Matthew 17:1-9 – The last Sunday of Epiphany & the Transfiguration – for Sunday, March 2, 2014
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun . . .” (Matthew 17:20)
Jesus’ transfiguration was a central moment in the Gospels.
On a mountaintop, his “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Suddenly the old lawgiver Moses appeared. Suddenly the old prophet Elijah appeared. In those bright seconds, disciples Peter and James and John would witness a conversation between the carpenter from Nazareth and two pillars of their faith. And then the stunned disciples would hear the Holy voice, in the midst of cloud and glory, declaring Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved.”
It was real!
It was a dream!
It was metaphor!
It was literal!
It was a mountaintop moment, where what they had been and what they were to become had clarity. Purpose. Meaning. Now with Jesus “alone”—Moses gone, Elijah gone, the Holy voice an echo—they tramped down the mountain. In the accounts of Mark, Matthew and Luke, the transfiguration—with its startling confirmation of Jesus’ transformation of the old law into the new, of the old way of prophets’ dreaming into the new way of God’s doing—sealed the deal. The disciples were instructed to keep quiet, to “tell no one about the vision” until later . . . but they were in on the “secret.” From the mountain, it was on to Jerusalem, on to destiny, on to challenging the religious authorities, on to confronting Roman power, onto revealing the eternal, intimate, expansive, abundant nature of God’s love.
I love the transfiguration scene. I love the mountaintop moment. I love that Jesus’ message and ministry were confirmed. But I’m equally interested in the moment before the moment. Whether the transfiguration of Jesus is seen as literal or metaphoric, an enigmatic vision or inspirational reality, it had a “just before” time. A before everything was clear. A before everything revealed the best and right and true path. A before when the mountain had to be climbed to have a mountaintop experience. I think of the earlier mountain moment of Moses (Exodus 24:12-18), who waited days and days (and days and days) on Sinai before the divine gift of commandments.
Before the glory, there were plodding steps up the mountain.
Before the story, there was waiting . . . and more waiting.
Before suddenly, there was uncertainty.
* * *
There were literal mountaintop moments.
Decades later, aren’t you amazed at Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s accomplishment on May 29, 1953? They summitted Everest, the mountain of all mountains at 29,029 feet. They did what no one had done. They transformed climbing. But before that moment, before their fifteen minutes at “the top of the world,” they’d climbed for weeks. And there was the day before, the moment before. Camped at 27,900 feet, Hillary and Norgay barely slept on the night of May 28. They exited their tents at 4:30am on May 29, but didn’t depart for the peak until 6:30am. It took that long for Hillary’s frozen boots to thaw. Before the “moment,” there were thousands of hours of work, failure, hopes and even thawing out. We celebrate the summit. Remember the freezing moments before.
There were metaphoric mountaintops that impacted my nation.
In December of 1955, Rosa Parks was told to move to the rear in Montgomery, Alabama bus. And the world changed. Faith transfigured. New dreams were dreamed. Had Ms. Parks dutifully moved, would there have been the triumphs of the Montgomery bus boycott or the March on Washington? Would there have been the upheavals that inched closer to fulfilling “all men are created equal?” But what was it like in the moments before the moments? On the early morning of December 5, 1955, Rev. King waited in the stillness of his kitchen, staring through the window, wondering if the first city bus would drive by, loaded with passengers. Would a boycott work? Or would Rosa Parks’ refusal to move not matter and the buses, like always, would fill with the city’s African-Americans headed to jobs? And so King, on the verge of transforming a city and nation—or fading into history’s might-have-beens—gazed into the dark. We celebrate the dream. Remember the stark moments before.
There were metaphoric mountaintops that impacted the world.
Recall or read about 1965. Or 1970. Or 1981. On a spit of land, in an obscure corner of the globe, Prisoner 466/64 hunched over a pile of rocks and broke them into pebbles. Over and over. His number meant he was the 466th prisoner to arrive at Robben Island in 1964. There was a #465 and there was a #467 and he was no different than the rest and completely different from anyone. Nelson Mandela, for eighteen years, remained incarcerated on Robben. Recall or read about 1994, when Mandela achieved the presidency—the mountaintop—of the country that had held him prisoner for twenty-seven years. But before, there was 466/64. There were metal bars on windows. There were rocks to crush followed by more rocks to crush. We celebrate the hope. Remember the harsh moments before.
* * *
If you view Jesus’ life as a life predestined, then my words won’t matter. If you think—believe—in Jesus because he was the set-in-stone, alpha-to-omega Son of God from birth or before birth, then my words won’t matter. They won’t matter because I don’t see Jesus that way. I believe there were the moments before. I believe he plodded and wondered and dreamed and doubted and prayed and risked and failed . . . and kept climbing. The transfiguration—metaphor or literal, on the tallest mountain or in the deepest valley—becomes a triumph and confirmation and crucial moment because of those grinding, sweating, hurting, uncertain and longing moments before.
The boots were frozen, and there’s nothing to do but wait.
The world outside the window was darker than it had ever been.
The rocks from yesterday were replaced with today’s new pile of rocks.
Celebrate the transfiguration. Remember that there were moments before.