a sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration
When Peter saw Jesus, transformed in brilliant white and talking with Moses and Elijah, he was so afraid he couldn’t stop talking. Then Jesus reached out and calmed his fears.
Today is a strange day in the church year. It is traditionally called Transfiguration Sunday and it is the last Sunday after the Epiphany, the last day we remember the story of the star and wise men and all of the joy of Christmas, at least for a little while. At the same time, today might also be called it “the Sunday before Lent,” the last Sunday before we pile ashes on our heads and begin our Lenten disciplines of self-denial and prayer, the last Sunday before Jesus begins his march to Jerusalem and all that happens there.
Today’s Gospel brings us right into the middle of the whole Gospel story, between Jesus’ birth and his death. He goes up a mountain to get away from it all for a little while and to pray with his closest friends. They go up to be with each other, and to pray, and maybe, to be alone with God. “Ahhhhh,” Peter thinks. “I can see why he brought us here. This is so nice. I love the peacefulness, the quiet, the beautiful scenery all around us. Surely God is here with us in the peaceful, calming place.”
But that’s not exactly how it happened. As Peter was relaxing he saw something that he couldn’t quite understand. Jesus was suddenly transformed. His face is glowing. His clothes are a dazzling white. And he was talking to Moses and Elijah, the two greatest men in Jewish history.
This story has been interpreted in a lot of ways. Some people think it’s about our personal spiritual journeys; they see the mountain as a metaphor of our spiritual lives. All of us like the idea of a “mountain top experience,” a time when we feel absolutely exhilarated by the presence of God. But the problem with mountain top experiences is they only last for a little while. Sooner or later we have to come down into the valley.
Other people take a more theological view of this story. They remember that Moses and Elijah are the two greatest figures in Judaism. Moses, who brought down the Ten Commandments, represent the Law. Elijah, the greatest prophet, was taken up into the sky, just as Jesus will be when he ascends into heaven. Together, they represent both the Law and the Prophets. And standing between them both is Jesus, the fulfillment of both.
But I’d like to talk about something else today. Instead of talking about mountain top experiences, or about Jesus as the theological fulfillment of Jewish law and prophecy, I’d like to talk about Peter. He’s the one who loved Jesus so much that when is sees that Jesus is all glowing and beaming, and that Moses is there all strong and solemn, and that Elijah is there in all his prophetic glory – when he sees all that – he decides to do what any of us here would have done in his place. What any reasonable person would have done, really. He decides to … build them a house?
Now, I think a lot of us can identify with what Peter must have felt like. It’s as if he’s thinking, “Holy smokes! Jesus is over there talking with Moses and Elijah. I need to DO something. I need to look busy.” And so, just as the three greatest figures in all of history are standing having a conversation in front of him, and Peter starts yammering building houses. In fact, he must have been really going on and on, because the story tells us that God finally interrupts him:
while he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
YIKES! Talk about being called on the carpet. Hey Peter, keep quiet. Hey Peter, stop your yakking. Hey Peter, don’t just do something, stand there. Be quiet and listen to my Son.
Of course, that’s the problem. Peter was too terrified to be quiet and listen. And that happens to all of us from time to time. We’re so terrified to be in the presence of God that we really can’t hear when God is speaking.
One of the biggest struggles we have in modern society is being too busy. We are addicted to our busyness. We hate being quiet. Most of us can’t sit still for 5 minutes without breaking into a sweat. We’re always on the go, rushing from place to place, moving from one thing to the next. And even when we’re sitting still, we’re busy… checking our cellphones.
There was a time in my life when I thought that being busy was a sign of my importance. I was always busy, even when I was supposed to be on vacation. Then one day, when Rindy and the girls and I were living in Orlando, we were told that the company was closing down the plant. It wasn’t that I could not work. It was just an opportunity to take a time-out and think about what I wanted to do in the next stage of my life. But we had two young kids, and a house, and a lot of bills. And instead of reflecting on whether it was time for me to do something different, I asked for a transfer to another new position in the company. I didn’t even want to consider whether or not that was where God was calling me to be. I just felt like I had to keep moving – keep on keeping on.
We all are called to do something; God calls us all to some kind of ministry. It doesn’t have to be a calling to be a priest or a pastor. All of us are called to serve God in different ways at different times in our lives. But too often, we are afraid to listen to that calling. We have so many other priorities pressing on us, that we’re terrified to listen to what God is saying to us. Being in the presence of God can do that to a person. It can be an awesome and holy and terrifying thing. And sometimes, we end up like Peter, overcome by our fear.
This is when Jesus reaches out, touches us and says, “get up.” Literally he says, “be raised,” for that is what the text actually says. Be raised and don’t be afraid. Be raised, as Christ himself was raised. Be raised, for the God who is thundering in the cloud is also reaching out for your shoulder. Be raised, because the one who created the heavens and the earth and all that lives within it, is the very same one who is standing beside you. Be raised and don’t be afraid, for Jesus Christ will always be with you.
In the Christmas story, God speaks through the angels saying, “don’t be afraid, for unto you a child is born.” In the Easter story, God speaks again, “don’t be afraid, for the one you seek isn’t here. He as been raised.” In today’s story, midway between Christmas and Easter, God speaks to us again, even through our terror. “Don’t be afraid, you be raised also. God is walking down the mountain beside you.”
God can be as huge as a mountain. God can be as gentle as the touch of the hand of a friend. God can speak to us in thunder or in silence. But it is only when we take time out from all the hustle and bustle of our over programmed lives that we can hear God speaking to us. Today, as we turn away from the business of the holiday season, prepare to begin our journey into Lent, let us take just a few minutes to be quiet, and listen to for the voice of God.
Don’t be afraid, be raised.