Our text for today is one of the most unique moments in the gospels. On a mountainside, with Peter, James and John, the three disciples who made up his inner circle, Jesus is transfigured which is to say he is transformed. Before their eyes, his clothes become a dazzling white and he is enveloped in the clouds. All three of these images – mountaintop, dazzling white clothes and Christ’s being engulfed by a cloud – are images in scripture of encounters with God. Here, in our text, they are also clear signs of Christ’s divinity. They are emphatic pointers for the three disciples to soak up as proof that Jesus is who he says; that he is God’s son.
As if these three physical signs of Christ’s divinity were not enough there are also three voices. The voices are of God the Father, Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the greatest prophet of Israel. All three voices also offer affirmation of who Jesus is and of what his life is about. In the text, God the Father is most clear in the affirming statement at the end of verse 7, “this is my dearly loved Son. Listen to him.”
This should have been a moment of clarity for the disciples. In some ways, it was. But, I think we call also say that it was not necessarily the immediate clarifying moment that it should have been.
Now, in all fairness to these three disciples, I suspect it would have been a confusing moment for us too. After all, the temptation that they gave into in the moment is one that we are prone to give into ourselves. The temptation that I am referring to is the inclination to allow mountain moments to be an end in and of themselves rather than a means to an end. Said another way, the point of the transfiguration wasn’t only for Peter, James and John to soak up the wonder of that moment of worship and simply camp out there from then on. The point was for the wonder of the moment to propel them back into the valley with a renewed sense that they were following God’s Son who was leading them on the right path.
This moment reminds me of a guy that I knew several years ago that was working on a graduate degree and was a full time student. The degree he was pursuing at the time was going to be his third or fourth graduate degree. He was a great guy and super intelligent but in essence he had made a career out of going to school. When I would see him, I couldn’t help but think that education had become the end goal he was pursuing not a means to an end. Yet, I believe that the hopes of his professors were that he would take all of the things he was learning and go out into the world and put it to use. The academy was training for life in the real world. The hallowed hallways of his academic pursuits were not meant to serve as escapes from the real world yet that is what had happened.
This is what is in danger of happening in our text too. Peter, James and John have this profound moment. In sights and in sounds they see and hear tangible reminders that Jesus is God in the flesh and he should be listened to and followed. This path he is leading them on is a God sanctioned path. This mountaintop experience is meant to prepare them for the valley below where there are dangers, uncertainties and risks. Yet, Peter suggests that they break out their three man tent, stay on the mountain and continue this moment of wonder and worship. In essence, Peter says “let’s stay up here where it is safe, and away from life down there where things are hard, challenging and dangerous. Let’s make time on the mountain an end in of itself rather than a needed means to the end of following Jesus all the way to his death.”
While Peter is the one who speaks, Peter is likely not the only one of the three who had this idea. Often times, in the gospels, Peter serves as a spokesman for the other disciples. He says what they are all thinking. This passage and Peter’s suggestion that they stay put is an example of this.
I have a confession to make. I often cut through the First Presbyterian parking lot. Now, I know our good friends next door don’t want folks doing that. However, I just can’t help myself. Why drive all the way to the end of the block either coming to church or leaving church when I can save a solid 15-30 seconds by driving through their parking lot?
If there is any redeeming thing about this, it is the fact that it forces me to read their little sign that is at the end of their parking lot as you pull onto West Main between their building and Laurens Lumber. As you may very well know, the sign is two sided. As you enter their parking lot it says “enter to worship”. As you leave it says, “depart to serve”.
That really is the point of the Transfiguration in a nutshell. Jesus, Peter, James and John, enter this sacred time on the mountain and there the three disciples have a profound moment of transcendent worship. But, the whole point was is that they should then, come down off the mountain departing to serve. They were to go and love others, care for others and follow Jesus no matter what it cost them. They were to take that moment of worship through the encouragement, lessons and epiphanies of that occasion and they were to risk living it out with their very beings.
Like them, we like to play it safe. We like to worship, to study, to experience God, to grow in the Lord. But, we also like to be careful. We are good with the idea of entering to worship but sometimes we are not that crazy about the idea of departing to serve. We never know how people may react to us. We just don’t know what actually might be the result of loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are not sure what life will be like if we actually trust God with our money or put the needs of others ahead of ourselves. Life in the valley is hard and it is not always as peaceful as life on the mountain. And, yet, the mountain, the worship, is not meant to be an end, it is meant to be a means to a life of service.
I have a vivid memory of standing on the sideline during a JV football game. There was a player on the team that day who never got to play. He wasn’t very athletic and didn’t have a lot of skills but he was faithful to the team and never missed a practice. I can’t remember if it was a late season game or if it was just a game that had gotten out of control score wise but it was one of those moments where it was time to empty the bench and get all of the players into the game who never got to see the field. What I remember is that when the coach called his name and encouraged him to go into the game, he offered one of the oddest responses I have every heard. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but in essence, he replied, “I appreciate it coach, but I think I am good right here.” I don’t know if he was afraid of getting hit, didn’t want to get hurt or if he just valued a nice clean uniform. But I remember thinking to myself, why would you go through all of the practices if when it came your moment to play, you simply chose to pass up the opportunity?
I think that is a question that we all have to deal with in our own individual ways and particularly in our lives of faith. Amen.