Sunday Night Informal Worship – 2/03/08 – Transfiguration Sunday

Bright Lights, Big Ears

Matthew 17: 1-9

What is up with this story?  This is such a strange story that on our church’s website dedicated to worship planning and leadership, here’s what they said this week: “Friends, this is one of those texts that is next to impossible to preach and feels strange for many even to sing about with a straight face. I mean, what does one say? Jesus got all shiny” (italics are mine;

Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples – Peter, James, and John – high up on a mountain and undergoes a sort of metamorphoses. Right before their eyes his appearance changes, his face begins to shine like the sun, and his clothes turn a bright, dazzling, impossible white. As if that weren’t enough, suddenly Moses and Elijah appear and start talking with Jesus. Never mind that, as my friend Jason points out, this was in the time before photographs: the disciples recognize the key players immediately.

In fact, Peter recognizes that there is a certain significance to this event and quickly pipes up with an idea for capturing the moment. Right over top of the conversation Jesus and the prophets are having, Peter says This is a great place to be. I can make three huts, one for each of you. Before Jesus or the prophets have a chance to respond, God intervenes.

A brightly-lit cloud overshadows the mountaintop scene and God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt. 17: 5). The disciples fall to ground in fear until Jesus comes and tells them not to be afraid. They look up at Jesus and suddenly he looks normal again; Moses and Elijah are gone. Going down the mountain on the way back home, Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone about the vision until after he’s been raised from the dead. What is up with this story?

In the United Methodist church and most denominations following the Revised Common Lectionary, we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday each year on the Sunday before Lent begins. For Catholics, it’s the second Sunday of Lent. And for Eastern Orthodox and a few other churches it comes in the middle of that long stretch of ordinary time, on August 6. But we read it on the last Sunday of a shorter period of ordinary time, after Epiphany and before Lent. It makes sense to me that we read this story at this point in the liturgical year, since in the gospel it marks the transition from Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing in Galilee to his ministry of sacrifice in Jerusalem (Handbook of the Christian Year, p. 104). On Wednesday this week we ourselves begin the journey towards Jerusalem.

Here on the cusp of ordinary time an extraordinary thing happens.

Just as Peter tried to capture the moment with huts, artists throughout the centuries have tried to put on canvas the unexpected majesty described by the disciples.

Art can be a transfiguring experience, reshaping and shifting the expected colors, lines, shadows, textures…until the familiar becomes unfamiliar, the ordinary extraordinary. The extraordinary has so much more dazzle than the ordinary, that it can be tempting to try to stay there, build a hut and set up a permanent camp. Novelist Carrie Fisher jokes that she doesn’t want life to imitate art, she wants it to be art (Postcards from the Edge).  I read a claim that the purpose of art is not to delight, dazzle, and then strand us in an alternate world, but to return us to the realm of the ordinary, only with new eyes (“Art, Beauty, and the Transfiguration,” Gregory Wolfe,, 3/03).  I see.

Take a look at these artists’ depictions of the Transfiguration. Some of these look similar to the mental image I have when I read this story. Others seem fantastic or grotesque. Others are what I wished I’d seen in my mind while reading… What do you see?

We could stay with these images. These could serve as our huts, our way to make sense of and contain this wild, illuminating story.

But you know better than that.

Listen again.

Through the supernatural light, God’s voice pierces, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When we think of the Transfiguration, when we remember this story, it’s all bright lights and radiance. That’s what the artists have picked up on. That’s the way we tell it.

But comb through this whole story and what you’ll find is one command.  Only one. It’s God’s imperative and there is nothing mysterious or dazzling about it. It would be quite hard to mistake the message, once you see past the shining lights to hear it.

God says, “Listen to him!” And, in case you haven’t been reading on your own this week, let me tell you that there is an exclamation point at the end of that short sentence: Listen to him!

How is it that we overlook this? It’s the one “take away” intended for the disciples, but after two millennia we are still focused on the visual special effects.

It’s not entirely our fault. This is a weird story.

This story is like coming into your friend’s home on a cold winter day. You open the door and immediately smell chili in the air. You walk from the front of the house to the kitchen at the back, unpeeling yourself like an orange along the way. Hat, gloves, coat, scarf, boots. You leave a trail of winter gear behind and the smell gets heavier in the air the closer you get to the kitchen. Before you round the corner, you can smell garlic. When you enter the kitchen, your friend is at the stove, pulling out a tray of garlic bread. Steam is rolling out of the pot of chili and your mouth is watering. You light a candle and help to put the plates on the table. You pour two glasses full. Your mouth is watering all the while and you realize you’re hungrier than you thought you were before you got here. When everything’s ready, the two of you sit at the table. The prayer is said, you feel your hand moving towards the spoon, as your friend says, “Ok, everything’s ready. Let’s enjoy looking at the beauty of this meal now.”


That’s what the Transfiguration story is like. Though everything that’s happened since you got to your friend’s has predisposed you to tasting a meal, you find out at the last minute that you won’t get to use that sense. This will be a visual dinner only. Huh?

The Transfiguration sets an extravagant, luminous, strikingly visual scene. And then tells us to listen.

Why would God stage this elaborate dazzling light show and then redirect us to listen rather than watch?

“Listen” carries the same connotation here as it does in the Hebrew Scriptures (NIB p. 364), like Deuteronomy 6:4, which says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This passage is known as the shema, for the Hebrew word that begins the passage, “hear.” Used like this, “hear” carries with it not just the duty to listen but also to obey. The shema was instruction and reminder that there is only one God, “the Lord alone,” and that this is the God who must be heard and obeyed.

God chooses this same command at the moment when Jesus looks least like himself. In case there is any doubt about what’s going on and who is who, God tells the disciples directly to listen to Jesus. There is still only one God, light from light, true God from true God (Nicene Creed). But there is a new way for the disciples to see God, there among them in Jesus, and God doesn’t want them to miss it. It’s like God says, “Now that I’ve got your attention: listen!”

Here on the cusp of ordinary time an extraordinary thing happens.

Look at how what you thought was ordinary never was. Look at how extraordinary it is. Look at how it is part of God. And now listen.

The purpose of art – and of religious experience – is not to strand us in an alternate world, but to return us to the realm of the ordinary, only with new eyes – and receptive ears.

Knowing what you know, having seen what you’ve seen, how will you listen for God this Lent? These next 40 days have another glorious and unlikely vision of God awaiting us at the end – but we’re not there just yet. The radiant image on the mountain is just fading and we’ve yet to start out this Wednesday with ashes marking our foreheads.

How will we listen for God on this journey? Where is God asking you to obey?

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah Lewis 2008