February 19, 2023 – The Transfiguration of Our Lord – Matthew 17:1-9
If we tell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration as an event rather than an experience, it makes for a challenging story. And not just because our modern minds struggle to find a rational explanation of what happened on the mountain, but also because the Transfiguration was much more than an event or events. The narration of what happened goes like this: Jesus took Peter, James, and John up onto a mountain. Jesus’ face and clothes began to glow with light. Moses and Elijah showed up and engaged Jesus in conversation. Peter made a strange comment about building dwellings for them, but then a mysterious bright cloud rolled in, God spoke, and the disciples fell to the ground in abject terror. Jesus raised them up with comforting words and touch, and in the blink of an eye, everything was back to normal. These are the facts, so to speak. The nuts and bolts of what happened that day. It’s probably just as well that Jesus instructed the three not to tell anyone about what happened up on the mountain because, well, who would have believed them? This was much more than an event – it was an experience. And while it’s easy to narrate an event, it’s much harder to describe an experience.
Here’s an example. I could tell you the story of how Tricia and I were in Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. I could narrate the details. I could explain how we only saw three innings because it was the completion of a game which had been suspended for weather two days earlier. I could tell the story of how we lucked into the tickets for free. I could describe how Chase Utley faked a throw to first and then threw out the runner at the plate, keeping the Rays from taking the lead. I could narrate all the details, but there are no words that can describe what it was like when the last Rays’ batter struck out in the top of ninth. Tricia snapped a photo of me that comes closer to conveying the experience than my words ever could. But even that visual image cannot do it justice. And if that’s true for a baseball game, how much more so for an experience of God. A recital of the events cannot convey the experience.
So let’s look at Jesus’ experience of the Transfiguration. He went up onto the mountain. In Jesus’ time, mountains were places of prayer because the ancients understood earth to be here (gesturing) and heaven up there (gesturing). You were literally closer to God on the mountain – not that Jesus needed that advantage in prayer, of course. Nevertheless, he went up on the mountain to pray, and he seemed to have some mystical experience of God because he began to glow dazzling white. But did the experience change him? If we take seriously our belief that Jesus is God and Jesus is human – not half and half, not sometimes human and sometimes God, but fully God and fully human all the time – then perhaps we have to say that Jesus wasn’t the one who was changed on the mountain. He was always God – it’s just that other people couldn’t always see it. That’s why, honestly, it’s not the experience of Jesus that interests me as much as the experience of Peter, James, and John. Because they were the ones who were truly changed. For the first time, they were able to see who Jesus really was all the time, and not just in that moment – not just the Son of God, but God. God, beyond our ability to understand. God beyond our ability to know. God beyond our ability to describe as anything other than pure light. And in their experience of God, Peter, James, and John became better equipped to be what God intended them to be: light-bearers to the world.
In the mystery of the Transfiguration, we, too, catch a glimpse of that pure light that was always present but only sometimes visible in Christ – the light of God. And likewise, when we experience God’s overwhelming light and love, we begin to sense who it is that we are meant to be – people who reflect the light into the world. When we were baptized, we received the light of God’s presence within us through the power of the Holy Spirit. That light is always shining within us. But others can’t always see it. Sometimes others don’t see God’s light in us because our failures and shortcomings dim the light: when our minds are narrowed, when our hearts are closed, when our hands are clenched in anger or selfishness. That happens. We can obscure the light. But more often than not, I suspect, others can’t see God’s light in us because we forget that it’s there. Sometimes we forget about the light within us because we get caught up in our own stuff – our own problems, our own struggles. Even more sadly, sometimes we forget about God’s light within us because we experience a deep sense of unworthiness – that we could not possibly be good enough or generous enough or compassionate enough or faithful enough or fill-in-the-blank enough for God’s light to be visible in us. But see, the light in us doesn’t depend on us. It was planted there by God. And it continues to burn, no matter how dimly, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And our job is this: “Let your light so shine that others may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Let your light – the light of God – let your light so shine that others, when they see us loving each other and serving each other and working for and with each other, when they see our works, they glorify not us but the one who made it all possible by shining within us. See, letting our light shine isn’t about the light of our personality or our gifts or even our works or our faith. It’s about remembering that God’s light is already burning within us and then fanning those flames by coming to hear God’s word and being fed at the table and finding fellowship and support within the body of Christ. And when we fan those flames by experiencing God’s love in this community, we will grow brighter and brighter, more and more like God in love and mercy, allowing others to see God at work in us.
May you experience the bright cloud of God’s presence overshadowing you when you pray, when you receive the Lord’s Supper, when you participate in this community. And as we experience God’s light and love, may we glow so that all the world may know and experience God through us.