Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with 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.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
I was recently invited to take part in a research project for a colleague working on her Doctor of Ministry. I (along with a group of others) was asked to engage in a Spiritual exercise known as Examen over a period of 5 or six weeks and each week answer the same questions about the experience.
Simply put Examen or Examen of Conscience, is a prayer of review - a short reflection back over the day, recalling events and taking note of your feelings. The purpose is to become more aware of the ways in which God has been present to you, the times when the Holy Spirit was drawing you towards life.
After the project was over, we gathered together to share our experience and give feedback to the person writing the dissertation. As I thought about the process, it became apparent to me that I was tempted to over complicate the exercise when, in fact, it was pretty straight forward. I think throughout the practice I felt a level of self consciousness because I knew as part of the project, I had feedback to offer and I wanted to “do well”. Also, in the exercise itself, in my interaction with God, I wanted to do it “just right” for God and be “very honest” which at times resulted in me considering what I thought God wanted me to consider. I think I was inserting way too much of my own ego, rather than being still, placing my day in front of God, and stepping back.
Today we read about what is called “the transfiguration”. Peter’s response to this incredible event he witnesses is to offer to build three booths or tabernacles. This is a way to respectfully mark and preserve what has happened. He is interrupted by the very voice of God who tells him to listen to Jesus. Peter, in trying to be helpful and proactive, was, in in effect, getting in the way and in his desire to respond appropriately he misses the point.
This story comes at the end of Epiphany, the season of light, illumination and revelation. In this story of revelation and light, Jesus is seen in his glory, giving the disciples a glimpse of the heavenly realm. After this event, when they come down from the mountain top experience, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, to his arrest and brutal crucifixion. But here, on the mountain top, with Jesus, along with Moses and Elijah (the law and the prophets) the fulfillment of God’s plan is revealed. In this thin or liminal moment the disciples are part of their earthly world and part of the kingdom. Jesus is God’s intersection of the kingdom and the world and in this moment Peter, James and John experience that first hand.
Matthew places this story 6 days after, which is a significant placement. 6 days earlier, Jesus was at Caesarea Philippi where he asked the disciples who they think he is. And Peter declares him to be “The Messiah, the son of the living God”. This is the turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. Now begins the journey to Jerusalem and Jesus begins to show the disciples what must happen, that he must suffer at the hands of the elders, priests and scribes, and be killed and the third day be raised. Of course, this is difficult for them to understand and Peter is severely rebuked for trying to deny this, or even stop it.
After 6 days Peter, James and John find themselves on top of a high mountain with Jesus. I imagine they have been 6 difficult days as Jesus tries to teach and they try to understand and accept. This reference to “after 6 days” also hearkens back to the creation story, the beginning of the Great Story. Genesis 2, verses 1 and 2 say,
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
Jesus is the new creation in whom the end heralds the new beginning. Stanley Hauerwas says,
At the transfiguration the disciples get a glimpse of the glory of the Son of Man — the Son who was with the Father on the seventh day and the Son who will be with the Father on the last day.
Certainly, they get a glimpse of the glory of the Son of Man. They also see the flesh and blood Jesus they know as their teacher and guide, the man they have spent so much time with.
So many of us are searching for ways to be part of a profound spiritual or mystical experience. We seek lives that have meaning and connection with God. I think we are wired to yearn for God. As St. Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Often, though, I think we are trying to approach and see the spiritual realm through the eyes of the world. Rather we need to learn to see this world through Jesus. We must see Jesus. The Disciples saw Jesus. They witnessed his transfiguration, but they also saw him as flesh and blood. We are now able to see Jesus through the Disciples’ witness. In the reading we heard from 2 Peter this morning we hear this witness. What they saw was real, it was no “cleverly devised myth”, but an eyewitness account.
Matthew’s purpose is to make us disciples or followers of Jesus. Peter, James and John were witnesses to Jesus’ transfiguration so that they might witness to those of us who came after, that all may be transformed and live in the light of Christ.
Imagine climbing to the top of a high mountain with Jesus and seeing him transfigured in this way, his face shining like the sun, his clothes dazzling white; and there also are Moses and Elijah with whom he has a conversation.
Peter wanted to do the right thing. He had recently received a severe reprimand from Jesus for so totally missing the point about his suffering and death. He didn’t want to make such a blatant faux pas once again. So, he tries to be helpful. He offers to build a booth, or tabernacle for each of them. What he doesn’t understand is that Moses and Elijah now worship Jesus. And Jesus is the tabernacle or tent for God. Stanley Hauerwas says this,
Jesus’s flesh is the booth of God’s presence. Accordingly, Jesus cannot be, as Peter wishes, confined to a location, but rather Jesus must go to Jerusalem, and the disciples must go with him.
What Peter has yet to learn, although he is learning, is a lesson for all of us. It is not what we do but rather what God does in and through us.
Peter is interrupted by God’s voice. It brings him to the ground in fear. Not really surprising, is it? God’s message is very straightforward and to the point: a declaration – “this is my son” and a directive – “listen to him.” Peter has found himself in this profound, other worldly experience. How is he feeling? Excited? Intimidated? Afraid? Grateful? No doubt a combination of all these things. Imagine him, in his enthusiasm, babbling on about it - what it is, what should be done, and on and on. Maybe a lot of “Oh wow! and “Oh gee’s!” going on!!
And God breaks into all of this. God interrupts – this is my Son, would you just shut up and listen?! Imagine as well as a voice there is a big hand that comes down and covers Peter’s mouth (strictly my idea!).
Peter finds himself on the ground, possibly curled up, eyes shut – he is terrified. God has his attention. Then Jesus touches him. In Matthew’s accounts, touch brings healing. The hand that touches Peter is flesh and blood. Jesus tells him to get up – the Greek translation is “be raised.” Be raised. All has gone “back to normal”. The light, the shining white, Moses and Elijah, all gone. But Jesus is there. Jesus is there in flesh and blood, telling Peter to “be raised.”
It is time to go. It is time to retrace their steps back down the mountain. Back to the reality of what is to happen. Back to face the cruelty of Jesus’ suffering and death, but also back to witness Jesus being raised.
I listened to an interesting podcast of a panel discussion about Matthew’s account of the transfiguration. One of the people on the panel was Wil Willemon, a retired American theologian and bishop in the United Methodist Church. He referred to Carl Barth (Greg’s favourite theologian). Willemon is from Alabama and has a real southern accent. It is quite something to hear him paraphrase Barth! But anyway what he says is that in his Doctrine of Revelation, Barth refers to the transfiguration, saying that in this story the first impulse is to stabilize what is happening, to seal this thing shut on the mountain – to locate it. But this is a living God who won’t be contained there. To be with this God you have to go up and down the mountain.
So, this story is the last of the Epiphany stories, the stories of revelation, illumination and light. The first story we hear in Epiphany is of Jesus’ baptism where a voice to declares “This is my son.” And it ends with God’s same revelation, with the added directive – listen to him. Jesus is, as Matthew told Mary, “Emmanuel, God with us”. Jesus, human and divine is God’s gift to us.
As Epiphany ends, Lent looms. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and then begins our 6-week journey of Lent. Many like to give something up for Lent, which is all well and good, but to what end are we giving something up? Should it not be to make space in order to listen? And how are we to listen? Being quiet is certainly a good start.
As I said I think we all yearn for clarity, for the clouds to be pulled away. Many of us have stories of such moments but are perhaps reticent to share. We are people who pride ourselves on being rational and such stories defy rationality. Perhaps as we prepare for Lent we can reflect on such moments.
After I took part in The Examen for my friend doing her doctoral research, I told you, like Peter, I often found myself trying to insert too much of me into the exercise. When I was able to let go and just be I experienced a closeness with God, a moment of clarity. For me, and for all of us these moments of clarity don’t last – we go back down the mountain. But the light of revelation can sustain and carry us through the dark.
Our story today takes place on a mountain. Mount Sinai? In our story in Exodus this morning, Moses is instructed by God to come up the mountain and wait for God. To come and “be”. Moses waits 6 days for God and then encounters the living God. From that encounter come revelation, instruction, the law. But following it also come the golden calf and disobedience. In Peter’s story after this encounter comes betrayal and denial. However. The moments of revelation and clarity encourage us to continue to move and follow. They remind us how much we need Jesus, and how much we need to listen to him, our light. They remind us of what we are moving towards – revelation, fulfillment and wholeness in the heavenly kingdom. These are moments of transformation.
So how can we cultivate this? I know I need opportunities for cultivation and in my work in the world I constantly encounter people who are seeking. Next door to us here is The Parish House. It is a rich resource, a gift from God. I, along with very committed others have been working to develop and offer opportunities to come and be. To come and listen. Who is this place for? Well, certainly for everyone of you. But it is so much more – it is for anyone who is searching – it is for everyone. I encourage you to learn more about some of the programs and opportunities we are offering and to consider participating. I would encourage you to invite others to come and spend time with the human and divine Jesus. And I want to invite you to come and talk to me about what you are looking for.
Every Sunday we have the opportunity to gather here where Jesus’ humanity and divinity come together in the Eucharist. It is a moment to come to be healed by Jesus’ touch and be raised to go with Jesus down the mountain and into the world.
I pray that as you enter into Lent you will find ways to listen and to hear God. I want to end with an excerpt from In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers, by Mother Teresa.
In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.
To make possible true inner silence, practice:
Silence of the eyes, by seeking always the beauty and goodness of God everywhere, and closing them to the faults of others and to all that is sinful and disturbing to the soul.
Silence of the ears, by listening always to the voice of God and to the cry of the poor and the needy, and closing them to all other voices that come from fallen human nature, such as gossip, tale bearing, and uncharitable words.
Silence of the tongue, by praising God and speaking the life-giving Word of God that is the truth, that enlightens and inspires, brings peace, hope, and joy; and by refraining from self-defence and every word that causes darkness, turmoil, pain, and death.
Silence of the mind, by opening it to the truth and knowledge of God in prayer and contemplation, like Mary who pondered the marvels of the Lord in her heart, and by closing it to all untruths, distractions, destructive thoughts, rash judgments, false suspicions of others, vengeful thoughts, and desires.
Silence of the heart, by loving God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength; loving one another as God loves; and avoiding all selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, and greed.
I shall keep the silence of my heart with greater care, so that in the silence of my heart I hear His words of comfort, and from the fullness of my heart I comfort Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor. For in the silence and purity of the heart God speaks.