Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Have you ever stuck your foot in your mouth? When I moved from New York to North Carolina, ready to begin my graduate studies at Duke, I found I was a bit of a cultural fascination to my new friends from various parts of the south. For whatever reason, I seemed to hold the greatest fascination for those from South Carolina and Mississippi. One day over lunch, we were talking about the ways people will stereotype us simply based on where we grew up. Looking at my friend Rebekah, whom I had known for about three days at that point, I said, “For example, since you’re from South Carolina and I’m a Yankee, I might assume that you’re some sort of redneck girl and jokingly ask, ‘So what sorta pickup truck do you drive?’” She responded, “I drive a Ford F-150 extended cab, and yes, I also know how to use a firearm.”
Open mouth, insert foot. Something I am only too familiar with! Please pass the salt, because if my mouth is open, it’s likely that my foot is already in it, or soon will be.
You ever stick your foot in your mouth, get called on it, and then want to dive down a manhole or under a parked truck or somewhere out of sight? We all know what that feeling is like. And in today’s text, so did Peter. Today, at this great event, on this Feast Day of the Transfiguration, Peter’s comments stand out like a single blot on a day and an experience of glory. Peter opens his mouth, says, “It is good for us to see this thing, so why don’t I build some temples up here to commemorate the occasion?” And no sooner than he says it, and the cloud comes down, and a voice of heavenly rebuke says, “Not so fast, Peter.”
Where has Peter gone wrong in this text? What’s so wrong with wanting to hang onto a little piece of God’s divine, radiant glory? I want to suggest an unusual answer to that question, but before I do, I want us all to spend some time looking at this strange Biblical event called The Transfiguration. May we pray.
Today’s Bible passage takes place on top of a mountain. Mountains, you may well know, in Greek, Hebrew, Roman, and Asian religious literature, were always places humans could touch the divine, so the stage is set for us to encounter the divine in some way. Jesus has taken Peter, James, and John with him up to the top of the mountain, and when they get up there, Jesus begins to glow, reflecting the full radiance of God’s divine glory. So, as we use this technical word – Transfiguration – we are simply talking about that divine glow that Jesus exhibited in today’s text.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, and Epiphany is all about light, illumination, and revelation. Across the Sundays of Epiphany, between the joy of Christmas and the solemn penitential preparations of Lent, we discover the significance of the Jesus whose birth we just celebrated. We learn about how the babe born at Bethlehem is the light of the world and how we as his followers are also called to be light in the world.
Transfiguration Sunday serves as a bookend on this Epiphany season of light and discovery. It started with Baptism of the Lord Sunday in January, in which we were reminded that as Jesus came out of the water at his own baptism, the voice of God the Father called down from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!” Every Sunday since, the Biblical texts and our own reflection continue to beg the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Who is Jesus in our lives? Today, at the Transfiguration, we conclude Epiphany, the season of light, as Jesus glows with the full radiance of God’s glory – clothed in dazzling white.
Peter, James, and John are with Jesus on the mountain, and Jesus begins to glow. We’re talking Las Vegas, show-stopping, sequins and rhinestone bleachbright, white. In his moment of divine sparkle and shimmer, Jesus isn’t alone. It says he was seen talking with Moses and Elijah. I’ve always wondered what they were talking about. Were they catching up? Like, “Jesus, we haven’t seen you since the Incarnation, how’s everything going down here?” And Jesus is like, “Well, pretty good. I’m not gonna say there aren’t some problems, but overall, not too bad.”
It could just be to impress Peter, James, and John – it’s not just that Moses and Elijah show up for a photo opp with Jesus, Jesus actually knows them. Jesus is saying to Moses, “Are they looking? OK, pretend you’re talking to me like we’re old pals and I just said something really funny.” And Moses and Elijah go “Ha, ha, ha!” and slap Jesus on the back and give him a playful punch on the shoulder.
Maybe they’re complimenting him. “Jesus, your clothes sure are bright, brighter than anyone on earth could bleach them – what is your laundry secret? Or, realistically, maybe we just don’t have a clue what they were talking about.
Nevertheless, what is more significant than what they talked about is the simple fact that Jesus appears with these two, for Moses and Elijah are considered the saviors of Israel. Moses is the first savior – he saved the people from Pharoah, from captivity in Egypt, and he brought the law. Elijah is supposed to be the last savior of Israel; it is written that he will come at the end of time to save the people and put everything in right order.
So as Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah, this is some talk among the saviors. Matthew places this story in the Gospel to make sure that we know who Jesus is – that he is a savior (and as the story goes on, we’ll find out that he is the Savior), and that the full brightness and glory of divinity is within him.
And that sets the stage for what happens next, and for Peter putting his foot in his mouth. Jesus is talking with Moses and Elijah, the two great figures from Israel’s history there, together, representing the whole of the Law and the Prophets, they appear out of nowhere and are talking with Jesus and then Peter interrupts them. Are you kidding me? Where does he get that kind of nerve, and what in the world was he thinking?
As Jesus is consumed in the full brightness of God’s glory, Peter offers to build three three booths, three shelters, three shrines, three temples. Why? Because Peter realized that he was an eyewitness to the wonderful, awesome work of God. Peter wanted to make the moment last. Peter wants to keep them right where they are. He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here” (v. 4). It’s a great moment for Peter and the others. They are eyewitnesses to the glory of God! They are in the presence of greatness!
The best that Peter can offer is to keep what he encounters for himself and his closest friends. Things are good here in this place, so let’s just keep them as they are. Let’s not change anything, the rest of the world can go to hell for all we care, but we’re comfortable and happy right here and now, so let’s keep everything just like it is right at this exact moment. Peter wanted to stay on the mountain and just bask in the radiance of God’s glory, Peter wanted to stay safe and protected and isolated inside a temple of his own construction, Peter just wanted to sing kum-ba-yah with James and John and Jesus and Moses and Elijah for the rest of eternity and never considered that wasn’t God’s intent for them. The possibilities outside the walls of that particular shrine on that particular mountaintop on that particular day were simply not evident to Peter.
I wonder, sometimes, if the same is true of us. If we, like Peter, are unable to see the possibilities beyond the walls of our own temple, or spend so much time wrapped up in our own mountaintop moments that we fail to share the glory of God with those who are going through life’s valleys and dark places.
Now, why do I say that Peter has his foot lodged in his own mouth? Because as soon as he offers to build those shrines, those temples, those holy markers, a mysterious voice comes down from heaven with the same message we heard at Jesus’ baptism when his public ministry began: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!” The voice is a rebuke of Peter’s offer. It’s God’s way of saying, “No, no, no! This is NOT what I want! Thanks for the offer, Peter, but I’ve got something else entirely in mind!” Peter had gotten so wrapped up in the moment and in the good feeling he had in that religious experience that he nearly missed the point entirely. Peter needed a reminder, as do we, that as good as worshiping Jesus and having great religious experiences and having our spiritual needs met – as great as those things are – just as important is listening to what Jesus says.
We sense in this story a real struggle, an undercurrent, and a tension that seems to run underneath our own faith tradition even today. It is the struggle between piety and really following Jesus, a struggle between religion for real and religion for show. Peter opted for piety. In order that there would be a building we could go back to and say, “Once upon a time God was here,” Peter opted, in your name and mine, for religion for show. “This is good enough, Jesus. Let’s settle down here and build something.”
Peter is trying to leave his own mark so that future generations will come back to the spot and remember that it was Peter who built the temples. Peter, much like us, wants others to think highly of him. Peter, like us, toots his own horn so others will give him some credit. So people will think, “Wow, look at all they do. Wow, look at how busy they are. I don’t know how they do it!” Something within each of us likes others to notice our work, and that can be a real motivation for why we do the work for God we do.
We’re a lot like Peter. Religion for show is more comfortable than religion for real. Peter was opting for a religion of temples, institutions, and shrines, a religion that is decent and respectable, polite, manageable, and in good order. And he offered to build a nice building – an institution – to contain it all and keep it all right there. But the Scripture tells us that before he could even finish speaking, God interrupted and said, “Listen.”
And when we listen to Jesus in this story, what does he say? “All right, that’s enough of that. It’s time to go back down the mountain.” They do, and immediately head into a village and encounter a boy possessed by demons. Down in the valley were people who needed God’s light.
Scottish theologian Henry Drummond says, “It is not God’s desire that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there. We don’t tarry there. The streams begin in the uplands, but descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.”
Jesus heads from the glory of the mountaintop quickly into the valley below, but what has taken place up there – the vision of God’s glory – goes with him. When all else fades, and indeed, soon enough all will become very dark, yet Jesus remains, reaching out in help & healing. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, he will gather with his disciples atop another mountain to promise that he will be with them until the end of the age.
In a nutshell, the story of the Transfiguration reaches back and forth through the major chapters of Jesus’ life – the mountaintop highs and the valley lows are all wrapped up in this story. The bright spots and the dark spots, the highs and the lows, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – it’s all there.
We have all had mountaintop experiences and can testify to their importance in our lives. And we have all had to return from those mountaintops to the valley. In today’s text, we are reminded that whether things in our life are great or things could be better, whether we find ourselves on the mountaintop basking in the radiance of divine glory or feel that we’re in the deepest darkest valley where no hope could possibly find us – in all those places and everywhere inbetween, Jesus is the there – on the mountain and in the valley – reaching out to raise us all to new life again. Who knows, maybe that’s what Diana Ross had in mind when she sang ‘cause baby, there ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from getting to you, babe. And if it’s not exactly what she meant, I thank her anyway, because that sentiment perfectly captures the message from today’s text.
The Transfiguration also leans unmistakably into the season of Lent, which will begin this Wednesday. Jesus will come down from the mountain and into the darkness of the valley as he begins his journey toward Jerusalem and the death that awaits him there – the very death of which he speaks on his descent from on high. The instruction to “listen to him” will become poignant and even painful as the story progresses as Jesus’ followers regularly fail to do just that. Likewise, as Jesus’ followers today, we are each confronted by the numerous ways we have failed to listen to Jesus. Many times, our own piety and acts of religious devotion keep us from listening, and still other times it is our own rationalism and practical side that keeps us from being able to put our faith in Jesus – to lean into his life with our own, and to trust him as we should.
That is what the Transfiguration means for us – trusting that the Jesus who was revealed in dazzling splendor on the mountaintop is the same Jesus who walks with us through darkness, pain, and fear of the valley.
We need to be open to sensing God’s presence and God’s glory everywhere, even and perhaps especially in the places we least expect it. It’s easy to find Jesus on top of the mountain, in the holy places, and in those deeply-moving religious experiences. But while we’re up there, basking in the radiance and lost in wonder, love, and praise, we need to pay attention to what God tells us. God says, “Listen to Jesus.” And what does Jesus say? “Come on, let’s get off this mountain and take God’s glory down into the valley.”
I’ll be honest – I don’t know where you are today. Maybe you’re on top of the world, maybe everything is bright and clear, maybe God’s glory couldn’t be shining any brighter around you. Or, maybe you’re down in a deep, dark place somewhere, where it seems no light could possibly reach you and there’s no way out.
Wherever you are, I simply want you to know that God is already there. Whether God is easy to see or nearly impossible to see, God is already there. And so, if you find yourself on top of the mountain today with the radiance of God’s glory clearly in view, I want you to listen to what Jesus says to do – to go down into the valley and share that light with someone else. And if you’re down in the valley and it seems all is dark, hang on! Someone with light is on their way. And what we’ll all realize is there are still many more mountains out there just waiting to be climbed.
No matter where we are, God’s glory is all around, and God will stop at nothing to get to us. There ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep God from getting to you. Thanks be to God!