Matt Rawle: Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey Transfiguration


Today is the concluding Sunday for the season of Epiphany, a season in which we marvel at God's magnificence being revealed through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian year begins with a poignant waiting for the Christ child; and when the child is born, our first response is to stand in awe of God's amazing and abundant love for us and for all of creation. Soon we will do the difficult work of looking at our own soul, discovering what we need to give up or maybe what we need to take on in order to prepare ourselves for Christ's sacrifice and resurrection during the season of Lent and Easter. But today on Transfiguration Sunday, we simply stand in awe of God being God.

It can be difficult to figure out what to do with Transfiguration Sunday. Our text today details when Jesus climbed the mountain with Peter, James, and John, transfiguring before them. His appearance becomes a dazzling white, and he stands with Moses and Elijah revealing that in Christ the law and the prophets come together as the genesis of a new creation through the cross and the empty tomb. Like Peter we often find ourselves befuddled and confused relying on what we know rather than allowing ourselves to be stretched and transformed in the mystery of God. Peter said, "It is good for us to be here," maybe to convince himself. He offered to build three dwelling places--one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah--or maybe he was building a dwelling place for James and John and himself in order to offer a tangible expression of the unexplained. 

"It is good for us to be here," Peter says. And it is good for us to be here. Sometimes you just have to say it. When you come to the sanctuary to worship God, you might not remember the songs or exactly what the sermon was about, but hopefully you leave the gathered body saying, "It is good for me to be here today." Sometimes it's difficult to put your finger on whether or not a moment is good or bad. It's like the old Chinese tale about good luck and bad luck. A farmer went out and found that his horse had run away, and his neighbor said, "What bad luck." The farmer replied, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?" The next day the horse came back with three other horses, and his neighbor replied, "What good luck!" The farmer said, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?" The next day the horses trampled the man's garden destroying his crop. His neighbor said, "What bad luck." The farmer replied, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?" The next season his garden produced twice as many vegetables because the soil had been overturned and his neighbor said . . . you get the idea. Is today a good day? Is today a bad day? This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. So whether you are listening today with a heavy heart or whether you are listening with a joy difficult to keep to yourself, let us make room for God in this moment today and every day, so that at the end of it all we might say, "It was good for us to be here."

Sometimes the place is so good that we don't want to leave. Peter is standing there seeing Jesus radiating with a holy light, and he wants to build dwelling places so that they might stay because Peter knows that Jesus has been talking about going to Jerusalem and suffering. I think Fred Craddock said it well:

Sometimes a child falls down and skins a knee or elbow, then runs crying to his mother. The mother picks up the child and says--in what is the oldest myth in the world--Let me kiss it and make it better, as if mother has magic saliva or something. She picks up the child, kisses the skinned place, holds the child in her lap, and all is well. Did her kiss make it well? No. It was that ten minutes in her lap. Just sit in the lap of love and see the mother crying. Mother, why are you crying? the child says. I'm the one who hurt my elbow. Because you hurt, the mother says, I hurt. That does more for a child than all the bandages and all the medicine, in all the world. So what is the cross? It is to sit for a few minutes on the lap of God, who hurts because you hurt . . . I have to preach that. Peter . . . I have to do this. Without this journey, the world will never be healed.

Maybe Transfiguration is about knowing what goodness really is, that goodness is the marriage between the mount of transfiguration and the hill of Calvary, the tension of glory and suffering that is our faith. Or maybe Transfiguration is less tangible than that. In 1 Kings 18 and 19 Elijah is out in the wilderness running from King Ahab who wants to kill him. Elijah climbs a mountain and finds a small cave in which to hide. The Lord comes to Elijah and asks, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" What a great question! Keep in mind, when God asks a question, God already knows the answer. It's like when your mom comes home for a weekend away and she asks, "Why have all the trash cans been emptied." She knows the answer. She's just giving you an opportunity to confess. "What are you doing here, Elijah." Elijah responds, "I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." In other words, Elijah is afraid. God tells Elijah, "Go! Go and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." And then there is a great wind, but God is not in the wind. There is a great earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. There is a great fire, but God was not in the fire. Then there was the sound of sheer silence. Now, a lot of ink has been spilled on exactly what all of that means, and if I was preaching on a different day I might jump into that a bit, but what really captures me in this story, at least for today, is that after this dramatic experience, the Lord asks Elijah a question... "What are you doing?" For Peter, this mountaintop experience was about letting go of the moment so that he could move on to Jerusalem with Jesus and to the cross. For Elijah, maybe this mountaintop experience is about hearing the question out loud. "What are you doing?" What a blessing it is for people in our life to love us enough and to have enough courage to ask us, "What are you doing?" Maybe you are in this place? Maybe like Elijah you are running from something, or maybe you really don't have any answers. Maybe the point of it all isn't the earthquake or the wind or the fire, but the question itself. "What are you doing?" Maybe it's not about the answer, but simply the courage to dive into the question.

Many years before Elijah climbed the mountain, Moses climbed the mountain. Like Elijah, Moses experienced an earthquake and a fire, but unlike Elijah, Moses went up the mountain not with a question but to share an answer. Moses went up the mountain to receive God's will for the people Israel. He came down the mountain with God's commandments. Peter went up the mountain and didn't want to leave. Elijah went up the mountain with the question, "What am I doing?" ringing in his ears. Moses went up the mountain to receive a specific direction and purpose. They all went up the mountain for very different reasons.

But I'm curious though. Moses goes up the mountain, and there is an earthquake and a fire and smoke. Elijah goes up the mountain, and there is an earthquake and fire and a great wind. For Moses the experience of seeing the glory of the Lord left his own face glowing and radiating with light. And here we have a story today of Jesus glowing and transfigured speaking with Moses and Elijah.

So I wonder . . . I wonder if these three stories are actually recording the same event. Maybe the glory that Moses saw was the transfigured Christ. Maybe the conversation Elijah was having with the Lord was Jesus asking him, "What are you doing, Elijah?" Maybe what Peter wants to remember is seeing all three of these stories happening at once. What is time to God anyway? So maybe the point of it all is to know that God in Christ is always with us. Whether we go up the mountain for answers or we go up the mountain for a good question or we go up the mountain simply to recognize that it is good to be there, the point of it all is that God is always with us. Because soon we will need reminding that God is always with us. Soon Jesus will be placed on the cross, and it will appear that all is lost. So on that day, remember this day. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, it is good to be here, wherever we are listening to this. We are here to revel in your glory or whether we are here with questions or whether we are here seeking answers, fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we might know that it is indeed good to be here.

Holy Father, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, whose compassion illumines the world. Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ, who renewed our humanity so that we might share in his divinity. Help us to share the risk and challenge of living our faith. By your Spirit, turn our fear into courage and our confusion into confidence.

Sovereign Lord, Father of all in the power of the Holy Spirit, grant to us the strength to turn our face toward Jerusalem and to bear the cross, so that your glory, your love, and your mercy may be revealed in us. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.