March 2, 2014
“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.”
This is how it ends. This is the end of this extraordinary, supernatural, incredible and for us, children of the Enlightenment, a somewhat unbelievable story of Jesus taking three of his disciples up a mountain and becoming transfigured before them. All three of the synoptic gospels record this event taking place. All three try to describe what happens to Jesus on that mountain. But all we can really know is that Jesus changed. It was a physical change. It affected his countenance, his clothing. Matthew writes that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” He looked different. We also know that while Jesus was in this changed state, Moses and Elijah appeared there with him, and the three spoke with one another.
Peter, perhaps trying to make this indescribable moment last, offered to build three booths, three dwelling places; one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah. But before he’s even finished proposing his idea, all of them are overshadowed by a bright cloud. From the cloud comes the voice of God, confirming Jesus’ identity as his Beloved Son. God’s words echo those he spoke at Jesus’ baptism with one additional phrase, “listen to him.”
While the strange transfiguration of Jesus did not send the disciples into a state of terror, God’s voice from the heavens did. They fell to the ground in fear. But when Jesus touched them and told them, “Get up and do not be afraid,” they were able to look up, rise once more and saw that the moment had passed. Jesus was the Jesus they knew once again; it was only the four of them standing on that mountain.
As I said, this is the end of the transfiguration scene. But where does it begin? The obvious answer to that question is in the first verse. Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain. But verse one begins with three words that are easy to overlook, “Six days later.” Six days later? What happened six days earlier? It seems to me that’s where the story of the transfiguration really began.
Six days earlier, Jesus asked the disciples who people, the crowds, thought him to be. The answers varied. Some say Elijah. Some say John the Baptist or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Then Jesus turned to the disciples and asked them the most important question, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter responded with his great confession. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus blessed Peter for his bold response. Not only was he blessed, Jesus proclaimed that on Peter, this rock, Jesus’ church would be built.
But Peter and the other disciples weren’t able to bask in the pleasure of that moment. Jesus didn’t let the conversation end there. The Son of the Living God, the Messiah would not be immune to suffering. He would suffer greatly; he would suffer at the hands of the religious authorities. He would be killed. He would die, but on the third day he would rise again. Jesus spoke of all this plainly. He would not shield them from this truth; even if that’s what they wanted.
Think about the worse news you’ve ever received. Was it about yourself or someone you love? Did you hear it in a hospital or in a doctor’s office or at work? How did you feel? How did you respond? Did it make you scared or angry or both? What is the worst news you’ve ever received? I imagine this may have been the worst news the disciples had ever received. They had been waiting for the Messiah all their lives. Now the one they had longed for was there in front of them. But instead of telling them that their oppression was over, he told them he would suffer at the hands of his own people. He would be killed. I think they must have reacted as we would react. They would have been scared, terrified, confused, disbelieving. Peter didn’t just respond with fear, he was angry. He rebuked Jesus. Rebuked is not a mild word to use. Peter was angry. He chastised Jesus, told him off for saying such terrible things. Peter told Jesus to stop talking about suffering and death. Peter’s rebuke must have been his way of denying this terrible news.
But Jesus’ face was set toward Jerusalem. That was the only direction he would or could go. That was the narrow path he must take. And no one, not even Peter, would stop him or stand in the way of his ultimate purpose.
Jesus rebuked Peter. His rebuke of Peter is perhaps one of the harshest statements from Jesus throughout the gospels. “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus proceeded to tell them that following him would bring suffering upon them too. It wouldn’t just be him carrying the cross. They would carry their own crosses. That was the reality, and perhaps, in their minds, the terrible news of being his disciple.
This is the beginning of the story. This is what brings us to the transfiguration. It’s been six days and Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain. He is transfigured – his face, his clothes are dramatically changed before their eyes. They heard the voice of God, telling them to listen to Jesus. Jesus reassured them with his touch and his words, “’Get up and do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid. I can’t help but believe that this is the heart of this story. The disciples must have been profoundly afraid, not only for their beloved rabbi, but for themselves. They had been told in the plainest of terms that Jesus would suffer and die. Following him meant their suffering. The only way to get around that suffering was not to follow. The only way Jesus could avoid that suffering would be to deny the truth of his identity. He was, he is, the Son of the Living God, the Messiah. He would suffer and die.
Yes, I’m convinced the disciples were very afraid. But what they saw happen on that mountain, what they heard, what they experienced was the reassurance that Jesus was indeed the One. They received reassurance that God was with them. A friend and clergy colleague made the very true statement that the transfiguration is all about reassurance. It is the reassurance that the living presence of God was with them, on the mountain, and in the valley below. Maybe for a moment they were able to comprehend what Jesus had been trying to tell them. Although he would suffer pain and degradation and die in an abhorrent style of execution, he was not bound by death. His humanity was real, but so was his divinity. He was the Messiah. He is the Messiah, and they were reassured that God was with them.
Perhaps this is what we take from the transfiguration as well; reassurance of God’s presence with us. This is the last Sunday of Epiphany. We will observe Ash Wednesday this week and descend into that Lenten wilderness with Jesus. Don’t we also need reminding that the Jesus we follow is the Son of the Living God? Don’t we also need reassurance that God is with us, even as we carry our own crosses on our shoulders?
It’s true that even with this reassurance the disciples couldn’t understand what Jesus being the Messiah meant for them or for the world. They betrayed him. They fell asleep and fell away. They denied him, and in the face of his crucifixion retreated in fear, wondering what would happen next. They followed him imperfectly. So do we. But God didn’t abandon them because of their flawed discipleship. God doesn’t abandon us because of ours.
When the disciples learned that Jesus would suffer and die, they must have seen it as the worst news they could ever get. But on that mountain, the good and glorious news of Jesus the Son of the Living God was revealed. That was the greatest news they could receive. And so it is for us. From the beginning to the end of the story the great and glorious news is that God is with us. God is with us. Let us be reassured and give thanks. Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.