Sunday, February 23, 2020
Last Sunday after Epiphany Year A

Focus Theme:

Focus Prayer:
O God of the covenant, the cloud of your splendor and the fire of your love revealed your Son on the mountain heights. Transform our lives in his image, write your law of love on our hearts, and make us prophets of your glory, that we may lead others into your presence. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

All readings for this week:
Exodus 24:12-18 with Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Focus Questions:

1. What do you think most people “need” in order to believe?

2. Why do you think Jesus took only three of his disciples up on that mountain, and not all of them?

3. What is the connection between the bright light, and the coming suffering Jesus will experience?

4. Would you have wanted to be up on that mountain with Jesus, or would you have been too afraid?

5. What are we called to do, once we return from mountaintop experiences? Is the life of faith about the mountain, or the work “below”?

by Kate Matthews

We might locate this text in two different ways: first, in our observance of the church year, and then within the Gospel itself. We’ve come to the close of the season of Epiphany, the season of light, and we prepare in a few days to begin Lent, a time of preparation for the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

It seems fitting to end the season of light with a light so bright that no one on earth can produce it, a flash of brilliant, blinding revelation that illuminates not only who Jesus is (just in case that wasn’t clear by now), but also Jesus’ mysterious words about his coming suffering, death, and rising again (during which it will be especially important to remember who he is).

The journey nears its end

The passages just before this one are edgy exchanges between Jesus and the religious authorities, among the disciples, and between Jesus and his disciples. Things are indeed getting tense on what Thomas Long calls a “death march” to Jerusalem, as Jesus enters “the gloomiest season of his life.”

There’s contention and challenge from the Pharisees and Sadducees who, ironically, ask for “a sign from heaven” (16:1), and Jesus turns them down. Even the disciples, who have witnessed some remarkable things in their travels with Jesus, are trying his patience.

Refreshing their memories

Jesus has to review what they’ve seen, to refresh their memories, and doesn’t sound too happy that they haven’t made the connections. They’re too busy having a little theological debate about yeast, but at least they’re trying.

By the time Peter responds with a “Good answer!” to Jesus’ question about who he is, we can sense Jesus’ urgency in getting these disciples ready for what is to come. And if Peter is their leader, along with James and John (they would later be seen as such in the early church, even before the Gospel was written down), it must strike Jesus as important to solidify their understanding. The Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign from heaven, but Peter, James, and John are the ones who actually receive one.

“Who do people say that I am?”

Jesus asks his disciples, in Chapter 16, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answer with the names of great prophets, figures of faith from the past, names that would evoke respect and loyalty among their people. Then Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?”

And Peter gets the answer right, even without the sign from heaven: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (16:16). Jesus connects all of this to his coming suffering, and then, on the mountaintop, for just a few moments, his three disciples get a glimpse of what’s really, really true: Jesus, in a brilliant, blinding light, with a heavenly voice once again proclaiming him God’s Beloved Son.

Seeing Jesus in a new light

In this light, the face and clothes of Jesus “gleam with the favor of God,” Thomas Long says; Jesus is “not a victim, but a victor; not the one despised and rejected by the world, but the one beloved and well pleasing to God.”

No matter what lies ahead, no matter what the disciples are about to witness and experience, this glimpse is something so powerful that they can hold onto it and the truth it imparts about the identity of the One they follow: “Look! This Jesus of splendor is who he really is,” Long writes. “When Jesus is accompanied by Moses and Elijah, it is a pulling back of the curtains of time to show that Jesus is continuous with all that God has promised and given in the Law and the Prophets.”

It can’t be insignificant that one of the figures with Jesus, Elijah, is also one of the prophets that the crowds have identified with him.

Suffering and glory

The connection between suffering and glory is subtly but powerfully made by Matthew in the way he tells the story of both the transfiguration and the crucifixion of Jesus. Dale Allison lists the similarities and lines up the contrasting images and features of the two stories, one the “twin” of the other.

For Allison, and for us, they “represent the extremities of human experience…both the depths of pain and anguish which human beings have known and what we all long for–transfiguration into some state beyond such pain and anguish. Jesus is the great illustration of both pain and hope; he is humanity exalted and humanity glorified.”

The “otherness” of Jesus

Allison’s reflection brings the “otherness” of the Jesus of the Transfiguration onto our radar screen. When asked, we say who we believe Jesus is, but we really couldn’t bear such a bright light if it were always there before us.

And yet, when our own experience of suffering and loss is brought under the shelter of Jesus’ own life lived here, as a man who also suffered and died, who was tempted and betrayed, then we can go on, even “to Jerusalem” and everything that awaits us, everything we have to face in our lives.

“In pain and hope”

Just as surely as we know that Jesus experienced pain and loss, and rose again, we know that we too will share in that new life. We live our lives “in pain and hope.”

We may not get the dramatic visual confirmation that Peter got after his passionate proclamation of Jesus as “the Son of the Living God,” but we have our glimpses, here and there, now and then, throughout our lives, of who this Jesus is. And we can proclaim that truth, Allison says, “only in the light of Easter.”

Peter, James, and John may have had their bright, shining moment with Jesus, and we too have our mountaintop experiences, but all of these are just an indication, a hint, of what is yet to be. Perhaps Allison is right to compare this to “a movie preview”: an early church document saw it as the promise “of what heaven will be like and an illustration of what awaits Christians.”

The challenge of nearness and otherness

We of course face the challenge of holding in tension both the nearness and the otherness of God: in the Transfiguration, we experience Jesus as human, climbing up that mountain with his friends, but we also experience the transcendence, the divinity, if you will, of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

How do we begin to describe, let alone experience, transcendence? The great writer, Annie Dillard, has famously suggested that we should wear “crash helmets” to church instead of our Sunday best (whatever that may be these days): “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?”

The Transfiguration, we remember, is about that spiritual power, that transcendence, that otherness, but we have been too strenuously taught that the spiritual and the physical are split apart: the spiritual being higher, better, holier, and, as it turns out, more “male” than the physical, which is lower, more problematical, more tempting, more fallen, more embodied, and, as it turns out, more “female.” (The earth, too, that is, creation, by its very physical nature, has been pronounced fallen and lesser, as our treatment of it bears out.)

Perceiving God’s presence in the mundane

The result? We have not been conditioned, we have not developed enough sensitivity, to perceive God’s presence at work in our lives, in the everyday, physical, even mundane lives we lead. Most importantly, we have not learned well to encounter the image of God in one another, even though we have read the Genesis story over and over again.

Mystics know how to do this better: Thomas Merton describes “a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time,” and, most importantly, he sees that radiance, because of the Incarnation, shining through each and every one of us. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun,” he writes, and he recognizes “the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts….”

Listening to women’s voices

But Merton is not alone in this understanding: as women’s voices are being raised and heard more and more, we read not only Annie Dillard but Annie Lamott describing the “radiance” that dwells within each of us and gives us, perhaps, a taste of God’s own presence, the God that we all search for.

If the early church believed that the Transfiguration gave us a foretaste of heaven, then opening our eyes and our hearts to that light, that radiance, within each one of us, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey–that is a hint of what lies underneath all reality, what lies ahead of us someday.

An ordinary present with extraordinary moments

In the meantime, while we trust in that future, we live in this ordinary present, with its extraordinary moments and experiences. Each time we turn from those moments of brilliance, we turn back to the work, the ministry, that awaits us. Jesus, who often touches people in need, reaches down and touches the disciples, raising them up to return down the mountain, and set out to Jerusalem. Lent approaches, and we are invited to join them on the way.

Do you ever wonder what it would be like if we could see past outer appearances and witness the bright inner beauty of each person, each child of God?

What would happen if every Christian saw, in everyone, including those “despised and rejected by the world,” a beloved child of God, shining and radiant on the inside? What effect would that have on the world?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles and additional reflections) is at

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews ( retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page:

For further reflection:

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance–for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light….Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

John O’Donohue, 21st century
“Much of the stress and emptiness that haunt us can be traced back to our lack of attention to beauty. Internally, the mind becomes coarse and dull if it remains unvisited by images and thoughts that hold the radiance of beauty.”

Morgan Freeman, 21st century
“Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen–that stillness becomes a radiance.”

Hafiz, 14th century
“An awake heart is like a sky that pours light.”

Richard Bausch, Peace, 21st century
“He turned in a small circle and looked at the grass, the rocks, the river, the raining sky with its tatters and torn places, the shining bark of the wet trees all around. He could not think of any prayers now. But every movement felt like a kind of adoration.”

Origen, 3rd century
“But the Wisdom of God, which is His only-begotten Son, being in all respects incapable of change or alteration, and every good quality in Him being essential, and such as cannot be changed and converted, His glory is therefore declared to be pure and sincere.”

Huston Smith, 20th century
“Might we begin then to transform our passing illuminations into abiding light?”

John Calvin, Commentary on Psalms, 16th century
“The whole world is a theatre for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice, and power, but the Church is the orchestra, as it were—the most conspicuous part of it; and the nearer the approaches are that God makes to us, the more intimate and condescending the communication of his benefits, the more attentively are we called to consider them.”

Dag Hammarskjold, 20th century
“God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

Pope Francis, Encountering Truth: Meeting God in the Everyday, 21st century
“To put it simply: the Holy Spirit bothers us. Because he moves us, he makes us walk, he pushes the Church to go forward. And we are like Peter at the Transfiguration: ‘Ah, how wonderful it is to be here like this, all together!’…But don’t bother us. We want the Holy Spirit to doze off…we want to domesticate the Holy Spirit. And that’s no good. because he is God, he is that wind which comes and goes and you don’t know where. He is the power of God, he is the one who gives us consolation and strength to move forward. But: to move forward! And this bothers us. It’s so much nicer to be comfortable.”

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
“The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light…It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within that great general light of existence.”

Jean de la Fontaine, 17th century
“There is no road of flowers leading to glory.”

William Shakespeare, 17th century
“Glory is like a circle in the water, Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.”

Thomas Merton, 20th century
“By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.”

Origen, 3rd century
“But the Wisdom of God, which is His only-begotten Son, being in all respects incapable of change or alteration, and every good quality in Him being essential, and such as cannot be changed and converted, His glory is therefore declared to be pure and sincere.”

Franz Kafka, 20th century
“Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.”
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