Grace and peace to you, from God our Creator and from Jesus Christ, who calls us to follow. Amen.
I have a theory. I believe that everybody has a place that is meaningful to them. It is a place where you may go to recharge your batteries…it is a place where you may go to rest, or to reconnect. It is a place where you may go to renew. It is a place where you may go to connect with the Holy.
I don’t know where your place is. It may be the beach…or it may be in the mountains. It could be here, at church. Perhaps it’s Grandma’s house, or it may be on the porch at the cabin, overlooking the lake. For me one of these places is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It is a place where I can go and reconnect spiritually. When I’m there, it’s almost like I’m in the presence of God. It is so amazing, and so peaceful. When I come out of the Boundary Waters, I feel different. Rested…renewed…more patient…more focused. I am changed.
It’s interesting to me that often our spirituality, our connection with God, is often tied to places and experiences. A perfect example: today, in church school, our kids are hearing about opportunities at Bible camp. Many of us remember being a Bible camp as a mountaintop experience where our faith came alive. I still feel that when I walk around at one of our camps.
Today’s Gospel lesson is a story of just such a Holy place. The Transfiguration is a miracle story that appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is an unusual miracle, because where the other miracles in the Gospels were performed by Jesus, this is the only one that happens to him.
Jesus and the disciples had been very busy doing ministry: teaching, healing and traveling. Mark writes that “After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone.” Peter, James and John had to be thinking “finally a break! A chance to relax.”
I can visualize it: These three vigorous young men, maybe in their early twenties following their young rabbi, only about 31 or 32 himself climbing up this tall mountain. I can almost hear the conversation and the laughter as they hiked.
Now, climbing up mountains can be intimidating experiences. But I kind of doubt that this group showed much fear. You’re familiar with Peter’s personality. He’s the one who impetuously jumped out of the boat and tried to walk on the water like the Master. He seems to have had no fear. And as for James and John, they had perhaps the best nickname in all of scripture; remember they were called “the Sons of Thunder.” I can imagine them being bold, loud…trying to outdo one another.
These were the three disciples whom Jesus trusted most with his mission of redeeming the world. They were the three he took up the mountain. But these three had no idea what was in store for them.
There they stood on the mountain when suddenly Jesus was “transfigured,” changed, right before their eyes. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ face shone “like the sun,” and in Mark it says that his “clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And then, there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”
Can you imagine? Jesus glows, and his clothes turned a dazzling white and Moses, the law-giver, and Elijah, the prophet, were brought back from the dead to talk with him. Jesus was talking with these icons of Jewish faith and culture, face-to-face! And I can imagine the 3 disciples, standing there with their mouths hanging open. Could this be real? Were they hallucinating? Something was happening that they couldn’t begin to understand or explain.
It was, of course, Peter said who spoke up. He said: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” (Understatement.) “Let us put up three shelters one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” I can’t blame them. I’m sure he was thinking “We’re not sure what this is…we’re not sure what’s happening…it’s terrifying…but it’s awesome! Let’s just stay here.” The disciples knew that they were literally standing on holy ground.
Then, just as mysteriously, says Mark, “a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
This was the second of three times that these words were spoken in the Gospel. The first time we heard these words was at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. After the baptism, the Spirit of God descended, and God’s voice said, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The second time was here at the transfiguration. The final time the words “truly this man was the Son of God” were spoken, it was by the centurion, a soldier on a hill called Golgotha, after Jesus’ death on the cross.
The story of the Transfiguration is bookended on one end by Jesus’ baptism, and on the other by Jesus crucifixion. I think it’s interesting that in the first two instances, God is claiming Jesus as his son. “This is my son.” But in the final instance, it is the centurion, who is claiming Jesus as his savior when he says: “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
This literal mountain-top experience, the transfiguration, was an important turning point, a new direction in the ministry of Jesus. Up until this point, Jesus’ life and ministry had focused on the relational. He dealt primarily with people.
But after the transfiguration, his ministry subtly changed. His teachings were broader and wider ranging. He spoke about the Kingdom of God and the future, he entered Jerusalem as a King, and he gave the great commandment: to Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Following our Gospel today, the transfiguration, Jesus took on the mantle of Messiah and Savior.
On that mountaintop, at the transfiguration, Jesus journey takes a 90 degree turn, and he begins his way to the cross.
And Jesus was telling the disciples to “follow me to my death.” After this moment of pure glory on the mountaintop, it was probably the last thing that Peter, James and John anticipated.
Transfiguration. Change. It usually doesn’t happen in the way we expect it.
I proposed marriage to Lori on Memorial Day weekend of 1994. On Friday, we were sitting at the spot where the Minnehaha Creek enters the Mississippi River when I gave her the ring and she said yes. Then, truly a romantic at heart, I took her from there to a Twins game. After that, we were driving to Lori’s parents on the dairy farm near Rochester to tell them the good news. Then, on Sunday, we drove to my parent’s to tell them. We had called to tell them we were just going to “stop by.” Lori wondered in the car if they would suspect the reason for our visit, because we never just “stopped by.” “No chance.” I told her. “They will be clueless.”
Now you have to understand, my father was a fairly stoic, non-emotional, type-a, business kind of guy. He was very kind and loving, but not in a particularly demonstrative way. We arrived, made small talk, and then I gave them the big news. My low-key Dad, well, in all honesty there is no other word for it: he transfigured. His face beamed, he kind of curled up his arms in a weird, kid like way, and jumped around in a circle shouting “I knew it, I knew it I knew it, I knew it. He then turned to my Mom and said “I told you so!” He then gave Lori a giant hug, and gave me a high-five. I was stunned. I said to him “What alien pod did you crawl out of, and where is my Dad?”
Transfiguration happens in our lives. There are places, events, experiences, good news…bad news, that bring about transformation, that change us, and the people around us. As Jesus-followers, we need to remember that the transfiguration is not merely an historical event. The transfiguration is a lifestyle. The truth is, God is transfiguring the world, and transfiguring our lives every day. Our faith continues to form from the first day of our lives until the last. We just need to recognize that and ask ourselves the question: Where is God causing me to grow, today?
And we experience transfiguration:
- Whenever we hear the Word
- Whenever we experience the sacraments
- Whenever we live together in community
- Whenever we reach out to serve those in need, those who live in the margins…those whose life has been broken by circumstances.
Transfiguration is God’s work. It is God who brings change. And it’s not just in those mountaintop experiences. It’s also in the valleys. It is when life is hard. I have seen it:
Later this month, I will lead a family-week team to Westhaven Children’s Home in Jamaica. I’ve spoken about it before. It’s an orphanage for developmentally disabled children and young adults. This will be my fourteenth year bringing a group there. When we first started going, there were no wheelchairs…kids dragged themselves on the ground through the mud, through cow pies. The nutrition was sub-standard, the housing was insufficient, there weren’t enough clothes and shoes to go around. Kids had to share toothbrushes, when there were toothbrushes. Those kids had never seen the metaphorical mountain top. They lived in the valley below, where life is hard.
But Jesus knows this valley. After the Transfiguration, Jesus traveled from the mountaintop to the valley. And because of the work of God through the teams that have gone to Westhaven, there are wheelchairs, sidewalks, railings, food, housing, new cottages, and clothes. Westhaven has become a place of joy, hope and laughter. Because of God’s work there, the place has been physically transfigured; the lives of those children have been transfigured. And because of God’s work there, I have been transfigured. I have seen and been a part of what God is up to. I have been changed. For me, Westhaven has become Holy Ground. And I’m excited, because this year, Nathan, our 7th grader is able to go with us. I can’t wait to see what God will do within him.
Yes, God does live on the mountaintop. But in our Gospel, Jesus reminds us that God also lives in the valley, in the hard, in the midst of challenge. Jesus is with us bringing transfiguration wherever we go.
And so today we are the disciples who begin the transfiguration journey with Jesus; from the mountaintop to the cross. And, Jesus calls us to wade with him into the suffering in the world, and to bring Christ’s love to those places.
Remember God’s words to the disciples on the mountain top. “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Listen to him.
Listen to Jesus. Hear his call. Follow his voice. Because whether we are standing on the mountain top, or in the valley; whether we are in the Boundary Waters or up at the lake; whether we are at work or here at church; Jesus calls us to let him work within us, to follow him to the cross, and to stand with him, because wherever he goes is Holy Ground