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.
When you have a story like this one, you can’t ignore the big theme. Jesus goes up on a mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John. And they get to the top and something happens to Jesus. He changes. He begins to glow with this heavenly light, and Moses and Elijah appear with him. And a voice speaks out, “this is my son…listen to him”.
Theologians call what they saw the Transfiguration of Jesus. And, transfiguration is really just a fancy word that theologians made up that really just means this: change. They saw Jesus change. And it was like nothing they had ever seen.
But, for the disciples, that wasn’t the end of the story. Because this Transfiguration story is about the disciples as much as it is about Jesus, and it’s also about you, and about me.
Jesus took them up there that day 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 Jesus was something special. They wouldn’t have followed the guy up the mountain if they hadn’t. 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, but 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.
We all have different spiritual experiences. Some of us have mountaintop moments where we really see things clearly for the first time, and we stand on that mountain and know that everything has been changed.
But 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.
But here’s the tricky part: sometimes that change is inconvenient. Because something seeing the truth, and seeing something incredible like that, means that nothing in your life stays the same.
I was thinking about that recently when I read a story about two young women from Kansas. Their first names are Megan and Grace. But what has really defined these women for their life up until now is their last name: Phelps. They are the granddaughters of Fred Phelps, the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church who died last year. You may know them as the family that rides around the country picketing the funerals of those who die of hate crimes, or of American soldiers who have been killed in action, or of the school children who died in Newtown. Their actions are unconscionably cruel and mean-spirited.
These two young women are in their early to mid-20’s, and when you see them, they look a lot like regular 20-somethings, except for the signs that they carry, and the horrible, horrible things that they say. And for years they have been defending their beliefs, and spewing the same kind of nonsense that their parents and grandparents have preached for years. And a few years ago a journalist pressed Meghan and asked, “do you really want to be here?” And she said, “I’m all in”.
I remember reading that piece and being so sad for her. Because if you have grown up with that level of hatred surrounding you everyday, if you have been bathed in it constantly, then maybe it seems normal. And maybe you can’t even fathom another way.
And that’s why recently, I was surprised to see her name on another article. This one talking about how someone arguing with her had quoted Jesus back to her, and it had stunned her. He was talking about Jesus talking about those who were without sin casting the first stone. And she started questioning everything that she had grown up hearing about how everyone else was going to hell.
And then, about a year ago, she left. She left the church, and by extension her family, and her cousin came too. And they moved to New York City and are trying to figure it all out. But in the meantime, she’s apologizing for all the pain she inflicted on others. And she’s trying to build a new life.
I think her story is one of transfiguration. Not the kind that Jesus had with the glowing white and the voices from heaven, but the kind that the disciples, and you and I, are more apt to have. A transfiguration that starts small and then ends up blowing our whole world apart, and into something new. Into something better.
That’s true for all of us. We may not have been campaigning for hate at funerals, and bringing pain to so many, but we’ve all done things that we regret. We’ve all judged others prematurely. And we’ve all done things that we wish we could change. But the thing about change is it never works in reverse. It only works going forward. Transfiguration is never a backwards process. If it’s true, it always moves us to something better. Something new.
So where is transfiguration happening for you? Where have you seen Jesus in a new light? Where have you felt God’s love like you’ve never felt it before? Where have you felt convicted that there is a better way?
Put more simply, what amazing thing have you seen and immediately known that you would never be the same again?
We all have those moments. Moments where we know we want to do better, and we are trying. Moments where we have seen how things could be, and are ready to make the changes in our lives necessary to get there. Moments where we see the promise of new life, and we are ready to claim it.
But the hard part is that in order to do that work we don’t always get to stay on the mountaintop with Jesus and the glowing white light.
When the disciples were coming back down the mountain, do you think any part of them wished, on some level, that they could un-see what they just saw? 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 they had changed too. They had to know that their lives were about to be completely rearranged, and that nothing would ever be the same again. It must have been incredible, and terrifying all at the same time.
Recently I read a book by John Lewis, the Congressman for Georgia who was intimately involved in the Civil Rights Movement. And he told a story that was about his own transformation. When he was in early high school in a segregated school in rural Alabama, with few resources, his uncle took him to New York state for the summer. And for the first time in his life, he saw blacks and whites living, working, shopping and eating side by side. He saw educational opportunities that he didn’t know were there for him. He saw a future he had never imagined in rural Alabama.
But then, at the end of the summer, he had to go back home to Alabama. Back to where he was treated as less than equal. And for the first time he really understood what segregation did. It must have felt like going back in time. But it was that experience of going and seeing another way, and then coming back and knowing that things could be different, that John Lewis credits with giving him the desire to push for change. It was the catalyst for all he would later do in his life.
I tell you this story because it’s a powerful example of how sometimes once we see what is possible we are never the same again. And sometimes we can do nothing other than go back down into the valley and do the tough stuff to make it happen. We have to have the hard conversations. We have to put aside the things that are tying us down. We have to decide what fears we won’t let control our lives anymore, and then we have to decide again and again, day after day. And we can’t lose sight of what we saw up there on that mountain.
That’s how you know the transfiguration has really taken place. That’s how you know you have changed. Because even when you stumble, you know that there’s a better way. And you have no choice but to stand back up and keep moving forward. That’s how you know that what you saw up there on the mountain changed you.
In this season of Lent, we are in a time of transformation. We are in a time of getting ready for Easter. And, Lent, if you let it, can be a time of great personal transfiguration. It can be the time when we remember that mountaintop experience when we really saw God’s love in Christ for the first time, and we commit to living a life worthy of it. Not a perfect life. Not a life without struggles. But a life that has been touched by God’s love, and that could then never be the same again. Amen.