This was a busy weekend at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa! We had a funeral on Saturday for Verle Steere, then our usual three weekend worship services for Transfiguration Sunday, followed by a talent show.
The picture here is from the Sunday School kids at the 11:00 service, who shared several songs with the congregation and received attendance awards. Check out the talent show pictures here on the church Facebook page.
Our texts this weekend are the Transfiguration story in Matthew 17:1-9, and the Old Testament reading from Exodus 24:12-19.
Who here has read the Harry Potter books or seen the movies? Does anyone remember what class Professor McGonagall teaches? She teaches “transfiguration.”
Who knows what that word “transfiguration” means? I know it’s not a word I ever use other than in Harry Potter, or this one time in the church year. I looked it up this week just to be sure I knew what I was talking about, and the word “transfiguration” means “a change in form.”
In Harry Potter, it means changing something like turning a teacup into a gerbil, or a rabbit into a hat. In our reading today from Matthew, it doesn’t quite mean changing one thing into another, but rather the disciples seeing Jesus in a new way.
Here’s the setting. Jesus and a few of his closest friends, Peter, James, and John, go up a high mountain. (Appropriate for Scout Sunday, isn’t it?) When they get to the top, something miraculous happens. Jesus is transfigured. He doesn’t turn into something else, he’s still human, but his face starts shining like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white. And then, to add to it, Moses and Elijah, two of the ancient Bible heroes, appear and start talking to the glowing Jesus.
That’s the part of the story we call the transfiguration, but I’m not sure that’s really quite right. Jesus is transfigured, but he doesn’t really change. He’s already been doing miracles, teaching, and healing. He’s already both God and man. The difference is, now the disciples can see it. They get a fresh glimpse of who Jesus really is. It’s really their view that gets transfigured.
When Moses and Elijah appear and start talking with Jesus, Peter gets a bit overwhelmed. He obviously realizes something special is going on. He realizes this is a sacred moment, a glimpse of heaven breaking into earth, and so he makes a suggestion. Peter says, “Hey, I have an idea. I’ll to build three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
As Peter’s babbling, trying to put what’s going on into terms he can understand, God literally interrupts him. Just in case the disciples don’t get it from all the glowing and the great heroes of faith appearing, God speaks to them directly. That doesn’t happen very often, even in the Bible, but when it does, I imagine God speaking in Morgan Freeman’s voice, from the movie Bruce Almighty.
This had happened years ago at Jesus’ baptism, and it happens again here. A voice from a cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” The disciples don’t have any excuse left for wondering who Jesus is. God just bluntly told them.
And the disciples are even more overwhelmed. I’m sure they had some idea of Jesus’ identity before, but now, suddenly, they grasp it. Up on this mountaintop, they realize they are truly in the presence of God.
As we heard in the first reading from Exodus, God has a tendency to appear on mountains. In this story from hundreds of years earlier, Moses had gone up the mountain to get the ten commandments, and he too had encountered God. He stayed up on the mountain for forty days and forty nights before going back down to the Israelite people waiting below.
Maybe that’s what Peter is thinking about when he suggests making shelters. Maybe he thinks they’ll be on the mountain for the next month. Or maybe he’s just thinking they’ve found God up there on the mountain, so why wouldn’t they want to stay as long as possible?
But just a few minutes later, Jesus tells them it’s time to head back down, back into normal life, or as normal as it gets when you’re following Jesus.
In the church year, this weekend is a transition point between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent. Since Christmas, we’ve been in Epiphany, reflecting on God coming to us in the baby Jesus. We’ve been learning about who Jesus is and what it looks like to follow him as Christians. Up to this point in Jesus’ life, the disciples also have been learning who Jesus is and how to follow him.
This week on Wednesday, we’ll begin the season of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service. Ash Wednesday is my favorite worship service of the year, because it’s about death. Not that I like talking about death, but it’s so powerful to celebrate the promise that even in the worst times, even in death, even after our bodies have returned to dust as we’ll hear on Ash Wednesday, God is still with us.
It’s the same promise we cling to at funerals. God is faithful.
Sometimes, I think in everyday life we forget about God’s presence, at least I do. Hopefully, it’s pretty easy to remember God when you’re in a church service. And it’s easy to notice God during mountaintop experiences like the disciples have, particularly when there’s a heavenly voice speaking from the clouds. Maybe you’ve had moments like that in your life, moments in nature where it’s so peaceful that you can feel God’s presence. Maybe you’ve literally been on a mountaintop and felt God’s presence. It’s easy to give God credit when everything is going well.
I also think it’s easy to remember God and pay attention to God in a crisis. When everything’s falling apart in life, people often reach out to God for help. Sometimes in a hospital room, it’s easier to pray, to admit you need help. Other times in a crisis, it can be harder to pray or to see God, and you might wonder where God is, what God is doing, why God isn’t helping. Either way, times of crisis force us to wonder, and to think about faith.
The times where I have trouble noticing God are not in the valleys of life, in times of crisis, or in the really good moments of spiritual highs, the mountaintop experiences, but in the normal, mundane parts of life, the plains, if you will.
In everyday life, it’s so easy to coast along, to focus on work, on school, on family, on whatever keeps you busy, and to forget to notice God. But the promise of faith is that God is there too. God isn’t just on the mountaintop, or deep in the valley. God is present in everyday life, if we can be transfigured to notice.
Peter, James, and John are used to their normal life. Even as disciples, they’ve gotten accustomed to following Jesus. When they catch this amazing glimpse of God, this vision of who Jesus really is, they’re overwhelmed, and they want to stay there in God’s presence.
As they’re lying there, overwhelmed, Jesus comes up and touches them, and he says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” That’s a powerful message right there to us as well as to the disciples. Get up and do not be afraid. Get up. Don’t stay here on the mountaintop, but come down, back to real life, back to every day reality.
And do not be afraid. As you come down the mountain, as you go through all the little joys and sorrows and milestones and struggles of everyday life, do not be afraid, because I am with you. God isn’t just up on the mountaintop, God is in the everyday.
Perhaps when Peter suggests making shelters and staying up on the mountain, it’s because he’s not quite ready for this new way of understanding the world.
It’s easier when God is up there somewhere, safely distant, yet available if needed in a crisis. Realizing God is present with us all the time is comforting, but in a way, it’s also intimidating.
Living in our world is challenging enough, let alone recognizing that our world belongs to God.
When the disciples do come down, they’ve been changed by their experience. They’re the ones who have been transfigured.
They see the world in a new way. They see God at work around them. They don’t totally understand it yet, and they won’t until well after Jesus’ death and resurrection on Easter, but they’re getting there.
May you also be transfigured to see God this week, on the mountaintops, in the valleys, and on the plains, at work, at school, and at home. Wherever you go this week, may you see God.