Today we celebrate two major events – the Transfiguration of Jesus and the baptism of Levi and Owen at our 9:00 am service. I have been thinking all week about what a strange, and quite frankly, difficult combination those two events are. For well over a month, I have been looking forward to being able to tell a child-friendly story about Jesus and baptism – until I realized we were hearing about the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is one of those major ah-ha moments in Jesus’ story. Jesus had been trying to communicate his identity even before he could communicate – first with his miracle birth and the multiple witnesses to his birth. Later, at his baptism, the voice from Heaven says, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[i] Even six days before the story we hear today, Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah – but then he quickly gets confused, and Jesus is telling him, “Get behind me Satan”[ii] So, to help everyone avoid confusion about Jesus’ identity, Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up a mountain and everything becomes crystal clear.
Except, nothing about the Transfiguration is crystal clear. Why is Jesus all of a sudden dazzling white? Why are Moses and Elijah there? Why is Peter babbling about making three dwelling places? Why are the disciples terrified? And what in the world does this have to do with baptism? Of course, there are answers to each of those questions – what we know happens when people encounter God directly, how Moses and Elijah’s presence signify the completion of the Law and the Prophets in Jesus[iii], how dwelling places are a reference to the feast of Tabernacles[iv], and how theophanies are always terrifying. But the last question – what the Transfiguration has to do with baptism – is the one that has been intriguing me this week.
The more I thought about the Transfiguration, the more I was grateful that Levi and Owen will have this lesson to remember their baptism. You see, today, their parents and godparents make some promises on their behalf. They promise to raise these two boys up in the life of faith. Now that promise may sound simple – years from now, Levi and Owen’s godparents may be calling to say, “Have you been to church lately?” But the promise is not that simple. The promise is about not just bringing them to Church, but helping them engage in their faith life. At first, engaging in their faith life will mean asking about what happened in Sunday School, or talking about something in the church service. But as they get older, their promise will mean answering fun questions like, “Why was Jesus so shiny, and why were his clothes sparkling?” As the boys mature, their promise will mean being role models for living a godly life – and talking about how hard that really is, how much we fail at it, and how we keep repenting and returning to the Lord. Their promise means being willing to go to hard, vulnerable places and encouraging the boys to listen for God’s voice.
So what does the Transfiguration have to do with those promises? I like that we get this particular lesson because this lesson is a bit of a metaphor for all of our spiritual journeys. Throughout our spiritual journey we all have mountaintop experiences. We have these amazing moments of clarity, of wonder, of mystery, of profound insight, and of transformation. Those moments help define who and whose we are and how we are going to live our lives. But just like the disciples, we also find ourselves at times, confused and certainly full of fear on that journey. To the disciples, Jesus places his hand on them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” We are given those gifts too – sometimes the power of God is so close that the power feels like a hand on us; but most times, the hand is from another pilgrim on the faith journey, encouraging us to get up and telling us not to be afraid.[v] In many ways, our baptism is our great moment of clarity. Our baptism is so important and so defining that every time we witness a baptism, the Church invites all of us to reaffirm our baptismal covenant – to remember that profound moment and to recommit ourselves to bringing our lives in line with the vows we took – or someone took on our behalf.
In that way, I am deeply grateful that we get this wonderful story of transformation today. As we remember this moment of clarity, confusion, companionship, and grace, we engage in another story of transformation – the story of Levi and Owen’s transformation into full members in the body of Christ. Today, their parents, godparents, and each one of us commit ourselves to being agents of transformation in Levi and Owen’s lives, reminding them who and whose they are as we remind ourselves of who and whose we are. In that way, Levi and Owen give us a gift too – they gift us with the reminder of our own transformation, and encourage us to renew our faith journey. And if we especially need it today, they too place their small hands on our shoulders and say to us, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Because God has work for us to do! Amen.
[i] Mt. 3.17
[ii] Mt. 16.23
[iii] Robert A. Bryant, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 455.
[iv] Bryant, 457.
[v] Patrick J. Willson, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 457.