St. Philip Lutheran Church
19 February 2023 + Transfiguration of Our Lord
Rev. Josh Evans
It’s tempting to want to stay in certain moments.
No one wants to think about packing up on the last day of a dream vacation – the last poolside breakfast on the brightest, sunniest day before heading back home, probably to gray and cold and snow.
Even after just a really good night out with close friends, it’s hard to say goodbye. There’s even a name for it: The Midwest Goodbye. “Well, I guess we should leave now…” – and so begins the painfully slow and convoluted process of parting ways that ends only when each member of the party is no longer within eyesight of the other.
It’s tempting to want to stay.
Recently, my memories on Facebook reminded me of Transfiguration Sunday 2018. Then in my senior year of seminary, I made the treacherous drive through the aftermath of a winter storm down snowy, icy roads, all the way from Hyde Park on Chicago’s south side to Elmwood Park in the near north suburbs. I wouldn’t have missed this particular service for anything.
Two years before, the commute was a familiar one, as I traveled every week to my Ministry in Context congregation as a second-year seminarian. Grace Church was a small congregation even then, but the community was tight-knit. I have many fond memories of gathering in the library before the service for coffee, treats, and Bible study; helping with a late summer festival in the parking lot; facilitating confirmation classes with my supervising pastor; and putting together unique Holy Week services as a part of my final project.
Two years later, on Transfiguration Sunday 2018, Grace Church would celebrate its last eucharist together. That Sunday, members who had faithfully attended every week and others, like me, who had returned for the special occasion assembled for worship. With every reading and hymn, the service moved on to its end. The last sermon. The last sharing of the peace. The last eucharist. The last prayer.
No one wanted the service to end. But the faithful members of Grace also knew: It was time.
It’s tempting to want to stay in such moments that you never want to end.
It’s really tempting to just keep things exactly how they are.
The Transfiguration is a story told in all three synoptic gospels – Mark, Luke, and Matthew. And in all three tellings, the Transfiguration is not an isolated story, and in fact, I would suggest it really has no meaning on its own, but only makes sense in its larger context.
The prelude to the Transfiguration itself begins with a discussion between Jesus and his disciples about what people are saying about him. And then a question: “Who do you say that I am?” Which prompts Peter’s bold confession: “You are the Messiah.” Well done, Peter!
But when Jesus starts explaining what exactly it means for him to be the Messiah – that he will undergo great suffering and even be killed – Peter rushes to his defense: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” Which, in turn, prompts Jesus’s infamous words: “Get behind me, Satan!”
And Jesus continues in his explanation of what it means for him to be the Messiah – and even the implications for his followers: “Let them…take up their cross and follow me.” It’s not going to be an easy way of life for them either.
Peter alone was bold enough to confess Jesus’s messianic identity. Did Peter really not know what it meant though? Or maybe he knew exactly what it meant – and so he tried everything in his power to stop it from happening.
“You’re going to do what, Jesus?! God forbid it!”
And when, six short days later, they’re on the mount of Transfiguration, Peter sees his opportunity again: “This is great! Let’s build some tents and stay a while…like how about forever?”
I think Peter knew exactly what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah, and he knew exactly where the road to Jerusalem would ultimately lead. He just wanted to preserve the good thing he had a little while longer.
Peter wanted to stay, and to keep things exactly how they were, and truthfully, who can blame him?
Peter was certainly afraid.
Behind every desire to keep things exactly how they are is a fear of moving on … of letting go of what has been and stepping into an uncertain future of what will be.
In the drama and confusion of the moment – the sudden apparition of Moses and Elijah out of nowhere, the thick cloud covering them, and the disembodied voice (is it God? is it their mind playing tricks on them? is someone else there with them that they can’t see through the cloud?) – in all of this, the disciples are understandably terrified.
Matthew tells us they were “overcome by fear.” So very much afraid, in fact, that they fell to the ground. Physically paralyzed by their fear.
When we’re overcome by an emotion that intensely, it’s the only thing we can think about in the moment. Fear. Grief. Anxiety. It’s got a grip on us that won’t let go. It feels impossible to do anything else. It might even feel as though we’re suffocating.
In the midst of the disciples’ intense fear, Jesus offers a surprising and gentle act of grace.
“Jesus came and touched them.”
Jesus doesn’t berate the disciples for their fear. There is no “Get behind me, Satan!” here. He doesn’t judge them for their fear either.
For as much illumination is present in today’s gospel story, the shadow of fear is just as real and just as present in the lives of Jesus’s friends.
The fear was surely more than just from the drama of the present moment. After all, Jesus had just been explaining to them how being the Messiah meant that he would soon suffer and die – and that very likely his disciples would too – just for being associated with him. What had they gotten themselves into?!
Jesus reaches into that fear to touch them, perhaps an act of blessing, certainly an act of compassion.
I imagine Jesus’s outstretched hand, reaching out to his friends huddled in their fear on the ground. He doesn’t forcefully grab them by the cloak and yank them back up. But he calmly, patiently, gently takes hold of them to help them back on their feet.
“Get up. Do not be afraid.”
It’s a promise that’s been spoken before: “Joseph, do not be afraid.” Though, in fact, he was very much afraid of what would happen to his pregnant fiancée and what could even happen to him. Joseph went to great lengths to contrive a plan to cover the whole thing up and make it all go away, as much as he possibly could.
And in the midst of Joseph’s intense fear, he is met with a promise: “Do not be afraid.” The child will be Emmanuel.
This child would grow up to embody Emmanuel – to remind his family, his neighbors, his disciples that God is with them.
On the mount of Transfiguration, this now fully grown Emmanuel stoops down and reaches out to his friends in their intense fear with the same words of promise that have been present in this gospel story since the very beginning:
“Do not be afraid. I’m right here. God is with you.”
There is a blessing and a promise in Joseph’s fear. There is a blessing and a promise in the disciples’ fear.
Jesus frees the disciples from their fear so that they can face the journey back down the mountain and the road that lies ahead.
The story that comes next is also common to all three synoptic gospels and is as much as part of the Transfiguration story as the earlier exchange of Peter’s confession and Jesus’s rebuke.
This story finds Jesus and his disciples in the midst of a crowd and confronted by a father whose son is severely ill.
What is most intriguing to me, though, is not the miraculous healing, but Jesus’s almost tongue-in-cheek frustration, directed at his disciples who tried (and failed) to cure the boy themselves.
“How much longer must I be with you?” Jesus sighs in exasperation, just before finally healing the boy himself.
I can’t say for certain what Jesus meant by that question, and I could totally be making this up and reading into Jesus’s words what I want to hear. But reading this story in the context of the whole of Matthew’s gospel, those words seem like more than a coincidence.
Matthew’s gospel is a story that begins with the promise of Emmanuel and the encouragement to “not be afraid.” At every turn, and most dramatically and tenderly at the center of the Transfiguration story, Matthew’s gospel reverberates with the experience of Emmanuel.
Now, as Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, toward his own suffering and death, he asks: “How much longer must I be with you?”
Matthew’s gospel story doesn’t end there, but with a decisive answer to that very question, on another mountain, just before Jesus’s ascension: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
How much longer? How about forever.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, there is a blessing and a promise in the midst of our fear.
It’s so tempting to want to stay. To keep things exactly as they are. To avoid the fear of moving into the uncertainty of what comes next.
Things do change though, and we can’t stay, try as we might. Cautiously and perhaps reluctantly, we keep moving forward … but we also never go alone.
While we are still huddled on the ground in our fear, Jesus stoops down to us and reaches out a patient, gentle hand, in compassion and blessing, to help us get back on our feet.
Jesus frees us from our fear and our uncertainty of the future.
Jesus frees us from our desire to keep things exactly as they are, and from getting stuck when “the way we’ve always done it” just isn’t working anymore.
Jesus frees us for the journey back down the mountain and for the work of ministry in new and reimagined ways.
And through it all, Jesus promises us: “Do not be afraid. I’m right here with you.”