Sermon Preached for Transfiguration of the Lord at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he!
Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!
Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the LORD, and he answered them.
He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them.
O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
I love this story. I really do. And to be honest, I’m never sure what to say about it.
Oftentimes my job as a preacher is to stand up here and in about fifteen minutes explain what a piece of scripture means, or at least what it means to us today.
And there’s a lot of cool stuff I could tell you about, about how this story echoes other mountaintop stories in the Bible, and about the vocabulary Matthew uses, and about hinge narratives and frame structures and all that sort of thing. And given that the Transfiguration comes up every year, I’m sure you’ll hear it all from me eventually.
But since this is the first time that we encounter the Transfiguration together—I don’t want to dissect it quite yet.
Because to explain the transfiguration comes dangerously close to explaining it away, and I don’t want to get within arms’ length of doing that.
The Transfiguration isn’t about anything. It is its own thing, its own experience. It is the disciples’ first full-fledged encounter with God’s glory shining through Jesus Christ. It’s light and dark and sound and thin air and racing heartbeats and terror and confusion and hope. It’s not quite believing what you’re seeing—or rather, not quite believing that you do believe what you’re seeing, despite how crazy it makes you feel. The Transfiguration is that moment when you meet God face-to-face and all of a sudden some crazy thing like a voice from the clouds makes all the sense in the world because it’s indisputably true. You thought God was only real in books or sermons or other people’s stories and all of a sudden God is right in your face, loud and clear. The Transfiguration is encountering God, and that’s something most of us Presbyterians could stand to get a little more comfortable with.
There’s a lot of reasons Presbyterians don’t talk too often about their deepest, most visceral encounters with God, some of them perfectly good reasons, others not so much. We have unfortunately inherited a rather stoic tradition, a very Enlightenment, European male tradition, that is suspicious of anything involving too much feeling or individuality. More compassionately, we also recognize that people experience God in very different ways, and we don’t want to make anyone feel bad for not having a juicy story to tell. And of course, there is the perpetual problem that God-encounters rarely translate well into words.
I was talking with a friend this week about his search for a new church call. He was excited about one possibility. “I don’t know how to put it,” he said. “There’s just something there, when I look at the form.” I told him I knew what he meant. I’d felt the same the first time I saw the form for this church. But it’s very hard to put into words, how you can be staring at ink on a page and suddenly feel this jolt of life like a sudden sugar high. How all you can tell people is “this feels right,” when you know it has nothing to do with your feelings and everything to do with the God who has you by the hand and is pulling you hard in a direction you never even thought of going.
And so I have been frustrated this week by the inadequacy of my own words, to talk to you about the Transfiguration, when what I want desperately to do is to usher you to the mountaintop and let you get all sunburned by God’s glory yourselves.
Fortunately, when I am sick of my own words, there are many other voices I can turn to. Many of you are probably familiar with the author Frederick Beuchner; a prolific writer and Presbyterian minister, he’s been quoted in thousands of sermons over the years. I wanted one of his quotes for this one, and when I went to look up the source, I found myself laughing: it’s from his 2004 book “Beyond Words.”
Glad to know Beuchner and I are on the same page.
Beuchner came of age in the 40s and 50s, when church attendance was a matter of civic duty more than a matter of faith, and he grew up with a fairly sophisticated understanding of Christian history and culture but no spark of live faith. He began his first novel while in college; it was a massive success, and he was hailed as the rising star of American literature, with his face plastered across Time and Newsweek.
His second book was as much a failure as his first was a success.
In 1952, he went to New York to teach, and while there, he dropped into the big church down a block from his apartment, Madison Avenue Presbyterian, the kind of big historic church that sophisticated people might feel unashamed of spending an hour in.
Intelligent, and with an ear for language, he began to listen to the sermons.
And during one of them, a sermon on Jesus’ temptation in the desert, the story we’ll hear next week, the pastor spoke of how Christ rejected the crown the devil offered him, but is crowned again and again in the hearts of those who believe in him, a coronation that takes place “among confession, and tears, and great laughter.”
Many have called this Beuchner’s conversion moment, but not Beuchner himself: he described it as the ‘doing of “whatever it was that I believe must have been hiddenly in the doing all the years of my journey up till then.”’[i]
It took me about four times to read that sentence before I understood at all what he meant; but I think it is the essence of transfiguration: that moment when we see clearly and joyfully what has been right under our noses the whole time. That moment when we see Christ’s glory shining through and realize that it is not Christ who has changed, but us.
“It was not so much that a door opened, “Buechner reports,” as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon.”’[ii]
From that moment, Beuchner’s sophisticated interest about the relics of Christianity fell away and was replaced by a burning curiosity.
He wrote later, “In the unfamiliar setting of a Presbyterian church, of all places, I had been moved to astonished tears which came from so deep inside me that to this day I have never fathomed them. I wanted to learn more about the source of those tears and the object of that astonishment.”[iii]
Much to his friends’ and family’s dismay, Beuchner enrolled in Union Theological Seminary, and four years later was ordained in Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. His ministry has been almost exclusively in the classroom—and the bookstore. He has a great gift for dragging the ordinary things of the world into the light of Christ’s glory, until you can see their holiness and grace.
Beuchner encountered God in his own heart, and has spent his whole life trying to share that encounter with others. He is not so distant from his spiritual ancestor Peter, who met the transfigured Christ on the mountain, and would later become the first great preacher of the Christian tradition. Both of them devoted to putting a blinding display of light and dark into words for the human heart to understand.
I notice, even as I am writing this sermon, that I have not told you my own transfiguration stories, my own encounters with God’s glory. I have told you Beuchner’s instead. Partially because he has had sixty years to put his into words, and I have not, and partly because it is such a vulnerable act to share with others your deepest experiences of God. Matthew says the disciples were terrified on the mountain, that they fell on their faces, that they scrabbled for solid rock beneath them when faced with the full majesty of God. In my own life at least, that terror goes two ways—there is the terror of knowing—not just believing, but knowing—that God has claimed you, body and soul; and the terror of knowing that for the rest of your life you’ll never be able to quite explain that moment to anyone else. The awe of knowing that just meeting God once changes you forever, and that you will spend your days grappling with what you do next.
I don’t wonder that the disciples dove for the ground, for what was familiar and solid.
But here’s the piece that I really love—the piece that makes me look hopefully around corners for my next glimpse of God’s glory, instead of running down the mountain as fast as my legs will take me—when the disciples are on the ground, trying to reconcile in their human brains that they have heard the true voice of God and seen the true face of God, two things human brains aren’t supposed to be able to comprehend—when they are on the ground, wondering how on earth they’re supposed to go back into a world of shadows and whispers and half-truths and petty grievances after this—well at that moment, Jesus comes over to them, and kneels by their side, and touches them.
Touches them. Christ the daystar, reaches out one human hand and touches them.
And he says Get up.
And he says Don’t be afraid.
And when they look up, it’s all gone, the light and the cloud and Moses and Elijah, the whole show. It’s all gone, and its just Jesus, saying, Don’t be afraid. It’s not all or nothing. I’ve shown you my glory, full on. I’ve shown you my Life, my capital-L Life. But I’ll fit myself into your lives too. I’ll go with you into your towns, your cities, your valleys. I’ll speak in your neighbor’s voice and I’ll peek out from your child’s face and I’ll whisper in your prayers and I’ll be the peace that burns in your hearts. I’ll touch every part of your lives with just a little transfiguration. So don’t be afraid.
That’s the Beuchner quote I was looking for, before I fell down the rabbit hole. You’ve probably seen it:
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.
This week we begin our journey of Lent, a journey that takes us far from shows of light and glory, a journey that will take us deep into the dark places, to another mountain, where streams of light are replaced with streams of blood, and the ancient prophets replaced with two thieves. In Lent we learn to look deep inside ourselves and see those dark places in our own souls, those places where we have let fear fester into all kinds of evil.
If we walked alone, Lent would be a cruel time. If we walked alone, Lent would be a house of horrors.
But we do not walk alone. We walk with the one who walks with us through every valley; the one who, even shining in all his glory, bends to earth just to touch our faces and tell us not to fear.
I pray that somewhere in your history you have your own mountaintop story to draw strength from in the days ahead. I pray that you will have one again. But if that is not true—if everything I have said today sounds nice in theory but not real—then this is my promise to you. The door is open. Whether or not you can see it, whether or not you are ready to walk through it, the door is open.
And it always will be.
[iii] Now and Then. Repr. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1991. p. 10