Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of the Transfiguration. It is a very important event for the Christian community, so let’s spend a few minutes wondering why. Equally important, what message does it hold for those of us here this morning.
It’s a fantastic story – full of incredible images. It seems like a dream sequence borrowed from a Hollywood movie, with mystical appearances, voices thundering from clouds, and glorious visions.
In Luke the story of the Transfiguration is placed right after Peter’s confession of faith and right before Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and his passion and death at Calvary. As Jesus and his disciples were on the road Jesus asked his followers, “Who do people say that I am?” They give him various answers: “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.” Then Jesus raises the ante, ups the stakes, and asks, “But who do you say that I am?” And amazingly Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ.” Christ, of course, means messiah. That was an unexpected and preposterous claim for Peter to make, for the long-awaited, expected, promised Messiah was to be a conquering hero like King David, a powerful ruler, not a carpenter’s son, not a simple rabbi who ate with sinners and walked the dusty roads of Palestine with humble fishermen and tax collectors as companions. But somehow, by God’s grace, Peter understands, Peter sees, Peter knows, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And so it is very soon after this surprising event – Peter’s confession – the Bible says eight days later – that Jesus takes Peter and James and John and goes up on the mountain to pray. And that is where, we are told, three strange things happen. First, Jesus’ face is changed; second, his clothes become dazzling white; and third, Moses and Elijah, symbols of the law and the prophets, are seen to be there, talking with Jesus. Taken together these three miraculous happenings point to a significant religious experience. These three descriptions are editorial symbols inserted to shine a spotlight and to awaken us to the fact that this is important. Like the Sanctus bells in worship they say “wake up, pay attention!”
Peter quickly catches on. Awakened from his stupor, in his typical over-exuberant, enthusiastic, but not-very-well-thought-out way, Peter blurts out, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
And then comes the climax of the story. What happens next begins to give us the meaning of the Transfiguration event. We begin to realize that this is more than just another wiz-bang spectacular extravaganza. “As Peter said this a cloud came and overshadowed them….Then from the cloud came a voice that,” echoing God’s voice heard at Jesus’ baptism, “said ‘this is my Son, my chosen, listen to him!’” God is saying “Don’t be a Unitarian, Peter, Moses and Elijah, and Jesus are not all equal, not all deserving booths alike.” “Jesus is my Son, my chosen; listen to him.”
Like those other times recorded in the Bible, when the angels appear at Jesus’ nativity, like when he turns water into wine, like the healings, the raising of Lazarus, and of course, like the resurrection, times when we get a fleeting glimpse, just a brief glance, into the divinity of the Christ and the glory of God. The voice comes from the cloud, symbol of the presence of God. “This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him!”
We are so like Peter, aren’t we? Peter wanted to prolong the mountain-top experience, to stay up there in the rarefied air, sparkling and dazzlingly brilliant. Some of us want to prolong those highs, those experiences of God, to make them last, to remain with us, so badly that we turn to drugs, to alcohol, to food, to affairs, to whatever we hope will prolong the experience and keep us “up there.”
For Jesus, after that mountain top experience, after the event the Church has named the Transfiguration, came the journey to Jerusalem, the journey that lead to his trial, his crucifixion, and the new life of the resurrection. The experience of knowing God, of being caught up in that transfiguring moment can not captured, frozen, held on to. Rather, it is an experience that can change us forever and, if we let it, can set us on, on our journey to new life. The message of the Transfiguration is that God has broken into our world through Jesus.
A long time ago in a faraway place, there was a group of Christians, who like those of us here this morning, longed for a glimpse of God. Those Christians were monks living in a monastery. It was a monastery that had fallen on hard times. Formerly its main buildings were filled with young monks and its big church resounded with the singing of the chant. But, now, it was mostly deserted. People no longer came to be nourished by prayer. A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised their God in faint voices with heavy hearts.
On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a little hut. He would come there from time to time to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk: “The rabbi walks in the woods.” And for as long as he was there, the monks felt sustained by his prayerful presence.
One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and to open his heart to him. So after the morning Eucharist, the abbot set out through the woods. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome. It was as though he had been waiting a long time. The two embraced like long-lost brothers.
The rabbi said to the abbot, “you and your monks are serving God with heavy hearts. You have come to ask for a teaching from me. I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once. After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.” The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, “The Messiah is among you.”
For a while all was silent. Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.”
The abbot left without a word and without looking back.
The next morning the abbot called the monks together in the chapter room. He told them he had received a teaching from the rabbi who walks in the woods and that this teaching must never be spoken aloud again. Then the abbot looked at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”
The monks were startled by this saying. “What could it mean,” they asked themselves? “Is Brother John the Messiah?” “Or Father Matthew?” “Or Brother Thomas?” “Am I the Messiah?”
They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi’s teaching, but no one ever mentioned it again.
As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a very special reverence. There was a gentle, wholehearted, human quality about them now which was hard to describe but easy to notice. They lived with one another as men who had finally found something valuable. They prayed the scriptures together reverently. Occasional visitors found themselves deeply moved by the prayer life of the monks. Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the monastery and young men were asking, once again, to be part of the community.
In those days the rabbi no longer walked in the woods. His hut had fallen into ruins. But, somehow or other, the old monks had taken his teaching to heart and were still sustained by his prayerful presence.
The message of the Transfiguration is that God has broken into our world through Jesus. The Transfiguration is central to the Christian faith because catching a glimpse, seeing and hearing – even for a fleeting moment – can transform our lives as it did the lives of those monks in that monastery long ago and far away.
The message of the Transfiguration is “The Messiah is among you.” Thanks be to God!