On Monday through Wednesday of this past week, I was attending the Midwinter Theological Conference put on by the Northern Rockies Institute of Theology in Essex, Montana. The weather there was spring-like, as it has been throughout the region in the last few days, with temperatures in the upper 30s to lower 40s, and rain the entire time. After the conference was over, I drove down from the mountains expecting the weather to be the same, or even warmer, in the valley, and looking forward to one last glimpse of spectacular scenery as I drove home. Instead, as I descended from the mountains, a great cloud of fog enveloped me, and the temperature dropped to the 20s. While there was neither ice nor snow on the roads, some areas around the roads were covered in hoarfrost. And the fog was so thick, I could no longer see the mountains. Disappointed, I continued the drive home, and the fog did not lift again until right outside of Big Timber, where I was finally treated to a beautiful sunset over the Crazy Mountains.
I think this experience of mine is a good illustration of what today’s Gospel story of Transfiguration is all about. There is a contrast in the story between seeing Jesus and understanding, for one brilliant shining moment, who he is in all of his glory, but still not understanding what he is here on earth to do, as we see in Peter’s desire to build dwellings for the Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. It was said in the prophets that the end of days would come during the Festival of Booths, and Peter, thinking that this is indeed the End of Days, expresses his desire to build those dwelling places for these three figures. In his excitement that the time has indeed been fulfilled, Peter has forgotten what Jesus has just told them about having to suffer and die. This is when the cloud comes over everything, the voice of God affirms that Jesus is the Beloved Son, and that Peter and the others should listen to him. When the cloud dissipates, Jesus is the only one left standing there.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a mystical experience, and like all mystical experiences, it’s hard to know what to make of it and what the meaning is if you are not the person who had the experience. Even if you are the person who had the experience, sometimes it takes a while longer before, through prayer, God reveals the meaning of that experience to you. So let’s imagine ourselves standing with the disciples for a moment, looking on in awe and in sheer terror, and wrestle with the meaning of this vision for our lives today.
The first thing that we need to recognize is that doubt is part of faith. Show me a person who claims that they have never doubted, and I will show you a person who either a) is trying to look good to others by covering up her doubts, or b) who has never seriously thought on his own about his faith, but blindly accepts what has been told him his whole life. We all have doubts. And, if we look at the chapter of Mark’s gospel that comes before this one, we will see Peter first confessing Jesus to be the Messiah, and then Jesus naming Peter as Satan when Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that he must suffer. I’m willing to bet that Peter had some serious doubts about Jesus after that episode. What kind of Messiah goes to die on a cross, after all? As Peter witnesses Jesus being transfigured and God affirming that Jesus is his Son, we can imagine that a measure of Peter’s faith in Jesus, and in his own confession of Jesus as the Messiah, has been restored.
This is one of the messages, I think, in this story of Jesus’ transfiguration, and probably the one that most pastors speak of when they speak of this text. In our own faith journeys, we will have both valleys of doubt and mountaintop experiences when things are as clear as can be. When a child suffers from a grave illness, when a loved one suffers from cancer, when depression hits, when we see all of the terrible things that are happening in the world today, and all of those other times when God seems veiled behind the cloud and his presence seems muted: these are the times when doubt is sure to appear. And it is okay to doubt. But don’t think you’re alone in those doubts. This is the time when the congregation can listen to you, wrestle with the faith with you, hold you in prayer, and speak words of comfort. And when those beautiful mountaintop experiences come, those times when God seems to be right there with you: seeing you and your loved ones through a serious illness, or at the birth of a child, for example: those are the times to hold in your memory, to give you hope when there seems to be none, to share with the other members of the community so that they can rejoice with you. All of these, the valleys and the mountains, are part of our faith story and can be spoken of with anyone we meet.
But the memory of the transfiguration, that mountaintop experience of the disciples, is not just a memory, but it is a vision of the future. Peter wants to stay on the mountain forever and to build a monument to this experience. But God knows that this episode is just a glimpse of what the future will be, and that the time is not yet fulfilled. God knows that his son, his Beloved, must go to the cross and die. And so, with the vision of Jesus in his glory and the affirmation of the faith of the disciples, God also gives a command: Listen to Jesus! Hold the vision in your mind, but in the meantime, listen to Jesus and live by the words that he speaks.
And what are those words that Jesus speaks? In the Gospel of Mark that we have heard in the Season of Epiphany, we have heard these words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” We have heard his call to the disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” We have heard and seen Jesus put the demons on notice that their end is near, and that God will have the last word. And we have seen how Jesus heals illness. These are all good words of Jesus to heed: remember that the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe; follow him. Remember that God will have the last word. But the words now that Jesus bids us hear come from the conversation that he has with the disciples as they come down from the mountain of transfiguration, and which are not included in today’s Gospel: the Son of Man is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt.
Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God, whom we have just seen in glory with Moses and Elijah, who God has affirmed is indeed his Beloved Son, is to suffer and to die on the cross for us. Our Savior is a suffering Savior. Our God is a suffering God, and so he understands, deeply and intimately, the suffering we experience here on earth. Even when he seems veiled to us, he is with us and walks with us through the suffering and pain that we experience. And as we come down from the mountain of revelation, celebrating how God has revealed Jesus in glory, and begin the season of Lent, as we focus on his suffering on the cross for us, we can yet hold before us that vision of Jesus in glory that we know will come at the end of time. Like the beautiful sunset that I saw over the Crazy Mountains on Wednesday evening, we know the cloud will not last, and Jesus will be fully present with us one day. Amen.