Text: Matthew 17:1-9
The Transfiguration Story is always the bridge we cross into the long road of Lent. I must have preached on this story forty times over the years. So earlier this week, I decided I could not possibly have anything left to say about the Transfiguration of Jesus. I decided that I should send you a link to one of my many prior sermons on this bizarre text and we could just skip the sermon today.
Well, no such luck! Because just when I was feeling defeated by familiarity, I did what is actually dangerous for preachers to do. I sat down and read the story again, slowly and carefully. Then I sat back and gave the Spirit a little room to mess around with my imagination.
Now the quick and easy way to tell the Transfiguration Story is that Jesus takes his trusted trio – Peter, James, and John with him up a mountain. There he is transfigured in appearance like Moses was on Mt. Sinai, a Gospel resurrection hint that Jesus will not be defeated by death. Atop the mountain, the transfigured Jesus is joined by Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet.
Witnessing all this, Peter feels compelled to do something. So, he offers to build them three yurts for some mountaintop comfort. Jesus sighs, ignores Peter, and tells his hardly divine trio of disciples to keep their mouths shut when they head down the mountain.
That is the traditional way of reading this story, but it is not the only way. The more I read this story again this week, the more I found myself dissatisfied with painting Peter and the boys as hapless, clueless cartoon characters who are clearly in a situation way over their heads – literally.
It is easy to cast Peter as a complete fool in the story. Building yurts, Peter? Really? The more I read, though, the more I asked myself why I have been way so slow to give Peter a break. For witnessing what they witness, Peter, James, and John are “overcome by fear.” And, who wouldn’t be?
I started to ask myself, even though Matthew clearly says that they were “overcome by fear,” maybe they are also overwhelmed by mystery and wonder. Maybe, they are overcome by the sheer awe of witnessing what they are seeing.
My early years and early adult years of life were spent living near the water along the southeast coast of Virginia. The landscape in Tidewater, Virginia varies from flat to flatter to flattest. It was not until I met Jennell in college a couple of years back that I started to travel to this area of the state where we are not only surrounded by mountains but where you and I often need to travel over mountains to get to where we are going. On most days, I head off on a morning walk and oftentimes I stop in my tracks caught up in the sheer wonder of the beauty of the mountains, in awe of the majesty of nature on display.
Now, I am not suggesting that when Peter heads up the mountain, he is suddenly taken aback by the flora and fauna, by birds soaring between peaks and animals not found on level ground. Maybe he is, though. Maybe Peter is taken aback by nature on this mountain hike. I often am. But, even if he is, this story is finally not about nature. In fact, there is nothing natural about what Peter sees atop the mountain.
On the mount of Transfiguration, Peter is taken aback by a transformed Jesus. The wonder Peter sees is as he catches a glimpse of Jesus as he has never seen him before. It takes his breath away and leaves him gasping for air in sheer awe. How would this story read differently had Peter been been able to tamp down his fear, his need to do something, and in that place and time, simply to be still and breathe in the majesty of the moment. We will never know.
Instead, Peter responds with what has become the great American instinct, “Don’t be still; do something.” And, what does Peter do? He tries to grab hold of awe, to pin it down, to domesticate wonder, to locate a good place for awe and wonder to take up permanent residence.
In 13th century Germany, a Dominican monk by the name of Meister Eckhart gave voice to living our lives in tune with the awe and wonder of God. For Peter, for me, for so many of us, the urge in the face of divine awe and wonder is to grab hold of it, tame it, capture it. Eckhart argues that Peter finally misses the power of the Transfiguration moment because he is too busy trying to tame the moment to allow the moment to tame his urge to do something, to help – usually, a commendable quality to be sure. And yet, says Eckhart, when you and I can stand back and let mystery be, it will envelope us and deepen us to the mystery of the presence of God.
Peter will be joined by many others in centuries to follow. As people listen to Jesus and try to follow him, they often find themselves asking what they should do. For Eckhart, “doing” is not what finally matters. In the presence of the awe and wonder of God, the most important thing to focus on is how to be. Eckhart says that all intimacy, love, belonging, creativity is not when our functional minds get into the mystery, but when we stand back and let the divine mystery be and are enveloped in it so that it extends us and deepens us.
With this reading of the Transfiguration Story, maybe Lent is not the season to give up something or to take on something new, but the season to “stand back and let the mystery be,” to be still and marvel at the wonder of God’s presence all around us and within us.
When Jesus invites his three friends to head down the mountain, he invites them to be still and to observe silence. As a person wired to and reinforced to speak and to do, I prefer following the Jesus who says me, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” and the Jesus of Matthew 25 who tells a parable about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, housing those living on the streets. I prefer the Jesus who tells me that there is plenty to do. I want to know what Jesus needs me “to do” something, “to do” many things during Lent.
That, though, is not the Jesus we meet atop mountaintop or coming down off the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus never asks Peter, James, and John to do something, to get to work, to get busy. The one thing Jesus asks of them is to be still and to be silent. Martin Luther, upon being asked one time by a friend what his plans were for the following day, replied, "Work, work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”
Like Peter, I applaud Luther’s call to “work, work from early until late.” That is the Christian life that I know and try to practice. For followers of Jesus, there is so much work to do as you and I try to curtail the almost daily plague of gun violence in our land, as we support those crossing our borders who are seeking refuge, as we insist that good education requires being taught the whole historical story and being free to ask any question we like, as we resist privileging people whose skin is the approved color.
My applause stops when I hear Luther on prayer. I can tell you that, unlike the German Reformer, I have never spent three hours in prayer and probably never will. I have a hard time in short spurts of prayer, just being silent and listening for the voice of God. I am convinced, though, that Luther understood the Transfigured Jesus better than I often do.
So, in a spirit of wonder and awe, I am taking a new path into the season of Lent this year and I invite you to come along. Beginning a week from tomorrow, I invite you to join me each Monday morning during Lent, not for three hours, but for thirty minutes of prayer. I will open a Zoom prayer room at 8 a.m. and anyone is welcome to join us. We enter into sharing, silence, and prayer. Each week of Lent will be framed by a psalm that I will introduce on Monday mornings. I hope then that you and I will pray that psalm each morning until we are introduced to a new one on the following Monday.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, and on the near eve of Ash Wednesday, and the soon to arrive season of Lent, my prayer for each of you is that you will have a wonderful life. Even more, throughout the holy season ahead and beyond, I pray that you will have a wonder-ful life.
So, join me during Lent not to climb a mountain but to enter into the mysterious landscape of prayer as we bow before the wonder and awe of God.