The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
Exodus 24:12-18 Psalm 2 2 Peter 1:16-21 Matthew 17:1-9
In the name of the One, Holy, and Living God. + AMEN.
“It is good for us to be here! Lord, it is good for us to be here! If you like, we will build you a nice little shrine—in fact, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. It is good for us to be here!”
An abbot of a monastery, from about the year 700, reflecting on these verses, wrote: “It is indeed good to be here, as you have said, Peter. It is good to be with Jesus and to remain here for ever. What greater happiness or higher honor could we have than to be with God, to be made like God and to live in God’s light? Therefore, since each of us possesses God in our heart and is being transformed into the divine image, we also should cry out with joy: ‘It is good for us to be here’—here, where all things shine with divine radiance, where there is joy and gladness and exultation; where there is nothing in our hearts but peace, serenity and stillness; where God is seen. For here, in our hearts, Christ takes up his abode together with the Father, saying as he enters: ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’ With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings, and there where they are stored up for us in him, we see reflected as in a mirror both the firstfruits and the whole of the world to come” (from the Chapters of Anastasius, Abbot of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai.
The good abbot Anastasius paints us a poignant and lovely picture of what the story of the Transfiguration means for us. And if we were reading these lessons on the Feast of the Transfiguration, which is in August, maybe we would be intoxicated enough by the summer slumber to really agree with them. But as it is, today, we listen to the story of the Transfiguration in anticipation of Lent and the journey of Jesus to the cross. And rather than understanding the mountain as the destination at which we have arrived, I’d like to point out that there is an invitation concealed, as it were, in the cloud that descended upon the mountain.
In the story of Moses, God says, “Come up to me on the mountain….” And that is where Moses will receive the Ten Commandments, the code of Law that protects the relationship with God and God’s people. The cloud that covered the mountain opened the heavens and “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire.” When people talk about mountain-top experiences, I don’t think this is usually what they have in mind. I don’t think they mean they saw the heavens split and the full glory of God revealed in all its terror and grandeur.
In the Gospel story, the veil is lifted under the cloud also for Peter and James and John. They see Jesus shining in glory, and they are overcome with awe, and Peter blurts out, “It is good for us to be here!” But is it? Is it good for them to be there? The next thing they know, the cloud descends and a voice roars, “This is my son, the Beloved—listen to him!” And they are on the ground in terror. In fact, when Peter says, “It is good for us to be here,” the version of the story in Mark adds, “He didn’t know what he was saying,” and Luke’s version says he blurted it out because he didn’t know what else to say. Perhaps the best thing would have been to remain silent.
But these two invitations stand before us as we look toward Lent: Come up here to meet me, and, This is my son, the beloved, listen to him. As we prepare for Lent—as you think about what you might want to give up, or what you might want to take on, as your Lenten disciplines, think about these two invitations. God wants to meet you, in your joy, when all the world seems pierced with divine light, and in your terror, when all seems shrouded by a cloud, while fires burst forth above, threatening to devour. Keep in mind, that at the end of Lent we find Jesus again at prayer, alone with Peter, James, and John, but there he is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he is crying out that the cup of his own destruction might pass from him. If all we had was the revelation on Mount Sinai, the revelation of God’s terrible glory, then we might not be able to see a way beyond all the terror and uncertainty we see in the world every day, we might have no way to overcome the bitterness and hatred in the hearts of our fellow human beings. We might instead panic. We might shout and wail at our fellow human beings, also made in the image and likeness of God, hating in our hearts the very people for whom Jesus gave himself. We might panic, lashing out, casting about for slogans and solutions for ridding ourselves of these bilious, benighted, bigoted people we call our uncles and friends, and sisters and fathers. We might panic, and reach for any weapon we can find—maybe the weapon of words, which do not damage the body, but certainly can damage the soul.
And that is just where Jesus in his perfect freedom, in his transfigured beauty, meets us and lifts us with a tender touch. Did you notice that detail? When the disciples fall down in terror, Jesus comes and touches them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And their eyes were only fixed on Jesus. God wants to meet you, wants to commune with you, wants to share your joys and your pain. But that’s not all. In Jesus, God comes to touch us and lift us. He raises us up and tells us not to fear, but to follow, to trust. And as we are raised out of our panic, the words echo in our ears, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased—listen to him.” Listen to him. Listen to him saying, “Love your enemies.” Listen to him saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Listen to him saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Listen to him saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
As we look toward Lent, what would it mean to “Get up, and not be afraid?” How might you return to God in prayer, to turn to Jesus when you are afraid, and to follow in Jesus’s footsteps spreading joy like a virus, spreading love and mercy, resisting not only injustice, but also resisting fear?