Preached by Rev. Linda Dolby
I was in Philadelphia once for a church meeting. I thought all the stars and excitement in the world were in Hollywood, but when I arrived at the Philly airport, I learned that the NBA All Star game was going played there that night. The news coverage was full of celebrity sightings around town. That caused some of us at the meeting to reflect upon stars we’ve met. When I was a student, I once shared a small dance floor with Cat Stevens, then there was the time I kissed folk singer Harry Chapin, and I once rode in an elevator with George Carlin.
One of my colleagues said that once he and his wife were in Cape Cod. It was summertime and they had stopped to get ice cream. While his wife was in line, she realized that Paul Newman was standing in line, right behind her. Although she was thrilled, she decided to remain cool and collected. She got her ice cream cone, paid for it, turned around, but her ice cream was missing. Paul Newman said to her, “Ma’am, are you looking for your ice cream cone?” “Yes,” she nodded. “I believe you will find it in your purse,” he said. So much for calm and collected.
In today’s scripture, Peter, James, and John have a brush with celebrity. They don’t remain calm and collected either. That’s what I love about the Gospels. They don’t portray the first disciples as saints who do no wrong and always say the right things. No, the disciples are human, just like you and me, and more often than not, they bumble their way along, making mistakes, misunderstanding Jesus, doing the wrong things.
Jesus leads these 3 up a high mountain. Suddenly, Jesus is transfigured before them – his face shone like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white. Then Moses and Elijah appear. Peter, enthusiastic Peter, gets so excited he says, “Wow, this is great. Let’s stay here! I’ll make dwellings for us!” Then another voice speaks, that of the Almighty, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” At this, the disciples did what you and I would do – they got scared and they fell face down to the ground. Jesus says to them, “Don’t be afraid. Get up.” So they did, and there was Jesus standing alone. Then they come down the mountain and Jesus says, “Shh, don’t say a word about what just happened.” A strange story. Doesn’t make much sense. Why did it happen in the first place? Then, why doesn’t Jesus want them to say anything about it?
Well, first I want to say, that if you take any of the Gospel stories out of their context, they might not make sense. What is the context for this one? In the preceding chapter, Jesus is asking the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” “Well, some say your are John the Baptist and other are saying your are Elijah, and others think you are Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “Well,” says Jesus, “What do you think? Who do you say I am?” Peter gets it right. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” “Right! But you know what, to be Messiah means that I am going to suffer and die.” “No. God forbid it Lord,” says Peter. “Get away from me,” says Jesus. And he even calls Peter Satan, because he “has his mind on human things, not the divine.” Then, following the transfiguration, after they come down from the mountain, Jesus cures a boy with epilepsy. The disciples have tried to cure him, but they weren’t able to. But Jesus could. Why? Jesus says it’s because they don’t’ have enough faith, their faith isn’t’ even as big as a mustard seed.
You see, the disciples by this time have figured out that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. What they couldn’t’ get through their heads is that to be Messiah meant that Jesus was going to suffer and die. They were caught up in old ways of thinking, that to be Messiah meant that Jesus was King and Lord, and they expected Jesus to act like a human king and Lord, to be full of power, that he would act majestically and royally and that he would save his people as human kings do, with political and military power. Wrong. Jesus is saying, “I’m going to save you by giving myself up for you. I am going to die – for you. I am going to suffer – for you. I love you this much.” This is suffering love. This is real power. The disciples had a hard time understanding and accepting that.
The worst thing politicians can do today is to change their minds. They’re called flip-floppers and thought to be untrustworthy, people who change their thinking with each gust of political wind and the opinion polls. And yet I believe to be a Christian is to change and to grow, to be open to the winds of the Spirit, to have an open heart and an open mind. We are growing in discipleship when we learn, making more mature decisions and judgments. Which is exactly what happened to the disciples when Jesus was transfigured before them. They saw Jesus in a new light and they are forever changed.
So why the secrecy? If Jesus were the Son of God, why didn’t he want them to talk about it? Peter, James, and John not only have seen Jesus transfigured, they’ve seen Elijah and Moses. They’ve heard the voice of God. Why can’t they come down from the mountain and tell everyone? Isn’t that the point? Doesn’t Jesus want the world to know him and who he really is? Why does Jesus order them to keep quiet?
Have you ever had a mountain top experience? Something that happened that was so powerful it was transforming for you, your mind was changed so that now you understood – now life make sense, now you know your place in the world and why you were put on this earth in the first place? If you have, you know this is a very precious experience indeed. It could be something simple – a prayer answered, a right word spoken by a loved one at the right moment, perhaps it was when your son or daughter was born, maybe when you first fell in love, maybe a time when you felt lost in darkness and then a light appeared, small at first, but enough to help you make your way to the end of the tunnel….
These are special times, hard to speak about. Best pondered. Remember what the Bible says about Mary after the birth of Jesus? And she took all that had happened and pondered them in her heart. Some experiences are too precious for words – at least right away.
Perhaps Jesus wanted Peter, James, and John not to run down the hill and tell everyone about the amazing spectacle. Perhaps Jesus wanted them to ponder, to process the moment, and then, instead of talking about it, Jesus wanted to see them transformed, with changed minds and lives, different actions, because now they understood. Now they had seen with their own eyes, heard with their own ears, and now they lived differently because now they knew, at a bone-deep level, that true strength doesn’t lie in power or majesty. True strength is the power of suffering love, a life lived out, given our, poured out, for others.
My grandparents waited their whole lives to visit the Holy Land. They, who had followed Jesus their whole lives wanted to go and walk where Jesus walked. They finally made the trip, and when they came home, they hung on their walls their certificates of “Attestation of Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.” Some years ago, I got to go too. It was marvelous to see the places I’d so long heard about. I wish I could take all of you on a trip to the Holy Land. I wish we could together go and walk where Jesus walked, but that is not possible. But wait. Do you want to walk where Jesus walked, or walks? Would you like to go up on the Mountain of Transfiguration? Would you like an experience like that of Peter, or James, or John? Would you like to change your mind?
Is our faith only a memory book of things that happened over 2000 years ago or, does Jesus live among us today? Is Jesus only a historical figure, or are we a resurrection people? Do we believe his promise that, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the ends of the earth?”
Transforming moments. Times when light shines in the darkness. They happen today, or yesterday, or maybe tomorrow. You can’t predict. Not only in the Holy Land, but in places like the corner of 6th and North Streets, places made holy because the divine is here. Pay attention to the lumps in your throat, or when you are moved to tears. Those may be transfiguring moments, when God is revealing the divine to you. Enough to change your mind. Enough to move you to tears. Suffering love. Lives given for others. Our eyes have seen the glory. The light shines in the darkness. Amen.
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