They say that God is especially pleased with the taxi drivers on Mt. Tabor in the Galilee region of the Holy Lands. Why? Because as those taxis drive too fast up and down the mountain roads, sliding around the curves with no guard rails, more praying goes on in those few minutes than in any other time! But why do so many people want to get up to the top of Mt. Tabor?
The tourists are risking their lives going up and down these mountain roads to see what is purportedly the Mt. of Transfiguration – where the events described by Matthew in todays gospel unfolded … where Peter and James and John witnessed a dreamlike scene straight out of some sort of avant garde indie film festival – where Jesus began to glow from head to foot, where Moses and Elijah came back from a thousand-year past, and where a voice came booming from the clouds, “This is my son, the Beloved … listen to him!”
This is just one weird lesson. It really is! But it is really quite rich and actually serves a number of purposes, not the least of which is a bridge. It connects a number of things. First, it connects our season of Epiphany with our seasons of Lent and Easter. Epiphany began back in the first part of January with Jesus’ baptism, an event at which a voice came booming from a cloud announcing, “This is my son … listen to him.” Now, that same line is repeated by that same voice. But instead of focusing on a baptism at the beginning of Jesus’ life, this scene gives a vision of that time when Jesus will appear in glory at his resurrection. The Transfiguration connects the Old Testament with the New Testament. There is Moses and Elijah from the Old and Peter, James, and John from the New.
So, the Transfiguration is one of those Sundays which allows us to regroup, to consider where we have been in our church year and to anticipate where we are going. Where are we going? Lent. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, that time when we are marked with the cross of Christ and begin our walk with him toward Golgotha.
Think of the connections between those two high places – Mt. Tabor on the one hand and Golgotha, on the other hand, where Jesus was hung. Think of the connections between the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion: On the one mountain Jesus if revealed in glory. On the other he is revealed in shame. On Mt. Tabor his clothes are dazzling white. On Golgotha they are stripped away so soldiers can roll dice for them. On Mt. Tabor he has two figures on each side of him – Moses on one and Elijah on the other – the major Old Testament figures representing the law and the prophets. On Golgotha his has a person on each side of him who has broken the law – two thieves.
On Mt. Tabor a bright cloud sheds a white light on the scene. On Golgotha darkness covered the land. On Mt. Tabor Peter is beside himself with excitement and blurts out how great it is to be there. On Golgotha Peter hides in shame after denying his friend and savior. On Mt. Tabor God declares that this is, indeed, his son. On Golgotha it is a pagan soldier who declares, “Truly, this was God’s son.”
It is fitting that Epiphany ends with this epiphany. Miriam Webster defines “epiphany” as an illuminating discovery or realization. Well, this is an illuminating discovery for the disciples. Literally. Jesus glowed. But it was illuminating in that they were given a glimpse of the whole picture. Jesus is divine. Jesus is God’s son. Jesus is the culmination of the law and the prophets. Jesus is to be listened to.
Did you pick out the awkward line in the gospel? In the midst of all this glorious revelation Peter lamely says, “Well, shall we build you some dwellings. We can throw up three places for you guys to stay – sort of a three-room hotel for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.” Poor Peter. He doesn’t know what to do. He just wants to freeze-frame this moment in time. It’s like he is saying, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!!”
Maybe Peter didn’t want the high to go away. Maybe he recognized the epiphany for the moment that it was and he just wanted to freeze it in time. I can relate to that. Sometimes we wish that certain things could just sort of freeze in time. You at a certain age. Your family when the kids were little. The tenure of a particular president you admired. Your congregation at a certain time in its life. Like Peter, you wish that you could just use boards and bricks to wall it all in and keep it from changing.
But things do change. As a matter of fact, things cannot get better unless they change. Sometimes, things need to die for things to change. Luther said that we need to die to our old selves daily and – each and every day – come to a new life in Christ – if we want to become new and changed people. What would happen if Peter had put Jesus in a dwelling on Mt. Tabor and “there he kept him very well.” Jesus would never have gone on to preach and teach and heal. He would never have taught his parables. He would never have shared his last supper. He would have never given the command to “Go, therefore, and make disciples, of all nations.” He would never have given is very life for you and for me. All this would be lost so that a few people might bask in the feel-good moment of glory.
“Listen to him!” the voice said. “Listen to him!” If you listen to him things cannot remain the same. “Listen to him!” God said. Well, what did Jesus say that we should listen to? He said that we should love our enemies. It is virtually impossible to do that and not change. Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. Do that just one time, just one time, and you will come out on the other side a changed person. We must change if we are to listen to Jesus! Jesus said that the people to be paid attention to are the poor, the depressed, the hated, and the oppressed. I guarantee you that if you pay attention to these people your politics will never be the same. They can’t.
“Listen to him!” the voice said. What did Jesus say? Jesus said we should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and advocate for those who are incarcerated. We, as a society, can’t do that unless we change! We can’t build dwellings. We can’t hold on to Moses and Elijah. We can’t glorify some imagined golden age. And we can’t change unless and until something that is in us, or a part of us, dies.
“This is my beloved son! Listen to him.” And now, Jesus comes down from the Mt. of Transfiguration and begins his journey toward Golgotha. Come. Journey with him. Come Wednesday, have your forehead disfigured and be told that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Travel with Jesus toward Golgotha. And, each step of the way, let something within you die.