Transfiguration of Our Lord: Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-43


In Celtic countries, there are certain places which Celtic people call “thin places.” They are places where “the veil between this world and the other world is thin.” In fantasy literature, of which I’m a big fan, these thin places are where people stumble into the world of fairy, or mythical creatures cross over into our world. In Celtic Christianity, thin places are places where the presence of God is felt especially strongly. Many of us who live in New Mexico are familiar with this idea of “thin places,” even if the phrase is unfamiliar. For many of us, New Mexico is just such a place – a “land of enchantment” where the presence of God is keenly felt. I moved back to New Mexico last summer after living in the Midwest for almost 20 years. There are days when I feel distressed about the hassles of resettling my family, and missing close friends and communities we left in Chicago. But just walking in my neighborhood, marveling at the beauty of the mountains, or driving in the evening and watching the light change moment by moment, reminds me of one of the reasons I came back. I do feel closer to God in this breathtaking landscape. In the Bible, mountaintops often serve as thin places. Moses is in the mountains when he first encounters God in the burning bush. When he has brought the people out of Egypt, he converses with God on the top of the mountain, where he receives God’s commandments for the people. Moses does not see God in all God’s glory. When he asks to see God’s glory, God tells him that is something no mortal can survive. God places Moses in a cleft in the mountain, and passes by so that Moses see only his back. Even so, each time Moses comes down the mountain from his encounters with God, his face shines with God’s reflected glory. When Elijah becomes so discouraged with the persecution he faces as a prophet that he is ready to give up, God tells him to go out on the mountainside and wait. It is then that Elijah encounters God in a “still, small voice.” His commitment and energy for God’s work are renewed. The transfiguration of Jesus is another mountaintop story. Jesus takes three of his closest disciples, James and John and Peter, into the mountains to pray. As he is praying, Jesus’ appearance is changed. Luke doesn’t say he is “transfigured,” – just that his face changes and his clothes shine brightly. I think it must have been very much like the way Moses’ face shone after speaking with God. Then Moses and Elijah appear and begin conversing with Jesus. Only Luke reports that they talk about Jesus’ departure – meaning Jesus’ upcoming journey to Jerusalem and his death. Peter and James and John are weighed down with sleep. These are the same three who, later in the story, will sleep while Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane. But the appearance of the prophets, Moses and Elijah, startles them awake. They are astonished, and don’t know how to respond. Peter says something about tents. He may be referring to the Jewish celebration in which the people built booths, or tents, to recall the years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. But essentially, Peter is spouting nonsense, and his words are interrupted by a further revelation from God. Clouds surround them – just as God was revealed in pillars of cloud and fire, and in clouds and storms on the mountain, in the exodus story. From the clouds comes a voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Then the clouds disappear. Jesus looks like his usual self, and he is standing alone. You have to wonder what the disciples thought as they followed Jesus down the mountain. What just happened? Was that God’s voice? Was I dreaming? It’s no wonder they don’t tell their friends what they saw. Like some of the first witnesses to the resurrection, they can hardly believe what they have seen. They certainly don’t expect anyone else to believe them.     What happened on that mountain? And what does it mean? God says, “Listen to him.” Listen to what, exactly? Jesus has talked to the crowds and to the disciples for weeks. He has taught them many things about the kingdom of God. But just before he heads up the mountain, He says to his disciples: The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he says, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. “ Those are hard words. No wonder the Peter and James and John were weighed down with grief, much as they will be later in the garden of Gethsemane. No wonder the disciples waiting at the foot of the mountain are so shaken they cannot perform a healing Jesus has previously given them the power to perform. They followed Jesus because his is the Messiah. He is the one to save the people of Israel from oppression. He is not supposed to die. And they certainly did not expect, when they chose to follow, that they might risk death as well! Again, after he heals the boy, Jesus will tell them: Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” But still they will not understand. And it is no great surprise that they will be afraid to ask him about it. What happened on that mountain? And what does it mean? Luke frames the story of the Transfiguration with two predictions of Jesus’ death. He makes it clear that the glory of God in Jesus cannot be understood apart from Jesus’ death. This is the Son of God, the Chosen one, who will be betrayed and killed. Those who wish to follow Jesus follow to the cross. Not just once, but again and again – daily, Luke says – those who follow Jesus choose the cross. Those who follow Jesus choose the path of love instead of fear. Choose the path of standing up for what is right, even when it’s easier to keep quiet. Choose the path of servanthood. At our pastor’s study this past week, we talked about thin places, and then we talked about “thin people.” People in whom the presence of God is so clear that they radiate God’s love and glory. Mother Teresa was one of these “thin people.” For some, Pope John Paul came to be one of these people before he died. Even if you disagreed with some of his interpretation of the faith, his life and his presence radiated the love of God and reflected his commitment to servanthood. My grandmother was one of those people. After she died, we had a chance to talk at length with the chaplain who had visited her in the Assisted Living facility where she lived the last years of her life. “Being with Esther was like being in the presence of Jesus,” she said. “I never heard Esther say a mean word about anyone. “She was filled with God’s love, and it shone from her.” Moses went up on the mountain to converse with God, and when he came down his face reflected God’s glory. He served the people of Israel for all the rest of his life, shaping them into God’s chosen people Peter saw the glory of God in Jesus, He saw Jesus die on a cross, then met Jesus, resurrected from the dead. He gave the rest of his life to telling people about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He continued to tell the story on this path even when it led him to death on a cross. May we, too, be transformed by Jesus into servants, until our very lives are transfigured into the shape of the cross. Amen. Lutheran Church of the Servant, Santa Fe                                        February 18, 2007 Photo taken in Glacier National Park, Montana.

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