I am not a huge HGTV fan, although someone that I spend a lot of time with is. And so I’m familiar, as I’m sure many of you are, with the types of shows that HGTV produces and broadcasts. You probably know many of the shows on that network have a similar premise or structure. Shows like “Designed to Sell” and “Color Correction” and “Desperate Spaces” and many others … these all start out with a home or a part of a home that is in need of significant help. Even those of us who didn’t get a very strong “sense of style” in our genes can tell that the places selected for the program are in great need. And so, throughout the course of the next thirty minutes … we see what was outwardly drab, dull or even ugly become updated, modernized, vibrant, visually appealing and sometimes even beautiful.
These types of programs … are really about transformation, of being changed and transformed from what they previously were into something quite different. In a similar way, today we have Matthew’s version of a gospel story which is commonly referred to as “The Transfiguration” – based on the word metamorphothe – from which we get the word “metamorphosis.” Just as we heard last week about the Temptations of Jesus – a story we hear on the First Sunday of Lent every year – this story of the Transfiguration is one that we hear every year on this, the Second Sunday of Lent.
This passage from Matthew comes a little more than halfway through Matthew’s Gospel. The disciples and followers of Jesus have been getting to know who he is more and more. They have heard him preach – especially with his wonderful parables that teach about God and the reign of God. They have been witness to an amazing power in him as he has performed miracles … including wonderful healings of the sick and others in great need. And in the passage just before this story of the Transfiguration, Matthew tells us about the first time that Jesus speaks of his death. This first “passion prediction” has Jesus telling his disciples that he will go Jerusalem, that he will suffer at the hands of the religious leaders, be tortured, and be put to death … but that on the third day be raised. Peter protests at this prediction … and Jesus sternly rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as humans do.” And then Jesus says to all of them … all who would be his disciples… that if they want to be a part of him and his work, “…you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow me!”
And so this is the context in which Matthew sets the story we just heard. It’s now six days later and Jesus takes 3 of his closest disciples – including Peter whom he had so recently called Satan! – to the top of a high mountain. The fact that they are going up a high mountain is a clue to Matthew’s readers and to us 20 centuries later that something unusual is about to happen. Not only in the Judaeo-Christian heritage, but in the traditions of other peoples and religions as well, the “mountain” is very meaningful – at the very least, it is symbolically where the Divine and the Human meet – where Heaven touches Earth — and where Revelation takes place.
And so here, on top of this mountain that Matthew does not name, Peter, James and John see that – all of a sudden – Jesus is “transfigured before them.” Jesus face shines like the sun, his clothes are as white as light … and they see that he is not alone. Rather, he is standing with and conversing with two great figures from Jewish history — Moses and Elijah! Both Moses and Elijah had their own “mountain top experiences.” Symbolically speaking, each of these great figures represents different and complementary strands of Jewish life. It was on a mountain that Moses encountered the divine and returned with the Ten Commandments … and so Moses, the “Law Giver,” represents the institutional part of Jewish life that is devoted to the structuring of society and obeying the rule of God’s law. Elijah ….the one who climbed Mt. Horeb and experienced the Divine Presence not in the drama of an earthquake or great wind or dramatic fire … but rather in the stillness of a quiet, almost imperceptible breeze … Elijah represents the great tradition of the prophets, those men and women who – usually against their own will – faithfully followed God’s Call in speaking “Truth to Power,” challenging individual leaders, or practices, or even the entire community of their day when these same leaders or practices or communities were straying from the path of walking humbly with God.
And then, as if to rebuke Peter once again who starts talking about building tents to stay there … they hear a voice, the voice of the One whom Jesus elsewhere calls “Abba.” This voice makes a simple declaration and a simple command: Do you want to know who Jesus is? “This is my beloved son.” Do you want to know how you should relate to or respond to him? “Listen to him.” “This is my beloved son with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him.” These words – “beloved son” – these are the very same words that are used when Abraham – about whom we read in the first reading – is called upon to sacrifice his son Isaac … “since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.” With this heavenly, cosmic declaration, the vision ends … and the frightened disciples are left to be comforted by Jesus who tells them not to be afraid.
We call this story “The Transfiguration” … and by that, we mean the transfiguration of Jesus. But in reality, what the story depicts is not so much a transfiguration or transformation or metamorphosis of Jesus; in fact, what happens with Jesus is essentially a more complete Revelation of his identity, of who he is and already was. Jesus is revealed in as clear a way as possible as one who is the “fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.” The REAL Transfiguration and Transformation – unlike the external transformation we see on an HGTV program – occurs within the hearts of these three disciples – Peter, James and John. This story of the transfiguration is as much about what happens to them as it is about Jesus. What happens to them is that they come to believe even more deeply that this One whom they have been following is more than just a do-gooder, more than just another prophet or someone shaking up the status quo – this One is the Real Deal – Jesus is the very presence of the Divine in the world.
And so what does this mean for us? It means, in part, that you and I ARE “Peter, James and John.” We, too, have been given the gift of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, of knowing who Jesus is, of what lies ahead, and most importantly … of seeing a glimpse of what lies beyond the pain of Good Friday and the “hardships” of discipleship. And although we might be able to see with the eyes of faith some glimpse of what the future holds … we cannot escape the painful realities of the present. It is sometimes hard to be faithful to our communal Lenten challenge to “Be Open” to the voice of God who calls us to Listen to Jesus and be sources of compassion, peace, and truth in our world that is so very noisy and filled with violence and war, death and destruction; where the mighty and powerful seem always to have the upper hand over the vulnerable, weak, and the poor. And that’s the world out there. What are the hardships that you and I are called to bear in the concrete circumstances of our own personal and individual lives, perhaps hardships that no one else is even aware of? Are we struggling with a relationship that might not be all that we hoped it would be? A job we’re not happy with? Am I or someone I love facing illness or health challenges, not knowing what the outcome might be? As individuals and as a community – we are called to bear these hardships for the sake of the Gospel. We are challenged during this Lenten season with our practices of Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving – to “Be Open” to whatever ways in which our faith asks us to be Jesus’ beloved disciples who “bear our share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.”