February 7 2016

Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 34:29-35

Luke 9:28-37


Friends, theologians often talk about a ‘thin’ place/moment: the place/moment when heaven and earth meet, when the divine and the mundane become one; the place/moment when people experience something beyond what their senses can see, hear, touch, or taste. It is the time when ordinary things suddenly become extraordinary and people feel that they are experiencing something beyond what they normally experience. Often when people are in this kind of spiritual ‘ecstasy’, they would like to stay in the experience as long as they can.

The Jewish people had always believed that a high ground, like a hill or mountain, was this kind of ‘thin’ place; the place to encounter the divine. Indeed Moses, in our reading today in Exodus, encountered God on top of Mount Sinai. And in our Gospel reading today, Peter, James, and John witnessed something that not everyone had the privilege to see: they saw Jesus being glorified on a mountain.

Now Peter, James, and John had never experienced anything like that before. And bedazzled by the spectacle, Peter offered Jesus, Moses, and Elijah tents to dwell. It seemed that he wanted to prolong his enjoyment of the spiritual ecstasy. “Let’s forget those whom we had left behind,” he must have said to himself. “This is heaven on earth. Let us stay here forever.”

But it was exactly at that moment that a terrifying cloud suddenly engulfed them and they heard a voice. Soon the glorious spectacle disappeared and what was left was Jesus all alone once again. His face and clothes had returned to normal. The ‘mountain-top’ experience was over.

Yes, Peter would have liked to stay in that experience as long as possible, but his mission was not to stay on top of that mountain forever. No, real glory was not to be found in his ‘mountaintop experience’, but in his readiness to suffer in the name of love like Jesus. Indeed the subject of the conversation between Jesus, Elijah, and Moses was his death in Jerusalem. Real glory for Jesus was found not in the ecstasy of being on the top of the world, but down there: on the road of suffering to Jerusalem. Just before the glorious spectacle was over, a mandate from heaven was given to Peter, James, John: “Listen to this man!” And to listen to Jesus was to join him on his journey of sacrificing his life for the world that he loved.

Indeed, friends, true transfiguration was not a spectacular transformation of the body just like what Jesus had and, to a different degree, Moses experienced on Mount Sinai; true transfiguration is the transformation of one’s heart and mind. True transfiguration happens when one’s life is changed for the better after one encounters God. If the purpose of our life is only to pursue and enjoy spiritual ‘ecstasy’ then maybe Karl Marx was right when he said that religion was ‘the opium of the people’.

But the climax of our story today in Luke’s Gospel is not the transformation of Jesus’ body, but the firm voice from heaven that asked the disciples to listen to him. True transfiguration happens when a person listens to Jesus’ words and follows him even to death.

On April 3, 1968, DR Martin Luther King Jr., the champion of civil right movement, was in Memphis to give his support to the sanitation workers of the city. The workers had been organising strikes and rallies. They were protesting poor treatment, discrimination, dangerous working conditions, and recent work-related deaths of their colleagues.[1]

There in Memphis DR King gave one of his most famous and powerful speeches that would later be known as the ‘Mountaintop’ speech. In his speech DR King called the city of Memphis to be fair in its dealing with its public servants and America to be true to its foundation, as written in its constitution.[2] He likened the situation faced by the sanitation workers in Memphis to the slavery that the people of Israel faced in Egypt. And just like Moses demanded Pharaoh to treat God’s children in Egypt fairly, DR King demanded that God’s children in Memphis be treated fairly.

Towards the end of this speech DR King acknowledged the danger that he faced personally by joining the protesters. He said and I quote:

Well, I don't know what will happen now.
We've got some difficult days ahead.
But it doesn't really matter with me now.
Because I've been to the mountaintop....

 Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place.
But I'm not concerned about that now.
I just want to do God's will.           

And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain.
And I've looked over.
And I've seen the Promised Land.
I may not get there with you.
But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the PromisedLand.

 So I'm happy, tonight.
I'm not worried about anything.
I'm not fearing any man.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The next day, April 4, 1968, DR King was assassinated on the balcony of his hotel. His speech had become not only a premonition of his fate, but also a testimony of his life mission. Yes, like he said, he had been to the ‘mountaintop’. But DR King didn’t stay there. He came down to be with his people or, using his own words, he came down “to do God’s will”; and he met his end down there amongst his people.

In our reading in Exodus, Moses too did not stay on top of Mount Sinai to enjoy God’s glory forever. No, he came down to meet the people whom he left. Yes, up in the mountains, he was the only person in Israel who could encounter God face to face. But his mission was with his people. His mission was to come down from the mountain-top and bring God’s words to the people whom he led.

Friends, we are all called to be the light and salt of the world; and that means, like Jesus, Peter, James, John, Moses, and DR King, we have to come down from our ‘mountain’ to the 'valley' of the real world; we have to go beyond these church’s walls, beyond our comfort zone and to be where ordinary people like us are. The last verse of our passage from Luke’s Gospel this morning says, “the next day Jesus and the three disciples went down from the hill, and a large crowd met Jesus.”[3] Indeed real work begins not when we are on top of the world, but when we come down from it to meet with real people in real world


Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Wikipedia, Memphis Sanitation Strike, on www.wikipedia.org (retrieved in February 2013).

[2] Wikipedia, I've Been to the Mountaintop, on www.wikipedia.org (retrieved in February 2013).

[3] Luke 9:37 (Good News Translation - italics are mine).