Thanks to the writings of Lawrence Moore, Matt Skinner, and D. Mark Davis for their insights into today's reading.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
This is the Word of the Lord.
How many times have you heard sermons and lessons on the Transfiguration? I mean, Transfiguration Sunday happens every year, the last Sunday before Lent begins. And while not every preacher follows the church calendar, I would think that it's a pretty safe bet that a preacher can't resist telling a cool story like this at least once a year...
So if you come to church regularly, you've heard about the Transfiguration a whole lot. So have I. I've preached a sermon on the Transfiguration every year I've been here, obviously, but if you were to back me in a figurative corner and ask me to state, definitively, what the transfiguration of Jesus means... well, I couldn't give you one answer, and honestly, I think that if we were to package this event into one specific, over-arching explanation, we'd be selling the narrative short. God always speaks to us where we are, individually and as a church.
And God speaks to us directly in the Transfiguration: “This is my Son, the Beloved...” One translation of this phrase reads, “This is my beloved son in whom I take delight.” Far from an event that invokes sober reverence and awe, for God, Transfiguration is an opportunity to declare love, to be delighted with Jesus the Son.
And it is a shared delight – Jesus is not alone, after all, Peter and James and John, not to mention Moses and Elijah, are there in the presence of God, enjoying the delight that God feels! Delight is an aspect of the holy – and this holiness is a participatory, shared holiness. God loves, so God interacts. God gives of God's self, because self-giving is just what happens when someone adores and celebrates someone else.
So Transfiguration is an opportunity to simply enjoy the presence of God in Jesus Christ, to be ourselves transformed by the light of his grace and love.
Because, make no mistake, we cannot stand long in the presence of God without being transformed. The word for “transfiguration” and for “transformation” is the same one: “metemorphothei,” the word we get “metamorphosis” from. Romans 12:2 tells us “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Which is all well and good, but I like being told the “what” without the “how” just about as much as I like paying sales tax. The good news is that God tells us the “how.” In 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
The light of Transfiguration lives within us in God the Holy Spirit, bringing us into the image and presence of our loving Creator! That's something to delight in, isn't it?
So yes, the Transfiguration is for us. It is, perhaps, Mark's Resurrection account, a picture of the risen and glorified Christ in a Gospel which, in its original form, doesn't really have one – it ends like it begins, with a sentence fragment, and empty tomb and some terrified women.
On this mountain, we have Jesus, the Christ, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, robed in the blinding glory of God, attended by Moses, who represents the Law, and Elijah, who represents the Prophets. This is the Jesus of the Final Judgment, prepared to separate the sheep from the goats.
From this perspective alone, it makes sense that Peter and James and John were terrified (in fact, a literal translation might be that they were “freaked out”). After all, it's all well and good to talk about the Final Judgment, especially when we're talking about all those other people who'll get judged for their sins. Face to face with the reality of the Judge Himself, we might not be so quick to point at others... just sayin'.
On the other hand, the promise of a resurrected Christ is, after all, why we believe in the first place, isn't it? Without the real and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, we might as well just sleep in on Sunday, we might as well live our lives as if this is all there is, and once we are dead we are dust.
But God identifies Jesus as the beloved, in whom God is delighted! The resurrection is God's seal of approval on the completed work of Jesus the Son, and the promise of our faith is that in the same way that Jesus rose and lives eternally, we will rise, and we will live.
But yet again, I think if we leave it at this, settle for the triumphalism, we may well be missing something that God is saying to us.
After all, it is no small matter that, in order for Jesus to rise, he must die. And not a simple death, what Rush Limbaugh might refer to as “assuming room temperature.” Yes, I just quoted Rush Limbaugh in a sermon, and no, I am not proud of it.
There is one path down from that mountaintop for Jesus. One path that leads to Jerusalem, one path to the Garden of Gethsemane, one path to the Pavement and the whip and the crown of thorns, one path to Golgotha and the nails, one path to the cold, cold tomb.
It's easy, far too easy, to simply view the crucifixion of Jesus in the light of the Resurrection, and what I mean by that is to too easily dismiss the fear Jesus felt, the mortal terror that caused him to sweat blood at Gethsemane, the hopelessness of his cry, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?”
Our passage today begins with the words, “six days later.” That's how long it had been since Peter had declared that Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus had begun trying to prepare his disciples for what was to come: “...that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”
But the disciples don't get it – they either can't or won't understand. Peter and the rest continue to impose their own terms on what following Jesus means. Before and after the Transfiguration, the disciples refuse to accept Jesus' political fate, they discuss who will be greatest among them when Jesus takes over and imposes Empire upon the face of the earth; James and John try to do an end-run around the rest to get the best seats in the house.
So on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah meet with Jesus to talk about what's to come – I think that this was for Jesus, reassurance that the path down from the mountaintop was the right one; and when God speaks from the cloud, he says something to Peter and James and John – and to us – “...listen to him!”
For Peter, James, and John, this means to stop trying to frame the Kingdom of God in their own template. Yes, life under the boot of Rome was tiresome and unjust, and yes it would be nice to overpower, overthrow, destroy the Romans, grind them to dust, and establish David's throne on earth by force. But the Kingdom of God is more than mere earthly empire. There is more to the Messiah than who gets to sit next to him in the throne room.
And – this was for the disciples and it is for us, today – we will never transform the world, we will not change people, by force. It simply cannot be done, not in the name of Christ, and Christ knows we've tried. Kings and emperors and Presidents and prime ministers too numerous to count have conquered and ruled and have claimed to do so within the will of God. One after another over the millenia, each on the ashes of the one before, and what do we have to show for it?
Poverty is still rampant. Government is rife with corruption. People the world over die every day from a lack of food and clean water, people die of easily preventable diseases, and even more despicable, far more shameful: children in our own city go to bed hungry, and far too many without a roof over their heads, every night. I will disagree with the governor and with the chief justice and with the senator and the attorney general in that it is this above all else which is the greatest sin in our state, that if Alabama is to incur the wrath of God it is for our inattention to the least of these in our midst, and the fact that we do it in the name of God.
Jesus was transfigured by the love of his Father, who delighted in him. We are transformed through the love of God in the risen Christ, through the renewing of the Holy Spirit.
It is love – not power, not weapons, not empire, which will ultimately transform this state, this country, and this world into one where all are fed and can drink clean water, where all are healthy and freed of poverty, where every child and every veteran has a home, a world where men and women and children from all walks of life enter the Kingdom of God not from fear of damnation or promise of prosperity, but because of what God's people have done to demonstrate the love of God in their lives, a world where God truly is glorified not just with our lips, but with our lives.
What does the Transfiguration mean to you, today? By that I mean, how is God speaking to you? How are you being transformed by the renewing of your mind? Which path is yours, off the mountaintop of your transfiguration? How will you, in turn transform your world?