2 Peter 1:16-21
The Transfiguration is about a face changed and the disciples’ vision and comprehension of Jesus’ true nature. They get this powerful glimpse, affirmed by a vision of Moses and Elijah and the voice of God coming from the heavens. But they don’t really know what to do with this vision. They still don’t really understand about Jesus’ death and suffering. They don’t really understand the work that Jesus still has to do to challenge the Roman authorities. And they still don’t understand what it means for them to be followers of Jesus.
My friend Anna posted a picture on Facebook of her mother. It was a picture of her mother in a wheelchair, with a bouquet of flowers in front of her. It was her mom’s 82 birthday this week. Beside that picture of Jane, her mom, she posted a picture of Jane nearly 80 years ago. At age 2 or 3, Jane is sitting on her mother’s lap reading a book.
I know Jane. I have met her many times. In the past ten years since Anna and I have been friends I have watched a painful transformation. Jane has declined, and she no longer walks. She no longer wants to see many visitors. She suffers depression and finds it hard to extend herself for other people. She has stopped her volunteer activities. Some days she doesn’t want to get up and have her hair done. She no longer takes pleasure in her daily routines.
But when I looked at the birthday picture of Jane, I could see some light in her smile. Under the lines of age, there was a glimpse of the young woman who lived a rich and joyous life. One of Jane’s ministries was as a literacy tutor to people in prison. She went to the prison every week and read with inmates. When my friend Anna put the picture of Jane as a child, with a book on her lap next to the birthday picture, she was capturing something that had always been true about her mom. Her love of books, her passion for reading, the delight of sharing a book.
The two pictures of Jane—the childhood photo and the picture of her in the wheelchair are both the same person. Jane has aged and been changed over time. The hardships of her life show on her face, on her broken body. But her true nature is still there, revealed in glimpses—in a smile, in the now infrequent laugh, or in the love that she still shows to Anna and her son and grandsons.
I am thinking about the pictures of Jane as I think about this story of the transfiguration.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 16 (before the passage we heard today), Jesus has warned his disciples that he is going to suffer and die. The chapter begins with Jesus questioning his disciples, “Who do you think I am?” And Simon Peter identifies him as the Messiah. But Jesus goes on to predict his suffering and death. He tries to explain that he will be persecuted and will die in Jerusalem, but that he will come again in glory with angels. The disciples do not understand what Jesus is trying to tell them. Simon Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah, but he tries to stop him when Jesus explains what he will suffer. (This is the part of the story when Jesus calls Peter a “stumbling block” and says, “get behind me Satan”.)
Peter and the other disciples are struggling to see Jesus clearly. They know he is the Son of God, but they can’t understand that he must continue to follow God through human suffering to death. They believe, but they don’t believe. As we enter into Lent, we will be with Jesus on his journey to the cross, and we’ll hear Peter—this same Peter in the Garden of Gethsemene denying Jesus as the Messiah.
So in this context, we have today’s passage. Jesus takes them up the high mountain (reminding them of Moses’ ascent up the high mountain). And here they get another glimpse, Jesus’ true nature is revealed by his shining face, his dazzling white garments. But even when Jesus’ divine nature is perfectly, clearly revealed. And his identity is reinforced by the vision of Moses and Elijah with him; Peter and James and John don’t know what they are supposed to do. They think they must build tents. They want to focus on creating a memorial, or a shrine, maybe they are thinking of the tabernacles. They don’t really understand what they are called to do.
The voice comes from the clouds, “listen to him!” They fall down in fear. Jesus has to lead them. “Get up and don’t be afraid.” As they follow him down the mountain, he again tries to explain that he still has work to do. He warns them not to tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. Jesus is reminding them that his glory is with God. It’s not about preserving or glorifying his beautiful divine image now, it’s about living into his call from God. He is going to have to suffer and die. And then, after he has died, the disciples will be able to remember this vision and tell people about it.
As I think about Jane, I think about how she is suffering. It is hard to see the pain on her face, the failing of her body. It is hard for those of us who love her (and especially the people closest to her, her children and grandchildren) to see her light. What is obvious is how diminished she is, not how she has always been a beacon, always been a child of God.
As Jane approaches death, her family and friends are afraid of what is coming. This is a hard phase and we wish that she might be the joyous, big strong presence in our lives again. Maybe there is a tendency to want to hide the pictures of her today, and just preserve the pictures of her as a young woman. But in Jane’s aging and suffering, there are still glimpses. We have memories of her lightness as a child and we have the example of her lifetime of service.
Jesus is trying to warn his disciples that following God’s call is not going to be easy. Death is part of living as a human being. The road that Jesus will walk, and that we will walk with him, is a hard long road. But God has given his disciples glimpses of the glory that is coming. Walking the road as a follower of Jesus is hard, but it is the only way to eternal life in God.
As we look around us, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by the troubles of the world, by the suffering of God’s people, by the harshness of aging or the injustice that we see in our political systems, or the inequality that leads some people to have much and other to have so little. In these moments, it may be hard to remember that God is with us. God has always been with us, since the beginning of creation.
But God gives us glimpses, visions of the glory that is coming. We see the light in the face of the child. We know God’s goodness when we stand on the mountain and see the glory of God’s creation. We can see Jesus’ face glowing, Moses’ face shining. We can hear in dreams, and in conversations, in poetry and in stories about miraculous healing—we can hear about God’s reign, God’s work, God’s hope.
And when we get these glimpses, hear these messages of hope, Jesus reminds us. Don’t try to build tents. Don’t get stuck trying to hold onto the vision of God’s glory. It’s always there. And when you are overwhelmed by God’s call, don’t fall down and hide your face. “Get up and don’t be afraid.” Follow me. Like Peter and James and John we are reminded that there is hope even when all we can see is suffering. And Jesus reminds us that the way is going to be hard. Don’t stop now, but carry on through the hard times. This is the way into eternal life, this is the only way into the glory of God.