Transfiguration, a Kind of Lent Eve – February 27

A sermon based on Luke 9:28-43

given at Mount Vernon,. Ohio on February 27,  2022 *

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the day on the Church calendar when we remember a mountain top story, the one where Jesus is transfigured and shines like the sun with dazzling white clothes.  It’s the story where God calls Jesus “My Son, my Chosen” and tells Jesus’ followers to listen to Jesus.

Transfiguration Sunday falls on the Sunday before Lent begins. It’s kind of a Lent Eve.  Lent’s when Christians focus on the Jesus story as Holy Week approaches, the dark week when Jesus was betrayed, captured, abandoned and killed. There’s an Easter light at the end of that week, and there is THIS story of light in the Lectionary,  before our Lenten journey toward Holy Week begins on the Church calendar. So, the Lenten journey has these bookends of light on Transfiguration Sunday and Easter Sunday.

In our reading from Luke three of Jesus’ followers, Peter, James and John go up a mountain with Jesus and encounter the greatest lawgiver, Moses and the greatest prophet, Elijah and Jesus and God in a mystical event.  God’s everywhere, of course, but high up on mountains God often seems more tangible and accessible in the Bible. Abraham hears God’s call to end human sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Moses sees God in a burning bush on Mount Horeb. God gives the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.  The people of Israel first glimpse the Holy Land from a mountain. Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Jerusalem,  the great holy city at an altitude of  2,670 feet is also known as Mount Zion.

Like other Bible heroes many stories of Jesus occur on mountains. Jesus goes up a mountain to pray, gave a Sermon on the Mount, triumphantly marched into Mount Zion, wept on the Mount of Olives and was crucified on a hill on Mount Zion called Calvary and rose from a tomb nearby.  Mountains in the Bible are where many Sacred events happen. In our story today a very detailed mystical, seemingly other worldly, encounter unfolds up on that mountain where the Transfiguration occurred.  Moses the greatest lawgiver, and Elijah the greatest prophet, appear side–by-side with Jesus; God speaks to Jesus’ followers and tells them Jesus, “ is my Son, my Chosen:  listen to him!” Moses and Elijah are honored as great, but for Christians Jesus becomes the greatest lawgiver and prophet, and Lord, he’s the One whom God instructs Christians to especially listen to.

One way to hear this story is that it really occurred. For those of us who have experienced mystical events this story can ring true. But for many of us the mystical nature of the story and events described can strain our belief. In our experience people’s clothes don’t glow and dead people can’t be seen, and God does not roll in like a fog that literally speaks. For those of us who have trouble believing today’s lesson as an historic fact, the Transfiguration story can nonetheless still ring true.  Indeed, as metaphor we can hear the Transfiguration story ringing the same Truth whether we believe it really happened or  we doubt it literally occurred.

The Transfiguration story as metaphor can be heard as a symbolic representation  of how Jesus’ first followers experienced Jesus. And if we think about it, how Jesus’ followers have experienced him ever since.  Peter, James and John represent Jesus’ followers . . . us.

It is not easy being a Christian. The path is a steep climb up a mountain following Jesus’ Way. We hope that by following Jesus to the top we will experience God in our lives.  If we make the climb with Jesus and reach the top we realize that Jesus, is a dazzling Light.  He’s like the sun. His very being glows. It glows in our lives and in our perception of him.  This reflects the Gospel accounts where the fully human Jesus, finds a way to put the Light of God, of love, out there on his sleeves, everything about him glows with God who is love.

Jesus’ Way for his followers isn’t about just experiencing Jesus’ mystical continuing experiential presence, it’s about striving as best we can to be that presence too. It’s about turning the spark of God within our own being outward so that the God who is Love shines in and through us as a Light to the world, maybe even sometimes a dazzling one.    When we follow Jesus we learn to  respect the law and the prophets, Moses and Elijah are as honored and Sacred to us, as they are to Jesus. We see the law and the prophets standing alongside Jesus.

Peter sees the mystical Moses and Elijah and Jesus. He knows it’s a good thing, but tries to sort of catch them like lighting bugs in human sized containers on the mountain top. Like others in the past and even today Peter fails to comprehend that  the Sacred law and prophets and Jesus and God are not to be trapped in containers that humans construct. To prove it,  in rolls the Sacred – God– bigger than life, in the most uncontainable form in creation: a cloud. A cloud that overshadows the living, the dead and even the glowing. God, overshadows all we can perceive as humans, and will not be contained, cannot in the end even be fully explained. God remains mystery even after we follow the Way that Jesus shows us up the mountain. God’s a bright fluid foggy mystery that surrounds and envelopes us, and– and this is the greatest most hopeful part– that Sacred mystery speaks to us. God cares enough to speak to US mere human beings.  God. Speaks. To. Us. In our tradition, the United Church of Christ, we say that “God is still speaking.”  Our God is the still speaking God, and the story of the Transfiguration can have much meaning in that regard.

Following the Way of Jesus up the mountain does not mean we only find the law and the prophets and a mystical glowing Jesus awaiting us, but that God will speak to us even if we are terrified and even though God remains a bright fluid shroud of mystery that cannot be captured and contained in human built dwellings like tents, temples and churches. The Transfiguration story can be heard as a metaphor for how the early church experienced following Jesus, and for how we can still experience Jesus today.  The message in our reading, whether we believe the story is history or metaphor is this: Listen to Jesus. We can find the Light through the Way up the mountain to God that Jesus shows us. We can experience the mystery of the law, prophets, Jesus and God if we follow him, and most importantly listen to him.

As we gather here on this kind of “Lent Eve,” we know that in the weeks ahead we will consider some dark and scary things about earthly power’s response to Jesus’ message of unconditional love.  But we also know that there is Light,  and that the Light is Jesus. A Light before, during and after those scary responses by earthly powers that tried, but utterly failed to extinguish that Light and his love.  The Light of Jesus, the love of Jesus,  cannot be extinguished – ever.  He lives. That light and love shines from mountaintop to mountaintop and it can shine in us too if we listen to God’s son, God’s chosen . . . Jesus.  May do as the still speaking God instructs and listen to Jesus.  AMEN.

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2011