Reflection February, 18, 2023
Rev. Brent Gundlah

I used to play a lot of golf back in the day, and one of my regular companions on the course was my friend Carl. Now, Carl is kind of intense — about a lot of things, including golf. So when Carl called me to invite me to play a round before work in the middle of the summer, it meant that we’d need to tee off by 5:15 am because Carl wanted to play eighteen holes.

I’m kind of an early riser but that was too early even for me. And so I’d inevitably meet Carl somewhere on the course at a slightly more reasonable hour. I caught up with him that day on the fourth tee, and as I approached I sensed that he was absolutely livid. This seemed odd because this was hardly the first time I’d arrived late.

As it turned out, it wasn’t my tardiness, in and of itself, that infuriated Carl; it was the fact that my tardiness had deprived him of a witness to the hole in one he claimed to have made on the previous hole. I’m certain that he was telling the truth but, since this kind of thing is reasonably rare, it would have been better if someone (namely, me) could have corroborated his story in order to make this incredible occurrence…. credible.

Today’s passage from Matthew tells the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. An event like this one needs a name and Transfiguration is probably as good of a name as any.

Naming things is important to us because it helps us to think that we are controlling them somehow. Placing them into neat little boxes is the first step in trying to make some sense out of them. And so we tend to give stories about strange occurrences names like “The Resurrection” or “The Epiphany” or “The Transfiguration” or a “Hole in One” in order to make it seem like we’ve grasped their mystery.

Jesus tells Peter, James and John to tell no one about what they witnessed up there on the mountain, but keeping a story like this under-wraps couldn’t have been easy; they must have wanted to share what they saw and heard with everyone. Eventually somebody talked — if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have this story. And this makes sense because a story this incredible had to be told.

And by “incredible,” I mean it’s hard to believe. Put yourself in the disciples’ shoes; they get back to camp after spending the day with Jesus (and Moses and Elijah and God) on the mountain and the other disciples ask them: “So, how did it go up there today?”

“Fine,” they’d answer abruptly, hoping to leave it at that — both because Jesus told them not to say anything for the time being, and because they figured everyone would think they were either lying or crazy. I mean, we’ve heard Jesus’s whole story before; we know how it goes, we know what happens next. But they’re right in the middle of that story and they definitely don’t understand everything that’s happening here.

We have to remember that, up to this point, the disciples’ experience of Jesus has consisted mostly of hearing him teach and watching him heal people. These deeds are important and impressive but, back, then wise men who professed to be healers were common. The disciples understand that Jesus is worth listening to, they appreciate the way in which he goes about his business, and they sense that he’s a cut above the rest. Heck, Peter even recently acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, even if he doesn’t really get what that means.

What happens up there on that mountain, though, takes things to a whole new level. Peter, James and John learn that Jesus is, in fact, pretty special — because God tells them so.

God has made God’s self known in the Bible several times before this — consider, for example, God’s ongoing conversation with Moses that begins in Exodus. More recently, God appears at Jesus’s baptism. In that story, though, its unclear whether anyone but Jesus actually hears God speak. But up here on Transfiguration Mountain others experience God’s presence too. That’s right, this time we’ve got witnesses.

Now put yourself in their shoes: What would you have done? How would you have reacted? What would you have said?

You’ve learned — in spectacular fashion, I might add — that this teacher you have followed, this friend you thought you knew, is a much bigger deal than you ever thought. You’ve just found out — from God, no less — that Jesus is God’s Beloved Son. And when you hear all this and fall to the ground in fear, Jesus reaches out and touches you like a normal person would in order to comfort you. Your whole understanding of how the world works is falling apart before your very eyes — replaced by a different way of seeing all sorts of things, including God.

“So, how did it go up there on the mountain today, guys?”

“Well, when we got to the top, Jesus’s face suddenly shone like the sun and his clothes became a dazzling white. Next, Moses and Elijah showed up to talk with Jesus. Oh, and then this cloud overshadowed us and this voice — it was God’s — told us that Jesus was his beloved Son, and said that we were supposed to listen to him.”

Who on earth would believe any of that?

“So, how did it go up there on the mountain today, guys?”

On second thought, its probably better just to say, “Fine.”  At least for now, anyway.

Because, let’s face it — the Transfiguration is a pretty weird story, even by biblical standards. And it’s still strange to us today, even though we know where the bigger story has been and is going. We know all about the Epiphany, the Baptism, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection;

we know at least a little bit about how the various pieces of this puzzle fit together.

From our vantage point, centuries later, we might think we have it all figured out. And so we roll our eyes at poor, misguided Peter as he wants to build houses on the mountain so they can stay there, continuing to bask in a glory that few have ever experienced. 

But maybe Peter just wants to share this incredible-ness with the only other people who could possibly understand it because they lived it too. And this makes perfect sense — once they’ve heard and seen and felt all of this up there, why would they ever want to come back down here? The world can be kind of a tough place, you know. And so Peter’s first instinct is to do what humans do — construct boxes to hold on to what we’ve found, to preserve it, to control it, to keep it safe. 

But the Transfiguration can’t be jammed into any container that we might build for it; this story of long-lost prophets who appear out of thin air, a glowing Jesus and a talking God will always defy rational explanation.

And yet we can’t quite seem to leave this story alone; we read it and reflect upon it on this Sunday right before Lent every single year. There’s just something about it that just keeps drawing us in.

Maybe it’s because we’ve all had times and places in our lives where we’ve engaged with and encountered the transcendent — even if we couldn’t understand it or talk about it afterwards. It might not be anything as spectacular as what Peter, James, and John find on the mountain, but it’s something that enables us to see beyond our present experience, something that enables us to know that we are part of a totality that’s bigger than ourselves. 

It might be sensing that God has placed certain people or situations in our lives.

It might be visiting somewhere and feeling that we’re somehow closer to God there.

It might be looking into the face of a complete stranger and for no apparent reason thinking, “there goes an angel of the Lord.”

Maybe we don’t talk about such experiences because we’re afraid that people will think we’re crazy.

Maybe we can only talk about them after we’ve had some time to process them, to put them in some sort of context.

Maybe we’re only comfortable sharing them with our closest companions on the journey. I imagine that Peter, James and John felt the same way.

Part of what makes their story so compelling is that it’s unlike anything that most of us have actually ever experienced. If we’ve sensed the presence of God in our lives, chances are that it was in a far more subtle and understated way than what these three disciples encounter here.

If I were there, I probably would have fallen upon the ground in fear too. But I also really do want to see the bright lights, the white robes and the gathering clouds; I want to hear God’s voice God speaking to me that clearly; and I want Jesus to reach out his actual hand in order to comfort me too.

God’s Beloved Son and Jesus of Nazareth. The Transfiguration is one of the only places where the Bible gives us a glimpse of both the Divine Jesus and the Human Jesus — and this is powerful. Remember, “Jesus Christ” is not his first and last name; it is a way of expressing as best we can in human language the idea that he’s one of us and not quite one of us at the same time. We get a sense of that complexity in these nine lines from Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus’s presence is made known in the spectacular and in the ordinary.

As Epiphany ends and Lent begins — as we once again accompany Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, to the cross and beyond — this story of the Transfiguration invites us not only to reflect on the incredible mystery of Jesus (the Jesus of the bright lights and white robes) but also to consider all of the places and situations in our everyday lives where we encounter him (the Jesus who reaches out to us in person, and in people).

So, as you leave here today and go about your lives, remember to pay attention — for in the face of the next person you meet, you might just see an angel of the Lord.