Today is a pivotal day in the Church year. In Advent, we start out the Church year anticipating and then celebrating God taking on human form in the Christ Child. After Christmas we celebrate the season of Epiphany – a series of moments in which the true identity of Christ is revealed. We hear first from the magi who devote their lives to finding Jesus. At Jesus’ baptism we hear God claiming Jesus as God’s son. In Cana, Jesus reveals his power at a wedding. And then today, we close out the season of Epiphany with another revelation of the true identity of Christ – the transfiguration.
An epiphany is defined as a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure; or a revealing scene or moment – in our case, of the divine. That is what is happens to Peter, James, and John on the mountaintop: a revealing of the essential nature of Jesus as the divine son of God. When they see Jesus standing there with Moses and Elijah, talking about Jesus’ pending departure or exodus,[i] Peter, James and John can finally connect the dots about all Jesus has told them. And in case the dazzling white light, and the appearance of the ancient prophet and lawgiver are not enough, out of the cloud they hear God’s voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen.” On this last day of Epiphany, we get the epiphany of epiphanies!
Many of us have had our own epiphanies when it comes to God. Whether we suddenly and clearly hear God’s voice, whether someone says something so profound that it shakes us to the core, or whether we see Christ in the face of a child, we have all had those revealing God moments. My favorite epiphany story comes from the parish I served as a curate. The associate had a rare Sunday where he was the only clergy person serving at the altar that day. Everything had been going along smoothly in the service. After he pronounced and shared the peace, he started to make his way back to the altar when something caught his eye. He froze as he realized at the corner of the alter sat a bat. Panicked, he turned around and looked down the long aisle. There, he says, standing in the Narthex by the baptismal font, bathed in light from the morning sun stood our Sexton, Walt. The priest, mesmerized by and grateful for Walt’s presence, briskly walked down the long aisle to Walt. As parishioners looked on with curiosity, the priest quickly whispered to the sexton about the rodent sitting on the altar. “Don’t worry,” said Walt. “I got it.” The priest walked shakily back down the aisle, giving the bat a wide berth on the other side of the altar. Before he could even start fumbling at the credence table, Walt mysteriously appeared from the side door with a t-shirt, walked past the priest, swooped the bat up with the t-shirt, and then disappeared out the other side door. Though Walt would never claim sacred status, the priest that day saw Christ in him not unlike the disciples on the mountaintop.
Most of us have more traditional epiphany moments in life: baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, or weddings. Today, we will honor two people who celebrated their wedding twenty-five years ago. Weddings are not unlike those mountaintop experiences. The soon-to-be-married couple sees each other bathed in light – if not literally, then certainly figuratively. That day seems to be a day when the couple sees only the goodness in the other person: their beauty, their care, their compassion, and their love. There is a certain clarity that comes on a wedding day: this is the person who makes the other better. Together they are better servants of God than apart. Time almost stands still, noises drop into the background, and suddenly, the couple is offered a moment deep assurance that this is a good and holy decision. I had fun talking with Bob and Janet about that day for them so many years ago.
I think God knows that we need those sacred moments because God knows what happens next: we come down the mountain.[ii] I always like to remind couples about their wedding, especially those married for a long time, because their mountaintop experience may feel far away. When we come down the mountain, we see the realities of life. No matter how dreamy someone seems basked in light, all of their imperfections are obvious outside of the light. In Luke’s gospel, the next verses tell the story of a young man who needs healing. The disciples fail to heal him and the father of the young man begs Jesus for help. Jesus is frustrated with his easily distracted disciples and scolds them. The disciples are definitely not on the mountain anymore. Jesus is no longer gloriously bathed in light – now he is just a scolding teacher.
We know that feeling too. For as many mountaintop experiences we have had – whether at a wedding or at a retreat or even in a holy moment of prayer – we also have those experiences in the fields of everyday life. We may even wonder where that glorious God is in those moments. In fact, when we stay in the valleys and trenches too long, we sometimes wonder whether we imagined the mountaintop. How could we have seen things so clearly and radiantly when in everyday life we feel nothing but God’s distance? We may begin to doubt, to experience anger, or to simply feel like God is absent.
Luckily today’s text gives us some hope in our valley and trench moments. First, epiphany moments are so strong that they keep revealing themselves to us. On occasions like an anniversary, we can go back to that mountaintop moment and ask, “Why did I choose this person?” We do not need long to be flooded with list of reasons. Suddenly all the little annoyances fade, and what is left are the loving, tender moments, the caring, sacrificial actions, and the joyful, abiding experience. I imagine that is why Luke tells this story today. Only three of the disciples were privileged enough to be on that mountain. But in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, I imagine they returned to this story again and again, recalling with affirmation how God had said that Jesus is God’s son.[iii]
Second, today’s text also gives us hope through the other part of God’s words. God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” We are all going to have hard days. But those hard days are even harder when we refuse to listen. No matter where we are, no matter how low the valley, Jesus is there speaking to us. We simply need to listen. All the answers to our questions, all our cries for support, all our loneliness and aching is answered when we listen. When we get caught up in the illusion of self-sufficiency and having everything figured out, we forget God’s words. The epiphany today – Jesus’ transfiguration – reminds us that God is speaking. We need only to listen.
This week Janet and Bob will bask in the glory of their anniversary and the renewal of their vows. They may even experience some of the radiance of that initial wedding day. But eventually, the anniversary bliss will fade as they come down the mountain. In that journey back to reality, their hope will be in listening to Christ as God commands. The same will be true for us. This week we begin the journey of Lent. As we step into that time of penitence and fasting, God’s words offer us hope, “Listen to him.” If God is telling us to listen, we can be assured that Jesus is speaking. Our journey off the mountaintop and into the valley in these next forty days will be blessed and full when we listen to our Redeemer speaking to us. As grateful as I am for a retelling of that transcendent day on the mountain, I am even more grateful for the reminder that disciples, like us, came back down the mountain. But even on that journey down, Jesus is still with them, speaking truth, love, and hope. Amen.
[i] N. T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 114.
[ii] Lori Brandt Hale, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 456.
[iii] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 135.