Transfiguration Weekend (A/RCL)
February 25-26, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
The Irish call them “thin places.” They’re the spots where heaven and earth seem separated by only the thinnest veil. A fancier name you might find is liminal space, a boundary or threshold between one world and another. A thin place might be one of overwhelming natural beauty, like the rugged Irish coast or one of our breathtaking national parks, or it might be in the middle of a windswept moor. The interesting thing is that many people through the centuries all experience the place as mystical – otherworldly – holy – spiritually meaningful in a way that words can’t convey. Maybe you’ve visited a thin place. If so, you’ll never forget it, and you probably long to return.
Jesus, Peter, James and John went up a high mountain and found themselves in a very thin place, indeed. They had entered another dimension:
…[Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Matthew 17:2)
The word for Jesus’ physical transfiguration is literally metamorphosis, which even our children understand, once they’ve studied how an egg becomes a caterpillar that spins a chrysalis and emerges a butterfly. Metamorphosis: a drastic change, the process of radically changing from one form to another.
That alone would have been a lot, but there was more:
Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with [Jesus]. (Matthew 17:3)
We don’t know how Peter, James and John identified the men who seemed to “apparate” (to use Harry Potter language) out of the ether. Someone at Bible study suggested that maybe Moses was carrying the 2 tablets with the Ten Commandments; that would be a dead give-away! I added, maybe Moses had “horns” of light, like in Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses that stands in the Church of St. Peter in Chains in Rome. Maybe Elijah had a fiery chariot parked next to him, like the one that carried him away into heaven (2 Kings 2:1-11). Who knows how, but that little inner band of disciples knew they were now in the presence of their glowing Lord and of the heavy hitters of Hebrew Scripture.
That alone would have been a lot, but there was more!
…[S]uddenly 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!” (Matthew 17:5)
This was more than Peter, James and John’s spirits could take:
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. (Matthew 17:6)
Jesus’ transfiguration they could handle; they were still standing after the abrupt appearance of those great ones of faith Moses and Elijah; but the voice from the clouds just slayed them! Earlier, when Jesus was baptized by John, He hadn’t called any of the disciples yet, so they wouldn’t have known that the voice was repeating itself. Just to refresh your memory:
And when Jesus was baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens opened to him and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)
This time, the voice of God the Father adds, “…listen to him!” Hear Him, heed Him, believe Him, obey Him, as we hear God commanding the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 6:4-5:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Part of what Peter, James and John and the other disciples have already heard from Jesus is that He is a Messiah who is going to suffer death before He conquers death. That’s why we hear this Gospel each year right before Ash Wednesday. Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, having predicted for the first time His suffering, death and resurrection. Then we are given a glimpse of His glory before entering the Lenten wilderness with Him. We’ll “bury the alleluia” by recessing out our banner during the closing hymn, but we won’t “bury” the knowledge that our Lord’s passion and death were not the final word. As Mother Teresa once said, “Never let anything so fill you with sorrow that you forget the joy of Christ risen.”
This Lent let’s ask God’s grace to help us sort out the competing voices that vie for our attention: the voice of our employer, the voice of our accountant, the voice of our teammates, the voice of our fellow employees, the voice of our spouse, the voice of the culture in which we live. We hear, “Do this! Don’t do that! Pay attention to this! Ignore that!” The most important lesson I hear in this Gospel is the voice from heaven saying:
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
I’m not saying we should deafen ourselves to the other voices that address us, but I am suggesting that we pray the Holy Spirit to make Jesus’ voice louder and clearer than all the rest!
There’s another detail that I never noticed before, even though we hear one or another version of this story every year.
…Jesus came and touched [the disciples who had hit the deck in sheer fear], saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. (Matthew 17:7-8)
To see and hear only Jesus would make things simpler, wouldn’t it? That’s the Lenten challenge for us: lessen if not eliminate the visual, temporal, spiritual clutter in our lives, sideline or at least identify competing interests, silence or at least soften conflicting messages. Be in the world, but not of it.
Spiritual clarity, insight, intimate proximity to God: that’s the gift of our spiritual mountaintop experiences, whether they occur in the acknowledged “thin places” of this world or in the unique space of our personal encounter with God. May you find your own “thin place,” a holy of holies where heaven and earth are separated by only the thinnest veil, and you are in closest communion with your Lord. Then: listen to Him. Amen
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham