A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 19, 2023 (Last Epiphany)
Preachers often like to connect the appointed readings to a story in their own life. When it’s done well, this can help illuminate the text, give it some texture, and make it relevant to modern listeners. When it’s done poorly, the sermon becomes less about pointing everyone towards Jesus and more about pointing everyone towards the preacher. Which is decidedly not the point.
When it comes to the story of the Transfiguration, however, I got nothing. It’s hard to point to a time in my life where I had a similar experience to Peter, James, and John up on that mountaintop. The blinding light, the appearance of long-dead prophets, the booming voice from the heavens. On those rare occasions when I’ve hiked up a mountain, the only thing I ever encountered at the peak was a nice view and a Cliff Bar.
But while this dramatic and rather confusing story may not be entirely relatable to experiences in our own lives, it does hold some key lessons for us as followers of Jesus. It also brings to a close this season after the Epiphany, this season of light that began with a star hovering over the manger, and ends with the blinding light of the transfigured Jesus. Just as the incarnation of Jesus was revealed by the Star of Bethlehem, the resurrection of Jesus is foreshadowed by the transfiguration. And it sets us up to carry that light with us into the wilderness of Lent, as we make our preparations for Easter. But all of that is ahead of us. We have one more Sunday to belt out the Alleluias before silencing them for 40 days and 40 nights.
The point is, that when Jesus’ clothes turn dazzling white and his face shines like the sun, the disciples are given a glimpse of the resurrection right here on earth. They are privileged with a foretaste of the reign of Christ that is to come. And they receive that undeniable affirmation of Jesus’ identity when they hear God’s voice proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
The Transfiguration is quite literally a mountaintop experience, a moment when a great truth is revealed. As bewildering and disorienting as it all is, it offers clarity about who Jesus is. And Jesus is not just a wise teacher or a nice guy or someone who likes to subvert the status quo. He is the son of God, the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior. And that is the only explanation for what takes place on that holy mountain.
We actually get two mountaintop experiences this morning. In addition to Jesus’ journey with his most trusted disciples, we hear the story of Moses heading up to Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments. And light continues to be a major theme here. Besides Jesus’ face shining like the sun and a bright cloud overshadowing them, in Exodus we hear that the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain. In Scripture, seminal and life-changing events take place on mountaintops.
But the true miracle of the mountain isn’t just what transpired and what was transfigured up on that holy hill. It’s also a mountaintop experience for you and me; we are spiritually transported up the mountain to take in the stunning vista of Christ’s resurrection glory. A glory foreshadowing the resurrection to Peter, James, and John, and a glory foretelling Jesus’ eventual return to us. And that’s an awful lot to take in.
Yet the beauty of this moment for us is that it doesn’t require us to “do” anything. We can simply stand in awe and contemplate the mysteries of the divine. Sometimes that is enough. And in that sense, we do have relatable moments. When we walk on the beach in the morning and take in the sunrise, we have an opportunity to contemplate the mystery of God. When we spend time on a mountaintop or out on the water or in the memorial garden, we have an opportunity to contemplate the mystery of God. Mountaintops are all around us if we’re willing to see them.
So, the transfiguration is ultimately a symbol of hope. For the disciples, it was a form of encouragement. A recognition that while things would soon get dark — Jesus would be crucified, the disciples would be scattered — resurrection was coming.
And we need to hold onto hope in our own lives. When life is hard and we’re suffering, when the news is full of the latest mass shooting or the unfathomable destruction of a devastating earthquake, it’s helpful to fix our eyes on that mountaintop and take in the image of Jesus in all his glory. Sometimes that’s all we have to cling to. And it is enough. Jesus is enough. But when we’re still unsure, when we’re still uncertain, that voice from the heavens serves as a reminder: “Listen to him.” If you endure, if you hold onto hope, Jesus will draw you to himself and you will be not only embraced by his resurrection glory, but transformed through it. You will become a new creation, born of the spirit and sanctified by his presence.
And through this process of transformation, you can then embody what it means to live a transfigured life. You can be salt and light in the world. You can be illuminated by Christ’s presence in your life and shine forth with God’s love in the world around you.
After all of the drama, we hear that the disciples were “overcome by fear.” Now, in our recent Sunday forum on Wisdom literature in the Bible, the concept of holy fear came up several times. There’s that line from Proverbs that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This doesn’t mean we’re supposed to tremble in fear at the thought of God. In this case, fear is best thought of or translated as “awe.” And to hear that Peter, James, and John were overcome by fear at the wonder and awe of God is right. But let’s be honest. They were also terrified. Jesus was glowing, they saw two long-dead prophets, and then that voice boomed out of the heavens. I don’t know about you, but I’d be cowering behind the nearest boulder.
So, it’s no wonder the disciples fell to the ground in fear. But what does Jesus do? He comes over to them, gently touches them, and says in a quiet voice, “Get up and do not be afraid.” What a touching, intimate, pastoral moment. After the sound and light show, Jesus’s compassion in the face of fear is so powerful. Human touch is powerful.
I think about those dark days of the pandemic when human touch was eliminated from our common life. And how painful that was for so many of us. Not just the “huggers” among us, but the heartbreaking situations when families couldn’t gather to hold their loved ones at the end of life. Those final farewells said over Zoom, rather than with hands being held. Jesus reaches out and touches the terrified disciples.
Allow Jesus to reach out and touch you. To place his hand upon your shoulder, gaze deeply into your eyes, and fill you with his peace. Jesus wants nothing more than to drive away the fear from your life. To love you unconditionally. To bring peace to your soul. To illuminate your heart with light and joy.
That’s the power of the transfiguration. That’s the joy of the journey. “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”