It was no big deal for the guys to go on a hike. Mountain climbing was something they did together quite often. Sometimes their Teacher would take the whole class, sometimes just a few would go. They wouldn’t be gone long – an afternoon, maybe they’d camp overnight and climb back down the next morning. So no one thought much of it when the Teacher asked his three best students if they’d like to take a hike. It had been a pretty intense week, and the physical challenge of climbing a taller mountain would do them good, give their minds a break, get them up into the cooler mountain air. So they didn’t think twice, they just followed.
And it wasn’t much of a climb, really. They didn’t need any special gear or equipment. There were places where they could even walk side by side, instead of following single file up the mountain. The view was amazing, looking out over the valley. They didn’t talk much. It was just good to be together with trusted friends, taking time for some much needed R&R. By the time they reached the top of the mountain, it was already late afternoon, and the shadows were getting long. They took a break before starting the long climb back down.
That’s when it happened.
They didn’t talk about it when they got back down to base camp, but something had definitely occurred while they were up on that mountain. The others could tell. Something was different. But the crowd was pressing in again, begging the Teacher for help, and there was no chance to talk. It was a long time before James and John and Peter told the others what they had seen up on the mountain.
Then, one day, out of the blue, James says, “Remember that time we went climbing, right after we got to Caesarea Philippi? You know, it was the day that man brought his son with the demon, the one you guys tried to cast out, but couldn’t. Remember?” The others turn and listen. They had wondered about that day. It had been a pretty intense week, starting with the Pharisees and Sadducees challenging Jesus. There had been hard conversations about death and sacrifice and facing what would surely come soon. Even though it was all behind them now, they still wondered about that hike. Matthew moved closer, and found something to write with. He wanted to make sure he got this story straight…
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. – Matthew 17:1-8
In a way, this trip up the mountain foreshadows the night before the crucifixion. For one thing, the same three disciples accompany Jesus. These are his inner circle, the same ones who will go with him to the garden of Gethsemane on the night he is betrayed. Luke’s account (Luke 9) of this story says that they went up to pray, and that the disciples became sleepy, and this gives us another parallel to the Gethsemane story, where these same three disciples fall asleep while Jesus goes a little further into the garden to pray.
Theologian Karl Barth notes that this miracle is unique among all the miracle stories in the Gospels, because it happened to Jesus, not by Jesus. Ponder that for a bit. Jesus never asks us to do something he wouldn’t do himself. Jesus never asks more of us than he offers himself. Last week, he said, “Be perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect,” and now he says, “Be transformed, even as I have been transformed before your very eyes.”
And what a transformation! His clothes are dazzling. His face is shining like the Sun. He becomes the embodiment of light, and Moses (often thought to represent the Law) and Elijah (thought to represent the prophets) are there with him, talking. What we have here, friends, is a theophany – a physical manifestation of God in all his glory. But this time, it isn’t an angel of the Lord. It’s Jesus himself, changed into glory, along with Moses and Elijah.
Peter recognized the presence of God, and immediately determined that where God is, a tabernacle should also be. We often think that Peter acted foolishly when he offers to put up three tents, but what if Peter didn’t so much want to erect a shrine, as he wanted to raise a Tent of Meeting, just as his ancestors had done when they first encountered God in the desert? What if Peter’s offer comes less out of confusion, and more out of a desire to honor the holiness of this moment in the only way he knows how? If God often spoke with Moses in the tent of meeting, filling it with the dark cloud of God’s glory, and making Moses’ face shine so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil when he came out of the tent, doesn’t it stand to reason that the voice Peter hears coming from a dark cloud would remind him of that earlier Tabernacle?
The voice from heaven speaks the same words we heard at the baptism of Jesus, back at the beginning of his ministry. “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.” Only this time, the voice adds an important command to the statement. This time, God says, “Listen to him!” Listen to Jesus.
And what is the first thing Jesus says after the disciples hear this command? “Get up. Stop being afraid.”
Every time we encounter God in a tangible way, it’s scary. The fabric that separates the mundane from the holy is torn, and God’s glory shines through to blind us with light brighter than we can imagine. We want to make sense of it all. We try to assign meaning to the various elements of the story, and if we only had a Secret Jesus Decoder Ring, we might be able to figure it all out. Barbara Brown Taylor says we might be missing the point if we try too hard to figure out what it all means. She writes,
“But what if the point is not to decode the cloud but to enter into it? What if the whole Bible is less a book of certainties than it is a book of encounters, in which a staggeringly long parade of people run into God, each other, life–and are never the same again? … Whether such biblical encounters come disguised as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ they have a way of breaking biblical people open, of rearranging what they think they know for sure so that there is room for more divine movement in their lives.”
Fear is the natural human response to things we can’t understand. We are afraid of what we can’t see, what doesn’t make sense to us. We fall down like those overwhelmed disciples, and hide from the things that confuse us. It is in that very moment that Jesus reaches out to touch us, to remind us of his presence, and he says, “ Get up. Stop being afraid.”
When he said this to Peter, James, and John, they looked up, and they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
That’s it. That’s the point. See no one but Jesus. Listen to him. No matter how confusing or frightening the experience may be, when we encounter God, we don’t need to understand or explain it. We don’t need to interpret it or decode it. We can respond to God’s presence without fear, by looking to Jesus alone. He doesn’t scold us or berate us. He just says, Get up. Stop being afraid. Peter was eager to put up a Tent of Meeting for his encounter with God, but God only wanted him to pay attention, to listen to Jesus.
Because, when we do that, God changes us. When we focus our attention on Jesus alone, we start to look a little more like him.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve encouraged you to pay attention to these moments when God is evident in you and through you, when you find yourselves being salt and light in the world. As we head into the season of Lent, I encourage you to continue noticing these moments when they happen, but also I encourage you to make yourself ready for an encounter with the Living God.
One way to do this is through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Instead of giving up something for Lent, I encourage you to take on something: maybe it’s a more focused prayer life, maybe you hunger for a more diligent reading of God’s Word, maybe more generous giving to meet the needs of the poor. Maybe you need to find more intentional silence, when you can listen to Jesus. As you encounter God in these practices, you may discover that the person you see in the mirror each morning changes over the next few weeks. You may notice that you are being shaped and formed more and more into the image of Christ.
This morning, as I read the Daily Office Lectionary scriptures, I was struck by this verse from 2 Corinthians. Paul writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, ESV)
We are being transformed from one degree of glory to another! It doesn’t happen overnight. It can take a long time for the transformation to be complete, but the change is already at work in us.
So get up. Stop being afraid. For Christ is with you in the dark cloud, and you are becoming more and more like him, transformed and transforming into his perfect image, from one degree of glory to another. Amen.
 Karl Barth Church Dogmatics, 478.