Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday – February 19, 2023
2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of my favorite places to go is up to the top of Mount Erie. It is especially nice to be there on a bright sunny day. The views are spectacular! From one direction you can see Mount Baker gleaming in the distance. You can see all the way out to the Skagit flats. From another viewpoint you can see Campbell Lake, with its little island in the middle. You can see the western shore of Whidbey and all the smaller islands nearby, covered in lush forests. You get a nice day up there with a little sun on your face and you just don’t want to leave! You want to bask in the majesty of it all!
Jesus took Peter and James and John up to Mount Tabor, their version of Mount Erie. It is even pretty similar in elevation. But the spectacular view they would take in had nothing to do with the scenery. Once they were up on the top of this mountain Jesus transfigured before them. Jesus’ face shone like the sun. His clothes became dazzling white, or, as the ESV nicely translates it, “his clothes became white as light.” For a moment, they saw Jesus in all his glory. They saw the glory Jesus had from eternity with the Father, the glory of the Father’s only begotten Son, the glory of the Word who was with God and who was God and who had become flesh and lived among them. They saw his divine light breaking out, as bright as the sun.
As if this weren’t enough, suddenly, Moses and Elijah were there, talking with Jesus! Talk about a celebrity sighting! These great figures from the past were now right there in front of them, chatting away with Jesus!
As Peter looked on in awe, shielding his eyes and squinting at Jesus, he said: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter wanted to stay there! He wanted to continue to bask in that majestic light. He wanted to continue to take in this remarkable scene. And so he quickly came up with these elaborate plans for a building project. He would build three dwelling places, one for each of them, so that they could all stay there and the disciples could continue to soak in that holy light. Yes, Peter had big plans. But you know, it has often been said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
It seems rather fitting then that as Peter was describing his plans, God interrupted him! “While Peter was still speaking,” scripture tells us, “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The disciples were terrified. They fell to the ground, overcome by fear.
Were they terrified because of the shadow that now fell upon them? Were they terrified because of the darkness that enveloped them? Were they terrified because they heard the voice of God himself? Were they terrified because of their human smallness in the face of such power? Because of their sins in the face of such holiness? As it says in Hebrews 10, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Were they afraid because their own plans were falling apart? Were they afraid because they were suddenly keenly aware of their own utter lack of control? Their helplessness? Their complete dependence on God’s mercy?
These terrified disciples were told to listen to Jesus. And what did Jesus say to them? “Get up and do not be afraid.” Jesus touched them, perhaps with a hand to raise them up, perhaps with a reassuring touch on their shoulder. He touched them and said, “Do not be afraid.”
Peter’s plans were abandoned on that mountaintop. Jesus’ plan was now to be implemented. Jesus was now on his way to the cross. He told the disciples to tell no one about what they had seen until after his plan was complete, after he had been raised from the dead.
We all have mountaintop experiences we wish would never end but do. We all have times when life doesn’t go according to our plans, when that shadow comes out of nowhere, when the darkness creeps in again. Maybe it happens when we are confronted with our own sinfulness. Maybe it happens when we are reminded of our weakness, our smallness, our vulnerability, our mortality, or the mortality of our loved ones. Maybe it happens when we have those moments when we realize just how little control we have over things. There are times when we lose sight of the glory of Christ, when we find ourselves in the darkness and become afraid.
Our epistle reading for today is an excerpt from a letter from Peter himself, where he reflects on his experience of the Transfiguration. After the resurrection, that gag order Jesus gave, that non-disclosure agreement, was voided and he could talk about his experience on the mountaintop.
First, Peter makes clear that this is no tall tale. “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter writes, “but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty….We ourselves heard this voice from heaven, while we were with him on the mountaintop.” This is something that really happened in history, and Peter saw it himself.
Peter then goes on to draw out the implications of the Transfiguration for us today. He says that because of the Transfiguration we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed, and then he says we “would do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
The light of Christ, Peter is saying, is something we need to be attentive to. We are to hold it near as one would hold a lamp shining in a dark place. We are to cling to this lamp in defiance of the darkness. We are to live by the hope its light provides until the fullness of that light dawns and Christ brings in the new day.
On Wednesday the high school across the street went into lockdown after someone called in reports of an active shooter. Social media blared rumors of shots fired and people down. Soon the roads were closed around the church. Emergency vehicles started staging their response in our church parking lot. The Light Flight helicopter had been dispatched in anticipation of casualties and could be heard overhead. We locked down our building. The church staff started calling preschool parents to tell them they’d need to wait to pick up their kids. There were police briefly in our narthex with tactical rifles, getting organized before they headed quickly over to the school – the school where my wife was working and my son was in class. I felt sick to my stomach. I was terrified.
I watched from the narthex for a bit, trying to be available and helpful, but at one point I had to come into the sanctuary by myself. I needed to catch my breath. I didn’t turn any lights on, so it was dark in here, but there was a light streaming in through the windows. I remembered what I had just told the preschoolers an hour before as I lit the altar candles for chapel, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The situation at the school turned out to be a hoax, thanks be to God, but for a good hour and half I was pretty scared. In fact, I was a little disoriented the rest of the day. I lost track of time for a while and embarrassingly missed an appointment. I couldn’t concentrate. But for a moment in this then-dark sanctuary, there was a light of hope, a light of peace, a light no darkness could overcome.
“Be attentive to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place,” Peter encourages us. Having seen the glorious light of Christ firsthand as an eyewitness, Peter encourages us to be attentive to this light when the darkness comes.
We are attentive to this light when we listen to Jesus. And what does Jesus say to us? He says, “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He says to us, “All your sin is forgiven for my sake.” He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He touches us with his own body and blood and says, “Given for you.” He says, “Do not be afraid.” He gives us promises which shine a ray of light and hope and peace into the darkness. When we listen to Jesus, falling into the hands of the living God isn’t such a scary thing after all.
Today we join Peter and James and John on the mountaintop. We catch a glimpse of Christ’s glory, a glimpse of the radiant light of his divine majesty. It’s quite a view, to be sure.
But like them, we cannot stay here. We are moving now into the season of Lent, which begins on Wednesday. And so we join them by heading down the mountain on the journey to the cross.
Sometimes our plans fall apart. Sometimes our plans need to be abandoned. And so we entrust ourselves wholly to God’s plan for us. We trust in God’s plan of salvation, which unfolds for us now in the weeks ahead. In the midst of every darkness we trust that through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, God has ultimately saved us from sin, death, and every evil.
This good news is a light shining in the darkness. It is a light that no darkness can overcome.
Be attentive to it.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church