2 Corinthians 4:5-10; Mark 9:2-9

There are lots of reasons for the transfiguration story happening the way it did – the details of where Jesus went, with whom, what Peter said, and so on. Some stories go especially deep. One detail in particular matters to me today: the presence of Moses and Elijah. The lawgiver and the prophet stand with Jesus in this glorious vision and then get subsumed into him. Hebrew speculation about the end of time predicted that these two would come back to take part in the festivities. It was these two for the particular reason that they’re characters from the Hebrew scriptures who aren’t buried. Elijah was taken up to heaven in a flaming chariot (2 Kings 2:11), and Moses was buried by God himself, and “to this day no one knows the exact place of his burial” (Deut. 34:6). That is, unlike David, Abraham, or Adam, God still has access to them, because their bodies haven’t rotted away; even the ancients knew what happens inside graves. Essentially, these two show up because they’re not quite dead. They dodged the grave. This matters because death is real, and we know what comes next.

Jesus won’t be conquered by death either. Peter, James, and John get a preview of the glory in store for him. It’s a vision of the eternal, divine, all-sufficient Christ, and it’s fleeting. Not only do Moses and Elijah disappear, but Jesus leads his disciples down the mountain to a world still in need; to forces that are still deadly hostile to Jesus; to the grave that is still waiting. There’s work still to be done, death still to be faced, and that’s a key point: Jesus says that we can’t talk about the mountain before he rises from the tomb. Not “don’t talk about this until my chariot comes,” but rather “don’t talk about this until I’ve been tortured, killed, buried (that’s important), and raised in victory.” Whereas Moses and Elijah seemed to avoid death and the grave, Jesus lives a story that goes through it.

Going back down the mountain is hard for me. It’s hard for me to retain (or quite believe) what I saw, to find the transcendent God I experienced in the more mundane world. Some mystics are more at home in this horizontal dimension. Some seem not even to need the mountaintop experience. They may not think of themselves (you may not think of yourselves) as “spiritual” people at all. I often envy that capacity. If I don’t get back to the vertical dimension of God, I’m lost. I may be able to talk about the light of God shining within us – and I do believe what I say – but I usually just see a bunch of clay. I see people in desperate need of healing, conflicts that turn bitter and toxic, and hungers I can’t (or don’t want to) feed. Why don’t I have a better sense that God is in this work? Why doesn’t the light shine through more clearly? Why must we live so deep in the mud? Why must we be the mud?

For the same reason that Moses and Elijah aren’t enough for our story: because death is not the final answer. If it were, we’d have to escape it somehow. But Christ’s life isn’t about escaping death. Christ’s life doesn’t depend on us getting it right. We don’t have to climb the mountain to see heaven, because heaven is willing to climb right down to us. Jesus came down the mountain into a world of unclean spirits, ugly conflicts, ill bodies and sick hearts. He came down, as far down as we can be. He said nothing about how wonderful eternity is. He didn’t talk about how much better we need to be. Instead, he brought heaven down where we are. Jesus ultimately gave the lie to the grave itself. He beat death at its own game, not by avoiding it, as Moses and Elijah seemed to, but by walking straight through it to the other side. So we can’t tell the story of eternal life without looking straight through the grave, and we certainly don’t need to try. There is life on both sides. So wherever and however we are, and whether I happen to be able to see it or not, we’re glowing with God’s love. God’s light shines through us.

It’s truly transformative to carry someone’s light within you and let it shine through. Really, that’s the gist of the transfiguration, metamorphosis story: we can see God’s light shine through Jesus, not because Jesus is special, but because he’s God’s beloved. The saints live the same way, in the confident humility of knowing that the light shining in them isn’t theirs alone, freed from proving their own worth or power. Parents, teachers, and certain singers often glow in the same way, with a light that is not about themselves but about being invested in someone else’s possibilities.

I learned this in improv, where we created scenes without any preparation. To do this, you have to follow three rules: believe in the reality you’re creating; give gifts to each other; and make the other guy look good. Make the other guy look good. You saw that when Claude and Frank performed just a couple weeks ago at Tom’s funeral. Neither of them was trying to show off. The scene was always about the other player. In comedy, it’s tempting to go after cheap laughs. That feels good for a moment, but it tends to break your scenes, because the other actors can’t trust you. Instead, you must work hard to set up the other person’s performance so they can take better chances, and then you both end up looking good. And it’s magic – or should we say it’s grace? – when people give each other great performances.

God’s glory shines when we give each other the best we can, when we let life be about something greater, when we let God’s light shine in us. We seem unable or unwilling to let God shine all the time, and life often becomes more about the clay pot than about the treasure hidden inside, but maybe that’s what the darkness is for: to let God’s light shine through. Maybe our life story is clearest through the lens of death – not because the grave has the final word, but precisely because it doesn’t. The glory of life shines in Christ who lived for God, died and was raised, and lives so that we now live too, so that the eternal light shines through us. The glory of God shines through our cracks, in our darkness, ahead and around us, revealing who we truly are, now and forever.