The Transfiguration: What is True on the Mountaintop is True in the Valley
Imagine you’re sitting around the campfire and with your buddies and each of you are going around the circle sharing and reminiscing about some of your greatest adventures. One guy tells about the time he sailed across the Atlantic. A gal describes in vivid detail about all the animals she saw on an African safari. Another guy describes a trip to Alaska where he saw the northern lights while another woman tells of her trip in the Amazon rafting through the jungle. All pretty good, right? Certainly better than anything I’ve ever done.
But then imagine that Peter, James and John, three of Jesus’s 12 disciples, happen to be around the campfire as well, yeah, strange I know, and having heard all these epic tales, tell a story of their own, saying, “Yeah, I’ve got a good story. This one time we went on a hike with Jesus, where, when we reached the top of this mountain, we saw two dead guys, two Old Testament legends of yesteryear come back to life, all while Jesus himself began to shine as brightly as the sun and started to glow in the dark.”
You know, I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I’m going to say that takes the cake now, doesn’t it?
The story they are describing in this bizarre hypothetical scenario, is, of course, the story that we just read, the story of the transfiguration, a strange and mysterious story, a story that gives new meaning to the phrase “mountaintop experience.”
But yet, as bizarre and as strange as this story might be, it is, as you’d imagine any preacher would say, it’s a very important one nevertheless, both for the 3 disciples long ago and for you and I today. And we’ll try to tease out some of its significance for you and me as we go.
But first, let’s briefly set the scene here:
In many ways, our story today serves as the second part of our story from last week. Where last week and this week, there’s this lingering question of Jesus’s identity. “Who is this Jesus?” We saw Peter accurately name the fact that Jesus is God’s Messiah last week and then this week, by the end of the transfiguration story, we hear a voice from the clouds, aka God, who says to the disciples, which includes Peter, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” So who is this Jesus? Well first we see the disciples answer that question and then later we receive God’s own divine endorsement.
And in the middle of the two stories, there’s this hinge verse, that sits between the two, where Jesus says:
27 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
Kind of an interesting thing for Jesus to say. Who among them could possibly live that long?
Well, as it turns out, 3 of Jesus’s disciples, Peter, James and John will. They are about to go on a hike with Jesus where they will get a glimpse, a sneak preview if you will, of Jesus in all his glory, when Jesus will come in glory to consummate his kingdom.
You see, at the risk of getting a little too cute here, the transfiguration story is the original Back to the Future. Where you and I as readers are going back in time to get a glimpse of what is and will be true in the future.
When Jesus was transfigured, it says, that the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. The root word used to describe Jesus’s transfiguration is simply metamorphosis. It’s the same word we would use to describe when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. So it’s as if Jesus is changing forms here, his humanness is being dialed down for a minute as his Godlikeness comes into full view.
And so the disciples here are getting a front row seat into the beauty and glory and majesty that Jesus had before he became man and a preview of his future glory when he would ascend back into heaven. In fact, in an odd coincidence of sorts, today just happens to be Ascension Sunday, where every year, around the world, 40 days after Easter, Christians remember and celebrate that moment in history where 40 days after rising from the dead, Jesus ascended into heaven, where he currently rules and reigns in all is glory.
In other words, Jesus’s transfiguration is a glimpse, a preview of his future ascension, what he is currently like as he exists in heaven, and what he will be like when he returns. In fact, when Jesus was up on the mountaintop that day, Luke tells us that he spoke about his departure, which he would fulfill in Jerusalem, when he would experience his death, his resurrection and his ascension into heaven all decked out in radiant and divine glory.
And for us, reading this 2,000+ year old story, you and I are for a brief moment here going Back to the Future.
And yet, what exactly are you and I supposed to do with or take away from this story from long ago? This story definitely has a “you kind of just had to be there for yourself” kind of quality to it, so what exactly are we to take away from this one? Well, here is one point. Yes, one and one only.
The glory of God is both the preparation for and culmination of our suffering.
Or to use more metaphorical language, or rather the literal imagery of the story, mountaintop moments sustain us and prepare us for the valleys.
What is above prepares us for what is below. What is promised ahead sustains us for what we face right now.
In the midst of all this unexpected glory Peter and the disciples are definitely afraid, maybe a little confused, probably a little starstruck too and who’s to blame him. They’re with Jesus and two of his Old Testament heroes, Moses and Elijah. And if you’re wondering why two of the greatest legends from the Old Testament past appear out of nowhere, and these two specifically, I’d be happy to share a few running theories after the service.
But for now, I want us to focus on what Peter suggests. He has an idea, and he says to Jesus,
“Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
He’s sensing that it’s good for them to be there and suggests that they set up three shelters, or in other words translation, a tent, or even a tabernacle. Which was the place where God’s presence would dwell.
And so perhaps Peter says all this because he wants to set up shop, he wants to settle in, he wants to prolong the experience. He wants to stay on the mountaintop. But yet Jesus never responds to this proposal, as if to suggest Jesus is thinking, “Yeah, no, we’re not going to do that…” And as we later see, they head down the mountain.
You see, while climbing mountains are great and all, and the views are great, the experiences are great, you can’t stay up there forever. You have to come down at some point. And so that’s part of the point of the mountaintop experience in the first place – it helps us persevere and stay strong while in the valley.
This story, as we've acknowledged, comes at a pivotal point in Luke’s gospel. Jesus has just announced why he’s come. He’s going to suffer, he’s going to be rejected, he’s going to be killed. That’s where this all is headed he says. But yet before all that actually happens, Jesus takes these three up this mountain for this literal mountaintop experience. And this is a signature moment for these three – they need this moment with Jesus, experiencing him, seeing him for who he truly is, seeing him in all his glory so that they can withstand and persevere back down in the valley, as Jesus makes his way towards his own death.
And you and I are the same way. We need the occasional mountaintop experiences so that we can survive the valleys.
We all love our momentous mountain top experiences – those moments when we experience the power, love and grace of God in a way difficult to capture with words. Perhaps it was at a wedding, a graduation, the birth of a child, or the accomplishment of what appeared to be the impossible. Of course, worship plays this role in our lives as well. Where we gather together with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, delight in his presence and immerse ourselves in his glory.
We all wish we could stay up on the mountain, but yet so much of life is lived down in the valley.
As followers of Jesus, we too will be confronted by the challenges of this life: disappointments, diseases, fear, financial worries, illnesses and more; places where our society is broken. As followers of Jesus, we must be ready to follow him down that mountain into the valley of brokenness to the foot of the cross. We must be prepared to respond with love and grace in those moments where we are called to minister. For it is precisely in these valley moments that we are shaped to be the hands and feet of Christ in ministry. It is in these moments that others can truly see and experience the grace and love of Jesus Christ through us.
And of course, that’s not to say those mountain top experiences don’t matter. They matter a ton. The inspiration, faith, grace, and hope we experience at those God-given moments is what will sustain our witness in the midst of injustice, brokenness, and pain.
Friends, never forget what’s true on the mountain is true in the valley. Do you feel like you’re on cloud nine right now, enjoying the mountain view? Do you feel so close to Jesus these days? Are you rejoicing in his provision and work in your life? Well, hold on to that. Make note of that. You’re going to need it in the valley.
Do you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom right now, wandering through the valley floor? Do you feel like Jesus has gone missing and is nowhere to be found? Hang in there, remember the mountaintop moment when everything was going great and Jesus felt so close. What was true on the mountain is still true in the valley.
In this life, yes, we may suffer in many ways, yes we may be ridiculed for following Jesus, yes we may have seasons down in the valleys, but make no mistake, as followers of Jesus his resurrection and ascension is a guarantee, a sure deposit that we’ll be beautiful and radiant and glorious too on the other side as well.
The same word that is used to describe the transfiguration in this story is the same word that Apostle Paul uses to describe us as transforming Christians when he says in 2 Corinthians,
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord.”
Transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory. Man, how beautiful that is and how beautiful that will be.
And I’ll finish with this. This past week we were all horrified and distraught after yet another mass shooting here in our country, this time with 21 people, 19 children, 2 adults, brutally shot to death. As a way of grieving and mourning for and with the town of Uvalde and all the families who lost a loved one, I came across a pastor who shared a song written and sung by a Christian by the name of Andrew Peterson. And the first couple verses function as a liturgy of sorts, as a call and response, and rather than singing it, I’d ask for you to simply read the bold parts with me. These are the words of lament and longing, but also of immense hope and the promise of future glory. Here’s how it goes:
Do you feel the world is broken? (We do)
Do you feel the shadows deepen? (We do)
But do you know that all the dark won't stop the light from getting through? (We do)
Do you wish that you could see it all made new? (We do)
Is all creation groaning? (It is)
Is a new creation coming? (It is)
Is the glory of the Lord to be the light within our midst? (It is)
Is it good that we remind ourselves of this? (It is)
Friends, it is good that we remind ourselves of this. Our Lord is worthy of all blessing and honor and glory. May the glory of the Lord be the light within our midst. Let’s pray.
Jesus, our glorified and risen Lord, though you could have stayed on the mountain, you chose to descend, knowing that agony that lay ahead to bring our salvation. We thank you for your sacrifice. Lord, help us to embrace suffering and agony ourselves, knowing that through faith in you we will one day join you in that future glory. Amen.