Lessons for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year A: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
It had not been an easy time for the disciples and Jesus. Not only had they been bombarded at every turn by people seeking healing or help, but they had also begun to be questioned by the religious leaders of the day. They could not find a place of rest and retreat anywhere they turned.
Into the midst of this crucible of questions and exhaustion, Jesus had asked his disciples who they believed he was. Peter had said that Jesus was the Messiah. The Lord. But even though Peter had used all the right words, it turned out he still hadn’t really understood what they meant. Because when Jesus began to talk about a cross, Peter crumbled. No longer a cornerstone but a stumbling block. How could someone save and liberate God’s people if he was killed? Peter wondered. It just didn’t make sense.
Then Jesus had told his followers that the road to Jerusalem would be a difficult one. And that it would end in a cross. If they wanted to follow him, they too would have crosses to bear. He had been trying to tell his disciples who he really was and why he had come. He had been trying to tell them what it would mean to be the Messiah. But all Peter had wanted was for Jesus to stop talking. He had felt as if the Jesus he had known and loved was slipping through his fingers.
Still, when Jesus began to make his way up the mountain in our text for today, Peter, James, and John followed him, picking their way over outcroppings of rock and the slippery coating of dust and sand, to stand with him at the top. They look back over all that had happened. They remembered being called to follow. And now, standing at the top of this precipice, looking down and across the valleys ahead, they began to wonder where Jesus would lead them next.
It was while they were there, on that mountain, that everything changed. The three disciples had expected an intermission, a pause in the action, but instead they were thrown into a terrifying, mystical experience they could have never predicted and could never fully explain. All through Scripture, prophets and leaders meet God on the mountains. Moses, enveloped in clouds, is given the tablets of the law on Mount Sinai. Elijah hears God in the still, small voice, as powerful as a thundering silence there on a mountain. And here, in this story, Peter, James, and John encounter God as well. In the transfiguration, God knits together the law, the prophets, and the gospel, weaving them into a story and narrative of faith that finds its culmination in the person of Jesus. Moses and Elijah and Jesus stand together at the top of the mountain, clothed in white.
And makes sense that Peter wants to stay there on that mountaintop, far away from the world below. Here on the mountaintop he isn’t distracted by the demands of other people and their needs. He didn’t have to think too hard about what Jesus might have meant when he began to talk about a cross and suffering and death. Here on the mountaintop he saw the glorified, victorious Jesus he had always wanted, shining in splendor and glory. So he says, “It would be good to stay here. Together, Jesus. Let’s pitch some tents and stay put.”
But then God’s glory pulls back the veil between heaven and earth even more fully and begins to speak: “Look, here is my son. My beloved. Listen to him.”
And the disciples are terrified. Falling to their knees, they tremble in fear until the cloud melts away, the cracked door to heaven is again sealed, and they are left there, on the mountain, alone with Jesus. Even as they cower, Jesus reaches out his hand, touching their shoulders and saying, “Get up. Do not be afraid.” The cloud has dispersed. Jesus’ robe is back to its dusty brown. Moses and Elijah have disappeared. And it is almost as if everything is back to normal. But of course, in reality, nothing will ever be the same.
In the Gospel of Matthew, this moment of transfiguration—this revealing of God’s glory—on the mountaintop serves as a turning point. Jesus, who has been ministering throughout the countryside, now turns his face toward Jerusalem, ready to start down the road to the cross. And the disciples have a decision to make. Will they keep following him on this new leg of the journey?
The transfiguration is also a turning point for us. It is positioned between Epiphany, a season characterized by light and revelation, and Lent, a season of repentance as we too journey to the cross. From this mountain we can look behind to see Jesus being baptized, Jesus beginning his ministry, Jesus teaching, preaching, and healing. We can also look forward, seeing the rocky and winding path to Jerusalem. We can see, from this place the ways that Jesus will continue to open his arms up to the world, reaching out to each of us, until those arms are stretched out across the beams of a cross. And from this mountain, we are even given a glimpse of the end of the story, when Jesus will once again stand robed in glory as he is raised from the dead and ascends to heaven.
Like any experience of the divine, the transfiguration is shrouded in mystery—a burning bush that is not consumed; a still small voice; a cloud and pillar of fire—these are ultimately all “You had to be there” type of events. Even for Peter, James, and John, part of the story, part of the meaning eludes them. And they come back down the mountain not quite sure they know what just occurred.
On this day we, like the disciples, are invited to remember all that we have come to believe about Jesus. And at the same time, we are asked to allow Jesus to transform those beliefs and reshape them. For just like Peter, when we think we have made progress when we think we have finally figured it out, we are often brought up short by God, reminded that our journey of faith and our journey to faith is not yet over. There is still more to Jesus than we had allowed ourselves to imagine.