The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
What really happened up on that mountain? Maybe that is a strange question. I mean, the details, while clearly extraordinary, are recorded in a pretty straightforward manner. What we know is this: the three, Peter, James, and John, followed Jesus up the mountain – not long after Peter's confession. And we know they came back down. And we know that according to those witnesses whatever happened up there was big, huge. We also know that there were no other witnesses. And so the testimony comes entirely from those three men.
And it's pretty shocking testimony. They climbed the mountain with one called Jesus – a popular teacher, the son of a local craftsman, enemy of the state. Now, the report, presumably from the only witnesses, says that on the mountaintop, Jesus started glowing, his clothing became dazzling white. And apparently two men, Moses and Elijah, both of whom lived and died centuries before the mountaintop experience, suddenly appeared. Do with that what you will. And Jesus had, in their presence, a conversation with those two men.
And, as if that wasn't, let's say, fantastic enough, there's more: God. A cloud rolls in – not that unlikely up high in the mountains – but, this particular cloud, full of God. That is what they say – Peter and his two friends. And God declares Jesus, yes, the one who will be later crucified, to be the Son of God. God ends the short speech with a command: Listen to him! Listen to Jesus! The cloud lifts; the ghosts are gone. End of story.
Well, sort of. The testimony includes one more detail that I find curious. I should first say, I preach on this story every year. Every year the story of the Transfiguration is read on this Sunday, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the Sunday preceding Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. It appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And the story is basically the same in all three.
Basically the same, but not completely. There is always the mountain. There are always three disciples. There is always Moses, and Elijah, and dazzling white. There is always the voice of God in the cloud. And they always come back down from the mountain.
But Matthew includes one detail that the other Gospel writers do not. As Jesus descends, with his friends, he says to them in this Gospel, “Tell no one about the vision.” That's right: the vision. There is no indication in the story that this was a vision until that very moment – until the descent. It's the twist ending. If it was a vision, what really happened? Matthew gives us all of these details, but was it even real?
Visions are not uncommon in the Bible. In fact there are many in there – in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, in the Apocrypha. They are all over the place. But this is the only visionary instance in the recorded earthly ministry of Jesus. And so, I think, it is worth noting.
Actually, we have been talking about visions a lot in our Tuesday morning Bible Study recently. We are studying the book of Revelation – a book sometimes called the Apocalypse of John. The book of Revelation is a book of recorded visions – visions that are complex and highly symbolic. In that book, the author is clear: visions are like going backstage, pulling back the curtain, getting a glimpse of what is really happening. You see, the words “revelation” and “apocalypse” mean “an unveiling.”
And this is important because a biblical vision is more than seeing things that are not as though they are. And so, when we hear vision, maybe we think dream, maybe we think not really real. But in the Bible a vision is not an illusion or hallucination. A vision, biblically speaking, is an unveiling – it's seeing with spiritual eyes, it's seeing things as they really are.
Something happened on that mountain – something that was life-changing for Peter and his companions. But what really happened? And is it possible that nothing changed – at least nothing apparent. Was it even real?
The Gospel gives no indication that those waiting for Jesus at the bottom of the mountain noticed any change in his appearance; nothing is said about the light of his face or the dazzling of his whites. Instead, at the bottom of the mountain, his ministry continues as if nothing changed.
But we know this event, the event described in our Gospel reading, as the Transfiguration. That is it's name. And that, of course, suggests change. But then Matthew, throws us for a loop because he ends the story by claiming the whole event was a vision.
And so what happened? We have only the testimony of the witnesses. And their testimony suggests that something definitely happened. And not only did they witness something up there, they definitely experienced the Transfiguration. Although, it seems, perhaps, it was not Jesus who was changed.
By calling this a vision, I think Matthew is suggesting that it was the disciples who were changed. What they saw, on that mountain, changed everything. That vision was a glimpse of reality; and it opened their eyes. In that moment, in that brief moment when they could see what really was, they saw more than the son of a local craftsman. They saw in their humble teacher the very face of God. They saw him for who he always was. They glimpsed the heaven that was always there. And so of course they were never the same.
There was nothing new on the mountain; it was just that for a moment their eyes were opened. There was nothing new – except for the first time those three disciples – Peter, James, John – really saw Jesus. Unveiled. With clear vision. God was close enough to touch them; close enough to softly say, “Do not be afraid.”
And so maybe it was just a vision. And maybe nothing about Jesus changed. But for those three disciples, everything changed. Life was transfigured in the presence of God.
Jesus took them up the mountain for that very reason. That is where it had to happened – on the mountain. The disciples were with Jesus all the time, doing their work, herding the crowds, but they could not see Jesus clearly until they got away – away from all the distractions of life, away from the hustle and bustle, away from it all – until they made a time and a space to gaze into the face of Jesus.
In the mundane busy-ness of life, it is difficult to see those holy glimpses. We live and move and have our being in the presence of God but it is easy to lose that in the details. The God for whom we are looking is as close as our skin. But so are a million distractions.
In just a few days, we will begin the season of Lent. As we consider what Lent might be for us, perhaps it might be a season of vision – a time to open our eyes to the very real presence of God in our lives. To leave some of the distractions and busy-ness at the bottom of the mountain. And spend some time gazing into the face of Jesus. If we do, I think we will find that that experience of transfiguration is not a moment frozen in the past. Jesus is still opening eyes – and those who catch a glimpse of the vision can never be the same.