In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard shares stories of doctors who performed early cataract surgeries in Europe. When a doctor removed bandages from one girl’s eyes, she said she saw “the tree with the lights in it.” Those words sent Dillard on her own journey. She said, “It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all, and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured... I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance... The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it.”
I live for Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration Sunday is always the last Sunday in Epiphany and the transformation of Jesus is read at this particular turning point, when we end one season and begin another liturgical season, when one season comes and another one goes, a time when we really need to see and to have a vision. Because next week, we begin the season of Lent. And, I know, it feels like we just finished Advent, as we struggled to find moments of hope in a very fear-driven story of Jesus’s birth. And then Epiphany came and was marred by social and political unrest that forced us, as a country and as Christians, to open our eyes and see ourselves in uncomfortable and terrifying ways. Epiphany, literally meaning “awakening,” was a day that I hope woke us up as a people of God.
And as we’ve confronted our fears this Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons, we’ve realized that transformation is difficult and it is strenuous and it is…necessary. And so, we need a vision, a mountaintop experience, a tree with lights in it. And just when we desperately need that mountaintop experience, we get one in our scripture today. This mountaintop experience is meant to give us the hope and energy we need to make it through the next liturgical season, a time of waiting and sorrow and brokenness – Lent.
And that’s why our theme for Lent this year is “I Wait,” based on Psalm 130. This psalm, this song, is one we will sing through the forty days of Lent and explore what it means to wait on the Lord, to wait on the Lord to resurrect something new and hopeful in our lives, something uplifting and powerful in us. And, we are to go through a season of waiting before we get to resurrection. So, the transformation and transfiguration of Jesus will give us the strength to wait.
Yet, in the midst of this transformation story today, are myriad fears. One of those is the fear of saying goodbye to our Alleluias. I, for one, need those Alleluias. I need the joy and the praise and the knowledge that God will ultimately work this all out for good, that I am not alone. I am clinging to my alleluias! If I let them go and put them in a box not to be raised and recovered until Jesus bursts from the tomb, I’m not sure I’m going to make it through Lent. I don’t want the sackcloth and ashes. I don’t want the cross. I don’t want the crying out in loneliness and pain and waiting. We’ve had plenty of that, haven’t we?
Rev. Dr. Mike Graves agrees. He says, “But none of us really want to go through Lent to get to Easter. Can’t we just skip the ashes and sackcloth? Can’t we just have spring now? Can’t we just sing Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ and be done with all of the suffering? The disciples felt the same way. Can’t we just overthrow the Romans and be done with it all?”
I think many of us want a shortcut to Easter, a way to get through the rest of this pandemic and uncertainty and racial justice education and medical testing and whatever else. We want to be done with this already. But we can’t. In his book Peculiar Speech, Professor Will Willimon says, “When you join the Rotary they give you a handshake and a lapel pin. When you join the church we throw you in water and half drown you.” The Lenten path ahead of us begins with ashes and takes us all the way to the cross. That’s the reality of this Jesus life, of this Christian journey.
But today there’s more. Today reminds us there are moments of transfiguration and glimpses of transformation along the way. And that’s why I want to point out this transformation text every year. That’s why every year we have a Transfiguration Sunday, a Sunday to remember that Jesus went up the mountain, a setting that he would often escape to pray or be alone or commune with God. We read this text every year because we need a mountaintop. We need encouragement. We need to know that God is with us in the ups and the downs of life. We need a mountaintop today, a place where we can be assured of God’s presence.
For, you see, the mountaintop was a place where everything seemed to happen in the ancient world. Elijah heard the powerful voice of God in the silence on a mountaintop. Moses looked at the backside of God passing by and was so scared because he couldn’t look directly at God for fear he might die. The mountaintop was a place of transformation, but also of fear. It was a place of awe. And we need a mountaintop today.
And every time we explore the transfiguration, we tend to emphasize that Jesus was the one changed and transformed on that mountaintop. Yet, this year, this difficult and challenging year, I noticed it wasn’t only Jesus who was changed. It was also his followers. Did you see it too? There was a lot of fear radiating from the disciples on that mountaintop. In Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, Jesus had to touch the disciples because they were overcome by fear. And the Gospel of Luke records that the disciples were terrified after they entered the cloud along with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. In all accounts, the disciples were scared. They were scared into silence, scared into complacency, scared stiff.
And I wonder if the disciples’ fear happened because they finally saw Jesus, I mean really saw Jesus, and saw that true transformation is scary. Seeing Jesus caused his followers to transform, to realize what they would have to do. By seeing Jesus, they would have to, in turn, see people as Jesus saw them, heal people as Jesus healed them, teach people as Jesus taught them, and free people as Jesus freed them - no matter their class, race, or station. These transformed disciples who really saw Jesus were being called to love all people. That was and is a formidable and frightening task.
And so, this text got me wondering if, by focusing on the shining face of Jesus, that we overlook the other transformations on the mountaintop that day. I wonder if the real transformations took place in the disciples, those who had to come down from that mountaintop and, like Jesus, be with the crowds of people and heal broken bodies and transform hurting lives. The real transformation happened in these stumbling, bumbling followers. Which means, the real transformation that we will see in the season of Lent will be in us as we are transformed through our hopes and even through our fears.
Just as we discussed in Advent, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus. And we get those hopes and fears in a transfigured Christ and also in the transformed disciples. Following Jesus and being transformed by Jesus is a combination of hopes and fears, highs and lows, mountains and valleys, deaths and resurrections, suffering and glory. That’s what it looks like to follow Jesus. That’s what it looks like to see Jesus. And I know that sometimes we’d rather not see Jesus, the real Jesus, the real and powerful and often scary things that we are to do to change the world. We’d rather not see those fears, experience those fears, even if it means giving up on the hopes. I know we all want the mountaintops and the transfigurations. Yet, as we find with Peter and the other disciples, there is fragility to following Jesus. Because we are called to move down the mountain into the unknown and often scary places.
But in those scary, terrifying places, there is growth, there is change, and there is transformation. This scripture story of transfiguration, of being transformed, reminds us that not only was Jesus transformed, but so was Peter and the other followers… and so are we. One commentator said, “Sometimes we react just like Peter and are left speechless out of fear. Other times we do not think anyone will believe our story, even if we feel safe to share it. The thought that our experiences in life are linked with God’s story unfolding in the world can be reassuring, but it can also be terrifying! We may even experience theophanies without recognizing them at first… others of us may be able to report hearing the voice of God, but out of fear, we do not feel comfortable sharing our experience with the faith community.”
Friends, we’ve been through a deep valley, a scary place, an exhausting journey in 2020. I’m not sure many of us felt as if were ever on a mountaintop at all last year. We’re tired and ready for a more uplifting, hopeful season. It might be the voice of God is beckoning us to listen. It might be the voice of God asking us to follow Jesus and do what Jesus did to heal a broken and hurting world. It might be the voice of God just telling us to hold on. Because we will always have ups and downs.
Yet, even in the ups and downs, we will get through this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, by seeing not only a transfigured Christ but a Christ who was beside the road with the blind, in the rundown houses with the poor, in the trenches of ministry with those on the margins, on the cross with the thieves. Yes, we get a transfigured Christ today, which is what we need right now. And, the time will come tomorrow, next week, sometime this year, when we are to go back down the mountain to continue the work of healing, helping, holding, and hoping even when things don’t feel transfigured anymore.
But today? Today, church, we are being changed. We are being transformed and transfigured right along with Jesus. In this transformation we will have ups and our downs, but we will have them together. For, you see, whether we are on the mountaintop or in the valley, and even though we might be afraid, we are transformed with Jesus and transformed together. So, even when we are afraid, let’s look for the tree with the lights in it. Let’s open our eyes to 2021, open our eyes to a transformed Jesus, a transformed Peter, a transformed me, and a transformed you. Because, I have a feeling, that who you are becoming, and will become this year, is stronger, wiser, tougher, and more beautiful than you can even imagine.
“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” Yes, but we can’t stay on this mountaintop. We have transformational work to do.
 Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” p.33-34