February 10, 2013
For at least four weeks every summer, Presbyterian youth groups from all over the country make their way to Montreat, North Carolina for the week-long Youth Conferences at the Montreat Presbyterian Conference Center. In the summer of 1991 I had the opportunity to go with my senior high youth group for a week of Bible study, group building, worship, activities, friend making, music, fun and a talent show that included a completely choreographed rendition of “Copa Cabana” by Barry Manilow. It was an amazing week!
If you don’t know about Montreat, the conference center is set in the Smoky Mountains just outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is the home of the famous Biltmore House, and the entire area is absolutely gorgeous. Our youth group stayed in one of the many houses in Montreat that were for rent during the weeks of the conference. As one of several counselors, we divided our duties between taking care of things at home and participating in a small group and small group activities.
Because it was my first time to attend, I was one of the counselors who participated in small groups. I met youth and adults from around the country. What was most exciting was that I had a chance to talk with other pastors about what it meant to serve as a minister. I listened while they shared their experiences of serving in ordained ministry and what it meant to them. This was important to me because I got the confirmation that week that I had been accepted to Union Theological Seminary. A few weeks after we returned from Montreat, I started Hebrew school and the next four years were dedicated to becoming a minister.
That trip up the mountain, with all of the fun and friendship and unforgettable views of the beauty of God’s world, was the final confirmation of my call to ministry. It’s no wonder that I wanted to stay on the mountaintop forever and just revel in the glory of that place and time. But the week finished and we had to make our way back down. But I had gone up the mountain and the encounters I had with God and with other people changed the course of my life forever.
The courses of the disciples’ lives were changed as well. They just didn’t know it. Jesus is transfigured before the disciples’ very eyes, but they leave the mountain afraid and mute about what they’d seen.
In Luke’s telling of this story the word “transfiguration” isn’t actually used. Before we come to this particular moment, Jesus has predicted to his disciples what is about to happen to him. He will go through great suffering, be put to death and on the third day rise again. The disciples, if they truly want to follow him, must be ready to carry their own crosses as well.
Now eight days have passed and Jesus decides to take Peter, James and John with him up a mountain to pray. While Jesus is praying, something happens. His face changes and his clothes become dazzling white. In the New International Version, the translation states that Jesus’ clothes become as bright as a flash of lighting. So you can imagine that this is a blinding, bright white – one we normally can’t achieve even with the best of bleaches. Along with these changes in Jesus’ countenance and appearance, two men suddenly appear. Moses and Elijah the two greatest prophets of Israel’s history, are standing with Jesus talking with him. Only in Luke’s version do we find out what they are talking about. They are discussing Jesus’ departure that is about to happen in Jerusalem. They too are talking about the subject of his death and ultimately his resurrection.
Throughout this Peter, James and John have been fighting off sleep. But they finally wake up enough and see Jesus in his glory and the two men with him. Just as Elijah and Moses are starting to leave Jesus, Peter acts as only Peter would act. He wants to make this moment last, so he said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
But while he’s speaking, a cloud came over them. The disciples are terrified. Clouds like this one signaled the presence of God. And their terror was confirmed when a voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice was gone, there was Jesus, looking as he always did, and standing alone. The disciples didn’t tell anyone what they had seen. They were too confused and scared of what they had gotten a glimpse of. They were probably left wondering at what they had seen, heard and what it would mean.
On the mountain top the disciples get a glimpse of the glory of Jesus, they have his true identity confirmed for them from a heavenly voice, they see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, yet they don’t share this news with anyone. They were probably too afraid to talk about it, even amongst themselves.
They don’t talk about any of it until after Jesus died and was resurrected. It took the full course of events in Jesus’ life to unfold for them to find the courage to speak, to find their voice and tell others about the glimpse of glory they witnessed.
Even though they had this mind-boggling experience on the mountaintop, they don’t get what Jesus is about to endure. They don’t fully understand the words he told them. They resist the idea that he must suffer and die.
As I said, they were probably too terrified to speak. Or maybe they thought that no one would believe them. I mean who would believe that as they were sitting on this mountain that Jesus’ face and clothes would change before them? Who would believe that a voice spoke to them from a cloud? Who would believe that God told them this was his son?
Peter, James and John weren’t entirely sure they believed the whole thing themselves. It was all just too much! If they had a hard time believing, who else would be convinced?
And maybe the reason they didn’t speak about this to anyone was because they couldn’t put into words what they had seen. The words we actually hear don’t fully describe what happened on that mountain. What does it mean that Jesus’ face changed? What did that look like? How white were his clothes really? What did the voice from the cloud sound like? What was the tone and timbre of the voice of God?
It’s indescribable. That is the challenge and the frustration of this passage both for preaching and reading. Words cannot convey what really happened on that mountaintop. There’s no way we can fully comprehend what happened, what it looked like, what it sounded like. There’s nothing to compare.
In the past when I’ve preached on Transfiguration Sunday, I’ve tried to come up with any concrete idea I could find to grasp the transfiguration. I’ve even used Transformers. You’ve heard about Transformers, haven’t you? Before the huge movie franchise, they were just toys. But they weren’t just any toys, they were toys that transformed from an ordinary car into a robot or some other sentient machine that was either bound for good or for evil. But this isn’t the kind of transformation that happens on this mountain. Jesus doesn’t go from being one thing into something completely different. He becomes who he truly is. For a moment, a glimpse, the disciples see him in his glory. They see him as both fully human and fully divine. For a moment God breaks in, the kingdom breaks in, glory breaks in and what seems to be ordinary is revealed as extraordinary.
Well of course we can’t describe this! We can’t describe it any more than we can explain it. With all of the wonderful words at our disposal, there are no words to describe the glory of the transfiguration. It is something we would have had to experience; and the disciples are testimony to the fact that experiencing it still doesn’t translate to comprehension. They didn’t get it and they witnessed it.
I guess it comes down to memory. Obviously we can’t have a memory of the transfiguration itself, but are there other times in my life when I’ve had glimpses? What made my experience at Montreat so special? Was it the people, the setting, the experiences? Did they all add up to something bigger than what they seemed? Did that time on the mountain provide a moment when I had a glimpse of God? When I saw glory break into the ordinary and I knew, even for just a fraction of a second that God was right there? It is my memory of that moment -- that mountaintop moment – that keeps me going through all of the other moments. The moments when it is too easy to forget that glory might be all around because I’m so caught up in the day-to-day grind of just surviving. Those days when I’m more concerned about barreling through my to-do list and what I’ll make for dinner than I am about transfiguration, transformation or God in the midst of us.
But then something happens. I read something that makes me stop for a minute or I see something that makes me happy or I hear a song that brings back a happier time in my life, and there it is, that moment, that brief instance where I get a glimpse of glory. I get a glimpse of God. It’s fast. It’s gone as quickly as it came. But it’s there.
The 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem called God’s Grandeur. The first line says, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
Maybe that’s what a glimpse of God’s presence is like – a brief shining. Maybe that’s what the disciples witnessed up on that mountain – for a moment, just a moment, they saw the shining glory of God in the face of their teacher and their friend.
So perhaps it’s no so important that we don’t have words to describe this happening. Perhaps what is important is that we just believe. We believe that it happened. We believe that Jesus was transfigured, even if we don’t know what that means and can never describe it with our limited vocabulary. Maybe it’s important to just believe that the glory of Jesus, fully human and fully divine was revealed to simple men. Maybe it is enough to know that God’s glory is all around us whether we can see it, recognize it, and understand it or not. So let us believe. And along with believing, maybe we should try to do what God tells the disciples to do. Listen. Listen to him. We don’t have to be just like him. We just have to listen. And in our listening we might just get a glimpse of glory. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”