First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Years ago, someone introduced me to a YouTube character named Betty Butterfield. Poor Betty drinks too much, smokes too much, and can’t quite stay in the lines when she applies her lipstick. - And Betty is on a quest for God. In her search, she has gone to churches of every denomination, and various other houses of worship, only to discover that they are not for her. Betty Butterfield, it seems, is looking for the Lord in all the wrong places.
Betty makes me laugh as she talks about the great variety of religious experience. But there is something in her quest that strangely reminiscent of my own spiritual journey, because in my own way, I too have been looking for the Lord for most of my life. I guess you call me a bit of a religious thrill-seeker.
I come by all of this quite naturally. It’s a family trait. We are very religious people, on both sides. - One of my earliest memories is of my grandparents taking me, a little boy of four or so, to see the great evangelist and faith healer, Kathryn Kuhlman. That name may not ring a bell for you, but in her day, Kathryn was a very big deal, with a weekly, nationally-televised program called “I Believe in Miracles.” I can still remember standing between my grandparents, in the back of that large auditorium with its wrap-around balconies. We were standing because every seat was full. And every seat was full because people were looking for God and thought they could find him through that woman on the stage in her in her long, flowing gown and with her mesmerizing voice.
Later in life, I got a little more ecumenical in my quest. I started to look for God in places I had never looked before. I visited the largest Marian shrine in the world, where I had a mystical experience. I prayed in the world’s largest church dedicated to St. Joseph. I have worshipped in the Vatican and stuffed a written prayer into a gap in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I have prayed with the Muslim call to prayer in Morocco. I have lit Hanukkah candles at the home of friends in New York. And wherever in the world we travel, if there is a church or a temple or a shrine, you’ll find me rattling the door, trying to get in. Because I’m looking for the Lord.
Now maybe I am strange that way. Or maybe this is just my way of engaging and naming that universal and deeply human longing for meaning and purpose and something more.
The quest for the Divine is front and center in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus had been teaching the hard truth about his impending death and resurrection. And partly because it was so much to take in, Jesus invited Peter, James, and John to climb a high mountain with him for some time apart.
Now, in the ancient world, mountaintops carried significant religious meaning. Mountains were often thought of as the dwelling place of the gods. You will remember that the Greek gods lived on the top of Mount Olympus. Moses saw the burning bush and received the Law on top of Mount Sinai. Elijah heard the “still, small voice of God” up on a mountain. So, when Jesus invited his friends to climba mountain, there was in that invitation a strong undercurrent of the religious quest.
When they finally reached the summit and were settling down to catch their breath and take in the view, suddenly the glory of God exploded and Jesus was transfigured right before their eyes. The Greek word for transfigured is metamorphosis. In other words, he was changed into something he had not been before. And Mark says that this change was visible in Jesus’s clothing becoming dazzling white. The other Gospel writers say that it in addition to Jesus’s clothes, it was his face that also glowed. Whatever the details, this one point is clear: it was a luminous moment, full of drama, full of God.
Through the blinding light of these divine pyrotechnics, the disciples saw Elijah the great prophet and Moses the divine lawgiver, speaking with Jesus. What they said, the Gospel of Mark does not reveal.
Now, we all react to the numinous and awe-inspiring in different ways. Some of us are silent. Others of us weep or laugh. Some of us miss it altogether because we are looking for our phones! And still others do what Peter did: they babble. Peter was one of those people who when, all else fails, just keeps talking.
“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here!” he blathered. “Hey, I have an idea! Let’s start a building program! Let’s erect three dwelling places: one for you, one for Elijah, and one for Moses!” About all this babbling, the writer of Mark’s Gospel makes this aside: “(Peter) said all of this because they were terrified.”
Well, who wouldn’t be? A glowing Jesus and the appearance of ghosts! But it was about to get worse, because suddenly a dark and ominous cloud overshadowed them. They felt its wetness against their skin and couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces. And then a voice from the cloud spoke, with words strangely like the words spoken by that same voice at Jesus’s baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
And then, like all exciting religious experience, it was over. And like all religious experience, with each passing day, its memory grew dimmer. – And while we often feel saddened that the thrill is gone so quickly, perhaps, that is exactly as it should be, because religious experience is not actually the point.
Mark writes that when the glowing had subsided, and the ghostly visitors had vanished, and the glory cloud had dissipated, the disciples looked around, and saw nothing and no one anymore… but only Jesus.
“But only Jesus.” Three little words - so easy to miss in this dramatic tale. But three words that are so full of the truth.
Religious experience is a wonderful thing. The thrills and chills are exciting. -- This room is a marvelous place, soaked, as it is, in history and in the glory of God. Here we tell and live out the Gospel of Jesus. Here, we welcome all kinds of people and make community. Here we laugh and pray and listen and make glorious music – sometimes in fancy new choir robes! And I love it all. It’s thrilling. In fact, of all of my religious adventures, this is one of my favorites. - But none of these things, no matter how lovely, is really the point. And all of these things, no matter how treasured, will fade. In fact, there will come a day when none of this is even here anymore. Our faith cannot be about this.
Not long ago, I stood beside the bed of someone who was dying. And I heard stories about her life and how that over the years, she had climbed mountains of success and created beauty and seen wonders. But now all of that was coming to a close. And her life had narrowed to that one room, with its humming machines and hushed voices. Toward the end of the visit, I took her hand and leaned close to pray with her. And I said the words that I always say at such a time: “Trust Jesus to do for you what you cannot do for yourself.”
The Mount of Transfiguration is the last burst of Epiphany light before the shadows of Lent. And this story is also a metaphor for our own spiritual lives. Because we climb. We see glory. We feel hope. We make plans. We babble on about it all. And then, like a cloud, it’s gone. Except, of course, for Jesus, who has promised never to leave us, never to forsake us.
“Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.”