Transfiguration Sunday marks the transition from the end of Epiphany to the beginning of Lent. It is a celebration of God’s embrace of Jesus, moving toward the end of Jesus’ earthly life.
The Gospel reading is not the first time we read about someone coming down from a mountain all aglow from seeing God. Exodus, Chapter 24:29-35 tells about Moses.
The first time he met up with God is when he was walking along in the Sinai Peninsula and there was a burning bush. As Moses stood before this burning bush, he heard the voice of God say, “Moses, take off your shoes for you are on holy ground.” Moses knew. Moses knew that God had spoken to him in that moment. Moses knew that there was God and that God was real. It happened to him again a short time later. Moses had gone up to the top of Mount Sinai. For six days and nights, Moses had been up at the top of Mount Sinai. Suddenly, there was a swirling cloud that surrounded the mountain. Moses knew that it was the Presence of God and God spoke to him and gave him the Ten Commandments. Moses spoke with God. Moses knew, Moses knew that God had spoken with him. He knew for sure that God was with him, that God was real.
The gospel reading for today is a similar kind of story to that old testament story. Jesus, Peter, James, and John were up on a mountain, Mount Tabor, not far from Nazareth. They, too, had been on the mountain for six days and six nights. Then, as with Moses, a cloud came around them and in that moment, they heard the voice of God say, “This is my beloved Son, Jesus. Listen to him.” And they knew it was a rare moment; they believed that God had spoken. They knew it for sure. It was such an overwhelming feeling that Peter wanted to build huts and stay right there.
I’m sure most, if not all, of you have had moments when you knew God was speaking to you. Think about where you were when this happened. For me it has always either been outside surrounded by mountains or sitting at the seashore watching the waves rolling onto the shore, or right here in this Sanctuary. Those moments when you truly know that God is speaking to you are breathtaking. You never want that feeling to disappear. But life goes on. We must leave the mountains, the seashore, and the Sanctuary and go out into the world and take with us what we heard God saying to us.
After Jesus, Peter, James, and John descend from the mountain, Luke goes on to tell a story about a child having epileptic seizures. His parents were terrified when the boy fell into a fire. Jesus and his disciples came down from the mountain into the trials and tribulations of the real life world and got back to work healing the boy. Henry Drummond, a Scottish theologian said, “God does not make the mountains in order to be inhabited. God does not make the mountaintops for us to live on the mountaintops. It is not God’s desire that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there. We don’t tarry there. The streams begin in the uplands, but these streams descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.”
I had no interest in science when I was in school. I only took enough science classes to get my diploma. But as I was reading commentaries about this scripture, about the Transfiguration, there were some comments about science versus religion and I found them to be very interesting.
We live in an age of science, astronomy, biology, physics, and the other sciences. These sciences have been able to answer questions that were thought unanswerable just a few decades ago. We look to science to answer our questions, to solve our problems, to explain our world. We have all benefited from the answers that science can find and has found. It is the job of science to be skeptical of all explanations until all the facts are in. The job of science is to measure and quantify things and show us how they work. A rainbow, for instance, is not the gods painting the sky. It is light being prismatically reflected through water droplets. Science can tell us that. Science and religion have always been at odds in the minds of many people, but it is important to keep in mind what science does and what it can’t do. The job of science is to remove the magic and the mystery from the world, to come to know what can be known about things through observation and measurement. A good scientist will tell you, that’s about all science can do. It can tell us how; but not – in the largest sense-why. For example, science can explain to a great degree how the world came to be and how you and I came to be part of it. It can uncover the early aftermath of the big bang and piece together eons of human evolutionary development until we get to you and me today. But science cannot tell us why the world came to be or why you and I are here, why there should be something instead of nothing. Another example: science can explain why certain people are attracted to other people. They talk about the evolutionary hard-wired need to preserve the species, they talk about hormones, psychological predisposition, and cultural or social training. Science can explain attraction but science cannot explain love. Science cannot explain why a spouse sits at their spouse’s bedside day after day, holding their hand and praying that the man or woman they love will survive cancer. Science can measure and study and explain the need of a species to reproduce itself and survive. But science can’t explain love. And yet, love is as real as reproduction. It is as real as it is unexplainable. Down through the centuries human love has remained a mystery – a holy mystery- that lies beneath what we can evaluate and measure and see.
Peter, James, and John had known Jesus well for a long time. They willingly left their livelihoods and possessions to follow him. They considered him to be a remarkable rabbi and had come to see him as the promised messiah. But still, to these followers Jesus was a man, just a man. Certainly an inspiring teacher and perhaps a great leader who might help his people to kick the Romans out of power. But he certainly is surely a human being.
Then suddenly, on the mountain, just for a moment, they see beyond Jesus’ ordinary humanity and see a shining presence, a holiness that was the very glory of God. It is a mystery which can be neither explained nor debunked. Like true love, it is a reality too deep to measure.
Thomas Currie writes: “…to be a human being is to be a glory-bearing, glory reflecting, glory bound creature. That is surely the meaning of such transfiguring glory; to see in its brightness an anticipation of the glory of the risen lord, and to find in him the destiny of every ordinary life. For he is the one who makes us radiant, We ourselves cannot put on bright faces. But neither can we prevent them from shining. Looking up to him, our faces shine.”
At the end of The Wizard of Oz Dorothy and her companions pull back the curtain to reveal the “Magnificent Oz” to be a very ordinary human being. Rather than a powerful and terrible wizard, he is only an old man with a lot technology at his disposal. That’s science debunking the pretense of the great wizard. But remember that this pretender turned out to be able to give each of the seekers exactly what he or she needed – courage, a heart, a brain, a home. That’s faith, seeing the possibilities that lie beneath what seems ordinary.
I believe that God is with us, not only on the mountaintops, but god is with us the next day at the very bottom of the mountain. You know what it is like down at the bottom of the mountain. Some of you know what it means to experience the severe illness and death of children. Some of you know what it means to have one of your friends die much too early and much too painfully. Some of you know what it means to have trauma in your marriage. You know what it is like to be down at the bottom of the mountain. And you also know that God is with you and you know that God speaks to you there and gives you the words of hope and strength for that time. God is with us both on the mountaintops and in the valleys.
God is also with us in the plains, in the ordinariness of life. This is where we spend most of our life and God is with us there, too. He is with us driving to work, having lunch, making a cup of coffee, talking to a friend, watching television, listening to music, going for a walk. You stand at the foot of Mount Washington or looking out over the Atlantic Ocean at Hampton Beach. You look at a tree covered with apple blossoms, or the crocuses and daffodils starting to emerge from the ground in the Spring. God is shining through no matter where we are or who we are with or what we are doing. Let in His light so that it can shine through you, whether you are on the mountaintop, in the valley, or on the plains. May we always be in our places with bright shiny faces that reflect God’s love,