Here in Mobile I have learned that we associate this particular day with a certain local hero named Joe, but on the Church calendar, today also happens to be Transfiguration Sunday. Today is a day on which we remember a specific encounter Jesus had with God — one that set Jesus apart, making his divinity and glory very hard to miss.
Both Jesus and Moses have encounters with God that leave them visibly changed. These events are described right here in Scripture, but that doesn’t mean they automatically make sense. So I found myself, as I spent time with these texts from both Exodus and Luke, gravitating toward the five Ws I learned way back probably in elementary school. I found myself asking who, what, when, where, and why, in an attempt to make sense of it all. I’ll leave the sometimes-added “how” up to God. And I’m not so bold as to say I have definitive answers for all of these W questions, but I think they can still serve as a starting point for us on this Transfiguration morning. We may not be glowing every time we encounter God, but we definitely still have things to learn from these examples of when Moses and Jesus were.
“Who” and “what” are fairly straightforward. First there’s Moses who, having met God alone on a mountain, returns to the Israelites below and speaks to a very startled crowd. At first Moses doesn’t even realize how his appearance has changed, but the Israelites are so startled that he ends up covering his face except when he talks to God. In our second reading, Jesus brings Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop with him, but it is these three disciples‘ turn to be startled when Jesus, while he is praying, is also visibly changed. Elijah and Moses arrive to talk with Jesus and while Peter suggests building dwelling places for the three prophets, God simply says “this is my son. Listen.”
As far as the “when” goes, it’s interesting to consider when we observe Transfiguration in relation to the rest of the church calendar. As much as our Mardi Gras celebrations may still be in full swing, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent are just around the corner, drawing Jesus nearer and nearer to the cross. I mentioned last week that it felt kind of like we’ve been on fast forward since Christmas, when it comes to hearing about Jesus’s life and earthly ministry. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s been just six weeks and two days since we celebrated Jesus’s birthday and we’re about to enter the season that leads up to his death. Of course our Church timeline map of Jesus’s life isn’t exactly to scale, but when we consider Jesus’s transfiguration next Moses’s experience, it becomes especially meaningful so close to Lent.
When Moses climbs the mountain this time in Exodus, the Israelites are in exile, having made their escape from slavery. Moses climbs the mountain this time because the first time he came down with stone tablets containing God’s covenant with the people, he broke them out of anger. While he was gone the first time, the people had been building the golden calf. So God called Moses back to the mountaintop, and this second time is when Moses returns visibly changed. The Israelite’s exodus was far from a smooth journey. But God was in their midst even as they wandered and even as they messed up.
In the gospel of Luke when Moses appears again, with Elijah, to talk Jesus, we hear that these three prophets “were speaking of [Jesus’s] departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Jesus is about to embark on his own exodus from this world. Jerusalem may have been a well-known city but when Jesus arrives there in the not-too-distant-future, it will be to venture through uncharted territory.
Concerning the where of our readings this morning, both take place on top of a mountain. Mountaintop experiences can happen for us, too, when God is revealed to us in new and often surprising ways. I’m reminded too of the idea of thin places. Thin places are those where it seems easier, maybe, to connect with God. Where the distance between earth and heaven seems smaller. Where we feel like we can sense God’s presence in an especially real and close way. For example, I often hear Montreat Conference Center described as a thin place for many of the thousands of young people who attend youth conferences there each summer. Montreat happens to be in the midst of literal mountains, but maybe your thin place is a particular worship space or a fishing boat or gathered around a table with special people. The tricky thing with thin places, however deeply meaningful they are, is that we tend to box God in there. When we think of a special place as the place where we meet God, we sometimes forget to look for God everywhere else too. Jesus and Moses most certainly had transformative mountaintop experiences. And their experiences with God are ones that traveled off the mountain. I hope that each of ours will be too.
“Why” is a big question. Aaron and the Israelites in Exodus and Peter, James, and John in Luke see the results of transformative encounters with God and yet they are left wondering. We read about those results and are left wondering too. This sense of mystery around the Transfiguration is one that draws us in, and yet we can’t quite grasp the enormity of God’s glory as it shines from Jesus’s face. Unfortunately I can’t say this is a sermon full of concrete answers. I can’t say with certainty why God affected Moses and Jesus the way God did. But there are some reasons why I think these two stories matter, and what they have to do with us.
When Jesus is transfigured, his disciples are tired. Peter, James, and John were “weighed down with sleep,” Scripture says. According to the gospel of Luke, before their mountaintop moment with Jesus, these disciples and the others had been curing the sick and proclaiming the good news of Jesus all over the place. They’ve helped distribute a miraculous five loaves of bread and two fish among 5,000 people, or more. They are tired. I’d venture a guess we’ve all been exhausted at some point or another — whether because of a chaotic few weeks at work, long nights with a new baby, or a busy exam season at school. Maybe some of you have endured a couple of those things, and others, all at the same time. I imagine an exhausted Peter, James, and John fighting against heavy eyelids to stay awake. Their teacher has, after all, lead them to the top of a mountain — probably for a reason, right? I imagine their eyes just having drifted shut when all of a sudden bright light surrounded them. Maybe they wondered if it was all a dream. Probably uncertainty turned into fear when a big cloud surrounded them. On top of a mountain is not where you want to be if a storm is rolling in, and it’s disorienting when clouds cover landmarks. I remember honestly being briefly startled when I walked outside one morning and fog had essentially erased several the tall building downtown. Instead of a storm on the mountaintop, though, they hear a voice. God, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” With the same words from Jesus’s baptism, God claims Jesus on that mountaintop. Then God lets the disciples know they’re not off the hook either.
Just when we need it most, God appears to us, and affects us. Even when we are the most exhausted we’ve ever been, God is there. Transfiguration also matters because it reminds us that encounters with God change us. Both Moses and Jesus left their mountaintops physically changed, glowing from their encounters with God. Granted, we may not experience the same visible transformation. But I think author Anne Lamott puts it well when she says: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace. Only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
We meet God, and we are changed.
The interesting thing about Moses’s story here is that at first, he doesn’t realize he’s been changed. He doesn’t realize that his face is shining so brightly. There are times, too, when God affects us and we don’t realize it. In those times, I hope that we will take the time to tell each other about it. I hope we’ll take the time to tell our neighbors where we see God in them.
For example, I was reminded of God’s presence in me one time at the Montreat youth conference I briefly mentioned, earlier. In case you’re unfamiliar with those conferences: during youth conference high schoolers from all of the country converge at Montreat Conference Center for a week of energizers — which for those of you unfamiliar are like Presbyterian line dances — keynote presentations, worship, and small group discussions. I never went to one as a youth, but after college I had the opportunity to serve as the facilitator for one of these small groups. For a total of three hours each day conferees meet in small groups to process the morning’s keynote, play some games, and further explore the day’s scriptures. Having never been to a youth conference before, I’d be lying if I said I was totally confident going into my first couple small group sessions. And for most of the week, the feedback I’d received about how our small group was going was pretty much limited to things like “that activity was pretty fun” or “really? another name game?” It seemed like things were going well though, and the conversations had been great. Each time we gathered — about 25 high schoolers, another adult chaperone, and me — the conversations grew more meaningful, and I was amazed by the willingness of most of my group to share their personal thoughts and experiences. From youth who go to church every week by themselves because their families just aren’t into it, to children of church leaders who aren’t sure they even like going to church in the first place, there were all sorts of faith journeys represented. During our last meeting together, we ended our week by writing affirmations on a piece of paper for each member of our small group. After a group picture and some frisbee throwing, our group disbanded and went our separate ways, and it wasn’t until later that I got around to reading my piece of paper. But when I did, four simple words stopped me in my tracks. There I stood on the last day of week 2 of the 2011 Montreat Youth Conference, and staring up at me from the page was the assurance that I had been looking for. Just four words. “God pours through you.”
To read that these youth–or at least one of them–had experienced God in our time together was truly a blessing. I mean it’s been almost five years and I’m still thinking about that little comment. I was pretty exhausted at that point in the week, but there were no miraculously shining faces or voices from a cloud. Just a simple note in teal Crayola marker.
Every person’s face will shine in a different way when we encounter God, and like Moses, each of us will likely fail to realize it at some point or another. I hope we can remind each other.
“Thanks for that note you sent the other day.” Or “I really appreciated that comment you made during Bible study.” Or “It was nice to say hello this morning.” Or even “Funny joke you told earlier. I really needed a laugh today.” When we embrace God’s presence with us, it shows. How do we see God’s presence in the way God changes the people around us? Yes, Jesus and Moses were teachers and leaders among the faithful, but every one us, obvious leader or not, encounters God. In moments of exhaustion and fear, in moments of kindness and humor, in moments of uncertainty and expectation, God meets us and God changes us.
God tells Jesus’s disciples to listen to Jesus. In the midst of an overwhelming, fear-inducing, and all around confusing situation: “This is my son. Listen to him.” As we look toward Ash Wednesday and the following season of preparation, may we listen for Christ’s guidance and look for the many ways it can change us. Amen.