By the Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell
RCL reflection, Transfiguration Sunday,
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February 19, 2023
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” ~ Matthew 17:4
Not too long ago, my family was watching “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two,” the final installment in the Harry Potter movie series. We were nearing the end of the movie, the part when Voldemort strikes Harry dead with his wand. Harry is immediately transported to an afterlife of sorts, where everything shines white and all is peaceful. Harry has to make a decision: will he remain within the safe confines of this place, or will he return to the life he knew so he can confront Voldemort once more?
In our Gospel lesson, it seems Peter, James, and John enter a similar reality. Shortly before they make their way up the mountain, Jesus breaks the news that his life will not end peacefully: Jesus is destined to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die (Matthew 16:21). The scene that follows, as Jesus is transfigured atop that high mountain, casts him in a light that is so incredibly different than the suffering, dying portrait he has just painted of himself. Although they do not quite know what to make of the whole scene, Peter, James, and John want to hold onto its tranquility and majesty. After all, isn’t this Jesus as he is meant to be? He is united with other giants of the faith, Moses and Elijah, and the entire scene is reminiscent of such iconic moments as when Moses is transfigured on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:16-17) and when Elijah spends time with God on a mountain (1 Kings 19:9-18).
The thing is, Peter, James, and John cannot preserve this moment or stay on this mountaintop any more than they can confine Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in tents. To follow Jesus embracing the full mystery of who he is. Sometimes Jesus shines so brightly as to be completely otherworldly, and at other times we look on as Jesus suffers immense pain. As you preach on this text, you might explore the possibility that we simply cannot place Jesus in a box. Rather, following Jesus requires imagination, vulnerability, and a willingness to constantly be surprised.
As you develop your sermon, you might explore the ways we do put Jesus “in a box.” Do we tend to contort Jesus to make him fit our own image? Assume that Jesus believes the same things we do and would agree with us about today’s hot-button issues? When we face interpersonal conflicts, do we take for granted that Jesus would tell us we’ve done nothing wrong? Do we peg Jesus as a fellow Democrat or Republican? Do we presume we know exactly how Jesus would answer a burning question of ours? Jesus’ transfiguration signifies that he is beyond our reach: our presuppositions about who he is and what he believes do not ultimately hold weight.
In your sermon, you might suggest that we’re not meant simply to be good stewards of the tangible blessings God graciously places into our lives, or even the talents with which God gifts each of us individually. Rather, one of the questions that is most central to our faith is this: what does it look like to be good stewards of the mystery that is our Savior? How can we at once follow him up high mountaintops and also embrace him as he endures the depths of human pain?
Of course, it could provide solace to your congregants to conclude the sermon on a comforting note. Even as we seek to be faithful stewards of the mystery that is Jesus, we can be grateful he understands what it is both to ascend to the highest heights and to descend to the lowest depths. Our lives are complex and filled with both mountaintops and deep valleys. It is reassuring to know there isn’t anywhere Jesus will not go.
Perhaps in a time of sharing, the prayers, or in the bulletin or on screen, invite the congregation to reflect on their lives, both the high moments and the low points. How have they experienced Jesus as being with them when they are savoring time on the mountaintop, and how have they felt Jesus’ mercy and compassion when they are struggling? Invite congregants to consider that Jesus, as both truly divine and truly human, is in the unique position to empathize with us in each and every moment of life. You might also ask congregants to consider how they sometimes put Jesus in a box. When have they distorted who Jesus is in an effort to make him how they think he should be?
There is a well-known drawing that, viewed one way appears as a young woman and viewed another way appears as an elderly woman. You can find it on the internet simply by Googling “young woman old woman illusion.” Make copies of this illustration and share them with your youth. Which woman do they see? Is it possible for them to see the illustration both ways, with the woman as young and as elderly? Suggest that in the mystery of Jesus’ identity as both human and divine, we might see Jesus similarly. Our perceptions of Jesus can change with our perspective and what is going on in our lives. People can have differing understandings of Jesus, and there is not only one way to regard him or to relate to him.
Worship with Children
Gather children around a bowl or a basin of water. Challenge them to try to pick up the water and hold onto it. Of course, this is impossible to do. Water is not meant to stay in one place permanently. Suggest that because of the mystery of Jesus’ nature as both human and divine, Jesus is like water in this regard. Just as it is not possible to hold onto water, so we cannot really grasp all of who Jesus is. Jesus is, all at once, a mystery and a dear friend we can confide in.
The Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell serves as pastor of Hiland Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Here are previous reflections for Transfiguration Sunday, Year A:
2020 – Glimpsing God’s Glory
2017 – Transfigured or transmogrified: It’s ALL about change
2014 – Listen up, disciples!