Year A, Last Sunday of Epiphany Matthew 17:1-9
It’s the last Sunday before Lent begins, the last Sunday for us to sing as many Alleluias as possible and sing them loudly. This Sunday ends our season of Epiphany, the time we talk about light and revelation. It’s a season that we can easily overlook, like the calm before the dark storm that is Lent. Lent isn’t really stormy. It’s just a season that we happen to associate with suffering and darkness. The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday. What do we do on Ash Wednesday? We smear ash on people’s faces and remind them that they are going to die. It’s truly a wonder that anyone comes to that service.
This Gospel reading is an interesting transition from Epiphany to Lent. It’s a story of light and revelation, but there is a certain foreboding within the story—well really on either side of the story. Right before Jesus ascended the mountain with three of his disciples, he explained that he would have to suffer and die. Peter argued with Jesus when he made this revelation. Peter could not wrap his head around the idea that the messiah—the person who was supposed to save them all—would soon be killed.
It was after this information was relayed that Jesus brought his friends to the top of the mountain. I have often wondered about the timing. Was Jesus hoping to provide some clarity for his disciples about the message he had just given them, or was he just trying to have some quality time with his friends who were probably reeling from this new and disturbing information? We really don’t know.
We often hear people talk about mountain top experiences. Sometimes it is literally about the experience of climbing to the top of a mountain and witnessing an extraordinary view that takes your breath away. Sometimes people use that phrase to describe a time of transcendence—a moment where they felt closer to God, a time of faith and assurance. We can actually use that phrase for a lot of different things.
However, Jesus’ disciples would have had some specific associations with mountain tops. The mountain was where heaven and earth met. It was a place that people encountered the divine. Mountains are mentioned more than 500 times in the Bible, most notably in Moses’ interactions with the voice of God. That is where Moses received the 10 Commandments. Important things happened on mountains in the Jewish faith. All of Jesus’ disciples would have known these stories well and thus known the significance of the mountain.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that these amazing things would happen at the top of the mountain. First Jesus was transfigured before them—meaning his face got shiny and his clothes were extra bright. Then two prophets, who were long since dead, appeared. After that a voice from heaven spoke to the disciples…the disciples. And here is the crazy thing, of all those miraculous events that happened on that mountaintop, it wasn’t the glowing Jesus or two dead prophets back to life, it was something as simple as a voice. That is what really got the disciple’s attention. It wasn’t just any voice. It was God’s voice. And for once, God was talking directly to the disciples.
That is what really freaked them out. They were accustomed to things happening to Jesus, and maybe even to the people around them. They had witnessed their share of miracles. But this was different, because God was talking to them and more importantly he was telling them to do something, to listen to Jesus. And what had Jesus just told them? He had told them that he had to suffer and die and they too would have to take up their cross if they wanted to be his followers. It’s not the kind of thing you want to hear from a heavenly voice. It’s the kind of thing you want to tell yourself was just a big misunderstanding and of course Jesus didn’t mean that he was really going to suffer and die.
When the three disciples heard the voice from heaven, they fell to the earth in fear. Because the earth was what they knew. It was firm. Maybe, just maybe if they stayed there for a while they could forget this all happened. Then Jesus bent over and touched them and he said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw it was just them and Jesus, just the way it should be. And maybe they thought this was all just a dream and they could forget it. But no, Jesus made sure to remind them on the way down the mountain, that he would have to suffer and die. This time, no one argued with him.
Lent isn’t merely a time of suffering and darkness. It’s a time when we confront certain truths, maybe truths that we don’t want to confront. It’s a time to repent from our sins. No one likes to talk about sin. But repentance isn’t just a about feeling guilt and shame, it’s a reorientation. It’s an opportunity to change, for the better. The reason we have the story of the transfiguration right before Lent is to remind us that even in the midst of suffering and repentance, there is also glory and light. There is a God who desperately wants us to listen to him, but is also willing to get on the ground with us, put his hand on our shoulder and say, “It’s time to get up and stop living in fear.”
On the way down Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone about what happened until he was resurrected. I like to think he told them this because he knew that they would need this reminder of a light that we can find even in the darkest of times. They didn’t need to use this moment to evangelize and teach. It was just for them, a place to return in their mind and heart when the world seemed to be ending. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, they could close their eyes—see the light and feel his hand on their shoulder telling them not to be afraid.
That’s what many of us need—a reminder to find courage when we are afraid, a reminder that we need not fear the terror of the night—that we can confront those things we would rather avoid and forget. Lent is a time to face our fears, our failures, and our sins—but to do that with the knowledge that those failures and sins can never defeat us because we have a God who can both glorify the earth and also kneel down next to us when our face in on the ground, brush us off and tell us not to be afraid because glory (God’s glory) is all around us.