I began with the recognition that every single person in the room had, in some way, at some time, tasted transcendence. And then I invited people to share a story. When was a time you felt God? A time you knew God was with you? An experience that touched you that you can’t explain? A moment that shifted things for you?
And then the stories began to come out. Mysterious, moving, some both ordinary and miraculous at the same time, some downright astounding. Experiences that people couldn’t quite explain were shared, and the most common and appropriate response was simply, “Wow”.
And we long for these – as human beings we crave these tastes of the beyond. Moments where the space between what is and what will be thins out, when the gap between earth and heaven becomes narrow - the thin places where God feels close. There is more to reality than we can see or understand; and we long for these glimpses that life is more fraught with splendor than it often feels.
The disciples, Peter James and John, get one of those moments today. But talk about juxtaposition. Six days earlier Jesus gives them a big speech about how he will suffer and die, about how those who strive to save their lives will lose them, and only those who surrender their lives to God will find their true selves, and bewilderingly, about how they’ll have to take up a cross and follow him.
And then he leads them up a mountain.
This is the halfway point of Matthew; it’s hump day, as it were. It’s all downhill from here. The first half of the book and the season after Christmas that we’ve been in, Epiphany, has been about revealing who Jesus is, what the kingdom of God is about, making it all known. But now a shift is happening, a turning point, and it pivots on the mountain.
Much of the first half has been set on a mountain as well, like Moses going up to meet God and receive the commandments, the description of life together with God, we’ve spent the first part of Matthew on the mountain with Jesus, in the “sermon on the mount,” direct teaching about the kingdom of God and what life looks like when it’s lived in God’s way of love and trust and connection instead of in the way of fear, self-protection, competition.
And now they’re heading back up a mountain. But this time, they are distinctly not there for teaching or explanation. They are not getting a round two of a sermon, some truth about God, some challenge to chew on and apply to their lives. This time it’s an experience they can’t quite believe and don’t really know what to do with.
Today they stand around like awkward evesdroppers with all the senses alert, watching Jesus suddenly take on glowing white robes and a face shining like the sun, convening with the forefathers of faith, these representatives of relationship with God milling around in conversation together like guests at some classy, celestial dinner party, and Jesus right at home among them, chatting away, and ignoring the three who’ve trudged up with him, like they aren’t even there, thunderstruck, watching this scene unfold.
It’s a moment of transcendence, of keen insight, a flash of recognition, things fitting together somehow – Moses, Elijah, Jesus, God, future, past, cosmos, meaning – it’s some kind of thrilling wakefulness and yet fantastic, removed and frightening.
And Peter does what anyone might, (but perhaps a bit more brazenly than you or I), he tries to make sense of it, to capture it, to bottle the mystery, to wrap it in logic and lesson, he INTERUPTS MOSES AND MESSIAH MID-SENTENCE, to blurt out, Hey Jesus, sorry to, you know, intrude, but I’ve just had the most perfect idea! I know just what we can do! Let’s build some tents right here, and you and Elijah and Moses can stay here forever, and we will too, and...
But before he’s even finished getting the breathless suggestion out, a paradoxical “bright cloud overshadows them” and a loud voice announces, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased! Listen to him!”
The three onlookers fall to the ground in terror, arms over their heads like a tornado drill got real, every nerve ending vigilant, feeling, I imagine, like they might just die from the power and magnificent tremor of it all, and then, they lift their heads and it is only Jesus, standing there, alone.
When the dust settles all that is left is Jesus.
And He touches them, and tells them not to be afraid.
And then, I suppose, they stand up and head back down the mountain.
I picture them shaken, subdued, not quite sure what to say, not knowing what to do with their hands, their thoughts, stealing glances now and again at Jesus’s weathered brown face and dusty, worn robes, and wondering if they’d imagined it all. On the way down the mountain he tells them not to tell anyone what happened up there.
As if they would.
Who in the world would believe them?
What would they even say?
But something has changed. Something has irreversibly has shifted them, I bet. Magnetized them, in a way. Oriented them, pivoted them to him in a new way. They’ve glimpsed beyond. They’ve gotten a peek at something they can’t explain but which feels more true and real than anything they’ve ever known, for which the appropriate response may simply be, “Wow”.
Why, I wonder, has he asked them to come along, Peter, James and John? His followers, his friends; why did he bring them?
For their sake? For his own?
Come with me! He says, And like kids tagging along with mom to an appointment, they came, and stood on the sidelines watching the unfathomable, glowing Jesus chatting with Moses and Elijah. About what? What were they saying to him? Giving him advice? Asking questions? A pep talk?
Whatever it was clearly not about the three of them, not really even for the three of them. They were onlookers to the scene, participant observers in Jesus’ reality as he plugs in, as it were, to his source, the absolute affirmation of his divine purpose and place, even if just for a moment.
The first half of Jesus’ ministry began with the voice of God, claiming Jesus as the beloved, the son, in whom God is well pleased. It is the core, the thread that holds him to his identity and purpose through the harsh wilderness and the miracles and teachings that follow. And now he hears it again, as he sets his face toward the cross and the deliberate journey into suffering, misunderstanding, hatred and death, This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
In a short while he will invite them again, Come with me, and he’ll go to the garden to pray; he’ll endure such anguish that he will sweat blood, and wish desperately that he could skip out on the horror he’s about to endure, and he’ll surrender himself to God, and to what is ahead of him. They will watch and wonder, will fall asleep alongside him and wake up, and struggle to make sense of that experience as well.
Right after the disciples witness Jesus’ strange and momentary transformation and head back down the mountain, they are confronted immediately by the father of a tortured kid they couldn’t heal – and it comes up this way, by the way, in this order- these two parts of the story, back to back, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, like they belong together, like you can’t have the one without the other.
In every telling of the transfiguration the disciples go from this terrifying, exhilarating experience of limitlessness immediately to this troubling, frustrating and humiliating experience of helplessness. They swing from great euphoric insight and conviction, to utter impotence and impossibility, confronted by the ministry they could not do and tagging along after a Messiah who is headed for a cross. And Jesus heals the boy, and blesses the father, and calls the disciples again to follow.
But despite the fact that the only command, the only concrete thing they can take away from their moment of transcendence, their experience on the mountaintop is the very direct order: LISTEN TO HIM, they struggle to hear him, they resist what he has to say.
No matter how much he tells them the cross is coming –and it is, the whole second half of Matthew is heading there –no matter how much he says he is not here to take them out of the world but to come into it, not here to prevent suffering but to share it, and that we too must follow him there, they can’t quite wrap their heads around this. It continues to elude them. Perhaps until that moment in the garden. Or perhaps not until the cross itself. Or maybe, they don’t ever really hear it until the resurrection.
Maybe it’s then that it comes back to them, a flash of recognition, things fitting together somehow – Moses, Elijah, Jesus, God, future, past, cosmos, meaning – the thrilling wakefulness, the touch of Jesus, maybe it’s then that they finally hear his words on the mountaintop, Do not be afraid.
As we walk into Lent, and into Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ cryptic parables, we will seek to listen to Jesus. Jesus, who faced all the temptations and struggles of being human from the core of his belovedness in God. Jesus who says, Come with me, and Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it, and Do not be afraid.
Lent invites us to go deeper, to be open to God with us who both comes to us in mystery, and meets us in our messiness. Who gives us the inexplicable gift of momentary glimpses beyond, and ceaselessly stands with us in our impossibility and helplessness.
This Lent, may we be oriented to Jesus in a new way. May something shift within us that draws us ever into deeper faithfulness and trust.