We celebrate today the Feast of the Transfiguration. The season of Epiphany, a time with the light of Jesus being made known to us, has come to an end, we soon lean into the season of Lent. So today is that hinge point between the two seasons.
Jesus has only recently presented the disciples with the critical question, "Who do people say that the son of man is?" They replied, "John the Baptist or some say Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets." That answer didn't satisfy Jesus. Now he fixes his gaze on the disciples and asks "Who do you say I am? To which Peter boldly declares, "You're the Messiah", he said, "You are the son of the living God." Jesus replied, "God's blessing on you, Simon son of John. Flesh and blood didn't reveal that to you, it was my father in heaven."
We have walked with Jesus and the disciples through the many months of ministry from baptism and the voice of God anointing Jesus with the words, "This is my son, my beloved one with whom I am well pleased", through times of teaching, praying, calming the storm, raising a little girl, the death of his cousin John the Baptist, parables, miraculous feedings. More often than not the disciples were confused by many of Jesus words and actions, and they could not fully comprehend who was this man that they so faithfully followed and where was he leading them. And then Peter got it, he really got it when he proclaimed, "Jesus you are the Messiah." This must have been a huge revelation for the disciples, an aha moment with the realization of who Jesus is to them and to their world.
As our Gospel reading opens it is only six days after that momentous proclamation as Jesus invites his three closest friends Peter, James and John to come with him up to a high place. Then right in front of them he was transfigured. His face shone like the sun, his clothes, whiter than white. Not only that but Moses and Elijah appeared and they were talking with Jesus.
Peter couldn't remain silent, he just had to say something. "Master", he said to Jesus, "it's wonderful to be here!" "Let's make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah." Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them and they heard a voice. "This is my Son the Beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him!" The disciples were scared out of their wits and they fell on their faces.
James came to them, touched them and said, "Get up and do not be afraid." They looked up and saw no one except Jesus. As they came down the mountain, Jesus cautioned them to tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.
Mount Tabor, the traditional site of the Transfiguration, is a large round hill in central Galilee. When you go there with a group of pilgrims you have to get out of the large tour bus and take a taxi to the top. They say that God is especially pleased with the Mount Tabor taxi drivers because more praying goes on in the short time hurtling up or down the narrow mountain road in those cars than in the rest of the day or possibly the whole week.
From this mountain you get an extraordinary view of Galilee spread out in front of you.
Have you been on a high place where on a clear day you can see for miles and miles? The air is lighter, colors brighter and you feel spiritually uplifted. For ages people have believed that when you are on a: high place you are actually closer to God.
As you recall the beauty of high places it's somewhat jarring to become aware of the parallel and contrast of the Transfiguration scene to that of the crucifixion. When you reflect on the Gospel scene you might hold the other in your mind as well. Here, on a mountain is Jesus revealed in glory, there, on a hill outside Jerusalem on a cross Jesus is revealed in shame and defeat. Here, his clothes are shining white, there, they have been stripped off, soldiers gambling for them. Here, he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel's greatest heroes, there, two thieves representing the sad level to which Israel had sunk in rebellion to God. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene, there, darkness comes upon the whole land. Here, Peter blurts how wonderful it is, there, he is hiding in shame after denying he even knows Jesus. Here, a voice from God himself declares that this is his wonderful son, there, a pagan soldier declares in surprise, that this really is God's son.
These stories are about being surprised by the power, love and beauty of God. But the point of it is that we should learn to recognize that same power, love and beauty within Jesus, and to listen to it in his voice even when he tells us to take up the cross and follow him.
Matthew's Gospel gives another parallel, this between Jesus and Moses. Long ago Moses led the children out of Egypt, then went up a mountain to receive the law, amid smoke, fire and thunder. Throughout Matthew’s story he points to the way in which Jesus is like Moses, only more so. Now, as Moses once again meets God on the mountain the voice draws attention to Jesus, confirming what Peter had declared previously. Jesus isn't just a prophet, he is God's own son, the Messiah.
As our Gospel story comes to an end, when all is over, when Moses and Elijah are gone, the voice is quiet. Jesus' face and clothing have returned to normal and the disciples are in a state of holy awe, all that is left is Jesus. The disciples are once again with their Lord, their teacher, their friend. Jesus, the one whose clothes and face shone like the sun, the one whom the very heavens proclaim as God's own beloved Son will not leave them.
Get up, do not be afraid. I am with you always.
Attributed: Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone.