9:2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,
9:3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.
9:4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
9:5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
9:6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
9:7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
9:8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9:9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Theologians often have fancy words for things that don’t need fancy words. Transfiguration is one of those. We use it to refer to what happened to Jesus when he took Peter, John, and James up onto the mountain. There he appeared filled with light, “dazzling white” as the Scripture says. And Elijah and Moses appeared there with him. And a voice rang out, “This is my son, the beloved…listen to him.”
That word, Transfiguration, may sound so lofty. But really, it’s just another word for change. And change is at the heart of today’s Gospel.
Two years ago I preached for the pastoral search committee up in Londonderry. Our lectionary calendar is set up so that every year, the weekend before Ash Wednesday, we read one of the accounts of this story in the Gospels. And that morning I preached to them about the Transfiguration.
I felt a little worried. One thing new pastors are often told is never talk about change. It’s the surest way to get into trouble. Don’t change anything your first year, not even the little things. And here I was, interviewing for a position as your pastor, with a text that was all about change. And, you can’t ignore the Gospel, so I preached about it, and about how change is at the heart of the Christian life, and how the mark of a faithful church is often how they accept, and adapt to, change.
I preached the sermon and sort of braced myself for the reaction. I wondered if I had blown my chance. But to my surprise, they offered me the call. That was a good indicator for me that I was supposed to be your pastor, because the fact you not only understood change was inevitable, but you also wanted to be able to adapt to it and grow, was the sign of a church with the potential to be incredible.
So what does our change have to do with the change that Christ underwent that day up there on the mountain? We are not Jesus, we don’t generally glow with light and have loud voices from the heavens with us. Moses and Elijah don’t appear by our sides. And yet, we are represented in this story too.
I say that because I don’t think Jesus was the only one changed up there on that mountain that day. He took three disciples up there, and he did it because there was something he wanted them to see. He wanted to show them something that would change their lives. And when Peter and John and James saw it, things changed.
They already knew that Jesus was something special. They wouldn’t have followed the guy up the mountain if they didn’t think there was a good reason. And when they got to the top, Jesus showed them who he was. Jesus didn’t change in any real, fundamental way. Only his appearance did, and for the first time they looked at him and they were able to see him as he had always been. For the first time they understood that this was the son of God.
Something profound had to change in them right about then. They had to know that the course of their whole lives was about to change. It must have been incredible, and terrifying all at the same time. Because once they saw that change, once they realized that they couldn’t help but follow this man from now on, they must have realized that the world as they knew it was all about to change.
Now maybe that has happened to you. We all have different spiritual experiences. Some have top of the mountaintop moments where they really see who Christ is for the first time, and they are amazed. And they stand on that mountain and they know that everything has been changed.
Others of us don’t have that big, dazzling experience with the light and the voice from heaven. But we have a still, small voice that speaks to us and gradually pulls us in the right direction. Maybe over the course of years, we come to be convinced that we can do no other than follow the path of Christ. We become changed people.
If you’re here today, I hope you have either had one of those two experiences, or you are open to the possibility that someday you will. And if you have had a moment where you realized, whether dramatically or quietly, who Christ is, I hope you felt that amazement and that knowledge that change was real. I hope that for at least a little while, you got to stand on that mountaintop and feel the presence of God surround you, just like James, John, and Peter did.
But just like James, John, and Peter, you had to come back down. Peter told Jesus when we saw him with Moses and Elijah that he would build three tents for them so they could just stay there. But Jesus doesn’t let him. And they go back down into the same old world that they had known before they climbed up that mountain and everything changed.
Do you wonder what they were thinking about on the hike back down? Do you wonder if they were trying to figure out how to go back to the day-to-day life they had after knowing that everything had changed? After knowing who Jesus was and knowing that that was all that mattered?
Maybe you have had the experience of going to something like a spiritual retreat or having some kind of spiritual experience that stirred you so deeply that you have left thinking everything made sense for the first time, and everything in your life was about to change for the better. And then you got back to your house, and there was still laundry to do, and bills to pay, and the car still needed an oil change, and gradually that mountaintop feeling slipped away and things felt just like they always had. In the back of your mind you remembered, but the change didn’t seem to last long in the real world.
I think those disciples would get that. I think Peter in particular would. Because they knew who Jesus was. They had heard the testimony from none other than God. There was no doubt. And coming down the mountain they must have been thinking to themselves, “I would follow him anywhere.”
Except not long after, they sat at a table with Jesus, and heard him say that by the end of the night they would all leave him, and allow him to be arrested and handed over to be killed. And one of the three would deny that he even knew Jesus. Not just once, but three times. Walking down the mountain, could they have imagined that?
We get that too. We might not leave Christ in such a dramatic fashion, but we can find ourselves straying a bit the further we get from the mountaintop. We can find ourselves denying Christ not so much through our words, but through our actions and the way we live in the world. We can have mountaintop intentions, but flatland realities.
But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. That doesn’t mean that even if we forget what we’ve seen sometimes that we’re not still changed people. Peter and John and James could no more un-see who Jesus was than we can dismiss what we know to be true. And, in the end, they remembered.
When Christ was resurrected, Peter hears that Christ’s tomb is empty, and he runs to the tomb to see for himself. He runs to try to find the Jesus he knew, and saw on that mountaintop. He knows it could be true, even before he sees Jesus in person.
And even before Jesus dies, he picks Peter to be the one to head the church. The word “Peter” itself is from “petra” or “rock”, and he says “upon this rock I will build my church.” We know from the Last Supper that Jesus knows he will deny him, but even still Jesus picks him as the one to build up his body of earth, his church.
Now, I’m not sure exactly why Peter was the one, but I wonder if Jesus picked him because he knew we could relate to him? I wonder if Jesus gave us an example of a person who saw him in all his shining glory, and yet still didn’t always get it right when push came to shove? And I wonder if Jesus knew that when the news went out that the tomb was empty, that Peter would be the first to come running?
I think that’s what the spiritual life is for most of us. We have our mountaintop moments where we know Christ and have the best of intentions. And we have our time in the valley of the day-to-day where we sometimes act like we’ve never known Jesus a day in our lives. But when we are given reason to hope again, we come running because deep down we believe.
We are people of change, because we are people who have been changed. Everyday we live as people changed by Christ’s grace in a world that often seems anything but grace-filled. And everyday, we decide how we will respond to it. We decide as a church, and we decide as people. The changing day-to-day world is inevitable. How we decide to respond to it will be the true test of how knowing who Christ really is has changed us.
The transfiguration of you and I began long ago, and it continues. Everyday, it continues, and we are not alone. Amen.