Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for Transfiguration of the Lord.
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.”
As a teenager, my older brother began to pick up gigs running lights for local shows. He’d learned how to work a lighting console as early as nine or ten, while he and I hung around our local community theater waiting for our dad to be done with rehearsal. I always thought he looked very cool as he went off to these various gigs in his all-black stagehand outfits.
I think I was about fifteen when he got a job helping run lights for our local chapter of the Junior Miss Virginia pageant. At the last minute, one of the other teenagers who was supposed to be working with him dropped out, and I was recruited in desperation. I thought I looked very cool in my all-black stagehand outfit, until I got to the theater and realized I knew nothing about running lights.
Mercifully, they gave me the simplest job there—working one of two manual spotlights. And by manual, I mean I was stationed behind a big old spotlight with a big old handle, and told to aim it at whatever pageant contestant was on stage, and try to follow her around, and keep her in the light.
“You put the light where you want people’s attention to go,” the director told me before our first rehearsal. “If the girls lose the judge’s attention, even for a moment—it’s all over for them. That’s why I tell them they’ve got to have more sequins and things—you’ve got to keep people’s attention.”
She said it very precisely and crisply—att-ten-tion. I try not to trade in stereotypes in my preaching, but whoever you’re imaging as the director of the Junior Miss Virginia pageant, you have it exactly right.
I have always thought of the transfiguration as Jesus’ moment in the spotlight. Perhaps more than that—Jesus’ moment as the spotlight. Scripture says that Jesus shone like the sun, the light of the world bursting forth without lampshade or bushel for just a few minutes. It’s not that Jesus is pale, or sweaty, as I might be after a hike up a mountain—something miraculous and mystical and majestic is happening here. Something that cannot be explained, only experienced.
If your memory stretches back to the beginning of our Epiphany season, you may have noticed that the Jesus’ transfiguration is a sequel to Jesus’ baptism. At his baptism, the heavens opened up and God’s voice said, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And here, many months and many miracles and many miles down the road later, when Jesus has gathered devoted disciples and bitter enemies alike, and love him or hate him, no one quite seems to understand who he really is, and the clouds of crucifixion are gathering on the horizon, God repeats himself.
This time the sun doesn’t shine on Jesus; Jesus himself shines like the sun. And God repeats “This is my son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased,” and adds, as warning or reminder, “Listen to him.”
Many theologians talk about the transfiguration as a thin place, a place where we feel or see or experience the presence of heaven very closely. I’ve come across several commentaries this week referencing an ancient celtic belief that heaven and earth are only ever three feet apart, but in thin places they come within inches of each other. I have to admit, I can’t find any citation for this ancient saying, so it’s either very very ancient or the internet invented it—but it’s a lovely thought either way. Here on the mountain God commingles earth and heaven, so that those three disciples can get a glimpse of what all this walking and working and worrying is really for.
You’d think they’d be relieved, encouraged, inspired. But instead they are afraid. The full presence of God—the light, the voice, the origami folds of time itself—it is too much. The light is too bright for them to handle.
Have you ever had a spotlight shine fully on you? There is something frightening about it. It’s a bit painful, all that light directly in your eyes; and then disorienting too, because the rest of the world goes dark by contrast. Professionals get used to it, of course; but how much more disorienting must it be to have Jesus’ own spotlight in your eyes?
But suddenly—I love this bit—the spotlight is cut off. All the theatrics—the light, the voice, the clouds, the cast—it all stops. And then those frightened, disoriented, overexposed disciples, feel Jesus’ own touch, one warm, brown hand with hairs on the knuckles and dirt under the fingernails, one human hand like their own.
Only Matthew remembers to tell this detail about the transfiguration, the moment Jesus touches his disciples, and tells them not to be afraid. He’s there, and real, and solid. Not some glittering phantasm on a stage. He’s really there.
Lutheran pastor and professor Richard Swanson says we can see the transfiguration understand a thin place—but we can also understand it as a thick place. A thick place, he writes, is “a place that reveals the earthy (and sometimes dirty) reality of regular life.” The transfiguration gives us the glowing Jesus, sure—but the glowing Jesus is not what really moved those disciples to love him, or his enemies to hate him. It was the incarnated Jesus, the thick Jesus, who walked and ate and spat and cried and laughed and bled, who showed us the heart of God.
Over the last two months we have re-read the stories of the first days of Jesus’ ministry. They are the stories of the light of the world who came into the thick of things, into mess and misery, complication and confusion. They are the stories of a God who was not content to sit shining above us, but chose to be here with us, at any—and every—cost.
As we sang earlier: Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness, opened my eyes, let me see beauty that made this heart adore you, hope of a life spent with you.
We need those thin moments, those moments where God’s voice booms out loud and clear: this is my son, the beloved, listen to him. But we also need the thick moments—moments where God is not far away on a stage but so mixed up in our life, our fears, our hopes, our plans, our pains, our relationships, our resentments, our changes and our choices, that they are touched with transfiguration too.
I want to take you back to that Junior Miss Virginia pageant for a moment. It was easy enough to keep the spotlight on the beauty pageant contestants when they were standing still—answering questions, showing off dresses, posing for photos. But the talent portion was a whole other ball game. Once those girls began to really do things—singing, dancing, gymnastics, comedy, karate—my job got much harder. The spotlight was heavy and slow and sluggish and squeaked loudly as I tried to drag it around the stage. Part of it was my fault, for not being very experienced, and part of it was old and cheap equipment, and part of it was that spotlights are not designed to follow zippy activity.
Finally the director gave up in despair. “I guess we’ll just have full lights for the talent portion,” she sighed. “No spots.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
Having the full stage lights on for the talent portion was not as dramatic as sticking to a set of spots. It was easier for the audience to get distracted by a waving curtain or less than realistic set piece. But since I was off-duty on the spotlight, it gave me a chance to really watch these women, my age or a bit older, and how incredible they were. It turned out they didn’t need my spotlight to shine.
In Jesus, God turned the full stage lights on in the world. Instead of one dramatic light on a mountain or in a temple to dazzle us, Jesus lit up every part of human life with his presence, and his touch. Jesus was not content to stand and sparkle. He had things to be getting on with.
And when Jesus steps out of the spotlight of the transfiguration and heads down the mountain, to where some stumped disciples and a desperate father and a sick boy are waiting for his touch, too, we are called to follow him.
As Christians, we do not get to simply stand in the spotlight, shiny and sparkling, saying vague inspirational things, looking good in photos. We are called to do. To follow Christ into the thick of things. To use our talents. To fish for people. To bless the poor, the peacemakers, the persecuted. To fulfill the law of love. To heal, to feed, to mend, to march, to forgive, to put in the work—the work of being light of the world and salt of the earth.
Sometimes I think it would be helpful if God was more into running spotlights. If God would aim the beam at one particular place or person and say, “here, put your attention here.” And every once in a while, if our eyes and ears and hearts are open very wide, we may get that kind of sign. But for the most part God has simply turned the lights on for the whole world, earthquakes and pizza nights and train derailments and credit card debt and hungry children and whose turn it is to take the trash out—God turns the lights on for all of it and says here—here is your stage. Here is where your attention should be.
And so we head into the thick of it, from the mountaintop high of Sunday morning to the mess of Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays, to reach out our own warm and real and wrinkled hands and say to the world, “Don’t be afraid. We’re really here.”