[This message was delivered on Transfiguration Sunday, 2/27/22, at Perinton Presbyterian Church, based on Luke 9:28-36. It can also be viewed on the Perinton Facebook page.]
Have you been to Walt Disney World? Before there was Walt Disney World, there was … Disneyland. Before there was Disneyland, there was … Knott’s Berry Farm. Growing up in Los Angeles, I was well acquainted with both, but first with Knott’s Berry Farm. It started as a roadside berry stand, where Walter and Cordelia Knott sold their fresh berries, especially boysenberry: jelly, ice cream, pie, and juice. As more and more people stopped at their stand, they decided to offer more. And the country’s first theme park began as an old west ghost town, well before anything Disney.
Walter Knott, the son of a pastor, found an old chapel that was out of use, bought it, and had it moved to his farm. In that chapel there was a painting of Jesus being transfigured. Lines would form all day to enter the chapel at assigned times. We would look at the painted image of Jesus in the light, and then the lights would slowly go down until it was completely dark. The image of Jesus began to glow in the dark. As we exited each of us got a little cardboard standup of Jesus to put at our bedside. When the lights went out, the face of Jesus glowed and his eyes stared at us. It was kind of spooky. Soon I replaced it with a transistor radio and listened to Dodgers baseball games as I went to sleep. What Peter wanted to do, but didn’t get to do, Knott’s Berry Farm did. It made a tourist stop out of the transfiguration of Jesus.
Peter was an entrepreneur before Walter Knott or Walt Disney. “Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” Then I hear Peter saying, “We can have a sign at the base of the mountain, generating interest. We can have a little gift shop where people can buy a memento of their visit, for a modest price, of course. We can have bumper stickers: ‘this car climbed the mount of transfiguration.’” If Peter had become a pastor in our time, he would have been leading any congregation he served in building projects. (Ouch! I was a pastor of a congregation for 38 years and led them in three building projects.)
Mountaintops and glory tend to go together. I have climbed some mountains, including some of 46 high peaks of the Adirondacks. But my greatest climb was Mt. Baker in Washington state. It took three days to reach the summit and we thought we were on top of Mt. Everest, though we were just shy of 11,000 feet. It was glorious.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, last public words, spoken on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, TN, echo today: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land…. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything…. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The next morning he was killed, but not before getting to the mountaintop.
Jesus invites Peter, James, and John to climb a mountain, probably Mt. Hermon. While Jesus is praying, glory breaks out. His face is aglow. His clothes become dazzling white, beyond anything Tide could ever do. Moses had a mountaintop experience on Mt. Sinai. Elijah had a mountaintop experience on Mt. Carmel. Now Peter, James, and John are seeing God’s glory on display in shimmering ways. This is a mountaintop experience. Jesus is transfigured right there in front of them. The word means to be changed, metamorphosed. It is the word used in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Another way of saying it is glorified; “they saw his glory….”
I like Peter. He is caught up in this mountaintop experience and he doesn’t want it to end. I know that tendency. Do you? There are some moments in life that are so good, so glorious, so transforming, that we don’t want them to end. So we try to build monuments to them. I love to visit Disneyland, for there I had a significant date with the woman I would marry. For Red Sox fans, it is the 2004 world series. For Buffalo Bills fans, it is next year. Peter is having a mountaintop experience and he doesn’t want it to end. Can we blame him? Peter has an idea. A building project. Three shelters: one on the left for Moses, one on the right for Elijah, and in the center, at the top of the mountain peak, Jesus. If we follow Peter through the gospels, he is rarely speechless for long. It is Peter who says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” It is Peter who says to Jesus, “Master, I want to walk on the surface of the Sea of Galilee with you.”
A thick cloud envelops the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah are gone. All is quiet. Eerily quiet. A voice breaks the silence: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” How do we follow that? “When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.” A cloud. A voice. Then silence.
A little boy was afraid of the dark. One night his mother asked him to go out on the back porch and bring her the broom. He said, “I don’t want to go out there. It’s dark.” His mother said, “You don’t have to be afraid of the dark. Jesus is out there. He’ll look after you and protect you.” The boy asked, “Are you sure he’s out there?” “Yes, I’m sure. He is everywhere, and he is always ready to help you when you need him,” she said. The little boy thought about that for a minute and then went to the back door and cracked it a little. Peering out into the darkness, he called: “Jesus? Would you please hand me the broom?” We want Jesus to do what we want him to do. We want him to conform to our agenda, when he comes to conform us to his agenda.
What is the point of the transfiguration of Jesus? I think the old time-travelers, Moses and Elijah, are getting it: “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” This is not a special effects extravaganza. This is a glimpse of what is to come. Earlier in this chapter, Luke 9, Jesus tells them for the first time that he is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. At the end of Luke 9, Jesus sets his face like a flint toward Jerusalem. In the transfiguration of Jesus, we are getting a sneak preview, and it is glory. Fanny Crosby wrote “O what a foretaste of glory divine.”The gospels see Jesus’ greatest hour of glory as when he hangs on a cross on a little hill, not a dramatic mountaintop. In his suffering, Jesus is glorified. In his death, Jesus is glorified. It was not by coincidence that the first words we sang this morning were, “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim.” This Wednesday, the day of ashes, we begin this holiest time of the Christian year.
When I began working here among you, the pandemic was already underway. On Sunday mornings, I would drive past a home with a sign on the front lawn: No new normal. I would ponder what that meant. I think it meant that the people in that house wanted to go back to life before the pandemic, that the thought that some changes might happen bothered them. Jesus has come to bring a new normal. He comes to bring change to our living, to get us aligned with God. Peter wanted, perhaps fleetingly, to stop the parade and settle on a mountaintop. But what happened on the mountaintop was but a brief stop on a journey moving forward. We want to build monuments; Jesus comes to form a movement.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a sensual experience, with all the senses are engaged in beholding Christ’s glory. But two stand out, sight and hearing: See him and listen to him. See him high and lifted up. Moses and Elijah leave; Jesus stands alone before us. See him. A voice pierces the cloud: “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” Listen to him. See him; listen to him. This is how we move into Lent, ever pressing forward to see him and to listen to him. Our calling is to see Jesus, to listen to Jesus, and to follow Jesus to the next mountaintop, which is a hill called Calvary.