Anytime a passage begins with a reference to some other event, it clues me in that these two might be connected in some way. Maybe the first informs how I will read the second or the second explains the first further. Either way, when a passage starts “Now about eight days after these sayings,” as today’s does, I think we just have to go back and see what “these sayings” are before we can go forward to see what was so important that took place eight days later.
In this case, it turns out, they weren’t easy sayings. Eight days before Jesus was asking his disciples who the crowds say that he is. Eight days before Jesus posed the question to them, “Who do you say that I am?” Eight days before Peter declared “The Messiah of God” and Jesus explained “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Eight days ago the conversations were difficult and confusing and sounding very un-divine, if there even were such a word. Eight days ago violence was the topic of the day.
Another thing that helps when reading a passage like this one, with a story that comes up again and again, year after year, in the life cycle of the church, is to read a little farther than you usually do to see what comes next. The story of the Transfiguration is always the story on the Sunday right before Lent starts, if we choose to follow the ecumencial lectionary. It works sort of as a transition story – one last epiphany revelation of this Jesus who is also the Christ before we move toward the season of Lent, Jesus’ journey to the cross. On this Sunday, we usually read the story of how that happened on a mountain top.
However, this morning we read a little further. We heard about what happened when Jesus, Peter, John, and James came down from the mountain. Immediately when they get down from this mountaintop experience, they are thrown back into the middle of real life. The crowds are all over them as usual. And, as they have probably come to expect, in the crowd is at least one very needy person. A man, a father, yells out for Jesus to come take a look at his tragically sick, demon-possessed son.
Hard times never wait, do they? The sick, the cursed, the poor, the aching, those gripped by demons and spirits, they are always there and always pressing for healing, freedom, release from captivity. On the mountain top the disciples and Jesus may have experienced a moment of divine other-worldliness and revelation, but as they came down the mountain they ran face-to-face right back into the real world and the life they had left behind, if only for the night.
It’s a world we know well. A world where, like before the experience on the mountain, violence is always a topic of concern. A world where an elementary school teacher shoots a principal and vice-principal, a biology professor opens fire in the middle of a faculty meeting. A world where bombs blast in bakeries. A world where military operations against difficult to define opponents are a part of our everyday news and concern.
We know other kinds of tragedy, too. A young athlete killed chasing his dreams. A artist in his prime takes his own life. The citizens of one of the poorest nations in the world are paralyzed under the weight of rubble from their destroyed cities and villages. Diagnoses are received and cancer has returned with little hope for successful treatment. The world we face, the life we live, at the bottom of the mountain might leave many of us wishing we could turn and run back to the top to remember and relish in the glory that was revealed. The world we face living at the bottom of the mountain is messy, tragic, and earthy. It can feel un-divine and as if it is spiraling out of control.
It’s everything the Transfiguration isn’t. Up on that mountain, it’s as if they have left the world behind. Up on that mountain, as Jesus is praying, the divine mingles with creation. It becomes what Celtic Christians call a “thin place,” a place where heaven and earth touch, where God seems more readily present, more easily accessed than in the day-to-day. Up on that mountain, the heroes of years gone by come to offer support and testimony to God's faithfulness; they provide a link to the promises and miracles of the past and speak of the future that is still yet to come. Up on that mountain, even if only for a little while, the veil is lifted and the glory of God shines brighter than the sun. The incarnation, God in human flesh, Emmanuel, God with us, is revealed and the divine voice is heard loud and clear, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
There is no doubt who is in control. There is no doubt that the Holy One is present and in charge. There seems in that moment so little need to worry about anything that Peter rushes to find a way to make it last forever. There is something eternal about the experience, ethereal, mystical, revealing, and comforting. The veil has been lifted and, as terrifying as it is at the same time, everything seems right with the world.
Who wouldn’t want to stay? Who wouldn’t want to pitch a tent, build a booth, and just camp out up there forever where God is obvious, Jesus is within arms’ reach, and the beacon of the Spirit’s radiance is blinding? Who wouldn’t want to stay when the only talk of what will happen down there is talk of departure, a second exodus, what Jesus has already said would be a violent end? Who wouldn’t be like Peter wanting to stay in this thin place forever?
Going back down the mountain means going back to the reality of what waits, masses of suffering people without reliable healthcare, endless political arguments that seem to only divide the public more instead of bring them closer to understanding and mutual purpose, the starving and the near starving waiting at the fringe for someone to notice them and help them fill their bowls, the threat of violence that might break out at an unexpected turn in the road. Going back down the mountain means going back down into the middle of all this where the signs of God’s presence aren’t as obvious as the sudden appearance of dazzling white clothes, a face that shines like the sun, and heavenly conferences with Moses and Elijah. It means re-entering a messy, needy, tragic, and broken world where it seems, at least, there are few obvious signs of the presence and glory of God…
…which is exactly why Jesus does it. Reality hits as soon as they descend. A crowd hits them first, and rising above the din of the crowd comes the shout of an anxious and desperate father. His son is suffering at the hands of a spirit that squeezes him and shakes him and causes him to shriek uncontrollably. The father, like any father would, tried everything and even brought his boy to the disciples of the one about whom he had heard so much. Yet, when the Teacher wasn’t around the students seemed incompetent, and it’s to them that I believe Jesus addresses his frustration.
He isn’t going to be around forever. He made that clear in the week before. His physical presence in the middle of this hurting world is limited and seems to be drawing closer and closer to an end. He isn’t always going to be the one who is here in the middle of the suffering and the pain, and his worry seems to be that after this departure he discussed with Moses and Elijah no one will be there to carry out his ministry of compassion, his mission to release those held captive by evil spirits and systems.
The disciples don’t seem to get it yet that this is their job. They don’t seem to get that by the power of their relationship with Jesus, by their proximity to him, they have the ability to do his work in the world. They have MORE than the ability, they have the responsibility, the mandate to act as he would act, to heal as he would heal, to serve as he would serve, to love as he would love. They have the call and apparently, whether they know it or not, whether they have trust and faith in it or not, they have the power to make changes in the lives of those who are suffering and struggling.
At that moment they don’t seem to have that trust and faith. They don’t have the whole picture yet. The predictions of Jesus’ death are still just predications, not the foretelling we know them to be. The foreshadowing of the glorious radiance of the resurrected Jesus glowing in dazzling white clothes is just an image in their minds, not a connection to what we know will come again in the future. They don’t have the luxury of knowing what we do – that this one who stands before them and trusts them with his work and his word truly is the one who can free the world from endless cycles of despair – so it’s understandable that they are slow to act in his absence.
Yet it’s less understandable when we mimic their pace. Our world, we can see, isn’t all that different. The technology has changed. The worldview is larger, but around us there is still poverty and violence, unnamed fathers and mothers crying out on behalf of children who are being choked and shaken by the circumstances that grip their lives. And still Jesus is expecting his followers to do something about it. Still Jesus is anticipating and mandating that those who bear his name in the world, bear it with his same passion for healing and serving those who need it most. Still Jesus is calling the Church to step up in faith to use the gifts we have been given not to perpetuate an institution, but to share his love, his glory, his presence with those around us who need it the most.
The Transfiguration doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It isn’t an event isolated from the story and the world around it. It is a miraculous glimpse of hope in world that can seem hopeless. It is the lifting of a veil, a revelation that even in the middle of all of this God is still in charge. It is at demonstration of the power that is inside and behind this Jesus we claim to follow, the power that is inside and behind the community of believers who follow in his name and his steps. For just a moment, in this thin place at the top of a mountain the glory of God was revealed, but that doesn’t have to be the end of revelation.
It happened again and again in the gospel accounts. It can and should be happening again and again today. Every time a son or daughter was healed by his word or touch, the glory and will of God was revealed. Every time a starving belly was filled with the bread from his hands, the glory and will of God was revealed. Every time a word of challenge was or IS spoken to authorities who oppress and belittle the people they serve, the glory and will of God is revealed. Every time a person in poverty or on its brink is given the tools she needs to live a fulfilling life, the glory and will of God is revealed.
This is our call as his followers. This is our mission as the ones who trust in his life and his name. We have been changed and empowered by the same Spirit that changed his face before the eyes of Peter, John, and James. May our words and actions reflect that change, and reveal his love and compassion as brightly in middle of all we see.