“Questions that Transfigure”

March 6, 2011


Matthew 17:1-9


There is a story about an Orthodox priest in pre-Revolutionary Russia who was walking down a road one day when he was confronted by a soldier.

Pointing his rife at the priest, the soldier demanded:

“Who are you?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Where are you going?”

The priest, unfazed, responded by asking the soldier, “How much money to you make?”

“25 kopecks a month,” he replied. “Why do you ask?”

“I’ll pay you 50 kopecks a month,” the priest replied, “If you will stop me here every day and challenge me to answer those questions.”

Who are you?

What are you doing here?

Where are you going?

These questions don’t allow final, permanent answers. But we need to give temporary, provisional answers to such questions on a regular, even daily basis.

It would be good if someone could regularly ask us these questions. Perhaps we could pay someone to do so. Or we could subscribe to an email service that would cause these questions to show up in our in box each day. Maybe there’s an app for this.

Or we could just open our Bibles, where such questions arise with a disturbing regularity.

These three questions confront us today in the strange story of the transfiguration of Jesus.

Who are you?

What are you doing here?

Where are you going?

Who are you?

In one of his sermons, Peter Gomes tells the story—and I’m not suggesting that anyone here try this—the story of a Harvard student who sat for an exam and refused to stop writing when the proctor called time—a “capital crime in the examination business,” Gomes said. Finally the proctor, losing all patience, demanded that the student come forward and present his blue book now. The student came forward and in a somewhat haughty manner asked the proctor: “Do you know who I am?” The proctor, an egalitarian graduate student type, offended by the implications of the question and its social assumptions, said, “I most certainly do not, and I don’t care who you are.” The student then replied with a grin, “Good,” and threw his book into the large pile of examination books where its anonymity would protect him from censure and punishment.[1]

Who are you?

To gain some understanding of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain “six days later,” we need to look at what happened six days earlier.

Six days before Jesus went up the mountain with Peter, James, and John, he gathered his disciples and asked them: “Who do people say that I am? What's the word on the street? Is anyone catching on as they watch and listen to me?

The answers started to come:

Well, some say that you are John the Baptist, who had recently been executed.

                        Or maybe you’re Elijah the prophet, returned from the dead.

Maybe you are the fiery Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.

These were his friends, his followers, and so they avoided using some of the less kind names people were giving to Jesus: blasphemer, false prophet, religious nut.

Jesus was asking about his identity, not just what he knew of himself, but also how others saw him.

Then he tightened the circle of the discussion. “But,” Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus addresses not individuals but his followers as a group. When he asks: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus uses the second person plural. “What about all of you? Do you know who I am?” This question is not for us as individuals alone. It is a question for us as a congregation.

Our individual answers are important because they inform our common answer.

Peter’s response is not his alone. He speaks for the group when he asserts: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In our Congregational UCC tradition and in our time we speak together in our actions. We speak together in our giving. We speak together in our common life. By what we do and say we tell the world who Jesus is—the One who welcomes the stranger and the outcast, the One who stands with the tortured, who points us to the lilies of the field so that we might remember God’s providence in our own care for the earth, the One who is with us so that even in deep despair we find a deeper joy.

Now on the mountain in dazzling light we see this same Jesus. But it is no longer the Jesus we are used to seeing. A new light hints at future glory. Suffering will not be the final word. Death will not be the final word. Beyond suffering, beyond death is light and life.

Knowing who Jesus is, we come to a deeper understanding of who we are as well. Claiming Jesus as our brother, by faith we see that we too are children of God. In Matthew’s gospel, and for the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, being a child of God meant that one shared in the nature of God, having the ability to be loving, merciful, just, and caring.

The God who claims Jesus as beloved Son claims us as God's own daughters and sons.

Do you know who you are? Whoever you are, above all else, you are a child of God. Can you be still for a moment and let that sink in? Above all else, you are a child of God.

If this was once an exclusive title, we can now only understand it in an inclusive way. While there are so many who would draw a line to mark who’s in and who’s out, as the sisters and brothers of Jesus we know that our status before God is the same as all other human beings.

All human beings are loved by God, cherished by their Creator. Knowing who we are, we see that torture violates the image of God in all people. Hunger violates the image of God in all people. Poverty violates the image of God in all people. We honor and respect one another, our neighbors, even our enemies because we see the image of God in each person.

In the Talmud we read those wonderful words of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi:A procession of angels passes before a human being wherever he or she goes, proclaiming, “Make way for the image of God.” Think of the changes in our politics, our economics, our teaching and learning, our providing care, our creative work, our businesses, our family life if we held such a vision close to our hearts.

In prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem titled, “Who Am I?” In it he explored the difference between how other people saw him—calm, cheerful, friendly, like one accustomed to win—and how he understood himself—restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, trembling with anger. “Who am I” he asked. “This or the other?” And he concluded: “Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours.”

Who are you?

Our identity changes but we are always those who belong to God, even the children of God.

What are you doing here?

As Matthew tells the story, Jesus gives Peter, James, and John no suggestion as to why he was leading them up a mountain. Without a specific task or goal, not knowing what else they were to do, they simply follow.

Once Moses and Elijah appear, however, Peter comes up with a something to do. He responds to all of this by suggesting a building project. “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.”  Let's do something!

In the face of the grandeur of the moment it seems a pathetic and limited response. When Mark and Luke tell this same story they comment that Peter didn’t know what he was talking about.  Matthew seems kinder and avoids that editorial comment. We too might laugh at Peter's suggestion. But quickly we realize that it could easily be our response as well.

Faced with an overwhelming situation people often respond: “We’ve got to do something about this.”




We’ve got to do something about this.

They are right. But very often people start to act before they understand the situation.

Maybe our inability to be still before God is at the root of much of our fruitless activity. Our hearts are restless, St. Augustine said, until they rest in God.

In the presence of the holy, in the presence of great need, we can feel small and limited. Can you see the vast difference between the image of Moses patiently waiting on God and Peter’s frantic suggestion of building? If we are often overwhelmed by the enormity of the tasks ahead of us, if the challenges we face in life seem daunting, the best first step is to be still before God.

Be still.

And listen.

Central to this story is the illuminating word of God that the disciples hear from a bright cloud. We’re not used to God coming to us in such ways, but we can still hear that word. 

This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Once more we encounter an epiphany—a revelation. For a moment the veil that separates the visible from the invisible is removed and the truth is revealed. It is the very glory of God that shines in Jesus, not just the light of a worker of wonders or a wise teacher. 

Jesus stands before us in a new light and we are told: "Listen to him." 

This is not just listening to what he says, but listening to what he does, listening to how he lives and how he dies.

            Yes, we listen to Jesus for the words of life.

            We listen because his acts of compassion attract our attention.

            Even more, we listen because God singles him out, because in him we discover that even suffering and death are on the path that leads to life.

God calls us, the sisters and brothers of Jesus, to listen to him.

What are you doing here?

Be still. And listen. Then act.

Where are you going?

I have one of the best offices in all of Iowa City—if not the best. From the windows of that study, day and night, I see students and faculty, businesswomen and fathers with children walking, biking, and driving by. Where are they going? “To class,” would be the answer of most in the crowds at twenty after the hour. To the store, to work, to an appointment, to the library, to the bars. And where beyond and after that are they going? Where are you going?

Being still and listening is only a station on the journey. We follow Jesus into new territory.

The voice from the cloud is now silent and Jesus speaks: “Get up and do not be afraid.”

This is the message of Matthew’s Gospel from the angel who speaks to Joseph before Jesus is born to the angel who rolls away the stone at the empty tomb after the crucifixion. The angels—and remember that angel is simply a word that means “messenger”—the angels, the messengers of God speak.

And here is Jesus with the same message: Do not be afraid.

Of course, we have every reason to be afraid. War. Illness. Family breakdowns. Growing children—or grown children. What keeps you awake at night? Life doesn't always go as planned. We have every reason to be afraid. What kind of person would say otherwise?

Every page of the Bible is filled with the testimony of fearful disciples:

Women who ran from the empty tomb on Easter morning because they were afraid.

            Men who hid out or ran away or fell to the ground because they didn't know what was happening.

            People who did things and said things, not because they were brave and fearless, but because they were quaking in their sandals before the living God.

Over and over we encounter people who lacked certainty but found faith.

We are not the first to have more fear than faith.

The message still comes when you would least expect it—in the dark night of the soul, in the day of trial. If we will listen, it can be heard in these strange and trying days in which we live. That message is spoken by surprising voices in astonishing places. The message is still the same: “Do not be afraid.” At the center of all existence is a love that will not fail, a goodness that will stand.

This is the love of a God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, shares our life and suffering, knows our fears and sorrows. This is the love of a God who desires our good, who will be our strength.

Get up, do not be afraid, but go and celebrate, share and show the love of God as you follow the way of Jesus Christ, a way that leads from death to life, from glory to glory.

Get up, do not be afraid, but go and feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, speak for the oppressed. Go and love your neighbor, create something of beauty, teach, bring healing.

Get up, do not be afraid, but go and do whatever it is that you are uniquely called to do.

Where are you going?

Follow where God continues to lead. Do not be afraid.

I read just this morning that 65% of Americans believe the Bible provides the answers to most of the basic questions of life. I don’t know. In my experience, the Bible provides far more questions than answers. Questions such as:

Who are you?

What are you doing here?

Where are you going?

No soldier will hold you at gunpoint and ask you those questions. And, really, you probably can’t pay someone to ask them of you.

I offer them to you this morning free of charge and with no threat of violence. As the time of intentional reflection on our lives before God that we call “Lent” begins this week, I invite you to live with these questions. Live with the answers that come to you, as fleeting and temporary as they might be.

These are questions that transform, transfigure us, so that we might have a deeper knowledge or ourselves and a deeper knowledge of God.

[1] Peter Gomes, “Identity Crisis,” in Sermons, pg. 122.