The first time I preached on Transfiguration Sunday, it did not go well. The sermon was dealing with such high theology that it did not mean much of anything (I find that can frequently happen in an academic environment). I never wanted to preach on the Transfiguration again, so I decided I’d probably skip it the next time it came up in the lectionary cycle since the rural Baptist churches I was preaching in wouldn’t notice. However, while I was studying in London for a semester, I heard a wonderful sermon. I attended Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church while I was there and Ruth Gouldbourne was the senior minister. She gave one of the best sermons I had ever heard (and on the Transfiguration!) while sitting in the pews with the congregation. Much of her words that Sunday morning inspired me to approach this text again and approach it from the angle that I did. This sermon is dedicated to Rev. Gouldbourne and the Bloomsbury congregation who were so welcoming to me and my friends during our stay in London. Thanks, friends.
About eight days later, after Jesus said these things, he went up the mountain to pray with Peter, John, and James. In the midst of his prayers, his face changed and his clothing flashed brightly as with lightning. Look! Two men spoke to him. It was Moses and Elijah; they were seen in glorious splendor. They spoke of Jesus’ departure, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.
Now, Peter and the others with him had been weighed down with sleep, but they awoke abruptly to his glory and the two men with him. While these two were leaving him, Peter spoke up to Jesus: “Master, it’s good that we’re here! Let us make three shrines — one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” He did not understand what he said.
While he said these things, a mass of clouds overshadowed them and they were terrified as they entered into it. A voice came out of the fog saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.” After the voice, they found Jesus alone. They kept silent and told no one what they had seen.
Luke 9.28-36, author’s translation
When we come to passages like this one, especially when we preachers come to passages like this one, we speak too quickly. I have heard many well-intentioned preachers describe every nook and cranny of these few paragraphs. I have read scholars who quickly assign every word with special meaning and significance. There are historical references, literary archetypes, narrative functions; none of these is untrue. Does Moses symbolically speak for the Law and Elijah the Prophets? Yes, I am sure they do. Does this event signify Jesus’ fulfillment of both? Well, yes, I suppose it does. Does this type of appearance foreshadow the Resurrection? Well, yes, but hold on a moment. Does the cloud represent the presence of God as it does in numerous Old Testament narratives? Are the shrines indicative of a certain method of venerating holy sites? Is it significant that it was Peter, James, and John who went with him? Does this passage connect with the previous one in any way — “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27, NRSV)?
There is something about this passage, maybe a few things actually, that speak deeply about our faith and the nature of our human condition. There is something undeniably strange and inexpressible happening in this passage. Luke does his best to express it in words, but ultimately it must have been indescribable. After all, for quite a while, “they kept silent and told no one what they had seen.” (v. 36, author’s translation)
It is tempting to look at this passage and talk about our so-called “mountain-top experiences” that more than rival our everyday experiences of God, but that is not what this passage is talking about. In our lives, we do not often experience moments like the Transfiguration. They are rare, very rare. I have experienced profound moments of mystery, infinitude, and communion with God in my life, but none of them quite compare to what Luke tells us happens on the Mount of Transfiguration. Do these things happen? Yes, I imagine they do. I know the stories of the church’s saints and sinners experiencing similar terrifying and awe-full moments. But the simple matter is, as I imagine you already know … the simple matter is, we do not have these experiences in our day-to-day lives. In all likelihood, you and I will never experience anything quite like the Transfiguration on this side of heaven.
So where does that leave us? Unlike Peter, James, and John, we are sitting at the base of the mountain, at the bottom of the hill. We sit looking heavenward with no Transfiguration to speak of. We do not have the confirmation that such a dramatic experience brings. Our God is not so plainly apparent to us. Our faith is a little bit harder, it seems, than it is for those on top of the mountain. Rather than matching the experience of these select disciples, my faith and yours seems more like another Gospel story. As Mark tells it, there is a father deeply grieved over the state of his child. His young boy suffers seizures, convulsions; he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth before collapsing. It has been like this since his childhood. He has tried to cast himself into fire and water, and all his father wants is his healing. He just wants it to stop, and now he has Jesus in front of him. Surely, he thinks, it gets better.
But Jesus lectures the crowd on their lack of faith and he seems to grow weary with the father when the boy’s parent pleads, but only conditionally. “If you are able,” he says, “have pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22, NRSV) Jesus replies to him, “If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes,” and the father quickly replies in earnest faith, doubt, conviction, and despair, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (vv. 23-24) I believe; help my unbelief. “I believe, help Thou mine unbelief.” (KJV) That seems more like our faith, doesn’t it? I believe; help my unbelief. Why? Faith is a tricky thing. It is not so easy to pin down. The man’s expression, paradoxical though it may seem, tells us a deep truth about faith, particularly faith down here at the foot of the mountain.
Faith is not just belief. Faith is not the supposition that a certain proposition is either true or false. Faith is the setting of your heart upon something above everything else. Faith is to care about one thing more than anything else, to not just believe, but believe and trust in that in which you have faith. And if that is the way faith is, I think we understand the father a bit more. I believe; help my unbelief. If faith is trust, if faith is setting our hearts upon God, faith is not absolutely confident. Faith cannot be 100% sure. Faith simply does not know, it cannot know, if it is correct in placing its trust in anything. Otherwise, it would not be faith. So, at the base of the mountain, we have faith, but we also doubt. We can never quite know God on this side of heaven. We do not know the mind of God, the purposes of God, the whole nature of God, the totality of God, but we have faith in God. But we do not know.
We do not know, because at the base of the mountain, we are distant from God. God is both here, present, and active and distant, estranged, and far-off. God is with us, but the fullness of God is at the top of the mountain. We can look, squint our eyes, and try and see God, but even our personal God who loves us more than life itself cannot be fully glimpsed down here in the valley. The nature of our relationship with each other includes such distance. When we trust each other, we assume a certain amount of risk. We do not know 100% that the other person is worthy of our trust. But in an act of love and faith, we trust what we do not fully know — their intentions, their future actions, and their love back for us. It is the same way with God. We cannot see all of God from the valley, we do not know God’s intentions and future actions, but we believe and trust, we set our hearts upon, God’s love for us.
That thought is unsettling. That doubt is unsettling. I believe; help my unbelief. That unbelief disturbs us, it keeps us up at night. Ancient Christians speak of these “dark nights of the soul,” where it seems as if the only thing is us and the stars, us and our bedroom ceiling, us and the clock ticking in the other room. We sit at the kitchen table while everyone else is asleep, wondering, hoping, praying, and sometimes the only thing we hear is the rhythmictick, tock, tick, tock from across the hall. We are afraid to share these feelings because we think that we are the only ones who feel them. We think that they are bad, we think that they make us less than, and we think they make us bad Christians. Nothing could be further from the truth, because we all, right now, are weighed down with sleep, just like the disciples.
But it was not just the disciples — even the ones who saw this Transfiguration! — who experienced these dark nights. As Matthew tells it, so did Jesus. Earlier that night, Jesus broke bread, saying that it was his Body; he gave them a cup, saying that it was his Blood. He told Peter that he knew he would betray him. He knew that Judas had gone and turned him over to the authorities. As things began to come together, he again went up the mountain to pray. Again, he took Peter, James, and John with him. He tells them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38, NRSV) But again, his disciples are weighed down with sleep, and they cannot stay awake. So, Jesus is left alone, sitting at the kitchen table listening to the tick, tock, tick, tock of the clock in the other room. Jesus is left alone, staring at the bedroom ceiling, and the words escape his lips, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” (v. 39)
Jesus stands up and a dear friend betrays him. He watches as the world starts to crumble. They draw swords, they drag him before a council; Peter says that he never knew him — not once, but three times. He endures the corruption of the courts, the man who betrayed him takes his own life, and Jesus endures mockery on his way to execution. And on that cross, he looks up at the dark skies, only him and the stars distant and unseen, shouting, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (Matthew 27:46) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If there is anyone who is our model for our relationship with God, it is God in Jesus himself. And Jesus shouted out, I believe, I believe, help my unbelief. Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani.
If that were the end of the story, we might be in a spot of trouble. But, thanks be to God, it is not the end of the story. For Jesus endures all of this doubt, all of this felt separation, all of this pain and distance, only to result in the Greatest Transfiguration. We would not have good news in this story if Jesus just died, but we have good news because Jesus got up. Jesus woke up from this dark night of the soul in the most magnificent way possible. It is the Transfiguration, Take 2.
Now, in those interminable days between the Cross and the Empty Tomb, there is no doubt in my mind that the disciples were again, as they were on the Mount of Transfiguration, weighed down with sleep. Not unlike us, their eyelids were heavy and their trials intense. But eventually, they awoke abruptly to his glory. And that is good news, friends. Right now, we are weighed down with sleep, but one day, too, we will awake abruptly to his glory. “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part,” Paul tells us, “but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” (1 Corinthians 13:9) He continues, “For now, we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am fully known.” (v. 12, KJV) The day will come when faith shall be made sight, because someday, John of Patmos tells us, the home of God will be among us, he will dwell with us, we will be his people, and God will be with us. God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And God says, “See, I am making all things new.” Someday.
This reality catches us between two worlds. On the one hand, we strive in our waiting, hoping, and persevering. We doubt and we struggle. But on the other hand, we have hope and we have assurance, but back again: the time has not yet come. What are we supposed to do, caught here in the middle? I think we start looking. We start looking for glimpses of heaven breaking into the world. We look for cracks in the barrier between heaven and earth, places where thin beams of light come shining through, bathing our darkness in small bits of heavenly light. Preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor calls this the spiritual “Practice of Paying Attention.” She explains it this way,
“I must have been sixteen, earning summer spending money by keeping a neighbor’s cats while she was away. The first time I let myself into the house, the fleas leapt on my legs like airborne piranha. Brushing them off as I opened cat food and cleaned litter pans, I finally fled through the back door with the bag of trash my employer had left for me to carry to the cans out back. I could hear the fleas inside flinging themselves against the plastic, so that it sounded as if a light rain were falling inside the bag.
“I could not wait to be shed of it, which was why I was in a hurry. On my way to the cans, I passed a small garden off to the left that was not visible from the house. Glancing at it, I got the whole dose of loveliness at once — the high arch of trees above, the mossy flagstones beneath, the cement birdbath, the cushiony bushes, the white wrought-iron chair — all lit by stacked planes of sunlight that turned the whole scene golden. It was like a door to another world. I had to go through it. I knew that if I did, then I would become golden too.
“But first, I had to ditch the bag. The fleas popped against the plastic as I hurried to the big aluminum garbage cans near the garage. Stuffing the bag into one of them, I turned back toward the garden, fervent to explore what I had only glimpsed in passing. When I got there, the light had changed. All that was left was a little overgrown sitting spot that no one had sat in for years. The smell of cat litter drifted from the direction of the garbage cans. The garden was no longer on fire.”
[[From An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor.]]
We doubt, but the world is not always dark and God is not always so silent. Sometimes we just have to stop and pay attention. Sometimes we just get to busy walking by the golden gardens in our lives that we miss little moments of transfiguration in our day. Life is not filled with moments like the Transfiguration, but that does not mean life is not replete with transfigurations. We are still at the base of the mountain, but a few times each day, bright rays of sunshine break the shade of the hill. Living with doubt requires the courage of faith, and sometimes the courage of faith is just to look at the world a different way. When we look around corners for little traces of heaven, we start to see things in a different way. It is not a cure for doubt, because there is no need for one, but it brings us closer to God and helps us bring these little bits of heaven to earth.
The oddest thing about the passage we read to me might not be the terrifying appearance of God, but the subsequent silence of God’s witnesses. A mass of clouds, perhaps the very presence of God, wraps up the disciples and speaks to them. And then, they are silent. It says, “They kept silent and told no one what they had seen.” This course of action is an affront to our evangelistic tendencies, but I think there is something to be learned from it. There is a lot to learn from silence. When we sit at the kitchen table listening to that tick,tock, tick, tock, reality confronts us with all sorts of things we never knew before, about the world, about others, about ourselves, about God. We do not often hear God speak from burning bushes, clouds, or whirlwinds — have you ever wondered why?
Perhaps God does not speak simply because we are not silent. Perhaps God does not speak because we talk too much. Maybe God is speaking, but we are too busy talking about God to listen to God. Perhaps we would hear God if we simply paid a little more attention. If we paid attention, maybe, we would see little transfigurations in our lives, little bits of heaven on earth, little rays of heavenly light illuminating our night. So, this week, stop and listen — listen to each other, to creation, all of it. See if your hear God, for, “if you seek, you shall find.” Someday.
To avoid the risk of irony, to speak too much about silence, to say too many things about God, let me conclude with prayer. Let our words be those of our old, cherished hymn, “Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart; Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art. Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.” Amen.