Summary: The Transfiguration of Christ is about both the revelation of Christ as God's Son on the mountaintop, and Christ as Savior of the world in the healing of the demon-possessed boy the next day at the foot of the mountain.
“I’ll believe it when I see it!”
How many times have you said that in your life? Or heard it?
So much of how we believe and operate is based on our ability to see tangible evidence. The whole field of science and medicine is all about our desire to have proof that explains the things we see happening in the world around us. And that spills over into everything we do. I don’t think I could tell you how many times Mary Ellen has argued with Ken and I about what clothes she should wear to school on a winter day. She’ll come into the room asking if she can wear a t-shirt or even shorts sometimes. Ken or I will explain that it’s below freezing and she needs to put on a sweater. She’ll insist that it’s warm in her classroom and she’ll be just fine in a t-shirt. We’ll go back and forth and back and forth until she finally realizes she’s not making any progress and goes to put on a sweater. And don’t you know it, the minute we walk out the door to the car, she comments about how cold it is and she’s glad she’s wearing a sweater!
So much of what happens in our society tells us that we need proof before we can begin to believe. And that spills over into our faith as well. In our increasingly proof-driven and visual culture, it is easy to think that faith comes by seeing, but as we see in our scripture reading this morning, sometimes faith is built on a lot more than one fleeting moment of insight.
This morning, we come to Luke’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration, his mountaintop transformation. Just before the transfiguration, Jesus is talking with his disciples, and he asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples tell him that some say he is John the Baptist or Elijah, while others say he is a prophet. So then Jesus asks the men, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” Now, in the transfiguration, we, along with Peter, James, and John, get to see what that means. But here’s the thing; the unique revelation of Jesus extends beyond what happens on the mountain that day. We cannot separate that mountaintop experience of Jesus’ transfiguration from his healing of the demon-possessed boy down the mountain the next day.
Certainly as Peter, James, and John watch Jesus’ transfiguration unfold before them, they are stunned. They knew the role and significance of Moses and Elijah in Jewish history; to have seen them standing before them would have been amazing enough, but what they also see is Jesus, now clothed in dazzling white, conversing with the ancient Jewish prophets. It’s easy enough to dismiss such events as some sort of odd hallucination. Jewish scriptures and traditions tell of various events like this; when the veil of ordinariness that normally prevents us from seeing “inside” to the reality of the situation is drawn back, such that we can catch a glimpse of the greater reality. And indeed, that is what happens in this moment high atop what was probably Mount Hermon, just north of Caesarea Philippi.
The majesty of this moment is not lost on the three disciples who are there with Jesus. As they watch Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, Peter also begins to speak, blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. Peter suggests that they should sort of “capture” the moment by building three booths or shrines; one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. But, Luke says, Peter didn’t know what he was saying. Certainly, Jesus’ dramatic mountaintop transformation is a moment of great significance. It is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, even bathed in, the love, power, and kingdom of God, such that it transforms his whole being. This transfiguration is the physical sign of God’s message spoken just moments later, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him.” But this is only half the story; the rest of the revelation, the rest of what we are to know, and understand, and believe about Jesus, happens the next day far from the heights of that mountain.
Luke tells us that Peter does not know what he is saying when he reflects that they should build some shrines there atop the mountain, but how many of us would say almost the same thing? We experience these beautiful moments in life; we reach the majestic heights of the mountains, and we want to stay there forever. We can’t quite let go of our childhood home because of great and wonderful memories there. We are baptized or saved in a certain church, and suddenly not just the congregation, but the building holds a great significance in our lives. And over time, the significance of the experience is lost to the seeming significance of the place. The result of such tendencies in our life of faith is that we get stuck “inside” the church. We get so caught up in the comfortable, the ritual, the familiar that we forget how these encounters with God actually compel us to go live life out in the world, not to enshrine ourselves within the walls of the church.