Way back in the days of the Scoopmire family BC—before children—Bill and I went in with some friends and rented a cabin in Silverton, CO, during the first two weeks of August. One of the most amazing things we got to experience during that time there was the Perseid meteor shower, when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet every year and lights up the night sky.
Being at 10,000 feet made it all seem much more immediate. The stars already seemed close enough to touch—and when those meteors started whooshing and flaring through the midnight sky, it felt like they zinged right overhead.
No wonder then that the ancients believed that mountaintops were “thin places”—and they weren’t just talking about oxygen levels. So many cultures associate mountain tops with coming close to the divine. The Jewish faith is no different. In the book of Exodus, Moses ascended a mountain to talk with God, and when he came down, his face shone so brightly that the people begged him to wear a veil because the light radiating from his visage scared the daylights out of them.
Luke often portrays Jesus as going up on a mountain to pray, and this week’s gospel is no exception. Jesus takes along three of his disciples—Peter, John, and James—and gone off from them a ways to pray. He is at it so long that they have started to nod off a bit, perhaps. Yet even if they had been drowsy, the sudden change to their eyes of Jesus’s appearance probably hit them like a bolt of lightning. Yet there is also a Biblical pun here: the text says they see not actually Jesus but his “glory”—a word associated with God Godself. Yet in Hebrew, the word for glory is kevod, or “heaviness. So they see the weight of God’s majesty shining out while they are weighed down with sleep.
In a moment, and note that it was during prayer, Jesus’s face and indeed whole body and garments become blindingly white, light radiating out from him in a way that perhaps we modern people cannot fully appreciate, what with our spotlights and stadium lights and so on. Our text says that they saw two men with Jesus, and somehow knew it was Moses and Elijah, which has always puzzled me—did they have nametags on? But it is obvious that what is again being revealed here, 8 days after Jesus has foretold his passion and death, is the joining of the inauguration of the Kingdom of God embodied by Jesus to the law, represented by Moses, and the Prophets, represented by the greatest prophet of Biblical times—Elijah. And the disciples could hear that Moses and Elijah are talking to Jesus about what awaits him eventually in Jerusalem. But as soon as they are spotted by the disciples, they depart themselves.
Peter is so overcome in his senses that he begins babbling about building three dwellings and staying on the mountain forever. Then, to top it off, a cloud descends, and from it the voice of God is heard, echoing Jesus’s rise from the water of baptism, declaring Jesus’s status as the Chosen and urging them to listen to him. Then poof! Moses and Elijah are gone, and the four men are once again alone on the mountain.
Now, if our story stopped there, that would be enough of a story on its own. Those of us who have ever had a sublime experience, whether secular or religious, can all probably relate to the wish that it never end. Peter and James and John get to see with their own eyes Jesus as he really is as the Son of God, and it overwhelms each and every one of their senses, it seems. It’s important to remember that Jesus is not CHANGED here, but REVEALED. This is not a story of transformation but of revelation. Transfiguration is the revelation of Jesus’s true nature, an insistent exclamation point on all the signs he has embodied that point to his divine nature dwelling in the same space as his human nature.
And then Jesus comes down and is confronted with the child in need of healing. In a few moments, Jesus, without a word to the demon or indeed to the father who has begged his help, restores the boy to full health. In a way, this is yet another miraculous transfiguration, a revelation of the boy truly is without the weight of his illness marring his health and wholeness.
I think in placing these two stories next to each other, Luke is reminding us that merely experiencing closeness to God is not enough. Even when one person around us is experiencing the mountaintop, another person next to us may be experiencing the torment of the valley.
It’s like that reminder that everyone around us is carrying invisible burdens we do not know about, so be kind. Yet Jesus is more than kind: even with the glory of God still clinging to him, he rolls up his sleeves and gets about the real work of God's kingdom-- which is not showy lights or voices booming from clouds, but rather is dedicated to restoring people to wholeness and shalom, healing and ministering to others on account of the love of God that sustains us all.
We are meant to allow God's love to reveal our true natures, lifting the weight of cynicism and self-centeredness which is so lionized in our culture, and instead bear God's glory down from the mountain into the valley where so many people struggle, empowered by our encounter with the Holy One to be fully human, and therefore fully children of God.
As we leave behind Epiphany with its emphasis on light, with this last brilliant arc against the stillness and darker hues of Lent, may we always bear this reminder, and seek Christ’s face, not just for ourselves, but as a way of empowering our healing presence in the world. May we invite in the light of Christ to transfigure us to reveal our true natures as children of God. May we remember that the mountaintop and the valley are always alongside each other, and be unafraid to enter into the unfamiliar world both represent.
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Preached at the 505 on March 2 and at the 8:00 and the 10:15 services on March 3, 2019, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.