2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Welcome to Transfiguration Sunday. It is the day when we hear the gospel of story of Jesus climbing to the top of a mountain and he begins to glow with this bright, radiant light. He is transfigured, changed in front of the eyes of the disciples.
Now, I have a confession to make. This Sunday is easily one of my least favorite Sunday’s in the whole church year.
First off, Transfiguration Sunday is always that hinge Sunday that swings us from the season of Epiphany into the season of Lent. If you are at church and Jesus is being lit up like the Vegas strip, you know Ash Wednesday and Lent are just a couple of days away. I don’t have anything against Lent. It is just as much busier season with Wednesday night services, and writing two sermons each week and leading up to Holy Week and Eater. It’s a lot. So Transfiguration just always reminds me that things are about to get really busy.
But you know, there is another reason why I’m not such a big fan of this Sunday. Whenever we read the gospel story of Jesus being transfigured with his clothes glowing dazzling white, whiter than anyone could ever bleach them, that glow, that light radiating out of Jesus’ body always shines a light on the fact that I have absolutely no idea what this story means. None. And every year, when that story comes around, it’s like, “Oh, gosh, that story again. What’s to say?! Who in the world knows what this story means?” And the truth is, no one knows what it means. But we think were supposed to know. But we don’t. And so most preachers will try to everything they can to avoid preaching on Transfiguration. If a church has an intern – the intern will be preaching on Transfiguration Sunday. If there’s any money to bring in a guest preacher, well they bring in a guest preacher. No one knows what this text means. But we think we are supposed to know. And so when we don’t know what it means, that makes for some very unhappy preachers.
This past week, in our book study on making sense of the Bible, we spent sometime reading and thinking about some of the violent texts in the Bible. And there are plenty of them. Awful ones. Texts where God says to completely annihilate any entire town. Texts where God gives permission to give the death penalty for a pretty small crime. It doesn’t sounds like the God most of us know or have been taught in Jesus. And one of the people there said this really honest, but heart-breaking thing. She said, “I didn’t know these parts of the Bible existed. You know I thought I knew this book. I thought knew the Bible. But now I feel like I don’t.” You see we shined a light on the darker parts of the Bible and it exposed us to how much we don’t know about this book. Which is such a normal feeling for so many of us as we get deeper into Scripture – that there is so much we don’t know and do not understand!
And that’s how I kind of feel about Transfiguration Sunday. Jesus comes shining like a big bright light. And it is such a strange and out of this world story, and really all it does is expose how much I don’t know about Jesus and what all this means.
So, what’s a preacher to do? Well, I still don’t know what this story means. And I probably won’t next year. But I guess what I try to do is look at what stands out in the story to me. What’s seems new, or what haven’t I noticed in the past.
As the story goes, Jesus takes James and John and Peter up a mountain. Now, Andrew has been hanging out with this crew too the past couple of weeks, so I don’t know what he must have done wrong to be left home from this field trip, but it must have driven Andrew nuts to know that his brother Simon Peter got to go and he didn’t. But that’s life I guess. So they go up this mountain, and almost immediately, Jesus is transfigured there right in front of their eyes. And his clothes begin to glow a dazzling white. Out of nowhere, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear. And as if their materializing out of thin air isn’t weird enough, realizing that both of them have been dead for centuries will raise the hair on the back of your neck.
Whatever it was that was going on in that moment must of have been pretty spectacular because Simon Peter never wanted to leave. “Rabbi,” he said, “It’s good for us to be here. Let’s build three tents – one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” He wanted to stay there. It was incredible and at the same time, it was terrifying.
But then, and this is what caught my attention, but then, it says, a cloud overshadowed them.
I had never noticed it before, but it’s there. I guess I am always so drawn towards the bright shining light in this story, like a moth is to a lantern in the summer evening, that I missed the dark cloud that shows up in the story. And not only that, but that the voice of God comes from the dark cloud. So often we think of light as good and darkness as bad. Light representing God and darkness representing evil (A light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not over come it, we say at Christmas time). We are so used to thinking that way that can miss the fact that in our Bible stories, God can come in the darkness too, as well as the light.
Have you even been outside on a beautiful sunny, blue sky kind of day, and then along comes one cloud. And you watch as everything around you goes dark and cold. The one cloud overshadows everything. And then it moves on, and all the brightness and warmth of the sun returns. And you realize how you hadn’t really notice how sunny and nice it was until that cloud took it all away just for a moment.
There is something about darkness that helps us to see the light. On two separate occasions this week, I had men with tears in their eyes tell me that it wasn’t until they had experienced darkness in their life (one from a garage fire, the other from a hospitalization), that they could see more clearly the light in their life. For them, it was the friends in their life who had surrounded them in that moment of need. And both of them said almost the exact same thing – when you have friends, you have a lot.
Then a cloud overshadowed them, the text says. There is something about darkness that helps us to see the light.
And then the text goes on to say, “from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” This is the voice of God speaking. Speaking almost exactly the same words spoken to Jesus at his baptism. Only this time, God is speaking to the disciples about Jesus. This is my Son. Listen to him! God says. So, not only is there something about darkness that helps us to see the light, there is also something about darkness that helps us to hear the voice of truth, as well.
When I was a kid, sleepovers were something the greatest things in the world. You got to stay up late. Eat bad food. Watch bad movies. And then in the morning, you stumble home on a hangover of Cheetos, pizza, and Dr. Pepper. But it was actually what happened right before everyone fell asleep that was always the most meaningful for me. When you have a basement full of 8 friends, there is something that happens when all the lights are turned off and darkness overshadows the room. Suddenly, everyone starts to open up and share things that they would have never said while all of the lights were on. I have heard about more crushes and broken hearts and wishes and dreams and disappointments in the dark than I have ever heard in the brightness of the day. It was like in the dark where we could all be most honest. No one is looking at you. You feel more safe. You don’t feel as vulnerable. And the truth of who we were could be revealed.
There is also something about darkness that helps us to hear the voice of truth. Which is what happened with Peter, James, and John. God spoke to them out of the dark cloud that overshadowed them.
I keep thinking about the movie To Kill a Mocking Bird. Have you seen it? It’s a story about a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, who has agreed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman. Racism and racial inequality are alive and well in this small town and the majority of the town cannot believe that Atticus would defend a black man. Well, in the movie, there is this incredibly powerful scene. Word gets out that a lynch mob of men have decided to break Tom Robinson out of jail so that they can lynch him. Atticus decides to sit outside the jail all night long to protect Tom. Well, the mob shows up and demands that Atticus get out of the way. But then suddenly, Atticus Finch’s young children, Jem and Scout coming running from around the corner to protect their dad. Scout, Atticus’ 6-year-old daughter climbs up the steps of the jail and looks out over the sea of men ready to kill Tom Robinson. And from the way the scene is shot, Scout looks like she’s glowing with light. And she looks at men and she sees a face she recognizes. “Hey Mr. Cunningham.” And as she says his name, he can’t help but look away at the ground, and as he does the bill of his hat overshadows his face. “I said Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” Scout continues, “Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? You brought us some hickory nuts one morning, remember? I go to school with your boy, Walter. He’s a nice boy. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?” And at this point of the men are looking down, with their hats casting shadows of shame over their faces. Scout can sense that something is happening and she looks at everyone and says “What’s the matter?” She asks. Every one looks away again. “I sure meant no harm, Mr. Cunningham.”
And then something changes. And you can feel it. It changes in all of them. It is almost as if in the shadows of their hats, the shadows that blocked out the brightness of Scout’s innocence and wisdom, they could hear a voice speaking to them. A voice not unlike the one that spoke to the disciples – This is my Scout, my beloved. Listen to her. And they did. Mr. Cunningham raises his head, with now the light shining on his face, as he says, “No harm taken, young lady. I’ll tell Walter you said hey.” And then Mr. Cunningham turned to the rest of the men and said, “Let’s clear out of here.” And mob went home.
It was a dark moment outside that jail. But sometimes the truth is revealed in the darkest moments so that we can see the light. That’s how it was for the mob outside that jail. That’s how it was for the disciples, James and John and Simon Peter, who heard the voice of God coming out of the cloud that overshadowed them.
I still don’t know what this story of the Transfiguration means. But there is good news to be found here, I think. For me, at least for today anyways, it is that God is with us and will speak a guiding word of truth to us even when we feel overshadowed by a dark cloud that blocks out any sign of light. And maybe it will be that guiding word of truth that will help us to see the light more clearly and with entirely new eyes when the cloud finally moves, leaving us standing in the sun once again. Amen