High and low experiences are part of everyday life. When a couple gets married they vow to love each other “in sickness and in health – for better and for worse – for richer and for poorer. It acknowledges that even in marriage there can be the highs and lows; so too in the life of faith. There are times when we feel lifted up, taken up to a place a little closer to God and God’s glory. There are times when we feel we are hearing God speaking to us, telling us things, giving us direction, comfort, joy; but these times are not always long lasting. These times do not come often, no matter how much we strive for them. In-fact most days we probably live our lives down on the ground, unaware of the wondrous, transforming power of God at work in the world and in the life of the church. What we fail to see sometimes and struggle with is when we focus only on the up or down times in life and in the church also rather than seeing them both as experiences with God.
It can make it seem that God slips in and out of our lives and somehow we have to capture and hang on to that high point and avoid the low points all together. That’s what happened on the mount of Transfiguration. Peter’s mind is on glory, not on suffering and loss. Peter wants to build 3 shelters – 3 places for Jesus, Moses and Elijah to stay so he doesn’t have to let go of this highpoint in his life. But there’s a couple of problems with this sort of thinking: Firstly, what about everyone else? Peter is really happy to stay up there with his 3 heroes but what about everyone else? What about Jesus ministry to those who still need to hear his message?
Remember last week’s Gospel when the people wanted him to stay in their town and heal everyone: he said: “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” Jesus doesn’t want Peter to remain on the mountaintop but to go back down into the valleys – back into the low lands to share their experience of Jesus’ glory to give hope to others. He realises that Peter doesn’t quite understand yet about Jesus true glory – and he won’t until he has claimed the ultimate victory of defeating death. And so he instructs Peter, James and John not to tell others about their experience until after he has risen from the dead. Likewise here at church is not where God needs us.
He needs us back in the world. He needs us in our workplaces – in our schools, in our hobbies, in our sports, in our families and friends sharing with them the Christian hope of eternal life. We come here to church to receive that mountain top experience as we hear our sins forgiven – as we experience God’s Word and Sacrament – but we come down from that mountain top and back into our valleys. But the other reality that Peter ignores by wanting to maintain that mountain top experience is that it ignores God’s presence in times of difficulty. God is not only present in those mountain top experiences he is also with us in times of suffering as Paul proclaimed: Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Our text says that Jesus came down from the mountain with them. He didn’t let them go back down into the valley on their own. And neither does he leave you alone as he promised – I am with you always. Peter feels that he needs to maintain that mountain top experience in order to experience God’s presence; and wouldn’t we all want that all of the time. Wouldn’t we want to capture those moments when we feel so close to God that we could touch him. None of us enjoy those low moments when we feel emptiness and lowliness in our faith. But despite what we feel, the reality of Christ’s glory is here with us all the time even if we don’t see it – even if we don’t feel it. For Peter, suffering and death aren’t on the agenda when it comes to Jesus. Remember his response when Jesus spoke of his impending suffering and death: Never Lord – this will never happen to you. But that is where Jesus’ true glory is going to be experienced. That is where Jesus’ mountain top experience will be made available to all – as he is crucified for our sins on the hilltop of Golgotha. Peter doesn’t need to build a shelter for Jesus. Jesus is going to build a shelter for him and all of us to shelter us from God’s judgment. That shelter is his cross. It is not we who build a shelter for Jesus. Jesus has built a shelter for us through our Baptism by which God has declared his everlasting covenant with us, just as he confirmed his everlasting covenant with Jesus when he confirmed his Baptism love with the words – This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” The same words spoken at Jesus Baptism.
The Transfiguration was not supposed to be an experience for the here and now only but to give us hope for the future. As Peter, James and John go back down into the valleys they are going to witness and experience the greatest challenge to their faith as Jesus is arrested, humiliated, tortured and then shamefully put to death. It will be an experience that will see them abandon him at his moment of need – it will see Peter deny knowing Jesus when he needs his support. But then after he has risen from the dead Peter will recall that experience and Jesus’ instruction to wait till he has risen from the dead; and then all the pieces of the puzzle will begin to show the true picture of Jesus’ glory.
We too need to look beyond the individual experiences we go through and rediscover the big picture of our life in Christ. Sadly we live in a world that is obsessed with instant gratification and many can’t deal with the low points in life. Like Peter on the mountain top, the world doesn’t want to wait. It wants its glory here and now. But in times of suffering or in times of facing death, the Transfiguration reminds us of Jesus’ coming glory that has defeated death and offers us comfort and hope. A comfort and hope that we can experience now but look forward to experiencing fully in the life to come as St Paul says in Colossians 3: Your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. So, like Christ’s glory which is real but hidden behind his suffering and death – our glory is present but hidden behind our sin and flesh. The Transfiguration brings our Christmas and Epiphany season to an end.
A season filled with joyful emotions. And now we prepare for our Lenten journey for the next 40 days. A journey that gives us an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death and to reflect on our own lives and how we have failed to do what God has asked of us. How we too have fled from God when he has needed us. How we too have denied God when he has needed us to speak up for him. But as we end that journey on Easter Sunday we join with the angels and archangels – the cherubim and seraphim, Mary Magdalene and Peter and all the other witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all their creatures, we praise Jesus for his glory and the hope he gives us.