A threshold day. Or weekend. A chance to mark a step from one reality into another. When change happens we often miss it. All of a sudden we look around and think to ourselves “Toto, I’ve a feeling we aren’t in Kansas anymore!” And we aren’t. The colors are different, the sounds are different, the feel is different. How did we get here? Who knows? But we’re here, in this not-Kansas place and time. And somehow we missed the doorway from that to this, the threshold from one life to another. It is the way of things, it seems.
The shapers of the Christian calendar, however, seemed to think threshold experiences are important, for some reason. We can’t go long throughout the Christian year without stumbling through a doorway, from one mode to another. Tripping over a threshold from what was into what was or even what will be. There is something about the faith that demands we pay attention. We are asked to choose with eyes wide open. And then to walk aware every step along the way. Be alive to each moment, be present in each encounter.
So, this weekend we step from Epiphany into Lent. From an adoration of the light into an encounter with our own personal darkness. And if we pay attention we will discover we are not as alone as we sometimes feel when we examine our darkness. That the light that sustained us before, now lives in us, is not quite obscured by our own failings. And that if we stay alert, we can navigate even the broken pavement of our own sinfulness. Because we walk in the path of the one who goes before, carrying our cross. At it’s best, most significant and most helpful, Lent is a difficult journey. It involves a willingness to be honest, which a difficult task at the best of times. But this honesty is self-directed. We have to be honest with ourselves. Honest in our assessment, honest in our helplessness, honest in our commitment to the path that rises out before us and our utter inability to walk that path on our own. That kind of honesty is rare, to say the least. So what did the framers of the Christian liturgical year tell us we needed for this? Transfiguration.
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. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 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." 5 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!" 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 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."
Transfiguration. An odd little mystical moment on the top of a mountain witnessed by only a few. And those few were so bewildered by the event it was a kindness when they were told not to talk about it as they walked down the mountain. But if they were troubled by the vision in an era when those things might not have been common, but certainly a part of the culture, we on the other hand would be questioning our sanity and looking for therapies or medications to remove the moment from our minds. Such things don’t happen, we believe. Lights and clouds and voices are signs of some instability, we are convinced. Maybe it would help those simpletons in a more innocent age. But we know better. We know such a sight is a trick of the light, or a product of stress, or a reaction to medication, something we ate. If we did see something like this we would close our eyes, rub them real hard and then count, maybe even turn away before opening them again. Wouldn’t we?
Of course we would. No one sees visions these days. No one experiences the light. No one sees Jesus, glowing or not, with their eyes anyway. Now Jesus is an idea to consider. A concept to grasp. Or at best a history to learn. So, lets look at the history Matthew records.
Six days later. Later than what. Later, after Peter’s confession. Who do you say that I am? Jesus asked his disciples. Peter jumps in with “You’re the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One!” OK, he didn’t say three different things, but we hear three things, or more, from that one thing. Christos. He sounded so certain. So confident. Jesus pats him on the back, gives him a gold star and Peter beams ... metaphorically. Orthodontic-ally. Had the event ended there, it would been a highlight in Peter’s lifetime movie reel. But Jesus goes on and says it’s going to get bad, going to get dark. He decides to be open to them about the truth of his journey and the suffering to come. He doesn’t hold back, doesn’t pull punches, and Peter can only take so much. Peter says, “No way! It isn’t going to happen. You’ve got it wrong!! This isn’t how it goes. Just stop, Jesus, just stop.”
Actually he doesn’t say all that. Matthew says that Peter’s words were “God forbid it, Lord! It won’t happen.” But I think it was the same thing that he said before that got him the gold star. “Christos!” This can’t be how the story goes, he thinks. The anointed one doesn’t get His oil drenched head taken from him! The Messiah isn’t squashed! The Christ doesn’t descend into death. That isn’t the narrative, that isn’t the script. He doesn’t know what He’s talking about, thinks Peter. Even when he gets rebuked. Even when the Christos calls him Satan, the adversary. He still mutters to himself, no freaking way. He’s just confused, just fooling with us, just ... wrong.
Six days later they climb a mountain. Did they draw straws to decide who got to go along on this field trip? If they did, I’m pretty Jesus did some slight of hand to make sure Peter drew the right straw. Maybe Peter was the whole reason it was planned. Peter and the Zebedee boys who nodded along to everything Peter said. Maybe it wasn’t a reward trip, but a remedial one. The world’s highest woodshed. Time out mountain.
Once they arrived at the peak, there wasn’t any small talk. It just happened. IT happened. The light-show. The vision. The ... whatever it was. Matthew says “He was transfigured before them.” Just like that. Like it happened every day or something. Like He stood there and slipped off the human skin and let the God bones show through. Easy as that. Except He didn’t do it. He was transfigured. Angels maybe, like backstage dressers, reached up and pulled the dull and dirty human robe He wore and slipped His divine vestments back on. I wonder if it felt comfortable to Him at that point, or whether He was more used to the everyday work clothes He’d been wearing for the past thirty plus years.
This event, however, was not really for Him. He wore the glory as comfortably as He wore the shame of humanity, and managed to glorify even that. He was, that’s all we need to say, He was. He was who He was. No, the transfiguration was for them and not Him. For them to see Him. For them to know Him as much as their human brains would allow them to know Him. They stumbled a little, trembled in their mountain climbing boots. Peter cleared his throat and put his foot in his mouth. Again. Let’s camp out, he says. Let’s hang. Here. In the light and the cloud. Settle in. Bask in glory and wonder. Uh, no. Peter, this moment is the starting pistol, the train whistle as it pulls out of the station. This is change for moving, not for staying the same, not for settling in but for moving on. And it’s certainly not for going back to the good old days. Nothing remains the same after the mount of transfiguration.
And then, so they didn’t miss it, the Voice comes. Telling them to pay attention. Telling them to get moving. Telling them to trust. And that nearly killed them. Flat out on the ground, a heart attack in the making. Until they felt a gentle hand. And they looked up and saw only Jesus. I love that phrase from Matthew. They saw no one except Jesus. What else could you possibly need? How could you be better equipped, more prepared with anything else? They saw no one except Jesus.
Open your eyes. There is glory all around us, light and color and wonder and beauty. But we have to want to see. We have to set aside the skepticism that says there are no mysteries anymore, and lean into the real behind the reality we think we know. The message of the Transfiguration is simple. And that is: Jesus is trustworthy. You can lean on Him. You can trust in Him. You can put your life in His hands. Now, get up and don’t be afraid. And everywhere you look, even in a messy world, when you seek a leader to follow, you will see no one except Jesus.