The Transfiguration of Jesus, of God, and God’s People
by Timothy J. Mooney
In both scripture passages today we hear God saying, “You are my son.” “God’s son” was a term referring to God’s anointed servant, God’s appointed king. It signified this person had a heart after God’s own heart. But the two texts have a very different feel.
In Psalm 2, the Psalmist puts these words on God’s lips: “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill,” and then the King recites what God said to him. “He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’” The Psalmist then warns the nations: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.”
In Matthew, Jesus is transfigured, filled with light, and the disciples hear similar words. “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The disciples then react like the Psalmist suggests. “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” But Jesus speaks and embodies a new word. “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’” The Psalmist emphasizes fear; Jesus emphasizes fear not.
A powerful king fell in love with a maiden. He knew he could have her if he wanted because he was king; he could simply order it to be so. But there would always be a question in the King’s heart. Would her love for him be real? Or would she love his power, not him? Or would her love be only an act because she feared his power? The king knew that love generated from fear or for power, was not love at all. There was only one thing to do. He disguised himself as a simple merchant, and he set about trying to win her heart. Not once did he show his power or wealth. He did his best to be his authentic self, the person he was without the title of King. She fell in love with him, and he fell more in love with her. But the king knew eventually he’d have to reveal who he was. Would she stop loving him because she might now fear him? Would she stop loving him and instead only love his power and wealth? Would she see that the true heart of the King was not power or wealth? Would she see that the true heart of the King was love? He would have to take that chance.
The Psalmist warns us to fear God. Jesus invites a different response: do NOT be afraid, do NOT fear. Fear is not the heart of one’s relationship to God. It is love. The transfiguration of Jesus is more than his transfiguration. It is God’s and ours. Jesus transfigures God from an angry, wrathful, feared God, to one of love and compassion. Richard Rohr says this in the most eloquent way: Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God. And Jesus transfigures us from cowering, fearful servants, to beloved sons and daughters.
Mountaintops. It seems so many transfigurations happen on mountaintops. But not all. Mountaintop experiences can happen on the street corner. Thomas Merton, the monk at Gethsemane Monastery, was standing on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville, KY, and experienced transfiguration. He said, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.” (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 156-157)
Mountaintop experiences show us what is true at a deep level. And when we fall back into our own ego games, it’s good to remember those mountain top experiences. They can be the lifeline our memory throws to us when we’re adrift in confusion and doubt. We can remember who we are, and remember who each other is. This is what the Transfiguration of Jesus is: a touchstone for seeing who God is, who Jesus is, and who we are – to help us remember we need not be afraid. As Thomas Merton put it, “Make ready for the Christ, whose smile like lightning, sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps – in your paper flesh.”
I invite you to take a moment and bring to mind one of your own mountain top experiences, a moment when God’s grace became a first-hand experience. Where were you? What did it feel like? What change came over you? What did you know beyond a shadow of doubt?
Mountaintop experiences are wonderful. But like Peter, we often jump to incongruous responses to this wonderful illumination! We’re so jazzed we want to do something. Let’s make tents! Let’s get going with some amazing program! We have trouble simply staying with the wonder of grace. We want to organize it, manage it, which puts us back in control. But if we pay attention, we hear these simple words: “Listen to him.” It’s a shock to realize how little we genuinely listen. We mostly listen for what we want to hear, or are accustomed to hearing. And it’s a shock to realize how much fear we entertain inside our heads, how much fear runs our lives.
The text says: “Listen to him.” It is a declarative statement, a command if you will. But if we hear it as, “Listen to him!!!!!!”, we are listening out of fear. But if we hear it coming from the heart of love, then it sounds like this, “Listen to him” – what he has to say is so life-giving we won’t want to miss it.
Growing up I was taught that prayer had 4 components, encapsulated in the acronym ACTS. Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Adoration was just straight praise, even if you didn’t feel like praising, because God was so great. Confession was admitting how sinful we were, how undeserving we were of God’s love and grace. Back then, I had the impression that the more sinful I knew myself to be, the bigger dose of love and grace I’d get in return. Someone in seminary pointed out to me the shadow side of Adoration and Confession. “Tell the truth,” she said. “Would you want to be in relationship with someone who, on one hand praised you constantly over and over again with the same words and songs, and on the other hand spent the rest of the time telling you what a complete screw-up they were? And what kind of person would you be if you needed all that praise, and would only love the other person if they constantly felt absolutely horrible about themselves?” Thanksgiving and Supplication, seemed more admirable: expressing our gratitude for life and its blessings, and praying for the healing and wholeness of others and the world. But all four – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication – are us talking to God. Not one thing about listening to God.
The Greek word for prayer is proseuche. Pros means a sense of closeness, a paying attention to, face-to-face intimacy. Euche indicates a desire, wish, longing. The closeness, the paying attention to, the listening aspect of prayer is so often missing in our Christian worship. This is why I am very excited about our Ash Wednesday service. We will be given the time, practices, and space to listen to God.
Listening is surprisingly difficult. When we actually begin to actively, patiently listen to God, we discover a few things, and frankly they can be discouraging.
First, we will find just how loud and incessant are the voices that swirl in our head. At times it can be a frightening cacophony of noise, like ten televisions on ten different stations playing in our heads. And we may not like what those voices say – criticism, complaint, self-pity, anger, bitterness, worry, anxiety, fear. When I first began to truly try to listen for Spirit, I was shocked to realize how little I did listen, except to what I wanted to hear, or I was accustomed to hearing. And it was a shock to realize just how much fear, worry, and self-doubt I put up with.
Second, once the volume on all those voices begins to be turned down, and not hook us so much, we can then become anxious that behind all that noise there is nothing to listen to. We fear there is nothing there in our souls. I can’t tell you how many times this fear has come up in my Spiritual Direction practice. Perhaps the reason we tolerate all the noise is because we fear an internal emptiness. What if all those voices I’ve listened to all my life, the ones that tell me who I am, go away? Who will I then be?
But if we keep on listening, we begin to hear a distinct voice amidst the noise and in the silence: Christ’s voice. Simple, not too loud, but solid, rising up in us like true north, saying we are loved, gifted, and have something to offer even in our brokenness. And that, too, can be a bit frightening. We hear we are not a nobody, we are a somebody, and so is everyone else.
The King of kings has fallen in love with you. He’s powerful and mighty, yes, but the heart of God is love. Listen to him. Listen to him say what is the most common thing he says throughout the Gospels: “Fear not, do not be afraid.” Amen.