This is one of the stranger readings in the gospels, one of the stranger festival days in the church: the transfiguration of Jesus.
To transfigure means, literally, to transform into something more beautiful. At least that’s what the internet says. And to be sure, Jesus is beautiful in today’s reading.
He goes from being his normal, very human, self—covered in dust, dirt, and grime from walking the unpaved streets of city after city—to the spokesperson in a Tide ad: clothes suddenly "dazzling white such as no one on earth could bleach them.” In the blink of an eye, Jesus is, literally, transfigured.
But while many internet dictionary definitions of transfiguration read: “changed into something more beautiful”—and we could argue that dazzling, clean Jesus is, in fact, made more beautiful today—I think Miriam-Webster really nails it when it comes to “transfiguration”: “changed,” it says, “usually for the better.”
That’s what the word means. Transfiguration: changed… usually for the better.
There’s a lot of theological conversation about what happens at the Transfiguration, when Jesus takes Peter, John, and James high up a mountain and he starts glowing, and then Elijah and Moses show up—two extremely dead guys. What IS that all about?
The fact of the matter is, we don’t know. We don’t know what it means that Jesus lit up like the sun. Like lightning flashes. We don’t know exactly what it means that two ancestors of the faith showed up in that moment, roused from eternal rest and called to witness. We don’t know why Peter, John, and James were the only disciples invited to the party.
What we do know is that in this moment—the transfiguration moment we celebrate today—something changed. In this moment, God is revealed in a new and surprising way.
It’s no wonder the disciples want to set up camp high up here on the mountain, where God has been revealed to them in a new way. They see Jesus, changed, and figure this is where he lives now. High up on some sort of throne with the fathers of the faith. Clean. Perfect. Glowing. Dazzling white. Untouchable.
So Peter and John and James start building tents, dwellings. They don’t know exactly what’s going on here on the mountaintop—just like us—but they know it’s special. And they know they’d like to preserve it. Stay in this mountaintop moment, set apart, alone here with this safe, sterile Jesus forever.
Who could blame them?
But then a voice booms down from above, out of an ominous cloud: “this is my son, listen to him!” God is speaking now into this already overwhelming scene.
So let’s recap: Jesus is shining like lightning flashes, two dead guys are hanging out, and now God is thundering down, quite literally out of the heavens, at YOU (imagine). Yelling at you to stop building tents and listen up!
In this moment—this overwhelming, confusing transfiguration moment—what God has to say for clarification is “this is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.”
Listen to him.
We don’t know exactly what the transfiguration is all about, but we know that something has changed. Shifted. Jesus is no longer just a teacher to us. A miracle worker. Or even a prophet. The transfiguration reveals that he is God with us. And we are to listen to him.
Now, it would be easy to stay up on the mountaintop, wouldn’t it? It would have been easy for the disciples to just build those tents and stay there—never having to reckon with what God made flesh, flashing before their eyes, might mean for their actual, real lives.
I get it. We all want to stay in our mountaintop moments. Those times we feel closest to God, lifted up. Special and wise and set apart. We all want to set up camp in those places. It’s human…
As a teenager I’d go to a camp every summer—Camp Nawakwa—and I’d never want to leave. God would be revealed to me there, and I’d be changed. In music and nature, friends and campfire stories—there was Jesus, presented in a totally new way—why go home?
For us as a congregation, it’s our history that’s the mountaintop moment. A rich history of full pews, congregational dinners in a bursting hall, enough money to build this sanctuary, let alone heat it. Wouldn’t we love to remain in those days? On that mountaintop?
Of course we would. We're human.
But Jesus. God’s son. The beloved. Says otherwise. And we are asked to listen.
See, on the other side of the transfiguration moment, Jesus orders the disciples down the mountain and back into their community. Jesus says the thing to do is love the people. To welcome the stranger. Jesus says he’s going to be about healing and restoration, about peace and justice. Jesus speaks of hope for those who are weak, poor, afraid, alone.
Even Jesus leaves behind the glitz and the glamour. Returning to his dust, dirt, and grime covered self.
Jesus says the place to go is Jerusalem. The mountain to climb is a hill called Golgotha. The throne upon which he’ll rest is the cross.
And Jesus says to the disciples, once again, “follow me.”
And they listen.
We don’t know exactly what the transfiguration of Jesus is all about, but we know that something has changed, and, oddly, for the better. And while we are inclined to bask in these mountaintop moments—while it is understandable that we would want to set up camp and stay there forever—we are called down off the mountain today.
Off the mountain and into the world. Because this new, beautiful, surprising thing that God is doing, it’s not happening up on high. It’s not happening in the past. It’s happening in real time. Like lighting flashes. Right here, right now. In the real world.
The transfiguration is happening in Jesus, but through him we are also being transfigured.
Called to do new and surprising things…
Called to transform the deep goodness of what was into the exciting goodness that will be. Called down off the mountain and into something transcendent. Something inspired.
Something we might not even fully understand yet, like the disciples in the text don’t quite understand what they’re experiencing, but something truly beautiful nonetheless.
Salem, we are in a transfiguration moment as a congregation.
We have spent some time on the mountaintop. Like all congregations that have been around for a while, through the heyday of Christianity, we know what it is like to be safe and set apart. Dazzling and bright.
But it is time, now, to listen to Jesus. The son of God. The beloved. To follow him in a new way. To come down off to the mountain.
It is time now to dwell not apart from, but with the community. To build a home not on high, but a safe place for people to dwell down here. To learn how to love and be loved, better. To welcome the stranger—looking at you, new members! [We welcomed five new members to Salem on Transfiguration Sunday!] To be about healing and restoration, about peace and justice. To speak of hope for those who are weak, poor, afraid, alone…
Salem, we have seen some things—beautiful things—and now it is time to come down off the mountain. To start walking toward Jerusalem, knowing that this road won’t always be easy, but it is here the transfigured Jesus will teach us. Change us.
It is here that Jesus will be transfigured before our eyes once again: first crucified but then raised from the dead.
We don’t know exactly what the transfiguration means, and it’s probably true that—like the first disciples—we’re not entirely sure exactly what we’re being called to now, as a result. What kind of life we’ll have together now that the mountaintop moment has passed.
But we do know that something has changed for us.
That God has been revealed in new and surprising ways.
And that God promises to continue showing up and surprising us, continuing to make all things new, continuing to light up our lives like the sun. Like flashes of lightning.
Changing us… for the better.
Thanks be to God. Amen.