Last Sunday of Epiphany – February 19, 2023
Matthew 17:1-9

         Today we hear about Jesus’ transfiguration. The Transfiguration story is always the Last Sunday in the church season of Epiphany, transitioning us into the season of Lent and Easter. And it is a fitting story to transition us because it insists that we keep what was and what can be in tension.

Think about it. Up until now, until the Transfiguration happens, Peter and his fellow disciples experience Jesus as a teacher, a storyteller, a healer, and a traveling companion. Peter had just acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.  His face, his manners, his voice, his mission — all are familiar to them.  Familiar, endearing, and probably, safe.

Then one day, high up on a mountain, something amazing happens. Before their very eyes, Jesus changes, becoming at once both fully himself and fully unrecognizable.  The man they think they know is suddenly more, suddenly Other.  And the path that lies ahead of him — a path that must end on another high place, a hill called Golgotha — upends everything the disciples think they understand about Jesus.

Whenever we think we have God figured out, it’s good to be reminded that we’re wrong.  Whenever we try to stuff Jesus into a theological, a cultural, or a political box for our own convenience, it’s good to have that box blown open.  Whenever we grow complacent, self-righteous, or lazy in our lives of faith, it’s good to be brought to our knees by a God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, and whose ways are not our ways.  There are very good reasons to encounter Jesus on the mountaintop.

Peter and James and John are witnessing the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is one of those moments when the veil between this world and the next is thin and it is clearly a moment in which the presence of God is palpable. Notice what Peter does, a characteristic of many of us – when encountered by something beyond our comprehension, our first inclination is to do something, do anything! However you read the motivation for Peter’s suggestion about 3 dwellings, it is notable that in Matthew the voice from heaven actually interrupts him, cutting him off in order first to pronounce Jesus blessed and then to command the attention of the disciples.

Whatever Peter — or we — may have been thinking–there is only one thing that is needful: to listen to him, the beloved One. And, when it’s all over — when Moses and Elijah are gone, and the voice is quiet, and Jesus’ face and clothing have returned to normal, and the disciples are left in holy awe — all that is left is Jesus. Whatever all these signs and symbols may have meant, the disciples are once again with their Lord, their teacher, their friend. Jesus, the one whose clothes and face shone like the sun, the one standing with Moses and Elijah, the one whom the very heavens proclaim as God’s own beloved Son, will not leave them.

When all else fades — and soon enough all will become dark indeed — yet Jesus remains, reaching out in help and healing. Jesus says to the disciples, “get up and do not be afraid”.  Because God is God of the past, present, and future, we need not fear. This is not the same as saying that we will have no problems, or that we will avoid all harm and hardship. Rather, it is recognizing that when we trust God for our individual and communal good and believe God is with us always, we need not fear.

God did not create us for death but for resurrection, and so also God does not want us to be afraid but to move forward – even and especially in uncertain times – with courage and confidence. “Get up and do not be afraid.

It’s important to remember that these words are said about and by our Lord as he refuses to linger on the mountain top but comes back down again into the realities of the world – and our life – as he makes his way to Jerusalem. There he will be tried, condemned, and crucified. But the story does not end with only the courage of one man defying the world. It continues with the promise that God raised this One from the dead so that all of us might have hope that there is more to this life than we can see, that God will be with us every step of our way, and that love and life are stronger than hate and death.

In her book, The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams tells about a little stuffed rabbit who lived on a shelf in a child’s nursery, who wanted more than anything else in all the world to be real.  The other toys in the nursery, especially the mechanical toys, snubbed him and made fun of him because he was stuffed with sawdust.  But the Skin Horse was different, and he was willing to listen to the Velveteen Rabbit and help him understand what it meant to be real.  The Skin Horse was wise, for he had lived longer in the nursery than all the rest.  He was so old that his shiny brown coat was bald in patches, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out for the children to use to string bead necklaces.

One day the Velveteen Rabbit asked the Skin Horse, “What is REAL? … Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”  The skin horse said, “Real isn’t how you are made, it’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.  “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.  “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”  The skin horse said, “It doesn’t happen all at once. You become.  It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit.  And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.  But the Skin Horse only smiled.  “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said.  “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again.  It lasts for always.”

And so it does, for life is a one-way journey with many surprises and disappointments along the way.  Once you taste its reality, you can never go back, for the experiences of life lead to fresh new encounters with the living Christ. The Transfiguration moments….fresh encounters with the living Christ. Our God is the God of the past, the present and the future. Our God loves us and that love is real.   Amen.