Here we are at the end of the season after Epiphany, the conclusion of Ordinary Time for now, facing directly into Lent. So, we are given this story of Jesus with three disciples having a little mountain climbing expedition. And you have to wonder why…
The story of this trip up the mountain is commonly known as the Transfiguration. But here we see some of the challenges faced by translators. What is rendered in English as “transfiguration” is rendered in German as “verklärung” which could be the clarifying or the uncovering. In the story both translations are useful. As Peter, John, and James watch, Jesus’ appearance changes – he is transfigured. And he is revealed, uncovered, clarified.
What the disciples see is that Jesus is far more radiant and shining then they have seen before. Dazzling is the word used. But not just that, Jesus is not alone. Moses and Elijah are with him. Peter, John, and James are getting a glimpse of the totality of Jesus, not just the human aspect. They are seeing Jesus as he really is.
I find it fascinating that James, John, and Peter are having trouble staying awake. Here they are in this most mystical set of circumstances, and they are nodding off… Perhaps this is a pre-echo of the Garden of Gethsemane before the Crucifixion when none of the disciples can stay awake… Perhaps it’s just a disciple thing, or a human thing… when the going gets tough, the tough get nap…
Presumably we know this story because one of these sleepy disciples recounted it. I take their sleepy nature as permission to look at this story as somewhat dreamlike in character. Are these events real? Are they a dream of a sleeping disciple? As modern people, we want it to be one or the other… but for most of human experience the line between dream and reality is porous.
This story of the Transfiguration can be literally true. And it can be a dream of the disciples. And it can be God’s dream that we are given a glimpse of… And it can be more as well.
Two great prophetic voices of our current age value dreams – The Rev Dr Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In my mind, both are prophets and saints.
Perhaps Dr King’s most famous speech is the one known as the “I have a dream” speech. This speech, though sermon might be a better description, was given in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, almost exactly one hundred years after slavery in the United States was abolished. As Dr King noted, one hundred years after that fateful event, Black people in America were still not free. But then King told the crowd, about seventy-five thousand people, about his dream. Dr King dreamed of a land where all God’s children could be together. That dream is still not reality – at best it’s a work in progress. But there is progress.
Dr King was not the only modern prophet with a dream. Closer to home, Archbishop Desmond Tutu also had a dream – or knowledge of God’s dream…
In his book God has a Dream, Tutu says: “Only together, hand in hand, as God’s family and not as one another’s enemy, can we ever hope to end the vicious cycle of revenge and retribution. This is the only hope for us and for making God’s dream a reality.”
So, Tutu has a dream that is remarkably similar to King’s dream, and God has the same dream… what about us?
Well – let’s look a little more at those drowsy disciples on the mountain with Jesus.
The symbolism of this story has been laid on rather thick. The symbol of being at the top of a mountain is being as close to God as we can get. Moses is the symbol of God’s love for us as expressed through the giving of the law. And Elijah is the symbol of God’s call to us in the voice of prophets. One of the things this passage is telling us is that the era of the law and prophets, the ways in which we could know God, has come to an end. The torch has been passed from Moses and Elijah to Jesus.
This is underscored when God says “This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him.” This is similar to what God said at Jesus baptism. “You are my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” God seems to have shifted his focus from Jesus to us. We are called to listen to Jesus presumably as faithful people before would have listened to the law and prophets.
Peter says words to the effect of “it’s really nice here… let’s build some houses… let’s move in…” I think about this a lot since I live in a beautiful place… Here at Volmoed and at our house in Upstate New York we see many people who come to spend some time away from the world. It’s not exactly a “mountain top” experience… more of a river valley experience, but it’s similar. The emotional response is to want to stay. In fact, if I’m being honest, that was my reaction to my first visit to the monastery in New York, and low and behold, I did stay…
But the point of a mountain top experience is that we don’t get to own it privately. We are called to share it. Perhaps that is why Jesus doesn’t go up this particular mountain alone – he brings along the sleepy Peter, John, and James. Jesus shares his mountain top experience. You can go up the mountain, but you must come back down…
This story is one of the richest and most mystical passages in the Gospels. All of us who encounter this story will hear different things. Mystical experiences will not be defined. Like the Holy Spirit, they will not be domesticated. We can’t build houses and move in.
In the hazy, mystical fog that otherwise blankets this story, God’s words to us are so clear – this is my son, listen to him. Mystical in-breakings seem often to have one clear element. Think of Julien of Norwich and her hazelnut. Of course, Julien then spends decades trying to understand the clear and simple image of the hazelnut… In the same way, the simple instruction to listen to Jesus can send us on infinitely different journeys.
We can listen to Jesus in the sound of the waterfall here at Volmoed. We can listen to Jesus in the voices of happy children or in the weeping of the bereaved. We can listen to Jesus through the voices of poets and in the poetry of our own lives. We can listen to Jesus speaking through the Gospels and speaking through the voices of prophets, both ancient and modern. Jesus doesn’t speak to all of us in the same way, but I do believe that Jesus does speak to each and every one of us. Our task is to find the way we need to listen.
It’s entirely appropriate that we are called to this very mystical story just as Lent is about to begin. Desmond Tutu was a profoundly mystical person. This guided his faith and his ministry. And Tutu noted that the mystical journey includes a step called the purgative. Page Break
In our lives we have accumulated a certain amount of junk… hurts, insults, resentments, anger… To be freed to continue in our spiritual journey, we need to be purged of this accumulated stuff. Otherwise, it holds us back, weighs us down, and distorts our vision. We can’t listen to Jesus if we are bound to our own internal drama.
I suspect this is some of the symbolism of Peter, John, and James being so sleepy. They are tired because they are weighed down with the baggage of their lives. They need the purgative step. As do we.
And so, bring on Lent. Purgation is the work of Lent.
Our Celtic friends were fond of collections called Penitentials, which, at first glance, looked like massive lists of every bad thing anyone could think of. These are a bit overwhelming to modern minds – and kind of terrible. Imagine being so obsessed with sin. This is what Lent feels like sometimes. It’s all about how bad we have been, what failures we are, how disappointed God must be.
And that misses the point of the Penitentials entirely. Sure, the Penitentials were vast, but the idea was that there was nothing you could do by way of sin that could not be forgiven.
Jesus was transfigured in the story we heard this morning. And hearing that as we are about to start Lent is, I think, our invitation to transformation as well.