Transfigured for Peace
“Transfigured for Peace” - Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
February 27, 2022 Cobleskill United Methodist Church
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36 (37-40)
The Shining Face of Moses
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
We have some challenging things to talk about this morning.
On one hand we have the Biblical story of the Transfiguration that is almost as difficult to pronounce as it is to wrap our heads around. There is a reason this is a Sunday that pastors often take off as a vacation day. Not only is it Sunday right before Lent begins but this is also one of those Biblical story that you can’t really explain you just have to listen to it and go, “Huh! Wow! Weird!” Your pastor is not on vacation, though, and as much as I was tempted to take the sermon time and just have us all just sit quietly and admire the mystery of the Transfiguration to ourselves, we have something else challenging to talk about today, too.
We have the unprovoked and inexplicable acts of war playing out as we speak while Russian troops invade Ukraine. As mysterious as Transfiguration is, it feels relatively distant and ancient and somehow not as important when we’re faced with a bigger challenge like understanding why war happens, why this war is hitting close to home, and what there is to do about it. After the invasion that we had been praying wouldn’t happen happened on Thursday my mind began spinning. What is the word God has for us today? Hope? Peace? Humility? Yes. All of it. And the weird thing is that the seemingly distant and unrelated and inexplicable Transfiguration story offered me some clues about the twisted and disturbing reasons why people who follow Christ can let themselves get into a position where they are waging war against other people who follow Christ. The Transfiguration story also tells us why that is wrong, so very wrong.
The scripture readings we heard today could be summed up as encounters with God on mountaintops. Moses first and then Jesus and his disciples, climb to higher ground where apparently it is easier to have conversation with God. If you’ve ever been on top of a mountaintop maybe you can relate. It’s magnificent. Usually you can see a long way; sometimes there are no trees at all and you stand on just sheer rock; it almost feels like you can touch the sky. It feels like you are the top of the world.
On both mountaintops in our stories, the conversation with God makes a light show. Moses’ face is glowing and Jesus’ whole body is shining. We talked with the kids about what happens with Moses’ glow. But in Jesus’ case, he took witnesses with him- Peter, James and John- to the top of the mountain so they could see first hand what the glowing meant. What did they see? They saw that the man and teacher they’d come to know as a remarkable human start to light up and glow like the sun. They saw a couple rock-stars of their faith, Moses and Elijah, appear next to the glowing Jesus and they suddenly knew as they saw this Jesus guy in a new light, literally, that he was actually much more than human, he was divine. Jesus didn’t just point toward God, Jesus was God. And the disciples got to have front row seats to the whole grand display.
Talk about a mountaintop experience! This is better than Mt. Washington. You can just imagine the bumper sticker Peter was going to put on his donkey when he got down… “This guy hiked to the top of Mt. Tabor and saw Jesus Glowing with his Homeboys.”
So the disciples are having this mountaintop experience, literally and figuratively. What do they do? Probably what any of us might do. They let it go to their heads. They said, hey, this is an amazing moment and we’re the ones who get to be here. We’ve got to do something to capture it; something to make it’s memory last forever so that we don’t ever have to let go. Let’s stay up here on this high and powerful mountain where God shows up with his homeboys and make this festival of lights and glory permanent and enduring. Let’s build four walls around it so it lasts forever and let’s never leave! Everybody who’s anybody is up on this mountain and we’re going to be the ones to capture it forever.
Suddenly this is looking more like a power trip than a hiking trip.
And honestly, I see where those disciples were coming from. When we have an extraordinary experience we want to make it last, somehow. When we’ve been to the mountaintop and had a taste of the power and awe and strength that comes with that vantage point, there’s a primal part of us that wants to claim it as our own. Think of all the people who have left their mark in stone on top of Vrooman’s Nose. We want to own the feeling that comes with the mountaintop experience. We want to not only stay there and live there in our minds forever, we want to be the ones who can brag to the others, “guess who I built a house around?”
James, John and Peter were overwhelmed by this experience and by their proximity to power and they let it cloud their vision. But God didn’t light Jesus up and bring Elijah and Moses back so that the disciples could capture that glory and bottle it up into some sort of shrine. This was not a power trip for the disciples, this was supposed to be a transition point for Jesus’ ministry, a humbling “aha” moment for the disciples to realize Jesus wasn’t just man, he was also God. People who bottle up glory and try to contain it inside four walls do so for their own benefit, not for God’s. God’s voice and God’s cloud then descended onto the confused disciples. “This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him!” Listen to him, don’t harness his power for your own benefit.
On Thursday, Putin and Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Sometimes war happens because one side needs to defend itself against another side. Sometimes war happens because one side wants what another side has. Sometimes war happens when one side wants to force an ideological point. Occasionally war happens because one group wants to protect another group that is under threat. And more times than we can possibly imagine war happens because one side believes it has harnessed the power of God for its own benefit. No matter why it happens, war is always about power. And this war is no different.
Putin believes he is acting on God’s wishes; I’m not sure what mountaintop he’s been on but I have no doubt that the experience of God he found there became intrinsically linked with a self-righteous claim to power. He sees himself as chosen to box up the glory of God and control who has access and who doesn’t not. He believes he has the Christian church behind him and honestly, some Christian leaders in his own country and others have done nothing to dissuade him. This is a position of power and position of powers are addictive. But positions of power, especially positions of power that prey on the powerless have no basis in Christ. What starts as an innocent effort to harness the glory of God inside four walls on a mountain top quickly turns into a powerful stance that privileges the mountaintop dwellers at the expense of those who live in the valleys. The point of our faith in Jesus is not to capture the glory of God and control access to it through positions of power and vantage points of strength, but to actually listen to the words that come from Jesus’ mouth.
Because Jesus doesn’t stay on the mountaintop, even though he knew that remaining on a mountaintop could be a stronghold for him when his enemies were already beginning to plot his death. He knew the mountaintop was not a permanent home for the kind of life he needed to lead. His life lay at the bottom with the people who couldn’t afford to climb up and see the light show because they were too busy dealing life’s challenges …. Like children who get sick. The very next passage that follows the mountaintop lightshow goes like this:
“On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” Luke 9:37-40
The mountaintop moments with God are important, but real life happens in the valleys when we leave our security behind and meet vulnerability in the midst of hardships. Jesus is frustrated with his disciples for not believing that they could help this family. Our power in Christ doesn’t come from our decision to build buildings around his glory. Our power in Christ comes from our decision to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings. When we do that, all will be astounded by the greatness of God. Not just the select few who hiked the mountain, but all.
We are living in an age when power and strength are considered Christian virtues. When violent aggression is a justifiable means to achieving a righteous stance. But that is a kind of faith that is based in pride and power. That’s a kind of faith that hunkers down inside mountaintop fortresses and never descends to where the vulnerable and forgotten live. Jesus came to us as human and God to show us that our faith must not dwell forever on mountaintops. Jesus didn’t shine on that mountaintop so that we could have security and privilege and power. Jesus shone on that mountain so that his glory would be seen from a great distance. And the transfigured Jesus walked off the mountaintop and resumed the real work of peace, life with and among the hurting.
When we have been transfigured and changed by Jesus, we are prepared to walk down the mountain with him on the road to the cross. We are prepared to make sacrifices to stand in solidarity with the hurting. Maybe this looks like a prayer instead of muttering a complaint at the gas pump when we’re paying more money for a resource that has become a pawn of the powerful in their oppression of the powerless. Maybe our solidarity with the vulnerable looks like singing a song when you’re tempted to be afraid, like our Ukrainian brothers and sisters have been doing in the subway stations. Maybe it looks like finding the valleys all around us where people long to be seen and healed and made whole by our compassion and love.
As we turn our eyes to Jesus, let us follow his lead as comes down the mountain and enters the valleys. Let us be faster to learn his compassion than we are to capture his glory.
Grace and Peace,