Our gospel reading for today is, objectively, kind of a weird story. The transfiguration is one of those moments in Jesus’ life that always seems mysterious to me and a bit beyond my comprehension. As best as I can understand it, Jesus walks up a mountain with some of his disciples, glows for a bit, has a brief conversation with a couple of ancient Old Testament prophets (as one does), and then they all walk back down the mountain together. It’s weird.
But, as strange as this story is, it’s got one of my favorite Peter moments in all of scripture. Peter has a very human reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration. When Jesus is revealed in all his heavenly glory and Moses and Elijah show up, Peter’s first reaction is, “Uhh, uhh…. tents! Yes, that’s it, we must build tents! One for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah…” And I love how Luke is like, “he did not know what he was saying.” And even God Almighty is like, “What are you talking about? Tents?? This is my son, my chosen. Shut up and listen to him!”
Peter and the other disciples are awed into silence by the incredible revelation of Jesus as God incarnate. And their instinct is to do whatever they can to try to hold onto that glory. They want to build tents – or dwellings, or tabernacles, whatever your translation says – to make something tangible that will turn that mountain the dwelling place for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. They want to stretch this amazing moment out as long as they possibly can.
It actually made me think of kind of a silly memory as I was reading through the texts for this week. When I was living in the Dominican Republic, I used to go to a lot of weddings. I sang with a couple of the church choirs at the Catholic church in my village, and we got asked to sing at weddings pretty often. But the funny thing is, even though I went to so many weddings, I almost never got to see the actual ceremony itself. As with most weddings, there was an intense focus on capturing every last moment of the service on film. But at these weddings, the photographers would get right up close and personal to the couple. And so, for the rest of us, instead of looking at the couple and the priest, we were left looking at a bunch of photographers’ backsides!
It’s just a human thing, it seems. We want to capture those bright, happy, awesome moments and hold onto them for as long as we possibly can. Any concert or event we go to, it seems like the experience just isn’t complete unless we snap it on our smartphones and share it on social media. Romantic movies and novels seem to always end on the high point of a wedding. And Lord knows even the church is a lot fuller on the high points of Christmas and Easter than at any other time of the year.
We are drawn to the high points, to the mountaintop moments. And those are often the moments we go to when we expect to experience God. But I think that what we see in this story of the transfiguration is that God is much slipperier than that. God shows up in this awesome way, but resists being pinned down to any one time or place or event. We can never predict where or when God will show up. We just have faith that God will. And like the disciples, when Jesus invites us to follow him, we put on our walking shoes and come along for the journey.
And I think that’s what makes our gospel reading for today so particularly interesting. This story could easily end at verse 36: “When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” It sounds like the end of the story – Moses and Elijah have disappeared again and Jesus has stopped glowing and even the disciples have been left speechless. But instead of stopping there, we follow Jesus and the disciples as they head back down the mountain into the valley.
And we walk into a pretty dramatic scene. There is a huge crowd gathered, and they all press in on Jesus, clamoring for his attention. A desperate father shouts at Jesus, begging for his help. And in all the noise and confusion, the man’s son is sent into convulsions and falls to the ground, shrieking and shaking. The disciples who did not go up the mountain tried and failed to help this man and his son, and they stand sheepishly to one side as Jesus scolds them. If anything, this scene in the valley seems like the exact opposite of the glory we just witnessed on the mountaintop. But Jesus marches right into the middle of this chaos, with Peter and James and John still in tow. Full of confidence and power, he heals the boy and gives him back to his father, healthy and whole. And in that moment, Luke tells us, “All were astounded at the greatness of God.”
The story of the transfiguration just isn’t complete if you try to stay on the mountain. Because you’ll miss out on the moments of joy and awe that happen later on in the valley. You’ll miss out on seeing where God is awesomely at work if you just try to hang on for dear life to those bright, shining moments. Instead, we are called from the mountaintop to go back down into the valley, with our faces shining like the face of Moses. We are called to be bold, as Paul writes, to be witnesses of the wonders that we have seen and experienced. We are called into the lives of our community, into the lives of our neighbors, to bear witness to Christ at work among us, to bear witness to God’s glory even down in the valley of the shadow of death.
And really, that is exactly what Transfiguration Sunday is preparing us to do. This week, we will walk back down the mountain and into the valley of Lent. We’ll start our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday with the reminder of our own mortality and human limitation. In fact, today after worship, we will be making ashes from the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, bringing that mountaintop experience with us down into the valley.
There’s no way of knowing where or when we will suddenly encounter God or how God will act. We don’t know where the path will lead. All we know is that Jesus has invited us to follow him on a journey. And so we go forth from here, with our faces shining, trusting that he will lead us and that we too will be transfigured along the way.