Who is That Shiny Person? – Jennifer Hosler
Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
When thinking about today’s gospel passage, I spent time musing on surprise encounters: those times when you run into someone you know, in a place where you least expect them to be. Running into someone you know is delightful in a city and happens more often than I would expect. Bumping into someone an ocean away from where you met them is pretty astounding.
Shortly after Nate and I moved to DC, I was out for a run and waiting for a light to change so that I could cross Florida Avenue. While I jogged on the spot, I looked twice at the other person on the corner who was talking on her cell phone. It couldn’t be. Val? It WAS Val, my college roommate. She is from Michigan and we went to school in Chicago but she just happened to live in the same neighborhood as me in Washington, DC.
In January last year, amidst one million people on the National Mall for Obama’s 2nd Presidential Inauguration, Nate and I were stuck in a crowd of thousands, inching our way out of the Mall. We looked up and happened to see Bob just a few meters away! His bright yellow jacket certainly helped us recognize him—but it was still a one in a million encounter!
Several years ago, Nate’s brother Phil was at Mount Rushmore as part of a sightseeing trip on the way to National Youth Conference. He happened to look over and spot his second cousin (who was not a part of the same trip) sightseeing there too.
Another surprise encounter happened to me and Nate when we were in Austria, an ocean away from the US. We were exploring Vienna and took the Metro to the Opera House. Going up the stairs, we heard, “Hosler!” It was someone who had shared the same dormitory floor with Nate in college. We met him in Chicago and he randomly happened to be in the same Viennese Metro station as us… an ocean away from where we knew him.
In our passage today, Jesus and his disciples Peter, James, and John also have an unexpected encounter. They run into a few people that they wouldn’t have expected to find at the top of a mountain near Galilee. Yet it is much more than a random occurrence or a happy meeting serendipity: this encounter is clearly supernatural and strange in a mystical, Spirit-moving kind of way.
From Peter, James, and John’s perspective, the events probably started out fairly typical. Jesus likes to go up mountains and pray. He usually goes by himself but, this time, he picks three of the twelve disciples to come up with him up a high mountain. I myself would definitely say yes to a hike with Jesus.
This prayer hike, however, doesn’t stay within the bounds of the expected. Suddenly, there’s a shiny face and white clothes; two guys long dead (Moses and Elijah?) are chatting with the teacher, a bright shiny cloud gets way too close for comfort and there is a voice so overwhelming that Peter, James, and John fall face-first on the ground. This is no ordinary hike in the mountains.
Jesus touches them and tells them, “Don’t be afraid.” Peter, James, and John look up and it is just them and Jesus. No more cloud, no more voice, no more dead guys standing with Jesus. They hike back down the mountain and, on the way, Jesus instructs the disciples not to tell others what happened, at least for now.
This event, as you might know, is referred to by Christians as the Transfiguration. If you’ve read Calvin & Hobbes, transfiguration sounds a little bit like Transmogrifier. It actually comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word metamorphoō, from which our English word for transformation—metamorphosis—is descended (Liefield, 1992).
When I was preparing for this Sunday, I thought about avoiding Matthew 17 because I didn’t quite know how to preach the Transfiguration. I wasn’t completely sure what it meant or how to use it to find applications to our lives as Christians. However, since my preference is often for the hard texts, I eventually came around and decided to choose today’s lectionary texts. Many Christian churches recognize today specifically as Transfiguration Sunday since it comes up each year in the Lectionary cycle of Scriptures on the Sunday before the season of Lent (which starts this Wednesday).
It is hard to know what exactly the theological “lesson” of the Transfiguration is. This passage isn’t an epistle where the teaching is clearly laid out for us. For example, “Love one another as Christ as loved you.” Maybe not easy to put into practice but the main meaning is straight forward. Matthew 17 is narrative. Matthew narrates what happened, not why. We are watching them watch their teacher Jesus become a shiny and be joined by Moses and Elijah.
As we stand back watching (well, reading), our impulse is to try to figure out what it all means. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal Priest, author, and speaker, isn’t sure that “trying to figure it out” is the best way to approach the Transfiguration. In a Day 1 Radio sermon she says,
I am not sure where we got this idea, but it seems to dominate the way that many of us read the Bible. Give us a passage of scripture and we will put on our thinking caps, doing our best to decipher the symbols, read between the lines and come up with the encoded message that Jesus
or Luke or God has hidden in the passage for us to find. The idea seems to be that the story itself
is chiefly a suitcase for conveying the meaning inside of it. Discern the content of the story and you do not have to go rummaging around inside of it every time it comes up. Instead, you can pull the meaning out of it and place it neatly folded in a drawer where you can find it the next time you need it.
(Brown Taylor, 2014)
There are indeed symbols we can find in the Transfiguration: the Law and the Prophets are represented in Moses and Elijah; the cloud and mountain are images that hark back to Mount Sinai and Moses receiving the Law, to the glory of YHWH dwelling with the people. Yet Brown Taylor argues that we need to focus on the event as it was: a strange and mystical encounter with Jesus.
What is very clear in the narrative is that the disciples understand that it is a holy and important moment. Peter doesn’t know what is going on—but he wants it to keep going. He suggests building booths so that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah can all stick around for a while.
When the cloud comes and the voice within it booms, Peter, James, and John fall face first on the ground: the time-honored Israelite response that indicates, “Ohmygoodness! God is here and he is holy.”
The Transfiguration, first and foremost, should impress upon us an encounter with Jesus that started out ordinary—and ended up extraordinary, overwhelming, and shiny. It is helpful to spend time meditating on that hike up the mountains and imagine what the disciples might have expected: we go up, Jesus prays, we pray, we go down. It is useful to our spiritual imaginations to ponder an ordinary experience being disrupted by the presence of God.
One of the things that we can take away from the Transfiguration is the need to cultivate moments in our lives that open us up to encountering the Holy: periods of silence, time alone in nature, specific periods of prayer. Not that these are the only times we can encounter God: I think we meet God in other people, we can experience God while we are doing service, and in many other circumstances. Yet with the busyness and distractedness of life, it is more likely during the hike up that mountain or time alone in that park or quiet spot kneeling in that room that we can open our hearts to God moving and revealing Himself through His Holy Spirit and through His word.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, a time when many Christians focus on repentance and also on intentionally turning towards God. The word for repentance in Hebrew literally means “Turn!” Turn away from the past and orient your life towards God. Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, a 40 day period before Holy Week, the week of Easter. If we are interested in searching or seeking God (or seeking more of God), then we can use this Lenten season to find times for our own encounter with God, where we can enter into “the bright cloud of unknowing”, as Barbara Brown Taylor calls it (Brown Taylor, 2014). This week and during Lent, how can you set apart times to seek God on the mountaintop?
One of the restaurants that Nate and I enjoy is called Kenny’s BBQ, located at 8th and Maryland NE. Hickory smoked BBQ, collards, sweet potatoes, corn bread: Kenny’s is a treat that we both love and we know that most of our family will enjoy.
When we took my sister and nephew there, Richie wanted to sit in the same spot that President Obama sat when he ate at Kenny’s. As I’m sure you can guess, the President didn’t just slip into Kenny’s unnoticed. He apparently hasn’t yet taken to disguises as a form of security; the pictures on the wall showed part of his 24/7 security detail. I can’t quite imagine being so famous (and important) that I could never ever go anywhere without anyone noticing or without a pack of armed guards. But if I try to imagine it, I like to think I’d try a disguise at some point along the way.
Jesus wasn’t exactly disguised on earth—but apparently people didn’t find him completely forthright about who exactly he was. There is a context to the Transfiguration that I hadn’t realized before studying for this sermon. In all three synoptic gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Transfiguration is preceded by Jesus asking the disciples, “Who do people say that the son of Man is?” Jesus asks this in Matthew 16 and the disciples give several answers.
Apparently, there were diverse opinions as to who exactly this Jesus person was: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus responded, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” While the crowds, the Scribes, and the Pharisees aren’t exactly sure who Jesus is, the people right beside him—there when he heals and feed and brings the dead back to life—they can see that he is the One, the Messiah sent from God to bring deliverance to Israel.
After this discussion, Jesus tells the disciples not to put the word out about him being the Messiah. Jesus then teaches them about his need to suffer, die, and be raised back to life. This is difficult for them to understand but Jesus teaches that it is essential for him to suffer—and also for the disciples to take up their own crosses, following him.
The next scene in Matthew brings us to the hike up the mountain, where the disciples see and hear the presence of God confirm exactly who this Jesus is. “This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The disciples seen and hear that Jesus is from God. His work is not counter that of Moses and Elijah but the continuation of God’s work with Israel. Jesus is one to be followed, to be listened to on the path to life.
For at least Peter, James, and John, this encounter must have added confirmation to Jesus’ true identity. The exhortation to “Listen to him” should have reinforced Jesus’ teaching that his suffering was within God’s plan. Nevertheless, the disciples still couldn’t quite believe that the Messiah was supposed to be crucified. Even after this supernatural experience on the mountain, Peter and the other disciples were crestfallen and hopeless at Jesus’ actual death.
We come as folks today with tools that help us understand our world around us. Physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences, engineering: the world is much more knowable than it was during Roman times. Yet these tools don’t give us knowledge about the bright cloud or tell us the answer to the question, “Who is that shiny person?” Who is that Jesus, glowing on the mountainside? We as a human race still do not understand souls or the life forces that animate our physical bodies.
So we come to a passage like the Transfiguration or days like Good Friday and Easter Sunday and everything isn’t air tight or explainable with undeniable proof. We encounter Jesus in Scripture and we need to answer some questions for ourselves. “Who is that shiny person?” Who really is he? Is he kooky? Is he a good teacher? Is he a sage and a prophet? Or is he the Son of God, the Christ, sent from God and of God to transform our hearts and this world? Should we listen to him?
After the mountaintop, Jesus and his disciples moved down to Galilee and then towards Jerusalem even though Jesus knew it would mean his own suffering and death. These next few weeks, we are moving toward Good Friday and also toward Easter Sunday, Resurrection Day. I think that Lent, these 40 days before Holy Week, is a good time to ask ourselves the question, “Who is that shiny person?”
Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Lent is a time to stop and consider our answers, to pray and seek through Scripture, asking the question, “Jesus, who are you and how does the answer change my life? How does it affect the way that I interact with my family, the jobs I take, where I live, the way I spend my money, or the way I treat every human being I encounter? Who is that shiny person, standing on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah?”
Sisters and brothers, may we journey up to the mountaintop this Lent. Let’s set aside time to encounter Jesus, to ponder and discern anew, “Who is that shiny person?” AMEN.
Brown Taylor, B. (2014, March 2). The bright cloud of unknowing. Day One Radio Podcast. Retrieved from http://day1.org/5560-the_bright_cloud_of_unknowing
Liefeld, W.L. (1992). Transfiguration. In J.B. Green, S. McKnight, & I.H. Marshall (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (pp. 834-841). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press