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Transfiguration A Sermon
Matthew 17: 1-9

February 26, 2017

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

As mysterious and supernatural as the Transfiguration is, the most important thing about it to me is its symbolism as a mountaintop experience. In the Bible, when something happens on a mountain it is significant. In our first reading, we heard about Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai and his receiving the law there. Elijah once encountered God while on a mountain in the still small voice of calm. Isaiah talks about the feast on the mountain of the Lord, and we just got done with four weeks of listening to the beginning of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Mountaintop settings in the Bible key us into important encounters that people have with God and a holy presence. It is a place where people are transformed.

In this case, the Transfiguration is in a very transformational place, not only in Jesus’ story, but also in our church year. It always comes at the end of the Epiphany season, where our readings reveal Jesus’ presence to us; and in only a few days, we being Lent on Ash Wednesday. In Matthew’s Gospel, this event takes place after Jesus has been doing some incredible healing and miracles, teaching and preaching, just before he prepares to leave Galilee to head south to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die. As a matter of fact, the transfiguration here is right smack dab between two times when Jesus foretells his passion, death and resurrection. It is appropriate to retreat up to a high place, to have a spiritual experience along with three of his disciples. It is for them just as much as it is for Jesus. And it is for us today, just as much as it is for Peter, James and John.

Today I would like to share some reflections on how mountaintop experiences have had profound, transformational effects on two guys named Peter. The first guy named Peter is, you guessed it, Simon Peter, the former fisherman who is a zealous follower of Jesus when he ascends to witness this spectacular event. He’s been through a lot with Jesus, since he and his brother Andrew were called to follow him. He has witnessed so many people who have had demons driven out of them, blindness and leperousy healed, people fed and storms stilled. He still doesn’t know what exactly to do with Jesus – he boldly confesses him to be the messiah, the son of God, but after Jesus predicts his own death, Peter rebukes him, “This shall NEVER happen to you!” Peter still holds on to his own preconceived notions about Jesus and what it means that he is the messiah. Even after he witnesses the bright and glorious transfiguration of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, he still wants to stay there; he wants to build booths so that they can remain there longer.

It is then that God intervenes. God tells Peter and the others to listen to Jesus, his own beloved son. Peter still isn’t paying attention, he still doesn’t understand fully what Jesus is all about. He was probably still trying to live into this transformation after they returned to the base of the mountain and beyond. I am confident that he didn’t fully grasp the power of Jesus’ love until after the crucifixion and empty tomb. He had to leave behind his own selfish ideas and ways and allow the one who is all glorious to experience the gruesome and terrible death on a cross that was to come. And if you notice the words from the second lesson, which is an excerpt from a letter written by Peter, this mountaintop event gave him something to claim as eyewitness, so that those to whom he preached later could not accurately accuse him of spreading wild stories and myths. Simon Peter’s mountaintop experience was a turning point in his life and discipleship. Because of it, he was able to go through the suffering and death of Jesus with a little glimpse of the glory that was promised after it all.

The other Peter I want to talk about is Peter Gabriel. You are probably either saying, “Who is Peter Gabriel?” or, “Do you mean the former singer of the rock band Genesis?” Yes, that is the Peter Gabriel of whom I am speaking. Gabriel founded Genesis in 1967 as a progressive rock band that prided itself on staying out of the mainstream. With creative costuming and production numbers, Genesis had a small but loyal following in the UK and US. As the band grew older, Gabriel wrestled with his presence in it. His place as the leader of the group and his flambouyant stage presence didn’t sit well with the other members. In addition, his wife had a rather difficult pregnancy and he made the decision to stay with their sick newborn daughter rather than record and tour with the band. Finally, the other members of the band were getting interested in music that would have a more mainstream appeal and sell more records. Something Gabriel thought would suppress his creativity. So, in 1975 he made the very difficult decision to leave the group – a decision which would ultimately be good for the group, who moved drummer Phil Collins to the lead singer spot and skyrocketed in success. It would also be a good decision for Gabriel, but at the time, many people (including Gabriel himself) saw it as a huge risk since he hadn’t proven himself to be a solo talent.
Thus comes the mountaintop experience. Evidently at some point in this journey, Peter went to a place in Somerset England called Solsbury Hill. While he was there, he had a spiritual experience that was, to him, an important event in his personal and professional life. He wrote the song, “Solsbury Hill” about the experience, saying, “The song is about being prepared to lose what you have for what you might get … about letting go.” The song describes an experience just as strange and mystical as the transfiguration was for the disciple Peter. In the first verse, he says he climbed up on Solsbury Hill where he could see the city lights and feel the wind blowing on his face. Suddenly it seemed like time stood still, and he describes and eagle flying out of the night to issue him an invitation, saying, “Son grab your things, I’m going to take you home.”

In the second verse, he describes the trepidation he had as a result of this encounter. He sings, “To keep in silence I resigned, my friends would think I was a nut…” He decided to keep on being part of the scenery, but he keeps hearing that invitation again, “Son, grab your things, I’m going to take you home.”
Finally in the third verse of the song, after he has heard and wrestled with this invitation to follow this eagle on this journey, he finally resigns himself to the fact that there will be struggle, failure and sacrifice, but that’s okay – it is the only way that he will be truly free. So, surrendering to the invitation he finally speaks in the last words of the song, “Hey, you can keep my things, they’ve come to take me home.” In leaving behind his security on this mountain, Peter Gabriel is surrendering himself to a calling which will take him to new places. He has gone on to not only a career as a singer and supporter of world music, but also as a humanitarian activist, speaking out for Amnesty International against torture, as well as other groups and causes.

We stand here on the mountaintop at a time of transition. For the disciple Peter it was a spiritual experience on the mount of the Transfiguration where he would surrender himself to follow Jesus. For Peter Gabriel, it was on Solsbury Hill, where he made a decision to go from the comfort of his band and do and be who he was called to be. For us, it is in this place of worship. In three days we begin Lent. Today you are being challenged to leave behind part of your own self – that which is lived out of fear and out of selfish desires. To open yourself up to the presence of God in new and spiritual ways. To see the next seven weeks as a time of coming down from the mountain to experience joys and sorrows, peace and sacrifice. Consider the true nature of Jesus as our messiah – sacrificial lamb and glorious risen savior – but always remember the shining image of Jesus we encounter today as a small glimpse of the resurrected Jesus that promises to meet us whenever death and brokenness seem to have the final word. May God transform us today to walk with this Jesus forever. Amen.