The Gospel of Matthew, listed in the Bible as first (you know Matt, Mark, Luke & John…) was actually written after the Gospel of Mark. Mark had already written about most of what is in Matthew, and it is generally understood by academics that the writings of Matthew expanded and embellished it. This is not altogether unusual in religious writing which came from an oral tradition. The readability of Matthew may be preferred over Mark because of its slower pace and attention to human detail. Jesus seems somehow more accessible and therefore the remarkable things that happen are all that more intriguing.
The Gospel text we read today is no exception. It’s a thought provoking, visually powerful account of a transcendental experience Jesus had in the presence of three others with whom he had a close relationship; Peter, James and his brother John. If you accept that people can have transcendent experiences, as I do, what an amazing experience this one must have been. Honestly, if I had been there witnessing Jesus’ glorious transfiguration as the three disciples did, I believe it would have sent me careening down the mountain shaking in my boots. Imagine hiking with your beloved friend and suddenly she turns incandescently, dazzling white, when reaching the top of the mountain! Jesus led them up to this mountaintop experience, which is what we call a mystical experience these days, and they may well have been tired and perhaps subject to some suggestion, but this? Over the top. Not only did Jesus’ face shine like the sun and his clothes turn an incandescent white, but they are met up there by their Biblical heroes Moses and Elijah.
Moses had had his own incandescent experience on Mount Sinai, so this was a sort of parallel occurrence. “The presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus is a strong symbol (because) both Moses and Elijah endured rejection by their people but had support from God. Both were supporters of the Torah (Law) and performed miracles. Elijah was taken up into heaven without having died (according to 2Kings 2:11) (and) legends in 1st Century Judaism suggest Moses also was taken up into heaven before death.” This is all pretty heavy matters of faith isn’t it? A report like this is hard to swallow unless you have a great deal of faith and are willing to suspend your own personal skepticism of what God can or cannot do. That is a choice to make, or not. There is no hard proof that any of this happened but we do have the scriptures to guide us.
Here’s one important aspect of what happened up there on the mountain. Rather than feeling fear and fleeing the scene, Peter took the initiative to stop the action and tries in vain to preserve the moment in time. Listen to this:
4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Why would he do that – build three houses or “dwellings” for them on top of this mountain? Maybe he was trying to freeze a beautiful moment so that it would never go away. Have you ever done that? Sure, we all have! You’re on top of a mountain or by the ocean and the sun is out and you’re with your best buddies and you just wish you could freeze that moment in time. So, you take a picture, put it up on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter so everyone can share the experience with you and it will be preserved in perpetuity. Except..the moment really isn’t saved. It’s just a picture – a rather pale representation of a glorious moment in time. I remember so clearly 20 odd years ago, holding my beautiful little baby close while napping on the couch. She had that lovely sweet baby aroma and she was warm and sleeping peacefully. At that moment, all was tranquil, quiet and safe. The baby wasn’t fussing and nobody was asking us for anything. You could call it a perfect moment, maybe even a holy moment between my baby, me and God. Oh, how I wanted that moment to last forever! Of course, that is impossible because time moves on, the phone rings, work calls, the bills must be paid and the baby wakes from her nap and must be fed. All of a sudden, she’s 25. Nothing can remain static, forever the same.
God’s response to Peter and the others wanting to enshrine the moment was rather abrupt and dramatic, in verse 5
While he (Peter) was still speaking, suddenly 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!”
God was boldly interrupting Peter and the rest of the crew, in essence saying, Jesus has bigger fish to fry than to be enshrined in a sacred building on top of a mountain. God living up on a mountain was so old school, like the Roman and Greek gods. No, God said, Jesus’ work as my son has just begun and it cannot be frozen in time just to preserve this glorious moment. Indeed, the transfiguration is the very essence of Jesus being initiated into the realm of immortality. God let them and us know that Jesus’ place was not up on a mountain but amongst the rest of us, every day people. Jesus, at least in this Gospel text, is from here on in considered bigger than life itself and “listen to him” is a direct command from the Big Guy. When I read a passage like this I think to myself, who am I to try and freeze Jesus within my own limited parameters of perception? I can’t keep Jesus in a box! (take plastic Jesus out of the box) What Jesus says and does is way beyond my human understanding.
This morning let’s do a meditation about your understanding of who Jesus was and is. Take a deep breath or two slowly in and out. Close your eyes or just lower your eyes to a space in front of you so you are not distracted. Sit back in your pew and allow yourself to relax into your own personal space. Think about the image you have in your mind about Jesus.
What does he look like?
How tall is he?
What is the hue of his skin color?
What about his hair and his clothing and what he has on his feet?
Think about the stories you heard as a child about him being a carpenter and spending a lot of time traveling by foot to minister to people in need. Now with that image in mind, imagine that the great white light of God’s love begins to emanate up from Jesus’ feet and he becomes beaming with light from head to toe, spreading love and warmth all over the place. Imagine you are inside that light and warmth in the presence of God and it gives you a sense of safety and joy. Just be with that feeling for a moment as we pause in a moment of silence. When you are ready, take a cleansing breath and bring yourself back into the room with us. Then when you are ready, open your eyes.
There are times when I feel I have it all figured out about what Jesus is saying to us through scripture. And then we come upon a complex text like today’s which is imbued with historical meaning and I realize that God’s hand is all over it and I will always be stumped by the mystery of God and God’s ever moving, expanding and evolving presence in the world, right here, right now. God is found not only on a mountaintop, as beautiful an experience as it is to be up there looking at the view and feeling the wind. God is here with us. And God is out there with street people and with those who do not wish to be in a church building. God will not be boxed in. The knowledge of that, hearing God’s voice and
seeing Jesus go from friend, to incandescent being and back to person again made the Disciples fall right down on the ground, the Bible says “in fear.” Well, ya! I guess it would be fearsome to hear God directly giving you an order to listen to Jesus. Are you listening? Can you take Jesus and God out of the box or dwelling of your understanding and allow yourself to be open to God’s presence everywhere?
You know, Ash Wednesday is coming up this week, signifying the beginning of Lent. It is an excellent time to shake off your old dusty preconceptions of God. It’s a great time to take Jesus out of the box of your mind and put him out there in front. A chance to be in a closer relationship with God’s work in the world for those whom God loves beyond all measure. Be good to yourself, to your friends and family and, most especially, to the strangers in your midst. Come walk with Jesus for 40 days on his journey to Jerusalem and be open to the experience of being with him in a new way. Amen.