Transfiguration of our Lord
I was completely wiped out. It had been a particularly busy semester at seminary with all of the classes, the papers, the exams, and the presentations. Working as a church youth worker was often fun, but the late nights and the recent 2 night lock-in style Confirmation retreat was starting to catch up with me.
Emily and I sat down one day and decided to get away for a couple of days. We didn’t have the money or the time to go very far, do anything very fancy, or go away for very long, but we had a couple of days and a little bit of gas money. We considered going to the Jersey Shore, but it was fall and getting a bit chilly and I’m not a big beach person anyway. We thought about going to Virginia like we did for our honeymoon, but that was too far. Finally, Emily did a little bit of research and came up with the perfect idea- we could go camping at a light preserve. A light preserve is a piece of land that is so far removed from any towns or cities that there is hardly any light pollution and almost all of the visible night sky can be seen. You could see the Pleiades, the Milky Way, and so much more of the heavenly bodies than you certainly could see from Philadelphia.
We drove to a place high up on a mountain somewhere in a remote part of Upstate New York and found our camp site. We set up the tent, made a campfire, cooked hot dogs, and got ready to see some stars. As the sun began to set, we noticed some dark clouds rolling over the horizon. Not storm clouds, but they still did the job of obscuring the stars that we meant to see.
We stayed up as late as we could in hope that the clouds would disappear and let the stars out. We were desperate to see those stars. We had driven all this way and there was no place like this anywhere near us. We had set up our tent in this place, not our home. We were only there for one night and we would miss our big chance to see some beautiful stars because of those clouds. Defeated, we crawled back into our tent and went to sleep.
Some hours later (I don’t know when) I woke up to Emily nudging me. “Dan! You can see them! Look!” We hurried out of the tent and looked up at the sky. The clouds were gone and the sky was shimmering. There were more stars than I could count. It was one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sights I had ever seen. When God promised Abraham and Sarah that their descendents would be as numerous as the stars that they were looking at, I used to think, “Big deal. What’s wrong with them? Can’t they count to double-digits?” Sarah and Abraham were looking at this night sky and these stars, not the sky of Philadelphia.
I think of that mountaintop experience and my experience of God’s majesty looking up at the miraculous heavens when I read the Transfiguration story. I imagine that I was feeling something similar to Peter when he witnessed Jesus’ face change and his clothes become dazzling white, and see with his own eyes the great prophets and servants of God, Moses and Elijah. These were the guys chosen by God in the darkest days of his people’s history- under slavery and unjust, cruel rulers, to be instruments of freedom. Through Moses, God led the people out of slavery from the land of Egypt, through the Red Sea, protected God’s people from enemy armies, fed them and provided water for them in the wilderness, and finally brought them into the Promised Land. Through Elijah, God proclaimed a message that although virtually all of the Israelites had abandoned God in favor of worshiping idols, God had not forgotten them and was going to set them free from Ahab, Jezebel, and the false idols polluting their land. These are the superstars of the Hebrew Scriptures. They are a bigger deal than the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Elvis Presley combined! Peter had just seen heaven opened up and the wonder of God’s glory revealed, and he wants to bask in that glory for however long he can. Right as he sees Moses and Elijah start to grab their things and get moving, he blurts out, “Wait a minute! This is too good to go so soon. Let us make three tents for you each to stay in.” Our Bibles say “dwelling” but a closer translation would be “tent.” It is the same word that is used to describe the temporary dwellings used by the ancient Israelites while wandering through the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Peter doesn’t have time to make a fully constructed house, so he suggests a quick tent. They can just stay in one of those.
But tents are not meant to be permanent fixtures. And though Jesus’ glory is a permanent fixture, it not permanent as it was experienced on that mountaintop. Something incredible happened. In a moment this homeless rabbi is viewed for who he really is, someone even greater than Moses and Elijah, who shines with his own divine light. He is God on earth and there is no doubt about it. Just in case somebody is a little slow on the uptake (I am looking at you, Peter, patron saint of putting your foot in your mouth) a cloud surrounds them and a voice declares, “This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him!”
This image of glory doesn’t last lest we think that Jesus is all about flashy light shows. Jesus is the divine Son of God, but he is a son who has set out to do the will of the Father. As he preached in Nazareth from the scroll of Isaiah, he has come, “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus, as God’s chosen Son, has been given the authority to do these things.
This is no time for assembling tents. Jesus has places to go and a world to redeem. He comes down the mountain and the very next day he encounters a father who pleads with Jesus to heal his son who is possessed by a demon that threatens his son’s life. Jesus gets to work and frees this boy from the evil that controlled his life. And Jesus doesn’t stop there. He “sets his face toward Jerusalem” heading toward the place where salvation will be accomplished on the cross for the sake of the entire world.
This is a copy of my grandmother’s Displaced Persons form.
She filled this out when she entered into a German Displaced Persons camp after World War II. In the wake of the Holocaust, my grandparents lost everything. Virtually all of their family and friends had been murdered, and their homes were given away to others. Their only option for a place to live was one of these Displaced Persons camps and that is what my grandparents and 850,000 other refugees did. In these camps food was scarce, proper sanitation was lacking, and their homes were simple wooden shacks only a little sturdier than tents.
Have you seen images of contemporary refugee camps? They are haunting. As far as you can see, stretching out into the horizon, there are simple canvas tents- a whole city made of tents. And you know that tents aren’t meant to be permanent dwellings, but there is a whole city made up of tents. The people in these camps, in Syria, Kenya, Lebanon, and around the world, like my grandparents, have lost their homes, their family and friends, and in many cases a reasonable hope for a better life. They are deeply yearning for their own Promised Land where they might find a true home.
Jesus isn’t setting up a tent. In Christ, all of our tents are dismantled and packed away. Sometimes we want to set up tents so we can camp out and revel in the glory of who God is- whether we are gazing up at the Milky Way or staring into the shining face of Jesus. But when God calls us, we are given the blessed invitation to dismantle those tents in the wonder of who God is and we are called to follow after what God is doing. Sometimes we have lost hope that we will ever have a chance to stop wandering, pack up our tent cities, and find rest. God’s promises are sure though. Jesus did not set up a tent remain cooped up, but he journeyed down the mountain to head to Jerusalem and save the world through his cross. Out of wonder or out of fear we may feel that we have to stay put in our tents, but Jesus will not stay put. Jesus is on his way to the cross, to the Promised Land, and he is taking us with him.