A few weeks ago in a meeting, I made a slightly snarky comment about the fact that at least 50% of transfiguration sermons are about ‘mountaintop experiences’. And so, in a true moment of poetic justice, I find myself offering today’s homily, on the Feast of the Transfiguration.
And we all know the story so well, don’t we? Jesus and the disciples on a mountain. Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter saying yet another foolish thing. The voice of God, saying listen.
And even though our moments apart, our experiences of glory, may not consist of witnessing Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, we still do have them: these moments when everything feels impossibly real, when we glimpse the world, for a moment, through God’s eyes.
We seek these experiences, I think, these moments completely outside of ourselves. Whether you are hiking part of the Appalachian Trail or the Camino de Santiago, going on vacation to somewhere new or dearly beloved, spending a few days on quiet retreat, or perhaps just finding refuge in an early morning walk or bike ride, we feel more whole, more ourselves, once we can get some distance from our constant, endless monologue of internal thoughts.
We, like the disciples, seek glory—a moment so life-altering that it transforms us.
But there is a tension, I think, in the glory that we seek, this moment of perspective.
You see, it is very easy for me to imagine what kind of perspective, what kind of glory, what kind of transformation I am seeking. I’m seeking to recreate a particular experience of retreat or enlightenment that I have experienced before, or I’m looking to recreate someone else’s glory. I’m looking for a moment just like Peter’s, seeing Jesus and Moses and Elisha atop a mountain, and knowing for certain that I’m following the right messiah.
See, that’s the thing about Peter, atop this mountain, confronted with glory. He sees the glory of God, shown in these three figures, and says, yes, I know what this is. Jesus, on par with Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest prophets and law-givers in Israel’s history, memorialized in centuries upon centuries of Jewish imagination and writings. “I know what this is”, he says. “This is history, coming to life. This is the glory of Israel past, the prophets of the past coming to signify the future of Israel present. Let us build three booths, sir, to memorialize this moment, the moment when the past became our present, the moment foretelling the return to normal, the return to Israel as we know it should be.”
Peter, upon being confronted with the glory of the Father, knows it immediately as the glory of the past, the glory that was. He knows it as such because that is the glory that he wants: Israel’s success, and power, enshrined in memory, becoming Israel’s present.
It is not wrong, this drawing from the past, from memory, to teach us our expectations of glory. This is, after all, the great gift of scripture, of church history, of thousands of teachers who remind us of the heavenly glory that was.
But I want to suggest that by limiting the glory of God to the past, to specific manifestations that we know by heart, or have even experienced, we limit our own ability to experience the glory of God that is yet to be.
Peter, so enthralled with the glory that was, does not realize that Jesus and Moses and Elijah are discussing the glory that will be. Peter, prepared for the glory of the past and Israel’s political prosperity, cannot even conceive of a future where God’s glory is expressed, not in the overthrow of the Romans, but in the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Peter cannot imagine the glory that is to come, the redemption of the world from the Fall, the harrowing of Hell, eternal salvation.
So on this Feast of the Transfiguration, I invite you—us—not to the mountaintop experiences you know, not to the glory you expect, not to a return to normal, whatever that is, but to the glory of God which is before us, the future which has yet to be. It may not feel like glory. There may be suffering and pain and death as we wait for its appearing. But it is in this glory to come, now known, that Christ redeemed and saved the world, and us. As we pray ‘come Lord Jesus’, as we pray for deliverance from the injustice and ‘disquietude of this world’, as we wait for the glory that is yet to come, may we live in hope that the transfiguration of ourselves and our world, will be greater than we can ever ask, or imagine.