Transfiguration A: Timely Words
Dear Partner in Preaching,
“Listen to him.”
“Be raised up.”
“Do not be afraid.”
If there were ever three words of instruction, command, and promise I need to hear right now, it’s probably these.
Just to set the scene: six days after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah – and Jesus’ rebuke of Peter’s understanding of what it means to be the Messiah – Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain and is transfigured. That is, his appearance is literally changed right in front of them, so that while they recognize their Lord they also perceive his heavenly glory in a way they had not before. Moreover, he is joined by Moses and Elijah, symbolic of the law and prophets. It has been, when you think about it, an emotionally-charged time. I suspect that Peter has alternately felt thrilled by the reception of his confession, hurt by Jesus’ rebuke, confused by what Jesus is saying, and uncertain about the future. And now, dazzled, perplexed, probably more than a little overwhelmed, but also, perhaps, excited to be at this place and time and witness this event, Peter harkens back to the Feast of Tabernacles and, wishing to pay appropriate homage to these guests, offers to make dwelling places for them.
It’s a confusing time, a heady time, an exciting time, an uncertain time. I’m not sure Peter knew entirely what to make of it. I’m pretty sure that I don’t either. The whole Transfiguration event can be a little hard to interpret. In Matthew’s narrative, it is a turning point, the time when Jesus – confessed as Messiah, revealed in glory – now turns steadfastly toward Jerusalem to offer a different picture of Messiah and glory than anyone then – or now! – expected. Moreover, when placed at this point in the church year, this reading links to three seasons simultaneously, concluding the season of light and revelation we call Epiphany, signaling the descent down the mountain and the road to Jerusalem we travel in Lent, and anticipating the glory of the Easter resurrection.
For all these reasons, we may, like Peter, not know quite what to make of it all and so harken back to various traditions, interpreting Transfigure in light of either Epiphany, Lent, or Easter in an attempt to at least observe the day appropriately even if we don’t understand it fully. But at this particular time and place – I would suggest making another move and allow the words spoken on that mountain to speak to us in this time and place.
Think about it: right now, the world we and our parishioners live in is filled with a variety of confusing events, divisive rhetoric, increased tension, and an unclear picture of the future. Some dread what is happening; some find it exciting. All sense the importance of this moment. And amid all this, I find myself regularly drawn back to these three words of instruction, command, and promise.
First the instruction: “Listen to him.” Can we imagine telling our folks that when the world seems crazy we need more than ever to come to church and try to hear what God is saying to us. And while we may disagree on just what we hear – that’s the challenge of communal discernment, after all; we actually are a community, not a monolith – yet we agree that the best way to understand God is to look to Jesus and listen to him. To pay attention to what Jesus says and does, to whom he reaches out, to those he gives attention and help. Yes, we may not all agree, but we might also confess that if we all keep trying to listen to Jesus together – and trust that is what even the people who disagree with us are doing – we will get closer to what God intends for us.
Second, the command: “Get up.” Except it’s not just “get up,” as the Greek verb Matthew uses here is the same one the angels declare to the women at the empty tomb: “He is not here; he has been raised!” (28:6). So really, it’s “be raised up.” Or even, “be resurrected.” What will it be like for our folks to hear Jesus call them to get up, be raised, even resurrected amid these confusing days? Perhaps it might feel like one more thing they can’t manage. But if we recall that God’s commands also carry power to fulfill the command – think of Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (1:3) – we might also hear in Jesus’ words a call to action that actually gives us the energy and will to act, to make a difference, to be about the works of mercy and compassion to which God always calls us.
Third, the promise: “Do not be afraid.” This is the hallmark of the Gospel, words perhaps never more needed than now. The fears our people experience may be different. The threat of terrorism, the prospect of job loss, the potential to betray our national identity and values, the fading possibility of a better future for our children, dread illness, unexpected death, the list goes on. Fear is a part of the common fabric of our lives even though it manifests itself differently. And to all these different fears, the Gospel reply is the same: Because God is God of the past, present, and future, we need not fear. This is not the same as saying that we will have no problems, or that we will avoid all harm and hardship. Rather, it is recognizing that when we trust God for our individual and communal good and believe God is with us always, we need not fear. Nor is this to make fear the mark of a lack of faith. We all grow afraid at times. Rather, it is to recognize that God did not create us for death but for resurrection, and so also God does not want us to be afraid but to move forward – even and especially in uncertain times – with courage and confidence.
Listen. Be raised up. Do not fear. It’s important to remember that these words are said about and by our Lord as he refuses to linger on the mountain top but comes back down again into the realities of the world – and our life – as he makes his way to Jerusalem. There he will be tried, condemned, and crucified, for the world has no place for the encouragement and hope he offers. But the story does not end with only the courage of one man defying the world. It continues with the promise that God raised this One from the dead so that all of us might have hope that there is more to this life than we can see, that God will be with us every step of our way, and that love and life are stronger than hate and death.
No matter how you may shape your sermon this week, Dear Partner, please know that the words you share are both timely and important. Thank you for offering them, and blessings on your proclamation.
Yours in Christ,