A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday (Exodus 34:25-39 and Luke 9:28-36)
Last Monday I went to a clergy lunch at the UCC church in Limerick. On the way, I took Routes 202 and 5, but coming home I drove along the winding country road that is Route 11 through Newfield and Shapleigh, uphill and down, enjoying the snow on the rock walls and the aging barns, and the winter sun bright on the snow.
The scenery grew less interesting as I came back into town. I slowed to turn up the drive of an assisted living center. I looked out a window with a retired nurse and saw a view that needed painting, another rock wall, more sunlit snow, bare winter trees. I received a finger-crushing hand embrace from a man of 96 who is strong although he has trouble standing.
Then I came closer to civilization, where I received a warm and excited greeting from someone who had every reason to be low. We sat in her living room, where she smiled and said, "You’re so pretty. I could just sit and look at you."
I was surprised, and I did not answer her immediately.
"But you must hear that all the time," she said.
No, no I don’t. But coming face to face with the beauty of God’s creation and the people in it can do that to a girl. Suddenly all that heavenly love comes shining through, whether we realize it or not.
In the gospel lesson this morning, Jesus takes his inner circle, the three disciples Peter, James and John, up with him onto a mountain, and there they have a shining through experience. Two great spiritual heroes of the past, Moses and Elijah, appear on the top of the mountain. Moses, as we read earlier, was known to have seen God; Elijah was a prophet who never died, but was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind. Putting Jesus with these two figures places him in the tiny company of humans who have transcended the boundaries between everyday reality and God’s realm.
There are certain places in the world where those boundaries are thought to be thinner than others. Great cathedrals have been built on the same ground that was used for pre-Christian worship in Mexico and in France. People say they feel the presence of God keenly in them. The mountain we believe Jesus climbed with Peter, James and John, called Mount Hermon, is another of those places. It has been called Ba’al Hermon, Senir, Sirion, Sion and Mount Lebanon. In modern Arabic it is called Jabel A-talg, which means “snow mountain.” On and around the mountain, more than twenty ancient temples have been found, and it is the mountain where Elijah held his contest with the Ba’al prophets. Zeus, Baal, Helios, Astarte, and Pan have all been worshipped there.
Do we think this way? Do we believe there are sacred places—apertures or openings—between heaven and earth? Thin places, where the boundaries between here and there are not so complete? The ancient people believed it. They believed in thin places where you could almost jump across, where heaven could simply shine through. And since they understood the universe as being stacked, a sandwich of heaven and the dark places with earth in the middle, there could be no better place to get near God than at the top of a mountain. If you wanted to get in touch with your ancestors, you looked for a mountain with a cave at its foot. If there could be a little trickle of water, a stream or a creek coming out of that cave, you would have found the healing stream, coming from the other world into ours.
That describes Mount Hermon, in the precincts of Caesarea Philippi. Jesus takes his closest, most trusted disciples to a cosmic mountain. At its base, there is a cave opening and a spring that feeds the Jordan River. It is no hill called a mountain. It is more than 9000 feet high, and today it is the only mountain with snow skiing in Israel. Our Mount Katahdin is about 5200 feet, and Mount Washington, which can seem so awesomely otherworldly when surrounded by the clouds, is a mere 6200 feet by comparison!
I find it overwhelming to look at Mount Washington. It reminds me of how far up the sky is, and how far down the ground, of how limited my own strength and coordination are. I’ve climbed Mount Chocorua, near Conway, New Hampshire, twice, once in the summer of 2001 and again in September 2002, when Don and I got married at the top. It is almost 3500 feet, an alpine mountain on which you climb well beyond the tree line. There is nothing to hold onto, and the first time I found it pretty frightening! And to be honest, the second time was overwhelming, too.
The summer day of my first hike there was beautiful and sunny. The view seemed to go on forever, as I sat clinging to the top of the mountain and nibbling on the lunch we packed. Our wedding day was overcast, and we stood at the highest point with my children and our closest friends surrounded by a sea of mist-enshrouded mountains.
Don feels most in touch with the power of Creation at the top of a mountain; I feel most in touch with being breakable! I understand the feelings of the disciples, overwhelmed by sleep, that sort of sleepiness we feel when we don’t know how to face things, when we suspect something big is coming our way and we feel afraid to let it happen.
The people around Moses saw the glow of his face and turned away until he veiled it. In the Transfiguration, the three disciples know Jesus to be more than their friend; they experience the full weight of his divinity shining through his human face.
We tucked ourselves thoroughly away during Wednesday’s storm. At our house the accumulation was about 8 inches of snow, coated with a little freezing something-or-other. I didn’t have to shovel it, so I’m probably not the best judge of how serious the icy parts were. When it was time to leave for work on Thursday morning, I decided to take a route different from the usual one. Instead of using the Biddeford turnpike exit and 111, I stayed on the pike a few more minutes and used the Kennebunk exit and Route 99, as I had been advised it might be less dangerous.
The marsh looked beautiful dressed in snow. The blizzard winds continued to blow and the snow gusted across the road much as mist might cover it in another season.
Then I noticed them, five or six cars at cockeyed angles. Snow and wind, married together, gave birth to sudden obscuration. Had they careened into the snow to avoid one another, the drivers of these cars? I continued on slowly as they awaited the blue-lit police car coming from the other side of the marsh.
The blowing snow did not change the road or the cars, but rather the drivers’ perception of them. And perhaps that is where we need to look in the transfiguration story.
To be transfigured means to undergo a metamorphosis, to be changed. Was Jesus really changed? That would mean we believe he only became divine at that moment. Maybe it isn’t Jesus who was transfigured. Maybe the disciples were changed by seeing his otherwise concealed divinity shining through as he stood on the mountain with Moses and Elijah.
And I think it’s safe to say they weren’t just changed. They were frightened, too. I remember coming up around a corner as several trails on Mount Chocorua converged and there was only one way to travel the remaining feet to the top. Suddenly I could see the truth of where I was, and it made my head spin. I would have been happy to go back to the Jim Liberty Cabin, where I got my first look at the summit, and take a little nap while Don enjoyed the ultimate view. He insisted that I keep going, and I followed along worriedly.
Peter and James and John, ready to stay right where they were with the glorified Jesus, were suddenly overshadowed by a cloud, and heard the voice of God telling them in no uncertain terms, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
No wonder they kept silent about what had happened to them.
But—and this is an important “but”—having been there changed them. From this point on in Luke’s gospel, they will follow Jesus to Jerusalem, holding this understanding of just how different he is from them. They will still make mistakes; Peter himself will deny Jesus, despite his experience on the mountain.
I will still have days when I forget that sometimes God shines through me. I will miss my husband who left town this morning to work faraway for the next month or so, and I will be greatly inconvenienced by his absence. I will lose perspective, and careen around like the cars on and off Route 99.
We will all do these things.
But—and this, too, is an important “but”—the message of God’s love for us as lived out in Jesus will continue to be transmitted not merely through sermons or classes, and it will not be told fully by the story we repeat each year of the spooky hike on which Jesus took his friends. It is most fully given by looking each other in the eye and sharing the light of God that, despite our best efforts to keep silent and avoid it, will come shining through, usually when we least expect it. Let it shine. Amen.