(The text was Matthew 17:1-9.)
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, and climbs a high mountain. [Jesus walks up to the altar steps.] In this high and holy place, Jesus is transfigured; his face shines and his clothes dazzle. Suddenly, there appears to them Moses and Elijah...
[Moses and Elijah appear from the sacristy. Jesus stands between them. Peter, James, and John kneel in awe.]
Moses: I am Moses, the great leader of the people of Israel. I was called by God to lead the people out of their slavery in Egypt. I spoke to God face-to-face on a mountain, Mount Sinai. There God gave me the law to give to the people. Though I died before we entered the promised land, it is said that another prophet like me will arise. For it is written in the Torah, the law, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”
Elijah: I am Elijah, a man of God and a prophet of the Lord. I was faithful to God even when my life was in danger. God met me on a mountain and spoke to me, instructing me to anoint kings and promising to preserve those who remained faithful. I was lifted up to heaven by a chariot of fire in a whirlwind, and it is said that I will return. For it is written in the prophets, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”
Moses: Jesus is the prophet like me!
Elijah: Elijah has returned!
Peter: [stands] What is this we are seeing? Six days ago, I called Jesus the Messiah and the Son of God. Then Jesus told us he would suffer and die in Jerusalem and be raised on the third day. Now, Jesus is shining white, standing with Moses and Elijah – how can this be? Surely the presence of God is in this place! We are trespassing on holy ground!
[to Jesus, nervously] … Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah –
[Interrupting] And a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; stop what you are doing, stop talking, and listen to him!”
And Jesus came and laid his healing hands on the disciples and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
[All characters return to seats.]
This is Transfiguration Sunday. This festival marks the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, and it leans forward into the season of Lent and, eventually, Holy Week and Easter. Transfiguration Sunday commemorates the events we have just seen reenacted here: Jesus ascends a mountain with three of his disciples, where he is transfigured – not a term we use every day. With him appear Moses and Elijah, and the disciples are awed. A voice speaks from heaven, apparently interrupting Peter. Moses and Elijah vanish, and Jesus comforts the terrified disciples. As they return from the mountain, Jesus instructs them to keep this secret until the right time: when the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.
Transfiguration Sunday is a multi-faceted festival, full of different ideas and implications. We are reminded of Jesus' baptism by the voice from the clouds. We cannot help but think of Jesus' resurrection when we are given this mighty, glowing image of Jesus. And there are dark undertones in this text, as well: The “six days” at the beginning of the text are marked from Jesus' first prediction of his death. As Jesus descends from the mountain, he begins an inevitable march to Jerusalem, where he will be killed.
In this text, we also are confronted with strange images and references that may be hard to understand. Why is the mountain so significant? Why do Moses and Elijah appear? What is Peter trying to accomplish? Fundamentally, I think this text presses on us again the question: “Who is Jesus?” According to Matthew, just six days before, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Today, we must also try to find an answer: “Who do you say that I am?”
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am,” Peter proclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” It seems to me that the Holy Spirit must have inspired this answer in Peter. Indeed, when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, it proves that Peter was exactly right. Jesus is revealed to be something extraordinary. Jesus is revealed to Peter, James, and John, glowing with glory. Jesus is revealed beside Moses and Elijah – these two giants of the faith who possess messianic connections. It was said that another prophet like Moses would come; it was said that Elijah would return. In Jesus, at the transfiguration, these prophecies are linked and fulfilled. If you need character witnesses to prove your messianic status, you can't do better than Moses and Elijah.
And as if that weren't enough, there is also a cloud that appears and a voice that speaks out of it. It is impossible not to draw the connection between this revelation and Jesus' baptism, where a voice proclaimed, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here the voice adds a commandment: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The addition seems directed at Peter, who is apparently overcome by this transfiguration and is trying to figure out what to do in response.
This Transfiguration text can also speak to our own faith lives. Many of us have had “mountaintop experiences,” those moments when we feel profoundly close to God. We feel a certain kinship with the disciples here – after all, Peter, James, and John had the mountaintop experience par excellence. Yet like the disciples, we sometimes don't know what to do when we encounter the divine.
When we experience the presence of God, sometimes we react like Peter, babbling, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter's nervousness, or eagerness, seems so very human, doesn't it? His intentions are clearly good, but he comes across as a bit of a fool. And the voice from the cloud cuts him off with the curt command: “Listen to him!” I heard one reinterpretation of the voice, that its message is, “Don't just do something – stand there!” Sometimes our busyness gets in the way of the message God wants us to receive. Sometimes we are too eager to do something, too eager to say something, that we forget to stop and listen. Sometimes we need to be quiet and let God speak.
So it is for Peter at the Transfiguration. Peter is so overwhelmed by this revelation of the divine, of Jesus' messianic status, that he can't stop talking. He feels this desperate need to do something. But the divine voice silences him. No Peter, this voice says, you need to listen to him. Be quiet. Listen.
Are your ears straining like Peter's to hear what Jesus will say? Indeed, Jesus does have something to say to his disciples. And it is these words that we should listen to today. Jesus says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Get up. Do not be afraid. And as he speaks, he reaches out to touch the disciples – a touch that in Matthew is always associated with healing.
The divine voice says: Listen to him! And Jesus says, Do not be afraid. This is another revelation. The Transfiguration reveals Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of prophecies, the Son of God. And these words reveal the depth of Jesus' love and healing care. The Jesus who heals and cares for others is not replaced by this shining, transfigured Messiah. Rather, we find that Jesus remains steadfast in his compassion for others, starting with his terrified disciples.
We often need to hear this reassurance. When we have experiences that seem overwhelming, then we need to be reminded of the abiding love of Jesus. When we are terrified, we need to feel that healing touch. Like the disciples, we need to know that the God who is transcendent, greater than everything, is also immanent, profoundly close to us. Jesus cares for us as deeply as he cared for his disciples. Amen.