Last Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 17:1 – 9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘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.’ While he was still speaking, 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!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
Every now and again in life, something happens and everything changes. I was particularly close to my grandfather. I was the oldest of the grandchildren and I think I had a special place in my grandfather’s heart. He had a vascular disease and over many years he had a number of strokes that affected his speech in a way that made it almost impossible to understand what he was saying, at least for my young and inexperienced ears.
He lived in Sarnia and every summer I would go and spend a week with him and he would always take me down to the river. We’d start out at the fry wagon and we’d buy french fries with warm vinegar sprayed on them and a wee bit of salt sprinkled over them. Sitting on a bench, munching on those warm, wonderful fries, we’d watch for the freighters. He knew them all. Where they came from. Where they were going. What were they carrying.
I was in awe of my grandfather. How could he possibly know so much about those massive, powerful ships? Those days were magical for me. All of my grandfather’s disabilities disappeared as we spent time together. Everything else in the world seemed to fade away as we sat on the bench.
I wonder if the disciples would have described their times with Jesus in much the same way. Magical. Somehow, they knew Jesus was special. They’d given up everything to join his journey. Day by day they’d seen and heard things they may not even have dreamed about. Wherever Jesus went, it seemed as if the world itself had turned itself right upside down. Day by day they were drawn closer and closer to Jesus and his message and all of the miracles they’d witnessed.
Six days ago, they’d been walking along the road, dust covering their feet, the sun warming their skin. Jesus asked them some questions that day. And then he began talking about the unthinkable. Jesus told them about his impending death and resurrection. The disciples’ world was about to come crashing down. Everything was about to change.
I’ve picked up a wee bit of wisdom over my years and I’ve come to understand that there’s one constant in life. Change. Everything changes. As my grandfather’s vascular disease progressed, it affected his circulation and he developed gang green in his leg. They were going to have to remove his leg to save his life and there was no way he was going to let that happen. His response when he heard the doctors was to sit straight up in his hospital bed and declare in a clear and powerful voice, “No leg off!”
He died before the doctors were going to be forced to take his leg. One day he was there. The next he was gone. I missed him terribly. I would drive from London to Sarnia just to go and sit under the bridge. It’s still one of my favorite places to be. I’d always get fries and find a bench, or if it was cold, I’d sit in the car watching the water flow by, waiting for those magnificent freighters to float on by. It was somewhere I could go where I’d feel close to my grandfather but it was never the same.
Jesus knew that his death would change his disciples. They might be able to go to places that were significant for them all, but things would never be the same. He wanted to prepare them. Six days after Jesus shared the news about his death and resurrection with his disciples, he took three of his friends up the mountain.
There, up on the mountain, there everything changes. A dazzling light, as bright as the sun shining directly into your eyes, fills Jesus. The kind of brightness that forces you to look away. It’s then that the cloud appears, light dancing throughout. And the voice. “This is my Son.”
What an experience! Can you imagine even for just a moment being up on that mountain with the disciples and witnessing this inbreaking of God’s presence. I mean what else could it be? Everything had seemed so ordinary. “Come up with me to the mountain.” It wasn’t unusual for Jesus to go up on any mountain to pray. They knew that. I’m sure that’s all they thought they were going to do. Pray with Jesus. Up on the mountain.
And then this, well, amazing, awesome, mystical experience. God was present in a way that they’d never expected to see. As they descended the mountain, nothing much in the world had changed. They were still facing a future that would threaten to crush them. And they’d seen something so incredibly powerful, it had to change them, don’t you think? I mean, when you come face to face with the presence of God, how can it possibly NOT change you.
That’s when Jesus puts parameters in place. They can’t tell about what they’ve experienced. Not until later. They had to wait. They had to wait until the unthinkable happened. They had to wait until Jesus had risen from the dead which meant Jesus had to die.
The disciples are about to be thrust into a moment in time that they cannot avoid. A place of deep sadness as they witness their friend arrested, tortured, and killed. A place filled with so much fear that the only thing they can think to do is to lock themselves away from the world that has crushed every dream that had been awakened in them. A place that left them feeling abandoned and alone.
Jesus knew that they were going to need to be aware of God’s presence even and maybe especially in those darkest of days. He knew that they needed to be able to remember the power of God’s light to cast out any and all the darknesses that ARE a part of reality. They simply can’t be avoided.
As Jesus stood on that mountain, emanating an almost indescribable light that filled him and changed him, the disciples were made aware of the reality of God with them. That experience wasn’t shared with them to hold on to and keep within their own memories. Remember what Jesus told them as they left that mountain?
“Tell no one about this until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Tell the story after the resurrection. Tell the story.
Why? I wonder if Jesus knew that the reality of the resurrection was not going to make sense, even to the disciples, especially the disciples who weren’t on the mountain with Jesus. Turned out to be true. The disciples had been told by Jesus himself what was about to transpire and yet, yet it was impossible for them to grasp how Jesus could possibly be raised from the dead.
That’s when they would need to hear what Peter and James and John experienced. Peter, James and John would NEED to tell the story.
Remember that day? Remember Jesus took us up on the mountain? There we were, standing there looking out across the vast landscape. We were there with Jesus and all of a sudden everything changed. Jesus was filled with this blinding light. Even his clothes changed. So bright we almost couldn’t bear to look at him. Then there was this cloud. It wasn’t a normal cloud. Light danced everywhere. It was incredible.
Then a voice came through the cloud. “This is my Son,” it said. It was God. We were terrified. Were we about to die? We fell on our faces. Lying there, we each felt a light and reassuring touch. It was Jesus. Don’t be afraid.
It was a new beginning. They’d seen God and they’d lived. God was right there with them. Even in their fear. God was there. God was beginning a new relationship with the people with the incarnation. The people would know God differently because they experienced face to face encounters with Jesus, God’s Son.
And soon that face to face relationship with the people would be achieved through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus had been filled with the glory of God’s presence, soon the disciples would be filled with the Holy Spirit. They would be in communion with God all of the time. In joy and in sorrow. In their homes and in those places where they worked. When their hearts were breaking and when they were dancing. That was true for the disciples and it is true for us as well.
There’s nothing that we can do to run away from God’s presence. There is absolutely NO darkness that God’s light cannot cast away. We’re filled with the light of the Holy Spirit. Not just sometimes. Always. We aren’t always going to be aware of that presence. It takes time and sometimes we have to wait. But when we slow down, when we wait, when we become aware, things change.
It was some time after my grandfather had died, that I had a dream. I saw my grandfather walking on a nature trail. Although he looked different than I remembered him, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt it was him. All of his disabilities were gone and he was able to walk without difficulty. I wondered if this was how he’d looked earlier in his life, long before I’d been born.
After he died my grandmother made a kind of collage of what I call “Grandpa through the ages”. Photos of him at various times in his life. The first time I saw that frame on my grandmother’s wall, I went right up to it, gazing at all of the pictures, wondering which one was going to be exactly like the picture of my Grandpa from my dream. None of them looked like that Grandpa. Not one.
I’ve come to understand that I was gifted with a vision of my Grandpa as God created him to be, the Grandpa that continues to live on in God’s presence. It’s a memory that I carry with me and, when I find myself in a dark place, I can pull out that picture and remember what it’s like to be in the presence of God. I can see my grandfather with all of the effects of decades of strokes, healed and whole.
Sometimes when I need to remember God’s power to overcome all of those dark places in which I find myself from time to time, I go to a familiar place. A place where I can remember and feel God’s presence, God’s power, God’s light. I go to the river.
There, sitting on a bench I can feel my grandfather’s presence. When I taste those fries, drizzled with warm vinegar spray and lightly salted, that dream comes alive and I see my grandfather walking on a nature trail, the warmth of the sun bathing him in the light of God’s glory.
Then I remember. It’s almost as if I’m on that mountain with Peter and James and John. I remember what it was like to see Jesus overflowing with the brightness of God’s glory. I remember that voice that echoed in a cloud that was alive and dancing with light. “This is my Son. Listen to him.” Then I remember that God is always with me, too, filling me with the presence of the Holy Spirit. And I feel Jesus’s gentle touch. “It’s time to get up,” the quiet voice whispers. “Tell the story.”