of what I have offered were just shadowy approximations of what those first witnesses saw and felt and heard.
And yet, if there is one thing harder than trying to preach on this, it would be trying to offer a meaningful children’s sermon on this familiar yet elusive story. As I recall, one time, many years ago, I borrowed the idea of carrying in a suitcase full of white clothing. We talked about what it would be to be ‘transfigured’ and we opened the suitcase and all the children draped themselves in that white clothing. It was cumbersome in the extreme. And no, I really didn’t have the sense that it got the point across, even though Matthew’s version here tells us that in that moment Jesus’ clothing became dazzling white.’ For the ‘dazzling white’ didn’t necessarily come from the outside — as in something Jesus put on — but was something which emanated from within him. The ‘brightness’ of that moment on the mountain was simply a reflection of the holiness, the divinity of Jesus which simply transfigured him in a way that others could see it. Those children and I? We were still just ‘us’ — only now our clothing was white!
No, it has to come from inside, it seems to me.
I got a small sense of the meaning of this a couple of weeks ago when I was standing in line to check out some groceries. A very tired looking young mom stood in front of me. Two elementary age girls were dancing around the cart and sitting in the cart above them was a little boy who was no more than four years old. He was holding up a soon to be purchased pair of shoes which were clearly just his size. And he was announcing to everyone within earshot that with those shoes he would be able to run faster than ever. We all smiled to hear his hopeful confidence even while we knew those $3.99 shoes probably wouldn’t make that much of a difference. And yet, it is so that we have seen that same way of thinking play out in the recent Olympic Games. You may recall that our speed skaters were insistent that their lack of success was the result of their new uniforms. (While it is so that when fractions of seconds count, the aerodynamics of one’s suit may affect the final outcome, it turns out that at least in this case, the outfit was not to blame!) In either case, what we can be certain of, though, is that if one is not already a runner, one’s shoes will not be likely to make one run faster. If one cannot already skate like the wind, the suit one wears is not going to make that much of a difference. In a similar way, in the case of the story before us now the dazzling white clothing is simply a reflection of what already is in Jesus, now blindingly evident to others.
And nothing you and I can do will likely even begin to approximate that in this life now.
Which is probably why Peter and James and John find themselves face first on the ground trembling in fear. For when I say I have experienced nothing like what they saw and heard and felt on that mountaintop, we can be pretty certain that before that moment they would have said the same.
And yet, Jesus does not leave them there face down on that mountaintop. Indeed, as I understand it, when Jesus tells them to ‘get up’ he is using the same words he also used in raising the dead. No, Jesus does not leave them there ‘dead’ in their terror and their confusion. For while they may find themselves in the midst of something unlike anything they have ever seen before. They may be so afraid that they are as paralyzed as though they were in fact, dead. And yet, Jesus does not leave them there. He tells them to get up and to leave their fear behind.
Fear of what I wonder. Fear of the unknown? Fear of the incomprehensible power of God? Fear of their own inadequacy in the glare of that overpowering bright light? I wonder what fear it was that Jesus was telling them to leave behind them on that mountaintop. And I wonder what fear he would have us abandon, too, as we pick ourselves up — even having realized that what we see now — even from this great distance —- we may never likely see again. At least not this side of heaven.
I always feel inadequate when called upon to preach the Transfiguration. And maybe that is the point. Maybe we human proclaimers of this amazing story will always stand in awe — or if we are fully aware of what is before us now — face down on the ground trembling in fear. But even to us Jesus says to get up and leave the fear behind. Even to us, I expect Jesus is saying to stand up and dare to speak of it anyway. We may not get it quite right — but even our meager attempts to point to the majesty and wonder of Jesus as we witness it in this story now may be more than anything the world has seen in a while — or maybe even ever.
- How do you understand the ‘Transfiguration of Jesus?’ What must it have been like for Peter and James and John to witness this?
- What does it mean when Jesus tells the disciples to ‘get up?’ What did such ‘resurrection’ mean for them? For you?
- What do you think was Jesus telling those disciples to not be afraid of? What fear are you called to leave behind?