On this last day of Epiphany, as we prepare to enter into Lent this week, we are given the text of Jesus’ transfiguration. The text in and of itself is mesmerizing: Jesus and three disciples go up a mountain, which is a hint to all of us that something dramatic is about to happen; Jesus is transfigured, his face shining like the sun and his clothes turning dazzling white; Moses and Elijah appear, two giant figures in our tradition – so giant we heard about Moses’ mountaintop experience today too; a cloud comes down around them and God speaks; and when the experience is all over, Jesus gently touches the disciples and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” We could easily get lost in this spellbinding moment, longing to stay on the mountaintop this morning.
But as many scholars point out[i], this mountaintop story, situated at the end of the Epiphany season, is not told in isolation. Because we tell this story when we do, we have to take a wider view today. The end of this season is bookended by the end of the season we are about to enter: Lent. That season ends on a mountain, of sorts, too – the hill of Calvary, where we see a very different kind of scene. In this Sunday of transition, we hold the two mountains in tension together. As scholar N.T. Wright reminds us, on Transfiguration Sunday, “…on a mountain, is Jesus, revealed in glory; there, on a hill outside Jerusalem, is Jesus, revealed in shame. Here his clothes are shining white; there, they have been stripped off, and soldiers have gambled for them. Here he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes, representing the law and the prophets; there, he is flanked by two brigands, representing the level to which Israel had sunk in rebellion against God. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness comes upon the land. Here Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is; there, he is hiding in shame after denying he even knows Jesus. Here a voice from God himself declares that this is his wonderful son; there, a pagan soldier declares, in surprise, that this really was God’s son.”[ii]
Looking at the transfiguration of Jesus in that way as opposed to a momentous, isolated event feels like riding a rollercoaster – seeing the glorious and the disastrous all in once glance, feeling the high of sweet affirmation and comfort and the low of betrayal all in one breath, knowing the promise of victory and reality of failure all in one moment. When you take the expanse of the mountaintop transfiguration, the journey through Lent, the culmination on the hill of Calvary, you can almost feel dizzy from the range of emotions.
In some ways, that sensation of being on a rollercoaster of emotions has not been dissimilar to the experience of emotions lately at Hickory Neck. In the course of one week recently, we said goodbye to a beloved curate, labored intensively with our homeless neighbors, and then had the Presiding Bishop rock this very Nave. In the course of these next months, we live into the reality of switching from a staff with two full-time priests, to one full-time priest, and will discover how that will shape and shift not only our experience with our staff, but our experience with caring for one another. In the course of these next forty-plus days, we will go from the high of pancakes and talent shows, to ashes and repentance, back to alleluias, butterflies, and Easter eggs. I can feel viscerally that rollercoaster of Transfiguration to Calvary right here in the life and ministry of Hickory Neck.
But that is why I am also deeply grateful for Matthew’s transfiguration text today. We get two instructions today – one from God and one from Jesus. God speaks first, with words we heard earlier at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” Those words are another declaration and reminder of Jesus’ identity. But God adds something else today. “Listen to him!” God says. In those three words, God tells us what to do when caught in the whirlwind of life and transition: listen to Jesus. For a people who live in a culture marked by the spirit self-determination and can-do attitude, we are not necessarily the best at listening to Jesus. Listening takes time and patience and discernment, and we just want to get on with the “doing.” But today, God’s words are for us. Listen to Jesus.
I used to be a part of a group who opened our gatherings with prayer. One particular leader had a unique method of prayer. He would introduce the prayer normally, saying, “Let us pray.” But then he would say nothing. For a long time. So long was the silence, that the first time I experienced his prayer method, I kept discretely peeking through my eyelashes to make sure nothing was wrong. I wondered if something had happened, or if he was struggling for words, or maybe even if he had fallen asleep. But he remained sitting in a serene body posture, in silence as we waited. When I finally conceded he must be doing this on purpose, I tried to relax and just sit in the silence. Eventually his spoken prayer began and was lovely. But I needed several more times praying with him before I could settle into the silence he created. In that silence I began to stop talking in my head, and began to do what God commands today. Listen to Jesus. That is one of our invitations as we enter this Lent, and as we settle into this liminal time of transition at Hickory Neck. We are to listen to Jesus. Listening will not feel like doing. Listening will sometimes be frustrating. But in listening, we will be equipped to hear Jesus speaking to us and guiding us.
The other words spoken today are by Jesus. Actually, Jesus does something powerful before he speaks. He touches the disciples. Jesus’ touch reminded me of a story from a priest friend of mine. The priest was at his Diocesan Council a few years ago, an event at which he rarely speaks. But an important issue arose, and he felt as though he could not avoid speaking. He stood up, argued his case, and faced a heated confrontation. In the end, the assembly agreed with him and his opinion won over. As he sat back at his table, a friend quietly whispered in his ear, “You’re shaking. I’m going to touch you for a little bit.” As the friend laid his hand upon his shoulder, my friend could feel his blood pressure lowering and the tension releasing from his body.[iii] In a world that has become extremely and wisely cautious about touch, we sometimes forget the power of touch. We all have had powerful experiences with touch: whether we received a similar hand on the should as reassurance that all would be well; whether we received a hug that was just slightly longer than normal, but much needed, after confessing some bad news; or whether someone just held our hand for a while, as a silent, encouraging gesture. That is the kind of touch Jesus offers today.
But then, Jesus speaks. Jesus says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” For those of us who are doers, these words are anchoring today. God tells us to listen to Jesus, Jesus gives us a reassuring touch, and then Jesus tells us to get up and not be afraid. In other words, Jesus is speaking to us, Jesus is reassuring us, and then Jesus is telling us to get up and get going. I hear in Jesus’ words today more modern words for Hickory Neck, “You’ve got this!” As we enter into the season of Lent, we commit to what we always do in this season – to returning and repenting, to listening and discerning, to seeking comfort and renewal, and then getting back in there. In what can feel like a rollercoaster of emotions, today’s lesson offers us grounding, comfort, and encouragement. In a season of journeying from one mountain to another, we have the promise of a comforting hand, soothing words, and inspiring action. We are not off the rollercoaster yet, but we have each other, and the promise of those unknown to us who join us in this journey. As we stand here on our hill in Toano, I am grateful for good companions on what promises to be an awesome ride. Amen.
[i] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Pres, 1997), 194; also, Rolf Jacobson, Sermon Brainwave podcast, “#708 – Transfiguration Sunday,” February 15, 2020, http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1232, as found on February 20, 2020.
[ii] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 14.
[iii] Steve Pankey, “The Power of Touch,” as found at http://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/the-power-of-touch/ on February 27, 2014.