Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Transfiguration of our Lord [Year A] - March 2, 2014 (Matthew 17:1-9)

The Oscars are on tonight. As usual, there will be lots of famous people dressed up real fancy, lots of dramatic acceptance speeches cut off by music, and—let’s face it—lots of hoopla about movies many of us haven’t seen and probably won’t ever have time to see. Although I’m really not much of a movie buff, I confess I always feel a tinge of embarrassment that I’m not more current with this aspect of our culture. Hollywood still seems like a big deal these days, but I’m just not always very aware of what it’s saying. I suppose a large reason for this is because I’ve been so terribly disappointed by movies in the past. There are some good ones out there, but all too often I’ve sat in front of a screen and paid good money only to watch something that makes me wish I had that two hours of my life back.

Regardless, I will probably watch a few minutes of the show tonight with a bit of interest, and when I do, I’ll find myself hoping that none of what they do and say will spoil the various Best Picture nominees for me, or reveal too much of how the movies end up. I suppose there is some off-chance I might see one or two of them someday down the road and I’d want to be moved, surprised, caught off guard. I’d want to be swept along by the storyline…to be held in the palm of the director’s hand…learn or experience just what I’m supposed to from the story.

Therefore, no plot spoilers, please, during tonight’s festivities.

Good for us, however, that Jesus doesn’t really listen to that wish this morning, because his transfiguration is a pretty important glimpse of his final ending, a clue for those who will listen as to how this whole Son of Man thing is going to come together in the end. It’s a pretty extraordinary reveal, although it looks like its effect might be lost on everyone there. First of all, it’s not clear that Peter, James, and John realize the importance of what they’re glimpsing at the top of that mountain in southern Galilee. At first their reaction is one of wonder, but later they become afraid of what they’ve just experienced. They freeze in fear, but do they really grasp the fact they’ve just witnessed the most obvious revelation of Jesus’ identity since, perhaps, his baptism? It’s not entirely clear.

Secondly, Jesus’ transfiguration might not really be considered a plot spoiler because no one who witnesses it could have a clue just how drastically things are going to change as soon as they come down that mountain. I mean, talk about disappointing storylines! This one will take the cake. From dazzling light and visions of glory with Israel’s most famous prophets in front of a select audience of disciples, to a dark and humiliating journey in a valley of tears in front of hundreds of people crying for his blood—this plot is no blockbuster. It’s a disaster. It will be easy to see why none of the disciples seem to remember this shining moment once they get into the thick of things. And, even if they do happen to remember, even if they do fully grasp what they’ve just experienced on that mountaintop, Jesus has specifically ordered them not to spoil the plot for anyone else. “Don’t tell anyone about this,” he says, “until everyone has watched the whole thing through, Jerusalem and all, and the ending credits are rolling.”

The Transfiguration of Christ (Lorenzo Lotto, 1511)
The transfiguration itself is a very mysterious event that stretches the imagination of the modern mind. It’s hard for those of us to get a handle on what exactly is happening. Three of the four gospel writers all report this event and they all agree on the major details: Jesus and his closest disciples ascend a mountain probably somewhere in southern Galilee for an experience that is remarkably similar to what happened to Moses on Mount Sinai centuries earlier. While they’re on top of the mountain, Jesus’ physical appearance somehow changes, involving bright light and really white clothes and the arrival of Israel’s two greatest prophets. That a cloud then descends upon them is the most believable part of this whole experience (haven’t you ever been on top of a mountain when a cloud rolls in?) and then a voice booms through the fog to announce that Jesus is God’s beloved Son and deserves to be listened to. That’s when the disciples freak out. A cloud is scary enough, but the mysterious voice sends them over the edge, figuratively speaking. They cower in fear until Jesus comforts them with a touch of his hand, in the same way he’s healed so many others.

The transfiguration, this peek at the final revelation of Jesus’ glory, is strange to us. We’re far more comfortable with Jesus doing ordinary, everyday things like teaching and telling parables and hanging out with the outcasts. This is a little bit…well, it’s a little bit Hollywood. It’s a little bit science fiction shoved into the ancient hills of first century Palestine. Special effects and CGI technology have no place here.
So, as a result, it’s tempting to begrudge Jesus his transfiguration, saying that there’s no way something like this “actually happened,” that we’re supposed to interpret it allegorically or just crop it from the storyline altogether. We marvel at or even question Jesus’ transfiguration and what it might mean, and…yet don’t we clamor for our own transfigurations? We long to be changed, to experience a metamorphosis, most especially when we encounter God? We go on pilgrimages or mission trips, we sign up for summer camp. Just like the Indigo Girls once sang, “we go to the Bible, we go through the workout, we read up on revival, we stand up for the lookout.” How many of us showed up this morning, for example, with the hope of some brush with the divine? Later this afternoon, when the parents of the 5th and 6th graders who are attending the 7th Day Synod event at Eagle Eyrie greet their children in the parking lot, won’t they expect to see faces shining just like Jesus’ did? Sure, their eyes may be a little bloodshot from a lack of sleep, but don’t we expect them to have experienced something on that mountain this weekend, some deeper intimacy with the God who created them?

Yes, we all long to be transfigured along the way of life, to have communion with a God who draws close to his children, to be lifted, if however briefly, from life’s lowly valley. This is the crux of whatever is occurring with Jesus this morning, as fanciful as his experience sounds As Peter quickly learns, however, and as we all come to understand, this is not going to be all bright lights and famous people all the time, it’s not all “Hey, let’s build three huts and call it a life!” No, life with Jesus, for now, does not consist of one, long, uninterrupted at Eagle Eyrie Retreat Center, not matter how wonderful it is. Jesus knows there is more of the road to be explored. and that is why we and Jesus’ other disciples might need this vision of Jesus’ end at this moment in time.

For there is more of the plot to come, and it’s not going to be just some award-winning performance. It’s going to be awful reality. Remember? We’re going to see the trial and hear the shouts of “Crucify!” and we’re going to get terribly disappointed that the plot has gone this way. Messiahs and Sons of Man aren’t supposed to hang on a cross. People who consult with Moses and Elijah aren’t supposed to be rejected by the people. And the really disappointing news is that the three close disciples, the ones who get to glimpse this glory on Mount Tabor, the ones who should hold this experience closest, vanish when the whips and nails and wood are brought out. The really disappointing news is that the ones of us who often feel the highest spiritual highs, whether in congregational life or in private devotion, are the ones who bail when times get tough…or even just plainly ordinary.

The good news, though, is that God’s decision to reveal his glory to us never depends on our ability to stay faithful to the vision or the promise. Our salvation does not depend on our determination in going through the church workout, in reading up on revival or the amount of times we go to the Bible. When everything is said and done, God gets close to us not by asking us to approach to his light, but by climbing down into our dark world. As we look in disappointment at the Jesus of Good Friday’s disaster, and especially as we confront our own fear and our tendency to turn our backs on this Son of Man’s humility, as we trudge almost hopelessly through the dark valleys of our own life, let’s carry this vision of Jesus so we remember that Golgotha is not his final hill.

So, Jesus, now that you’re risen, we have a request. Forget what I said to Hollywood tonight. Go ahead and spoil this ending for us, Jesus. You still have us in the palm of your hand, after all. From the top of Mount Tabor remind us we can see the empty tomb. And in these valleys we trod, gather us again and feed us. Make our faces shine. Tell us, Jesus, that you will wear that white robe again, and then it will be worn forever. And on that day it won’t just be your robe, Jesus. It will be ours, too, for you will clothe us in it, too, because you love us. All that blood and violence and shame that we know now so well will be washed away. On that day we’ll build a few tents, or something like it, and you will let us stay there in your holy presence forever.

On second thought, there’s no spoiling the plot at all. Rather you’ve saving the plot, Jesus…just like you save and transfigure us all.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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