Matthew 17:1-8 Transfiguration Sunday
Scripture is full of stories that take place on the top of mountains. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. Mt. Carmel is where Elijah called down fire from heaven to ignite a rain-soaked sacrifice, proving that there is one true God. Jesus’ longest continuous discourse is the Sermon on the Mount. Maybe this is why many mountains evoke a sense of wonder.
Being in Virginia gives us opportunity to experience the wonder of the mountains. I remember driving up to our VA Synod office, which is located on the campus of Roanoke College. It was a dreary, drizzly day. It was a long drive by myself, and I was grateful to be within 30 miles or so of my destination. As I crested one mountain, the clouds were starting to break, and light streamed through the heavens, leaving a holy glow right onto where I figure the Bishop’s office is.
This morning we hear another heavenly story that takes place on a mountain. Six days later, we are told. Six days after Jesus told his disciples that he would lose his life on the cross, and that if they wanted to find their life, they must lose it, too. Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain. The sun came streaming down through the clouds, and Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah showed up.
Peter, God love him, blurted out how good it was to be there together, and how he could build three houses for them. But in the middle of his talking, a cloud appears. Out of the cloud comes God’s voice, interrupting Peter. This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him. Isn’t that just like God to interrupt us when we are making plans for Jesus?
Peter had wanted to stay in that moment, and in that place, but we cannot contain that which is holy. God’s voice and presence were unmistakable and overwhelming, so much so that the disciples fell to the ground, and were afraid. Seeing the disciples afraid, Jesus put his hands on them. It’s okay. Get up. Be raised. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. You are safe with me. Then they went down the mountain together.
Our Virginia Synod youth retreats all take place on the mountains of either Roanoke or Lynchburg. They all involve going up and down only small portions of the steep slopes. Peter, James and John must have been in better shape than I am. (We here in Williamsburg are laughingly referred to as “flatlanders.”)
The world the kids leave behind to come to a retreat is full of blessings and curses. Some of the kids are incredibly talented with musical gifts of playing and instrument or singing. There are those blessed with artistic creativity, and others who are wicked smart. Then there are athletes who can leap up the mountain in a single bound.
Being a super star doesn’t save these kids from parents who tell them they are not good enough, and from kids who try to lure them to the dark side of drugs and alcohol. Some come to these events still grieving the death of a friend who committed suicide, or a parent who has been suffering from cancer. These curses also happen to youth whose God-given gifts have not yet been discovered. Sometimes in the middle of other challenges, kids are harassed by bullies. Then, too, are those who are struggling with their sexuality and gender identity.
At the top of the mountain, God shines light through Jesus, transfiguring him from a person we read about into a real presence,– humanity and divinity melding together, bringing love so bright that curses transform into blessings. When 150 or so of us stand together singing that we are baptized into the death of Christ and raised again to new life, the Holy Spirit starts swaying with us. When someone in our small group feels safe enough to share deep pain, we encounter the living God in the person of Jesus Christ. When we drop to our knees in fear, we feel Jesus’ touch. We listen to each other. We listen without judgment, which requires the presence of God’s love, and love begets love.
Perhaps the biggest curse is at the foot of the mountain where the world’s light shines, not on Jesus, but on achievement, appearance, popularity, and having stuff. Most kids don’t want to go back home. They beg to linger on the mountaintop in the presence and light of Christ. Like Peter, they want cabins in which the Holy One can stay. Just as God transfigured Jesus for the sake of the disciples, on top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured for these young people. And for us old ones, too. I hope you can find yourself in these experiences. After all, adults are just kids who are taller. Well, some adults are taller.
We head back down the mountain to the flatland. God’s voice becomes quiet, and Jesus’ light seems hidden. But having seen Jesus transfigured, we are transformed. We cannot experience the risen Christ and not be changed. Amid earning a living, taking care of ourselves, struggling through days of missing a loved one, how easy it is to forget the top of the mountain.
The season of Lent begins this coming Wednesday, when we will receive the cross in the form of ashes on our foreheads. The forty days of Lent are a time for us to do what God told us to do,– listen to his Son. Our spiritual Lenten disciplines help us find ways to focus not on the chatter of the world, but on Christ. We start the journey once more to find our way back to being God’s Beloved, discovering that Jesus walks down the mountain with us.
~ Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin
 “Be raised” is a more accurate translation. It brings to mind Jesus’ coming resurrection.