As I read this transfiguration story, I think of visiting Mt. Tabor. We were there in September and this story most likely took place just before Passover in the Spring, so I realize the weather may have been different. On the day we were there it was hot and humid and a moist haze lay over the land. This haze obscured the view from the top of the mountain. I didn’t even bother to take pictures of the valley. I did photograph the inside of the church of the transfiguration, the ruins of the Byzantine church next door, and the gardens. It was a beautiful place.
Getting to the top was a hair-raising experience. The road up is a series of switchbacks and there are vans that haul pilgrims to the top and back down again. I suspect that much of the praying that goes on in the church involves thanksgiving for making it in one piece to the top and for protection to arrive safely at the bottom again. There may even be some conversion experiences in the vans themselves. We don’t know if Jesus and his closest friends made it all the way to the top but, if they were up there, it certainly would have been private and it would have been a workout to climb up without the vans and their drivers (God bless them). It gives us an idea of how desperate Jesus was to get away from the crowds that he would go to so much effort and drag his three friends along with him. So, this transfiguration story how does it inform us about our lives as Jesus’ followers?
Peter’s proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah happened just a few days before this, followed immediately by his rejection of Jesus’ impending death. So, Jesus takes them on a mountain hike to sleep outside under the stars--was he trying to work off some of Peter’s energy? Did he know something special would happen? Some of the disciples had suggested that Jesus not go to Jerusalem for Passover this year, that it was too dangerous. Did he want time to talk to God so he could discern what to do next? We don’t know why he went to the mountain or what he prayed about. We do have eyewitness accounts of what happened when he was there.
It was nighttime--Peter, James and John were having trouble staying awake while Jesus prayed. Can you imagine having a long day in humid Galilee, then finishing with a climb up a mountainside? The companions were likely thinking, “Okay, he’s praying again, I can rest a bit,” then they were startled to full wakefulness by a bright light. Here was Jesus as they had never seen him before and he wasn’t alone. Somehow, the men knew who Moses and Elijah were. Neither Moses nor Elijah had bones preserved anywhere. Elijah had been taken up in the chariot of fire right before Elisha’s eyes. Moses went up on a Moab mountain to look at the Promised Land and never came down. Both men were saviors of the Israelites. Both stood up when called and went about the task of either physical or spiritual salvation for the Hebrews. Each of them either had experiences that pointed to the Messiah or had prophesied about the Messiah.
And, Jesus is having a conversation with them. Luke tells us “they were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish…” Three men clothed in white robes so dazzling no bleach could make them so and they are speaking of death. What did Moses and Elijah know about death? They did know about departures: Moses had left many places--Egypt, his wife’s family home, and then Egypt again. Elijah had left in the chariot.
I wonder what those three disciples were thinking. They were awake but very tired. Peter had recently made the statement that Jesus was the Son of God, the Christ. Here he is confronted with proof that Jesus is-at the least-really special in God’s eyes-right up there with Moses and Elijah. As Moses and Elijah were leaving, Peter suggested that they build three tents so Jesus can stay there with Moses and Elijah. While he was still speaking, the glory of the Lord, the Shekinah, descended upon them and they were completely engulfed by it. God spoke to them-they all heard it: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.”
These three men had seen Jesus emanating dazzling light so bright that his plain clothes become bright white. They saw him as he was before the incarnation and after his ascension--it’s not something you would easily forget. After God spoke to them, the cloud left and Jesus was back to himself, unremarkable in plain clothes.
What was he like? He was as dirty as anyone who traveled the road. He had the hands of a laborer-rough and callused. Can you imagine him working over wood or stone with dust in his hair and beard and dirt on his hands? But what was it about his character that drove people to follow him around the countryside? The tone of his voice, the expression in his eyes, the way he listened and responded to people?
The people who followed him must have had doubts. We know some chose to go back home when he told them it would be difficult. Peter, James and John ascended a mountain with a man dressed in a drab cloak that was suddenly transformed into dazzling white. Now these three men had seen his deity and had heard the voice of God. Peter said it, now they had seen and heard it. Yet, they held their tongues.
How does this story relate to us? How are we transformed by our relationship with God and with one another? Are we transformed?
It is like going to see manatees in Florida and how people are transformed with delight. I know I am. If I don’t see manatees in Florida, the trip is not complete. We can learn a lot from manatees. There is a lovely place in Florida that has been restored to its natural state--mainly for the manatees. It is called Blue Spring. Water at about 73 degrees pumps out of a cave at millions of gallons a day. The manatees hang out there in the winter because they can’t survive in water that is below sixty some degrees. This spring eventually flows into the St. John’s River, which has the water hyacinths the manatees like to eat. On really cold days you can count on manatee sightings in this spring run. This year we hit a really cold stretch of weather so we went to Blue Spring. There were so many manatees there we couldn’t count them. It is so much fun watching them and the people who come to see them. It is truly exciting to see layers of manatees in the water. We had never seen so many at one time. On some days that week there were over 300 of them in this spring run. People are transformed by watching them.
One remarkable thing about manatees is their docility. They never try to bite one another, they seem to have no territories--one slides over the top of another and no one complains. I’ve never heard them make a sound other than exhaling when their snouts rise above the water. They are a wonderful example of trusting that God will care for them--that what they need will be provided. I will never get enough of them--of seeing them. People get so excited when a snout is exposed or a fluke. I did hear a teenager on one of our visits say it was boring and “Let’s move on.” I guess she thought it wouldn’t be cool to ooh and ah with the others. Manatees feed my soul just because we share the same universe. I will never forget the one time I saw a snout rise from below the water hyacinths to take a large mouthful--that was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Why manatees to fill that particular niche? Are they there just to delight the soul to help us see how to live in harmony with others?
These kinds of experiences are transforming for me. I have also been transformed by God’s love for me, by his professed love for his son. And, I try to look for Christ in all that I meet. What is Christ-like about a manatee? I really have no idea but I like the example they set. Be kind to one another, who really needs personal space, it’s cold--let’s find a warm pool and relax together. They work for their food and they know how to take a nice break. And because people want to keep these lovely and exotic creatures on the planet, Blue Spring has been transformed to its former self to be protected into perpetuity.
Jesus’ ministry and words were validated by God four times that I can think of. The descending Holy Spirit at his baptism, the ministry of food after 40 days in the wilderness, God’s voice at the transfiguration, and when he was raised from the dead. We and those around us are in the process of being transfigured/transformed by the Holy Spirit in the relationships we have with one another and with God. Let us always be mindful to look for this transformation in ourselves and others. We can also see this transformation in the world around us. In manatees at a spring. In teenagers who find them boring. In people who care enough to preserve a place so the manatees have a refuge on cold days.