Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.
Though there’s nothing terribly impressive about the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, there is one thing about it that is almost impossibly romantic. You may be wondering how there can be romance in a mass transit system; I will explain. You see, the T, as it’s known, is comprised of five different lines, each designated by a different color: red, orange, green, silver, and blue. On four of these lines, the names of the stops are fairly straightforward: they describe the location above drily and accurately. On the blue line, however, the names of the stops are imbued with a romance that is unparalleled in any of the country’s other mass transit systems. From the jauntily nautical “Aquarium” to the pastoral sounding “Wood Island” to the impossibly exotic “Orient Heights,” the names of the blue line stops bring to mind images far more beguiling than the world we typically inhabit. Appropriately, the most romantic name of all is reserved for the end of the line: “Wonderland.” The very thought of that name invites the rider of the blue line into a reverie of possibility and beauty, into a world that far exceeds our limited imagination.
Now, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Aquarium is not actually filled with giant fish, Wood Island is not a primeval forest sprouting from the middle of the sea, and Orient Heights is not filled with pagodas and rickshaws. And while one knows intellectually that these stops could not possibly live up to the romance of their names, it is still incredibly dispiriting to discover that they are like any other place. All of these stops are disappointingly mundane, featuring the same shops, same people, and same challenges that characterize the rest of Boston and the rest of the world. Most disappointing of all is Wonderland. Though the name evokes images that transcend even our wildest imaginations, Wonderland is, in fact, home to a run-down amusement park and a dog track. When one emerges from the depths of Wonderland station, there is a moment of spirit crushing self-realization as one thinks, “Is that it? Is that all it is?” It is one of those disappointments that makes you want to go back in time and pretend you don’t know what you know, to remain on the subway car and dwell in the safety of your imagination rather than face the cold certainty of reality.
Today we celebrate the Transfiguration, the commemoration of the time Jesus took Peter and James and John up a mountain, was physically transformed in front of them, talked with Moses and Elijah, and then returned down the mountain as if nothing happened. It’s one of the stranger moments in the gospel account, not because God’s presence is made manifest to mortals (that actually happens with some frequency in Scripture), but because it has so little to do with the rest of the story. The Transfiguration is an event that takes place in nearly all the gospel accounts, and in none of them does it seem to be a terribly important part of the narrative. This is strange, because these moments when God is made manifest to mortals, known as theophanies, are usually hinge points in the lives of those who have these experiences. After Moses experiences God in the burning bush, he embraces his responsibility to lead his people out of Egypt. After Elijah experiences God in the still small voice on the top of Mount Horeb, he sets off to find the remnant that had not bowed the knee to Baal. After Jesus experiences God during his baptism in the Jordan, he enters the wilderness to begin forty days of fasting, prayer, and discernment. Theophanies are typically moments of transformation, so it is strange that not much seems to change in the lives of Peter, James, John, or even Jesus after the Transfiguration. In the very next passage, we find the disciples complaining that they are unable to cast out a demon, which is what we have come to expect from the often-clueless disciples; nothing seems to have changed. This is made all the more confusing by the fact that the word we translate as “transfiguration” is literally “metamorphosis.” The whole story seems to hinge on this notion of change, and yet we are told that things have quite deliberately remained the same; Jesus even tells the disciples not to say anything about what happened. The Transfiguration is a deeply perplexing moment in the life of our Lord: Jesus is literally transformed in front of his closest disciples and yet doesn’t seem to want anyone or anything changed as a result.
Why is this? Why would Jesus, who is so utterly focused on conversion and amendment of life, be so uninterested in the transformative effects of arguably the most dramatic moment of transformation in his life and ministry? It might be helpful for us to consider the story from Exodus we heard this morning. The echoes between the story of the Transfiguration and the story of Moses ascending the mountain to receive the tablets of the Law are obvious. In both cases, people are enshrouded by cloud on a mountaintop. In both cases, Moses figures prominently. And in both cases, mortals encounter and experience the living God. There is one distinction, however, that seems to be of particular significance. In the reading from Exodus, notice how many times we hear that people had to wait. God tells Moses to wait, Moses and Joshua tell the elders of the people to wait, Moses waited six days before he ascended the mountain, and the people of Israel waited as Moses remained on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights. All of this waiting serves to underscore the significance of what was happening on the mountain. The waiting allowed Moses and the people of Israel to anticipate what was coming. The waiting represented a time of expectancy and hope, an awareness that this encounter with God, that this moment on the mountain was going to change everything.
We can actually see Peter exhibiting this familiar sense of anticipation and expectancy in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration. As soon as Moses and Elijah appear, Peter seems to recognize it as a theophany, a moment when he will encounter the living God, and he makes appropriate plans: “Moses is here? That must mean we’re doing Exodus all over again! We may be here forty days!” His exuberant reverie is interrupted, however, by a voice from heaven that says, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased: listen to him.” After falling on the ground (which is the appropriate and expected response to hearing the voice of the Lord), Jesus taps Peter on the shoulder, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” I can’t help but notice that at the first opportunity the disciples have to listen to Jesus, to obey the command of the very living God, Jesus gives them the surprisingly mundane instruction to “get up.” Immediately after that, he tells them to keep their mouths shut about the events that have transpired. Surely Jesus could have used the opportunity to impart some timeless spiritual truth or to issue some complicated command. After all, the disciples were probably more than ready to listen after God himself told them to do so. Instead, Jesus uses his newly imparted authority to get the disciples off the mountain, to point them away from the theophany, to point them towards the next steps of their journey.
In many ways, it’s not at all surprising that Peter wanted to linger on the mountain. After all, just prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus informed his disciples that he would undergo great suffering and be crucified at the hands of the authorities. Just before his Transfiguration, Jesus had just made it abundantly clear that his glory would be revealed in the agony and humiliation of the cross. So when Peter saw Jesus’ glorious transformation on the mountaintop, perhaps he wondered if another way was possible. Perhaps he wondered if Jesus could bypass the cross by revealing his glory surrounded by cloud and situated between the symbolic arbiters of the Law and the prophets. It seems that Peter wanted to stay on the mountain because he was afraid of what waited for him at its base. It seems that Peter wanted to maintain his illusions about Wonderland and ignore its cold reality. I think that all of us can sympathize with Peter. All of us know what it feels like to put our efforts into hiding ourselves from the frightening realities of the world. All of us know what it feels like to spend our time worrying about risk rather than trusting in possibility. All of us know what it feels like to live lives shaped not by hope, but fear. But by taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that the glory revealed on the mountaintop is fleeting, but the true depth of God’s glory is revealed on the cross. By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that true transformation does not occur through cosmic special effects, but through God’s self-emptying love. By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that true theophanies occur not only on the mountaintop, but also on street corners and at homeless shelters, at rundown amusement parks and dog tracks, at places called the Skull. By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus is telling us that we experience the way of life and peace not by dwelling in the safety of our limited imaginations, but by sacrificially risking ourselves in love for others and by refusing to be afraid of failure.
We are about to embark upon the season of Lent. More than anything else, Lent is an opportunity for us to take those risks to which Jesus invites us as he tells us to “get up.” It’s an opportunity for us to get out of our comfort zones, to step down from our hiding places on the mountaintop and encounter God in a new and perhaps surprising way. It’s easy to slip into the fallacy that the season of Lent is a reset button for our New Year’s resolutions or a “spiritual Olympics” when we prove just how holy we are. But attitudes like this miss the challenging beauty of this season. At its best, Lent is about disturbing us in our complacency and impelling us to meet God in the unvarnished reality and brokenness of the world. As we descend from the mountaintop and enter the holy season of penitence and renewal, I pray that all of us will have the grace to see Lent as an opportunity to embrace the hard realities of this world and experience the God who far exceeds our limited imagination.