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Last After Epiphany-The Transfiguration of the Lord; Mark 9:2–9

Roughly 40 years ago I was debating, struggling within myself about giving up engineering teaching and research, and starting seminary studies. At the time I didn’t dare call it what I now do; wrestling with the call of God to ordained ministry. On the one hand I recognized this urge didn’t come totally from within me, and there was also a strong pull towards a new adventure, to moving into an unknown future. On the other hand there was the comfort of the familiar, and an unwillingness to risk a still progressing career on something totally unfamiliar and unknown. I needed something that would push me one way or the other.

In mid-Fall, during some pleasantly sunny and warm days, I went on an unstructured three-day retreat with a group of lay and ordained people from across the Christian spectrum. We were in a remote part of the Caledon Hills, on a property large enough that except for the occasional airplane flying over, there were no signs of other humans. There was no program, we were free to use the time however we wanted, alone or with others, active or relaxing, talking about and debating anything whatever, with the only agenda item (other than meals) an agreement to meet outdoors at noon for worship. But even that was unstructured, Quaker style, evolving as one or another of the group felt moved to contribute.

At noon on the third day we met for our last worship together. One of our number, a Dominican friar and very talented musician, had been inspired by the geography to write a four-part sung “Alleluia.” Within about a 100 m from each other were four small hills, and after a short practice, there were five or six people on each hilltop, singing “Alleluia” at the top of their voices, in harmony, in counterpoint, in canon, with our friar friend in the centre madly conducting. The voices blended, echoed from the surrounding hills, rose to the heavens, surrounded us all. For perhaps fifteen minutes this continued, and the place became magical, mystical. Then we stopped, and I knew what I would do in my future. Except, I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want the magic to end! I knew it was impossible, but I wanted to stay on that hill, and keep on singing.

But leave I did, and there followed four years of seminary study that mostly were not mystical, nor magical, but just plain hard work!

The event in the life of Jesus called the Transfiguration is significant, not so much for Jesus, but for the three disciples who were the witnesses. Earlier, Peter had confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, but had not wanted to accept that the Messiah will suffer and be killed in Jerusalem. Nor had Peter or the other disciples accepted that to be a follower of the Messiah will lead to their own suffering, and even to the laying down of their lives.

A few days later Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him to the top of a high mountain. He is transfigured before their eyes, and his clothes become impossibly white. We are not told exactly how Jesus’ appearance is changed, but we can take it that what the three disciples see is the resurrected Jesus. Prior to the events in Jerusalem, the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, they are permitted a glimpse of the future, of the triumphant, majestic Jesus.

There appear with Jesus Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah, representing the prophets. It is these who, according to ancient prophesy, must pass away when the Messiah comes. More, both Moses and Elijah, in their time, were mortals who had seen God. They now appear with the risen Son of God, as signs of authentication.

Peter then makes what by all accounts is a singularly stupid remark. “It is good for us to be here!” What an inept comment in the presence of the holy. And yet, how human. Peter carries on, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” Would any of us do better in the same situation? Face to face with the undeniably holy and sacred, would we too not want to remain? Would we too not want to hold on, to capture, to possess these sacred persons? Is it fear out of which Peter is speaking, as Mark states, or is Peter simply, and very humanly, wanting to prolong the extraordinary experience of being in the presence of the risen Christ?

The real significance of the event is revealed by what happens next. A cloud overshadows them. In the Old Testament, God often appears to mortals in a cloud, and from this cloud comes the voice of God, telling the disciples, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” The revelation of the transfigured Christ is for the education of the disciples, it is to confirm that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God. The incredible news is to be believed; the unthinkable prediction of the suffering and death of the Messiah is to be believed; the terrifying call to their own cross is to be followed!

And there the experience ends. They come down from the mountain, and we know what happens to Jesus and the disciples. The salvation of the world is not worked out on the mountaintop, but in Jerusalem. Discipleship is not what happened on the mountaintop, but what happens in the world, later after the Resurrection, when Peter, James, and John teach other what they have learned from Jesus, and take up their own cross!

Mountaintop experiences are a very necessary part of the spiritual life; indeed, I often think they are what makes the spiritual life possible, at least for Christians. If we have not had some experience in our life of the risen Christ, even very faintly, then our spiritual life becomes a matter of believing in academic propositions. If we have not experienced a glimpse of the world that is beyond this world, then Christianity boils down to ethics, and sharing the Gospel becomes a matter of “the bland leading the bland.” Without an experience on the mountaintop, there is no irresistible urge to share the story that changed our life. Separated from the mystery that lies at the heart of the Transfiguration, Jesus becomes the religious equivalent of fire insurance.

No, I suspect you are here because at some time in your life you have been touched by the infinite sacredness of God. It probably wasn’t singing four part “Alluias” under a Fall sky; it may have been on a retreat, during a church service, on a lakeshore at dawn or dusk, watching a sunset, during the birth of your child, looking at a flower, holding the hand of a dying person, meeting a person deeply committed to Christ, reading an inspirational book … Whatever it was, you are probably here because some-when in your life there was a mountaintop, or even just a smallish hill, from where you glimpsed a hint of the holy eternal.

But you also know that you can’t stay on the mountain. Just as with Peter, James, and John, discipleship is lived out in the valley, and it is not always lived out easily. It’s hard work, being a disciple. Sometimes it means failure, the pain of knowing you’ve fallen short, of returning, of trying again. Mostly, it means plodding on, never quite knowing how you are doing at being a disciple. There are no scorecards. As I’m fond of saying, probably because I am preaching to myself, “It is faithfulness that matters, not success.”

But, we have the memory of the mountaintop. And with faithfulness comes growth in the faith, a great awakening to the presence of Christ in all that is and in all that are. With faithfulness comes an awakening to the reality of Christ, not only on the mountain, but everywhere in our lives and the lives of others. With faithfulness the New Creation flourishes in our hearts and minds.

Sometimes, despite the triteness of ending a sermon with a poem, poetry does say it best. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jesuit priest, and one of the great English poets, dead now for 135 years, in a sonnet called “God’s Grandeur” captured the essence of engraced seeing, of awakening to the presence of God as a way of life:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil crushed.
Why do [we] then now not [respect] his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And shares [our] smudge and shares [our] smell:
The soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down [in] things;
And though the last lights of the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brink of eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods

With warm breast
And with
Bright wings.

Copyright ©2024 by Gerry Mueller
Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur is public domain (edited for inclusive language).