Transfiguration 2022

There is a story that we always read on this Sunday. It is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The story that we read is called the transfiguration and it is a report of a walk to a mountain that Jesus took with some of his friends. It is reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke with very similar accounts. Even though we read this story every year, you can tell from the story that words are simply inadequate to describe what happened. The story tellers resort to simile in an attempt to report the events. They report that Jesus’ appearance changed, that his clothes became dazzling white. One version says that his clothes were more white than any laundry could make them.

Whiter than white. Dazzling white. Shining like the sun. It is so apparent that they struggled to find the words to describe what had been reported to them. The experience was unlike anything that they had ever before seen, and even though we read the story every year, we know that reading the story is not the same thing as having witnessed the events reported. Something very important happened, but after thousands of years of telling the story, we aren’t quite sure exactly what happened.

And there is more to the story than just a change in Jesus appearance. The story records historic events, but they are all out of order - as if time were suspended - as if past, present and future were occurring simultaneously. What the storytellers report is that suddenly Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus.

But we know that Moses lived and died a very long time before Jesus was born. Our people had been telling the stories of Moses and of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt for generations before Jesus came. Moses stories must have been common in Jesus’ time. They were, after all, recorded in the sacred scrolls and teaching the stories of Moses and the escape from slavery was something that every parent was supposed to teach to their children over and over again. But it was an event from history - a story of the past. Something that happened a long time ago.

And Elijah, the great prophet who was swept up into heaven while his student Elisha watched, was said to have gone directly to heaven without going through death. Part of telling the story of Moses and the Exodus was setting an extra pate at the table just in case the prophet were to come back. Some people believed that Elijah would one day reappear - returned from heaven. There were a lot of Elijah stories in the sacred scriptures as well. Elijah standing up to the prophets of Baal. Elijah enduring earthquake, wind, and fire in a cave in the wilderness. Elijah speaking with God. But like the stories of Moses, Elijah stories were stories of the past long before Jesus was born.

Our transfiguration story is like a cartoon that depicts humans and dinosaurs living together. We know that the age of dinosaurs was long before humans appeared on earth. We know that no humans ever saw living dinosaurs. What we know about the dinosaurs is from the fossil record. It is a bit of ancient history. And we know that when people imagine dinosaurs and people interacting - both alive at the same time in the same place - it is a story that reports something that is impossible. Our minds rush to correct the story.

And yet, every year we tell a story of history being all jumbled up and three people, Moses, Elijah and Jesus, who lived in three different times and occupy different generations of our people, all appear in the story having conversation with each other. Our minds rebel at the notion and we want to correct the story: “No Moses died before Elijah was born, Elijah died before Jesus was born. They are people of different generations. They never met face to face.

Every year, however, we tell the story of three great leaders of three great epochs in the history of our people, engaged in conversation. It is a bit like the great reunion that we imagine occurs after we die from this life. But this story is told about Jesus before he died, when he was still living and breathing, and walking with his disciples. One of the versions of the story, the one we read this year, from the Gospel of Luke, reports that Jesus’ friends were sleepy. It is as if what they saw was part of a dream, only in the story they are not asleep. They try to hold on to the feeling. They suggest that they build shelters and stay on the mountain, but in our story no shelters are actually built and they do not remain on the mountain.

In our story, Jesus’ friends hear a voice from heaven. One version reports that it frightened them so much that they fell to the ground. The voice says “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” When we read the version recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Jesus came to his friends and told them not to be afraid.

By this point in the story, the action is all over. Jesus’ clothes and appearance have returned to normal. Moses and Elijah are nowhere to be seen. Time has reverted to its usual pace. Only the memory remains, and the memory is so incredible that it is impossible to find words to tell the story of what happened.

In some versions of the story, Jesus tells his friends not to tell anyone what happened on the mountain. In the version from Luke, it simply reports that Jesus’ friends were silent and they didn’t tell the story to anyone.

But how can you keep a story like that to yourself? How do you tell no one what you saw? They must have told someone, because we tell the story every year, even though we know that words can’t describe the experience of Jesus’ friends.

Some stories become easier to understand when we tell them over and over again. This one remains a mystery and a surprise even though we tell it every year. Sometimes we simply have to question our normal way of thinking. Sometimes we need to consider another way to understand time than the line of past, present, and future with witch we normally speak of events.

Maybe if we keep telling the story we will understand it in new and different ways. Maybe there are still surprises to come from the old, old, stories of our people.

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