Genesis 12:1–4a; 2 Timothy 1:8b–10; Matthew 17:1–9
Do you trust God? Do you trust that He has a plan for you? When you struggle with adversity, do you trust that somehow He will bring about good? Imagine the Lord telling you, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk” as He does to Abram in the first reading. Now Abram is in Ur of the Chaldeans, which would be somewhat close to Basra in modern day Iraq, some seven or eight hundred miles from the land of Canaan.
He’s not talking about a move from Boise to Melba, but from a land of these—your own people—here, to that unknown place 800 miles away with people you know nothing about. And you’re going to walk—with all of your children, your herd animals, and your belongings. Imagine the trust you’d have to have to take that directive. But what does that trust yield? Not only are Abram’s descendants a great nation, but all the communities of the earth are blessed. Abram’s tremendous faith brings about tremendous returns. Abram becomes Abraham, a name that means “father of a multitude.” And from that multitude comes the salvation of the world, our savior Jesus—all because of the faith and trust of one man.
In every era, the faithful are tried. That is as true now as it was in earlier times. In 2 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy to bear his hardships for the sake of the gospel and that God would strengthen him. Paul and Timothy lived during some of the earliest periods of Christian persecution. Surely what Timothy faced is far different from what we as Christians in the U.S. face today, but we may well face adversity as our society trends toward increasing secularism. It’s difficult for many of us to remember that Catholics were not always part of the mainstream in this country. There were times early in our nation’s history when Catholics faced heavy civil restrictions and when Catholic churches and convents were burned by mobs. We forget about the virulently anti-Catholic Know Nothing party or that the Ku Klux Klan, which was very popular in the 1920s, was also violently opposed to Catholics. It wasn’t until after John F. Kennedy that hostility toward Catholics in U.S. society decreased. Will we ever see anything like that kind of hostility again? I’d like to think not. But elsewhere in the world, there is no question. Christians, mostly Catholics and Orthodox, are persecuted throughout the Middle East and Africa. So there will be hardships. We will be tried. We will have our crosses to bear. Jesus promised that much to us. But He also promised to walk with us in our struggles.
In Matthew, we get the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. All three of the synoptic gospels share this same story, and in all three Jesus takes only three of the twelve apostles up the mountain with Him: Peter, James, and John. Commentaries make a lot of this group Jesus takes with Him: John MacEvilly notes that they meet the numerical requirements for witnesses required for legal proof under Jewish law. Others note that each of the three has a unique role: Peter, being the leader of the twelve apostles, James being the first apostle martyred for the faith, and John as the one who would survive all the rest. But clearly, these three shared a special relationship with the Lord, and they would also be the three who accompanied him to Gethsemane on the last night of His mortal life.
So what is the point of this transfiguration? Recall that the apostles expected an earthly messiah. They expected Jesus to change the status quo in Judea, perhaps to run the Romans out of the country. Jesus understood this, which is why he told the twelve not to repeat that He was the Christ. He understood the political ramifications of such an announcement.
But He also had this core twelve who were the foundation of His Church, and He knew that His coming death might shatter their faith. He attested to this several times and warned them of His impending death. You might recall that He encourages Simon Peter to strengthen the others after he himself has turned back, so He knows that Peter will tested.
So He takes them to the top of Mount Tabor, and there, He is revealed in all of His glory. He appears there with Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets of Judaism and showing His authority over them. Of course, Peter as usual is motivated to say something foolish, which is when the Father makes the matter clear: “This is my beloved son. Listen to Him.”
Listen to Him. Trust Him. The world will tell you that your faith is nonsense, but listen to Him. You will face faith-shattering setbacks, but trust in Him. Even as they descend from the mountain, Jesus prepares them for His death because He knows that they will be tested and that they will lose heart. It isn’t until His resurrection that Peter and John get it, that the pieces all come together.
How often is it like that with us? How often do we need the two-by-four of the Holy Spirit to whap us upside the head and awaken us to God moving in our lives? I was awakened to this reality again recently when two people, one of whom is a member of our parish, contacted me separately out of the blue for the same new job opportunity. Whap! The Holy Spirit got my attention right quick. That’s what Jesus does here at the transfiguration. He gives Peter, James, and John a glimpse of His true glory. They don’t know yet what it means. They will be tried and tested. But when the third day comes, it will all become crystal clear. He is raised from the dead. He is alive again. He can be nothing other than God with us. He prepares them so they can trust Him.
This was God’s constant complaint against Israel. He brought them out of Egypt. He fed them in the wilderness. He gave them a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet they continually lost faith. They failed to trust. Our current political and cultural climate gives us so much right now of which we can be fearful or anxious. Maybe you’re afraid of what the current administration is doing. Maybe you’re afraid of what the North Koreans or the Islamic State are doing. We should remember the words of Psalm 146:
Put no trust in princes,
in mortal men in whom there is no help.
Take their breath, they return to clay
and their plans that day come to nothing.
We have to remember that God is in control. Despite our fears and our anxieties, He can turn all things toward good ends.
I know that I too often fail to trust. Sometimes it comes in those moments when I am asked to take on a new challenge in ministry. Sometimes it comes in those moments when I want clarity and stability. But God doesn’t promise us constant prosperity and perpetual stability. He promises that He won’t desert us and that we will be safe in His care, however that may come about. In some cases, we have to choose the difficult path, but know that God is with us. He doesn’t promise us an easy life, but He promises that He won’t let us fall, so long as we simply trust in Him.