Transfiguration Sunday

TEXT: Matthew 17:1-9

… Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. (Matthew 17:1)

I want to ask you a question. It’s a historical question, and those of you who are (a) Canadian; and (b) of my vintage or older … you should know the answer. Here’s the question:

What is a “Diefenbunker”?

In 1958—at the height of the Cold War, amidst widespread fear that the Soviets were going to blow us up with nuclear weapons—Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker authorized the construction of about 50 “Emergency Government Headquarters” across the country. Opposition parties called them “Diefenbunkers.”

These subterranean chambers were part of what came to be known as the “Continuity of Government” plan, which was intended to shelter important political leaders in the event of a nuclear attack.  Most of these facilities were built at rural locations outside major cities.

To name just a very few, bunkers were located in:

  • Nanaimo, British Columbia;
  • Shilo, Manitoba;
  • Borden, Ontario;
  • Valcartier, Quebec;
  • Debert, Nova Scotia; and
  • Penhold, Alberta.

Each facility was protected by massively-reinforced doors at the surface. They employed state-of-the-art air filtration systems to protect against radioactive aerosols, and included storage vaults for food, fuel, fresh water, and other supplies. For the most part, they were two-story underground bunkers meant to house a few dozen people.

However, the largest bunker—by far—was built for Canadian federal politicians at Carp, Ontario, near Ottawa.  That stronghold had four levels underground, and was designed to house 535 people for up to 30 days.

It was also able to withstand a near-miss from an inter-continental ballistic missile. Incidentally, that set the Carp facility apart from all the others scattered around—well, actually, underneath—the Canadian landscape.

You see, the smaller facilities—like the one at Penhold—were only designed as fallout shelters. But the Central Emergency Government Facility at Carp … Well, that was built to withstand the blast caused by a close nuclear strike—the equivalent of five million tons of TNT exploding at about a mile away.

Over 32,000 tons of concrete and 5000 tons of reinforcing steel were used in constructing the main facility at Carp—and a broadcast transmitter station 20 miles away near Perth, Ontario. At one point during construction, over 1,000 workers were employed on the site. Completed in 1962, the Carp project alone cost $20 million—or the equivalent of about $156 million today.

And of course, American federal politicians famously maintained a similar—though much larger—complex 700 feet beneath the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. That bunker—which was more like an underground city for 800 people—was designed to contain the entire United States Congress in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.

Somewhat of a hardship, perhaps, to have to live under the earth like a mole … but still far better than the fate of all those left above ground! And all of this was done in the name of “continuity of government.” You gotta wonder what would have been left for them to govern! Our leaders, apparently, would spare no cost to preserve a political system—even if almost all of its citizens were obliterated.

This being Transfiguration Sunday, I perceive a very great contrast. On the one hand, there are these politicians who would happily wait out Armageddon in their blast-proof catacombs. And on the other hand, we have Christ the King.

In our gospel lesson this morning, we find Jesus not in a crypt, but on a mountaintop—having, perhaps, the original “summit conference” with Moses and Elijah. And at the conclusion of it all, Jesus speaks to his disciples not of triumph or even survival—but of his own impending death:

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9)

Jesus would build neither shrines on the mountaintop nor bunkers underneath it. Rather than ensure his own safety while his followers perished, this King would willingly give himself over to death so that his people could be saved. How different are the ways of God from the ways of this world!

We don’t know what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talked about upon that mountain. But we certainly know Moses and Elijah.

Moses stands for the Law, and for a judicial approach to enforcing righteousness. As for Elijah, you may remember that he was the one who had a contest with the prophets of Baal to see whose god was the strongest. And when his God won, Elijah slaughtered the losers! (see 1 Kings 18:22-40)

Moses stands for a religious system wherein faithfulness is grounded in strict obedience to a legal code, and in keeping the community pure by punishing or expelling transgressors. Elijah stands for a religious system that upholds the honour of God by destroying God’s rivals. And war after war has been fought by those who believed that they were serving the Lord by wiping out his enemies.

Who knows what advice Jesus might have received from these two! But, ultimately, the decision about what to do next belonged to Jesus. And what did he decide? Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem—not to destroy the enemies of God who had taken control of the religious state, but to stand firmly for truth and love and mercy … even at the cost of his own life.

There on the mountaintop—at this moment of apparent, glorious triumph—Jesus is already pointing toward, and drawing his disciples’ attention to, his impending arrest, trial, and execution.

Later—in John’s Gospel—he would say, “… when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.”

And the gospel writer comments: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (John 12:32-33).

Here is a very different kind of glory—starkly unlike the glory on the mountaintop, but no less brilliant. Not only at his resurrection, but also on his cross, will Jesus’ kingly glory become apparent.

Jesus is already thinking of his cross as being his throne—the seat of his royal ministry. For it is from that throne—from the cross—that he will draw all people to himself. It is as a sacrificial substitute on behalf of his people—on behalf of us—that King Jesus establishes his reign forever.

Many empires have been raised on the sacrifices of brave soldiers—and many nations have been preserved by the valour of their sons; but this cross is the one place where the King makes himself the sacrificial offering for the good of his commonwealth, so that nothing more will ever need to be offered.

On the verge of the Lenten season, we are given both a glimpse of Christ’s heavenly glory (in his Transfiguration) and a foreshadowing of the price he will pay. And at the end of the Lenten season—on Good Friday—we shall behold his glory once again … this time, revealed in suffering.

Our Saviour is not first a victim and then a victor; rather, he conquers death and sin precisely by offering himself. That is exactly how he becomes our King!

In the very event that is to all human appearances a failure and a defeat—that is, in the death of Jesus—we are introduced to a different kind of glory, a different kind of King, and a different kind of kingdom.

In Jesus, we see the glory of God, who cares neither to ensure “continuity of government” nor to preserve a religious system, but rather to save and preserve his people. And I think that this is what we ought to be reflecting upon as we make our Lenten journey, which begins this coming week on Ash Wednesday: What does it mean to live as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom?

What does it mean to follow this unexpected, unusual Messiah, who tells us that, if we would be his disciples, we must take up our crosses and follow him? If we would drink of his cup, are we prepared to taste suffering as well as ecstasy?

And what will that look like, for us? What sacrifices are we being called to make in order to preserve not a religious system, but a people? Not in order to prop up a denomination—or even to keep a building open—but to sustain the children of God? Will we venture outside the blast doors? Or will we huddle inside our bunker, hoping that the walls are strong enough? Hoping that we’re buried deep enough inside our whitewashed tomb?

If you know the gospel story, you know that—time and again—Jesus lamented the fact that the religious system of his day had forgotten its reason for being. The system had become more important than the people of God; the rules and traditions which were meant to enhance and elevate human existence had become burdens which denigrated and depreciated that life. Through his own death, Jesus sought to fulfill the requirements of that old system and usher in something new, resurrected from the ashes of what had gone before.

During Lent, we are reminded of our calling as Christians; we are called to continue the work that Jesus began. We are called “the Body of Christ”—and if we would embrace that name, we must be willing to walk the path that Jesus walked.

It is a path that demands much of us. It demands that we care as much about others as we do about ourselves. It demands that we stand up for justice—no matter the cost—and it also calls us to turn the other cheek. It calls us to love even our enemies.

It calls us out of comfort and into hardship. It leads us to the mountaintop, and back down again. It leads us by streams of quiet water, and it forces us into the tempest. It leads us into death—and then it leads us even beyond that!

To be sure, it is a difficult road, fraught with peril—but make no mistake about this: it is the path of glory, and it leads us, ultimately, to that place where all things are made new, and every tear is wiped away, and the brilliance of our God shines brighter than the sun.

There is no more favourable destination, and it offers us something far greater than mere “continuity of government.” As we walk this path, we have continuity of an infinitely better kind; for we travel with all the saints who have gone before us, and with the guidance of God’s own Spirit.

What better company could we ask for?

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