Slap the side of your head and say, ‘O my God!’ That’s what happens when you have an Epiphany. An epiphany is when you discover something truly amazing.
Since the beginning of the new year we have been in the church season called Epiphany. The magi, or wise men, were the first non-Jewish people to say ‘O my God’, or maybe something like that, when they found the child in Bethlehem and knelt down and worshipped him. God had brought an ‘O my God!’ event into the world. In his coming into the world God was doing something amazing that would change everything.
The Transfiguration is the culmination of our season of Epiphany. People in the villages and countryside of rural Galilee were seeing what their ancestors had been hoping for, for generations. The season of Epiphany has been about seeing Jesus’ glory which he had before the world began. Jesus’ glory was revealed not with wealth and power but on a very small scale right among the people.
We might say today that Peter, James and John had a mystical experience on the mountain. Many people of the bible had such mystical experiences. Many people still have them today. They happen amongst all the world’s religions. They don’t happen very often, but there are moments when we experience God’s presence in ways that amaze us.
If there is a common thread running through such experiences as we find in the bible, it would be a sudden realisation of God’s presence and awesomeness. As with Peter, James and John, this experience is also likely to be potentially frightening. And as with those three disciples, there is likely to be a strong desire to hold on to the vision as long as possible. Afterwards, like Peter, we are likely to want to commemorate it with some kind of memorial or monument.
This happens for me when I go on a retreat. I always like to come back with something that reminds me of the retreat place. At one place where I go, they make little crosses. Each time I have been, I have bought one of those crosses as a reminder to me of that place. I had an uncle who always liked to talk about his mystical experience, over and over and over again.
There is a down side to that. Peter wanted to build a shrine on the mountaintop, where he could worship the experience he had on the mountain. Which is a common thing to want to do. It is easier to worship the experience of God rather than God himself. We look for more experiences rather than looking for the one who gives them.
Mystical experiences are a feature of human existence. We can receive them as an encouragement to faith, not only for our own comfort, but so we might go on being a channel of blessing to others.
Is the Transfiguration something like what will happen when we cross over from this life to the next? We don’t know. Anyone might have a near death experience on the operating table, and see a white light as has been described by people who have had them. What do we believe it might be like?
I think our faith suggests that the crossing over may be more like what happened on Mt Tabor, and include a vision of Jesus in glory. So it could be blindingly overwhelming, yet also contain the one whom we have followed and loved.
After the epiphany on the mountain, Jesus led his friends back down to the plain below. Jesus could have stayed on the mountain. Maybe that was what Peter was thinking when he said let’s build three shelters on the mountaintop. What if Jesus had stayed there? His transfigured state was so much closer to what he deserves as God’s Son, compared to what was coming for him in his passion. Yet Jesus came back down the mountain. This is God’s good news. As St Paul wrote, Jesus emptied himself, gave up all his rights and privileges, and came all the way down, even to death on a cross.
I could be telling you today how we each have to be transformed to look more like Jesus, giving us all that work to do that never seems to get done. However hard we try, it seems we are always falling short of looking like Jesus. As a consequence, the life of Jesus never quite reaches down to the places where we most need him.
The lesson of the mountain is not so much about our going up but about Jesus coming down. Jesus sets aside his heavenly glory and comes all the way down, into our brokenness, our fears, our disappointments and our loss.
He came down the mountain to a scene of human anguish, a scene repeated often around the world, where someone is asking why, why did this happen. In this particular case a father had come bringing his son, hoping for healing. His child suffered from fits that endangered his life and caused his parents agony to watch.
Jesus came down from the mountain for this. He came down the mountain for our frailty. He went further than that. He travelled all the way to the cross, where he took on everything that is evil in this world. He came down from the mountain in order to steal victory even from death itself. So that we might know that wherever we go, he will be there. So we might live in hope, not fear, especially in hope that one day we will go to be with him where he is.
So the Transfiguration, for all its wonder and awesomeness, asks a question of us: what is dark and fearful in our lives just now? Not so that we can dwell on the pain, which is really of no use. But rather to remind ourselves that Jesus came down the mountain for us.
He is not put off by what is difficult in our lives. He will not reject us on account of our failings. We don't have to hide the hard parts of our lives from God. God the Father came to us in and through his Son precisely to be with us and for us through thick and thin and through life and death. God came in Jesus to be with us through death into new life.
We are now at a turning point in the church year. What follows takes us into a deeper understanding of what Jesus’ glory is, as we head into Lent, Holy Week and Easter. We are on a spiritual journey very much like what happened that day on Mt Tabor, when Jesus took his friends up the mountain. They went up the mountain and saw Jesus’ glory.
We are spiritually climbing that mountain with them as we go into Lent.