August 6, The Feast of the Transfiguration
My first sermon was terrible.
(Come to think of it, so were the next few.)
It was the week following our youth group’s annual Christ in Youth conference trip and, as always, the students were provided the opportunity to lead the service. Everything, from music to preaching to passing the trays, was done by the high schoolers. Now that I was an upperclassman, it was finally my turn to stand before the congregation and try and put a week’s worth of mountaintop spiritual experience into words; to try and pass along the wavering flame I had caught in those emotionally-charged days.
Needless to say, there weren’t any mass conversions that day. My face was not shining like Moses’; no one drew back in reverent fear. No tongues of fire or descending doves: just another year of Speech 101 students stumbling through their allotted 15 minutes, recycling the most memorable illustrations from the previous week’s sermons. Our parents and some elders gave indulgent smiles, appreciative of the effort, but unmoved. We were still their youth. Still inexperienced, quixotic.
All of which isn’t to say our unheard pleas for revival were entirely our fault. It’s not like the majority of the adults in the room were overflowing with deep reservoirs of mature spirituality. My dad (our youth minister) always said when returning from these trips that it didn’t seem to matter how “on-fire” the students were because there were always enough wet blankets waiting for them when they got home. This is certainly true – how many excited returning camp or conference attendees are stifled every year by waiting parents and communities who, not party to the experience, are unable to accommodate the possibility of true transformation? Yet their skepticism is also somewhat warranted – how many are simply caught up in the experience, giving themselves over to the electricity of the moment and failing to consider the reality of their lives?
But I think there’s a deeper reason the attempts to express “mountaintop” moments tend to fall flat. A reason that has more to do with the nature of spiritual experiences, which are expressed well by the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration.
The basic story as related by Luke is that Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus on a mountain, leaving the rest of the disciples at the bottom to deal with what we’ll find out later is a growing crowd: a mixture of people in search of healing (one boy and his father, especially), as well as belligerent religious leaders and curious onlookers. At some point during the excursion, Jesus stopped to pray (possibly during one of the fixed hours of prayer all observant Jews hold) and when he did, the peyote they had smoked earlier really kicked in.
Just making sure you’re paying attention.
First, I love that the disciples are sleepy. They’re trying to join their master in prayer, but their orthodoxy-cred isn’t up to snuff and they start to fade. But they’re suddenly awakened when Jesus’ face and clothes change, becoming “dazzling white” (NRSV) or, as the Jerusalem Bible puts it, “brilliant as lightning.” As if that weren’t enough, suddenly Moses and Elijah – the epitome of the Law and the Prophets – appear, and we’re told they speak to Jesus, “Of his passing, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Peter, who suffers from foot-in-mouth disease, offers to set up shelters for the divine visitors when God shuts him down with a cloud and a voice commanding him to listen. Listen to the beloved Son of God. Then, the cloud clears, the visitors are gone, and they trek back down the mountain, keeping their silence about the experience for a long time afterward.
This story all sorts of interesting points and questions about the context (which is strikingly similar in all three Gospel accounts), namely that it immediately follows Peter’s “confession of faith” and Jesus’ first death prediction and call for his followers to carry their own cross, then finally the cryptic saying about how some listening to him would not taste death until they “witness the Kingdom come in power.” Then, we’re immediately led to a literal mountaintop experience with the inner three disciples where they eavesdrop on a conversation between Jesus and the pillars of Jewish theology about his impending death.
The resonances with those two Jewish icons are stunning in themselves. Both had transformational experiences on mountains that dramatically changed not only their lives but the trajectory of their people. From out of the burning bush, Moses received his call and heard the dynamic-mystical name of God (Exod. 3) calling out to him, setting him on a course to confront his fears and bring freedom to his people. Later, his face literally shines (you could say it became “dazzling white” or even “brilliant as lightning”) from the encounters with God on Sinai, when he receives God’s will for the people (Exod. 34).
The great prophet Elijah also has two notable mountaintop moments: The first pits him against the the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18), where the provision and power of God is dramatically proven over the reckless violence of Baal’s hordes. This showdown precipitates his flight into the desert, where he eventually ends up on “the Mountain of God” and meets the Divine presence, neither in the earthquake nor fire, but in “sheer silence” (I Kings 19). Within that deafening silence the prophet hears the question that cuts to the heart of all of us when we are opened to God’s presence: What are you doing here?
The question is followed by yet another calling: Go. Go from here to your death. Anoint kings, set the world to rights as well as you can, so that those who come after you may have the opportunity for justice. Then go and anoint your successor, the one who will literally take up your mantle (II Kings 2) and continue your ministry of speaking truth to power, of confronting those who manipulate the masses through threat of force of divine wrath. Go, Elijah, because, while your time may be drawing to a close, you are not as alone as you believe.
It is fitting Christ meets with these two titans of the faith, both of whom heard God speak out of the storm cloud and the silence, who knew the deep uncertainty from a call that appears to be certain death. Yet both left their mountains in the end, taking those careful steps down the slope back into the dust of the world where crowds waited for their words. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a few verses later we have Jesus “resolutely setting his face to Jerusalem” and again predicting his death. He knew the mountain was merely a moment, one given to strengthen him in silence as he walked the path of death laid before him.
Yet how often have I, in the moment of revelation, responded more like Peter than Jesus, Moses, or Elijah? How often have I sought to make the moment last, to have analyzed it and, in stepping outside the moment, have lost it? How often have I spoken into a moment when the Divine reached out in dazzling silence, but I was too busy speaking to hear? How often have I been too tired, literally or figuratively, to notice the shining world around me, filled to the brim with the brilliant presence of God?
How often have I tried to talk – or worse, preach – about a fresh experience?
The danger of revelatory moments – like those we receive during meditation or even at a conference – is not that we would find ourselves carried away by emotion but that we would try to tell others about it too quickly. The moment we form it into words is when the moment itself has been forever lost. Not only that, but it often breeds a sort of “spiritual high competition” in communities, leading some to believe you cannot be truly accepted by God unless you’ve had such an encounter, and the rest to believe that the point of prayer (of worship) is to get you to that moment, as though prayer itself were merely the vehicle to a transfiguration encounter. Worship thus becomes an event that can be judged based upon its ability to “get you there.”
Matthew and Mark tell us Jesus specifically commanded the three men not to speak of what they’d seen or heard, but Luke leads us to believe they came to this wise conclusion on their own. I think we know better. The temptation to explain the ineffable is too strong, especially for those of us who wish others to believe we are unique or holy. Had they not been told, it wouldn’t have been out of the question for the next vignette to be Peter bragging about his experience to the others, or James and John using it to bolster their claim to sit at Christ’s right and left hands. What then? Would the rest of disciples had lost heart since they missed out? Would they all judge the rest of their moments with Christ based upon whether or not they saw him as on the mountain?
See, there is another mountain leading to another revelatory encounter, though of a different tone. A mountain Jesus is resolutely setting his face toward, upon which he will hear the voice of God in the night, as Elijah did – the voice that speaks into the deafening silence, commanding a hard road. And this time, Peter, James, and John will not stay awake. There will be no brilliant light, no visitors to converse and comfort the beleaguered rabbi, no friends to stay awake and share the experience.
Perhaps this is the truly miraculous transfiguration, the moment when God’s voice is truly heard. When Jesus the itinerant rabbi is as The Christ and he is able to definitively answer the terrible question, What are you doing here?
Not clothes and faces lit by Divine light. Not heroes from the ancient past. Not voices speaking out of the storm.
But silence. Darkness. Sweat as drops of blood and fervent prayers met with silence.
Go. Go from here and into certain death, leaving behind that which you’ve known and setting the table for those who are to follow. You are not as alone as you believe.
May we all be awake to see and hear it.