Text: Matthew 17:1-9
I like to think that I’m a relatively quick study, that I don’t need to be hammered over the head with the same lesson again and again, which may explain why I felt just the slightest trace of annoyance with this week’s gospel reading, where we hear Matthew’s version of the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop. It’s a story involving clouds and voices and God’s ever more familiar words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
This is a message we have heard more than once in this season after Epiphany – let’s review:
- January 13, Baptism of Our Lord, reading from Matthew, the 3rd chapter, “and when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
- January 20, the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, reading from John, the 1st chapter, “and John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’”
- January 27, the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, reading from Matthew again, this time the 4th chapter, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
- And now, this week, again from Matthew, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white…While [Peter] 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!”
Epiphany began with the arrival of the wise travelers from the East with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – gifts fit for a king, a priest, and a corpse. It was an epiphany for us to discover the identity of the baby Jesus, God made flesh among us, and a mystery. The four weeks that followed have continued to press the point, this is the Son of God – who called himself Son of Man – the testimony has been delivered again and again. Jesus, named and claimed in his baptism, is a child of God – and we, named and claimed in our baptisms, are children of God. Lesson learned. Why then does it feel like I’m missing part of the lesson?
In high school literature classes we were required to read classics that came in these convenient little paperback editions: The Catcher in the Rye, The Iliad, Brave New World, and this one, The Metamorphosis.
The Metamorphosis is a short novel in German by author, Franz Kafka, published almost one hundred years ago in 1915. The first sentence, translated from the German, reads like this, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” It’s a bizarre story of a man who, finding himself transfigured from a man into a monstrous bug, is alienated from his family – who grow to despise him, his society – which abandons him, and finally his own life. As students we absolutely loved this book. It seemed that this Hungarian writer, separated from us by an ocean and about 75 years, knew exactly what it feels like to be a teenager – waking up in a different body, feeling the relationships within your family shifting uncomfortably, becoming aware of your profound alienation from the people around you who are supposed to know you the best. We loved this book, and Kafka became a literary rock star to us – taking a place in our hearts next to Morrisey and Van Gogh and all the other tortured artists who seemed to see into our hearts.
‘Metamorphosis’ is the Greek word that is translated in our gospel reading this morning as ‘transfiguration.’ In general when I think of metamorphoses, I think of evolutions from lesser to greater, from caterpillar to butterfly – not from human to cockroach, as Kafka did. That is certainly the imagery in this passage from Matthew, where Jesus is transfigured on the mountaintop, revealed as something more than human in one final epiphany for this season as the Son of God.
Still, there are morbid clues in this glorious revelation. Jesus appears on the mountaintop, surrounded by light and shining like the sun, in the company of the prophets Moses and Elijah. The description of Jesus’ appearance is an intentional echo of descriptions of these two Old Testament prophets, intending to make clear to us – the listeners in this story – that Jesus stands within the tradition of the prophets of Israel, that in his life and teaching Jesus continues the prophetic traditions of Israel. But, are we missing something? Moses and Elijah are dead, and have ascended into heaven – in Elijah’s case on a chariot of fire. Jesus, in his moment of transfiguration, is revealed among the living – his disciples, and the dead.
Jesus advances this moment of foreshadowing one step further as the disciples travel with him down the mountain, saying “tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Now, not only have they seen Jesus, living among the company of the dead, but they have heard him speak of his own death and resurrection.
The image of coming down from the mountain top is often the one we focus in on the most on this day. Peter offers to build a tent, a booth, for Jesus and the prophets. He wants to stay in their company, to stay to the wisdom of God revealed in the memory of the dead and the company of the living, but Jesus leads him off the mountain. We’re often reminded that life’s “mountain-top” experiences are fleeting and temporary, and that life is lived in the valley not on the peak.
But I’m not sure Peter response would be my own. Something happens in the transfiguration that makes me very uneasy. Jesus, in the final epiphany of this season, is revealed once again to us as Son of God, and Son of Man in a transfiguration, a metamorphosis, that will lead to death.
Here is the lesson we have to be taught over and over again, the one that comes slowly no matter how fast a learner you are: the path to change lies through death. Kafka and Christ both acknowledge this, that even in the most intimate settings – our homes, our churches, change is threatening and causes people to respond with fear and anger and callous indifference. And yet, knowing this, Jesus responds to the fear of his friends and followers with the words, “get up and do not be afraid” and the voice of the Creator says, “listen to him!”
The Transfiguration of Our Lord is one of the pivoting points of the Christian calendar. This is the day that we turn – as it says on the front of your bulletins – from the cycle of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany to Lent-Easter. This is the day we move from “Infant Lowly, Infant Holy” to “Beautiful Savior.” This is the day we begin to remember that the road that begins at the font ends at the cross. The change begun in baptism – of Our Lord, of each one of us – ends in a cross, a death, a changing world.
We come down off the mountain, the first steps in a journey that will last another forty days, that will last a lifetime. We are learning something, slowly, that will change us, transform us, transfigure us. We are changing and being changed on a path that leads through death to new life, and we are taking this journey together. Listen, get up, and do not be afraid.