A Homily for the Transfiguration of Our Lord
Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; St. Matthew 17:1-9
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Transfigured Lord, the Beloved One. Amen.
“The mountains are calling and I must go…” John Muir’s words, written nearly 150 years ago while in exploring the Sierra Nevada mountains, are just as relatable in this year of our Lord 2020 as they were in 1873. For Muir, and for all of us who feel the call to walk the woods, time in the mountains provided insight into the God who laid the foundations of the earth. Reflecting on his time in Yosemite and the majestic expanse of the Mountain West, he wrote:
The glory of the Lord is upon all His works, but here, in this place of surpassing glory, the Lord has written in capitals.
This rugged man of the woods is certainly not alone – even to this day, many Christians of diverse traditions use the term “mountaintop experience” to describe intense encounters with the Triune God, whether it’s the sublime beauty of a national park calling us into deeper relationship with the Creator of the Universe, feeling the Spirit move anew while singing an ancient and well-loved hymn, or simply a tranquil moment lying in bed during the dark of the night, finding our hearts resting for just a brief instant in God’s peace. These moments are life-changing and hold a sort of fascination; in these experiences, something holy, what philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum, calls to us and holds our attention even as we struggle to comprehend.
Saints throughout the ages have summitted mountains to encounter the majestic mystery who is the Holy One of Israel. Throughout Scripture, prophets and patriarchs have been summoned to climb into God’s presence. Abraham and Isaac ascended Mount Moriah to make an offering to the Lord, and it was there that God stilled Abraham’s hand while also providing a ram to take Isaac’s place on the altar. According to Jewish tradition, this is the same mountain where the Temple was built centuries later, where Jews today still flock to pray at its foundation.
Moses, leading the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Law. On this sacred summit, as we just read, the glory of God was so overwhelming as to forever change Moses’ appearance, his face reflecting the divine light of God’s most holy majesty for the rest of his years. (To this day, Christian monks maintain a 1,700-year old monastery on this holy peak that they might encounter God like the great lawgiver before them.) And after forty years wandering in the wilderness, Moses climbed Mount Pisgah, where he was blessed to see the Land of Promise, though he knew he would not get there with his people.
Elijah, fleeing threats from Ahab and Jezebel, ascended Mount Horeb like Moses before him, and there God promised to appear before the prophet, coming forth not in mighty earthquake, roaring wind, nor blazing fire but in the sacred sound of sheer silence.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve read from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as he has promised divine blessing upon the oppressed and the marginalized and as he has offered a new interpretation of the Law, calling us into a community defined by a sacrificial love for God, neighbor, and enemy.
And the very night before he died, his life once more under threat, the Rev. Martin Luther King, that great prophetic martyr of the 20th century, echoed the life of Moses and the prophetic voices of old, saying:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
It was from this mountaintop that Rev. King encouraged striking sanitation workers in Memphis and their supporters to cast their gaze beyond the world as it appears today and behold the coming new creation: the Promised Land and the new Jerusalem – but also a new Atlanta, a new Memphis, a new South built not on the shackles of slavery and the racism of Jim Crow but on the vision Christ put forward in the Sermon on the Mount, where true equality begets Beloved Community.
And yet again today, just days before we enter into the Lenten wilderness, we find Christ calling us to another mountaintop. At this point in the story, Simon has hit one of the highest points in his time with the Lord – he has proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Christ has in turn given Simon a new name: Peter, the rock, a foundational stone in the Church. But immediately after, Simon Peter hit one of his lowest lows: Jesus began to explain that he would suffer in Jerusalem and even be crucified. Peter didn’t take the news well and tried to correct Jesus, earning himself another nickname. Within one chapter, he goes from being “the Rock” to “Satan.”
So it is that, six days later, we find Jesus leading Simon Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop where suddenly Christ is transfigured. His entire body, even his clothes, radiate the glory of the Eternally-Begotten Son as Moses and Elijah stand on either side of him, and a voice rolls down as thunder from heaven, repeating the words we heard at the beginning of this season:
This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!
In this instant, the disciples glimpse the full glory of the coming of the Lord written in capital letters, a moment where heaven erupts visibly on earth. They have been to the mountaintop and seen the one who sits enthroned in the New Jerusalem, the very one who will lead God’s people through the grave into the Promised Land.
Peter has the same response as anyone who has been to the mountaintop: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Please, let us stay, if only for a few moments more. The world down in the valley is not nearly so majestic, and yes, maybe it reflects the glory of its Creator, but that glory is hard to see through all the sinful greed, hatred, and violence. We know what’s waiting for us just off the mountain, when we once more enter into the Lenten Wilderness marked by that ashen reminder of our mortality. Once we leave this summit, it’s back into the barren desert where sin and death destroy, where prophets are made into martyrs, where tyrants rule by the power of the sword. Once we come down from this place, we will re-enter the ordinary world where our best intentions fall short and where we will go back to laboring for a Kingdom we may not see fully realized. Outside these walls, there are hungry mouths to be fed, captives to be set free, powers and principalities to be toppled, and racial division to be overcome; outside these walls, a holy but difficult mission awaits us.
But here, in this holy moment, we can rest in the assurances of God as we gaze out at the Promised Land and behold the glory of God. So yes, please, we would like to stay a bit longer before returning to the world with difficult days ahead, knowing that we are called back into to the challenging work of proclaiming the Good News in thought, word, and deed.
Today we are on the mountaintop, and the glory of God is written before us in capital letters. If we have eyes to see, we may glimpse the coming of the glory of the Lord. Today, the Transfigured Christ is pointing us toward the Promised Land, and Lord knows it is good for us to be here. Soak it in, shout out your Alleluias, and rest easy for a moment. Let this experience hold your fascination, change you forever, and strengthen you and set you free from fear.
But we cannot stay. Something even better awaits us, and now we have to make our way through Lent to Jerusalem. There is difficult but holy work to be done. The Wilderness is calling and we must go.