The second Sunday of Lent always features the Transfiguration. The first reason for this is that the trek up Mt. Tabor was one of the stops Jesus Himself made with Peter, James, and John on His final journey to Jerusalem. It is commonly held that Jesus did this to prepare His apostles for the difficult days ahead. There’s a line from an old spiritual that says, “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, sometimes I’m almost to the ground … but see what the end shall be.” And this is what the Lord is doing here: He is showing us what the end shall be. There is a cross to get through, but there is glory on the other side.
There also seems a purpose in placing this account here in that it helps describe the pattern of the Christian life, which is the Paschal mystery. For we are always dying and rising with Christ in repeated cycles as we journey to an eternal Easter (cf 2 Cor4:10). This gospel passage shows forth the pattern of the cross in the climb, the rising, and in the glory of the mountaintop; then it is back down the mountain again, only to climb another one (Golgotha) and through it find another glory (Easter Sunday). Yes, this is the pattern of the Christian life: the Paschal mystery. Let’s look a little closer at three aspects of today’s gospel passage.
I. The Purpose of Trials – The text says, Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. We often pass over the fact that they had to climb the mountain, and the climb was no easy task. Anyone who has been to Mt. Tabor knows just what a high mountain it is. The climb to the top is almost 2000 feet, and steep as well. It would have taken the better part of a day and probably had its dangers. Looking down from the top is like looking from an airplane window out on the Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. Megiddo or Armageddon).
So here is a symbol of the cross and of struggle. The climb was up the rough side of the mountain; it was exhausting, difficult, and tested their strength.
I have it on the best of authority that as they climbed they were singing gospel songs like these: “I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain, and I’m doin’ my best to carry on!” and “My soul looks back and wonders how I got over!” and “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, every round goes higher, higher.”
This climb is reminiscent of our life. We have often had to climb, to endure, and to have our strength tested. Perhaps it was the climb of earning a college degree. Perhaps it was the climb of raising children, or building a career. What do you have that you really value that did not come at the price of a steep climb, of effort, and of struggle?
Most of us know that though the climb is difficult there is glory at the top if we but persevere. Life’s difficulties are often the prelude to success and greater strength.
Though we might wish that life had no struggles, it would seem that the Lord intends a climb for us. For the cross alone leads to true glory. Where would we be without some of the crosses in our life? Let’s ponder some of the purposes of problems in our life.
1. God uses problems to DIRECT us. Sometimes God must light a fire under you to get you moving. Problems often point us in a new directions and motivate us to change. Is God trying to get your attention? Sometimes it takes a painful situation to make us change our ways. Proverbs 20:30 says, Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inner most being. An old gospel song speaks of the need for suffering to keep us focused on God: “Now the way may not be too easy. But you never said it would be. ‘Cause when our way gets a little too easy, you know we tend to stray from thee.” It’s sad but true: God sometimes needs to use problems to direct our steps toward Him.
2. God uses problems to INSPECT us. People are like tea bags; if you want to know what’s inside them just drop them into hot water! Has God ever tested your faith with a problem? What do problems reveal about you? Our problems have a way of helping to see what we’re really made of. Through trials, I have discovered many strengths I never knew I had. There is a test in every testimony. Trials have a way of purifying and strengthening our faith as well as inspecting it to see whether it is really genuine. 1 Peter 1:6 says, In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure.
3. God uses problems to CORRECT us. Some lessons we seem to learn only through pain and failure. It’s likely that when you were a child your parents told you not to touch the hot stove. But you probably really learned by being burned. Sometimes we only realize the value of something (health, money, a relationship) by losing it. Scripture says. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees (Psalm 119:71-72), and Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I keep you word (Psalm 119:67).
4. God uses problems to PROTECT us. A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents you from being harmed by something more serious. A man was fired for refusing to do something unethical that his boss had asked him to do. His unemployment was a problem for him and his family, but it saved him from being sent to prison a year later when management’s actions were discovered. In Genesis 50:20 Joseph says to his brothers, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
5. God uses problems to PERFECT us. Problems, when responded to correctly, are character-building. God is far more interested in your character than your comfort. Romans 5:3 says, We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady. And 1 Peter 1:7 says, You are being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return.
So the climb symbolizes the cross, but after the cross comes the glory.
II. The Productiveness of Trials – The text says, While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
All the climbing has paid off. Now comes the fruit of all that hard work! The Lord gives them a glimpse of glory! They get to see the glory that Jesus has always had with the Father. He is dazzlingly bright. A similar vision from the Book of Revelation gives us more detail:
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars … His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:12-17).
Yes, all the climbing has paid off. Now comes the glory, the life, the reward for endurance and struggle. Are you enjoying any of the fruits of your crosses now? If we carried our crosses in faith, they have made us stronger and more confident. Some of us have discovered gifts, abilities, and endurance we never knew we had. Our crosses have brought us life!
- The other night I went over to the church and played the pipe organ. It was most enjoyable, but it was the fruit of years of hard work.
- Not only have my own crosses brought me life, but the crosses of others have done the same for me. I live and work in buildings that others scrimped, saved, labored to be able to erect. I have a faith that martyrs died to hand on to me and that missionaries journeyed long distances to proclaim. See, trials do produce; enjoy it!
- Paul says that this momentary affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond all compare (2 Cor 4:14). And in Romans he says, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18).
- An old gospel song says, “By and by, when the morning comes, and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story, of how we’ve overcome. And we’ll understand it better, by and by.”
So the glory comes after the climb. This is the life that comes from the cross. This is the Paschal mystery: Always carrying about in our selves the dying of Christ so also that [the rising of Christ] the life of Christ may be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10).
III. The Pattern of Trials – The text says, After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.
Notice that although Peter wants to stay, Jesus makes it clear that they must go down the mountain and then walk a very dark valley to another hill: Golgotha. For now, the pattern must repeat. The cross has led to glory but more crosses are needed before final glory. An old spiritual says, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder … every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the cross!”
Yes, this is our life: Always carrying about in our selves the dying of Christ so also that [the rising of Christ] the life of Christ may be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10).
There are difficult days ahead for Jesus and the apostles, but the crosses lead to a final and lasting glory. This is our life, too: The Paschal mystery, the pattern and rhythm of our life.
This Homily was recorded and is available in mp3 format here: http://frpope.com/audio/2%20Lent%20A%202011.mp3.
Here is a rendition of the song We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder. The lyrics say that “every round goes higher, higher!” One can picture a spiral staircase as each round is pitched higher and higher musically. For this is the pattern of our life: we die with Christ so as to live with Him. And each time we come back around to the cross, or back around to glory, we are one round higher and one level closer to final glory.