Transfiguration (Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9)
The last Sunday of Epiphany is called Transfiguration Sunday. Epiphany is the season of Light in which we have thought about how Jesus, the baby of Bethlehem, is also the Light and Life of the world. It’s easy to see why this Gospel story is a good one to climax Epiphany. Here we have Jesus as the Light, clearly and plainly (even if only revealed to the three chief disciples). It may be hard to see the Light of the World in the baby or toddler worshiped by the Magi, but witnesses of the Transfiguration, couldn’t miss God’s glory revealed. It’s also easy to see why the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary chose the passage from Exodus 24 as the Old Testament Lesson for the day. The Exodus text points to the cloud and the glory of God as does the Gospel. Having said that about our two texts, it’s also fair to say that many of us live most of our lives without thinking much about them. Does the Transfiguration or the story of Moses’ shining face spring into your consciousness often? Mine either. Who understands, much less has experiences like these? A question we’ll want to think about later is whether this is quite true, even though ours may not be as “shiny” as those we hear of in the Bible. We’ll think about that a little more later.
Why should we follow our ancestors in reading and inwardly digesting such texts as these. I don’t think it’s enough just to say that these texts give us accounts of what happened “long ago and far, far away” so we’ll know our history. It’s also not enough just to say the Gospel text proves that Jesus is divine. Frankly we have to bring that to this text and read it with that in mind to see it there. So, other than giving us reports of ancient things, what do such texts provide? What did the ancients find in these stories, and what can we still find?
If you will look at the title of this sermon you will discover that it really doesn’t aim to be about THE Transfiguration. It’s about transfiguration. Let me explain. The Greek word that is used here is metamorphoo, from which we get our English word metamorphosis. And, in both Greek and English the word implies a change in state or form. This word is used only four times in the New Testament (so it’s no statistically valid sample for lots of universal conclusions). The change in state or form can be either outer or inner. Two of the occurrences of the term deal with outer change and both of them are accounts of this “vision” Matthew calls it, where Jesus’ face and clothes take on a brilliant lustre. When the verb deals with outer change, it’s translated as transfiguration – meaning a change of figure, shape, or form.
That Matthew calls this experience of the disciples a “vision” can be a helpful clue, I think, to what it has to teach us. We sometimes equate visions with hallucinations today, but the Bible doesn’t do that, and I don’t think that’s what Matthew meant – that they imagined it all. In the Bible, a vision, which can, as here, be shared by numbers of people, is a way of getting beyond data to a deeper level of life. Although, visions are not the kind of experiences that can be captured with a camera, they grasp for the reality that underlies the universe. Today we do talk about “vision” in a roughly similar way when we put forth so-called Vision Statements that explain in a few well-chosen words what we and our group are all about. It is a seeking beneath all the words and acts we do for the basic nature of where we’re headed. In a way, Jesus’ transfiguration does function as a Vision Statement for Jesus, and for the community that imitates Jesus. When Jesus is transfigured the disciples came to see him as he always has been all along. And, that’s why this story is also a good introduction to what’s next for us in the Christian Year, the season of Lent with its shadows and darkness. The reality is that neither those disciples nor we usually see Jesus as fully glorified, but mostly as the one who serves others and who suffers and dies a sacrificial death. That’s why Jesus taught the disciples about his coming passion just before this story and just after it charged them to keep quiet about it until after the Resurrection had given victory to his struggle. The darkness, death, and defeat are all a piece of grasping the glory of transfiguration. And if Jesus is here to show us how God is, then to know the glory of God we must know both suffering and joy, both defeat and victory, both darkness and light, both Epiphany and Lent. Frankly we cannot be disciples if we cannot accept our share of both kinds of glory in this world. So it’s no wonder the disciples, ancient and contemporary, fall on their faces in abject terror.
Now, after the terror of that moment has subsided, and the importance of such a vision bursts upon disciples, perhaps the greatest temptation might be to blurt out our immediate impressions much as Peter did when, after seeing such a great glory as Jesus, his face and clothes radiant with heavenly light, conversing with Moses the founder of the Old Covenant and Elijah the archetypical prophet. Peter immediately “blogged” that he wanted to build three little chapels in the hills, one for each. However, such spiritual matters as visions (especially those that would function as Vision Statements) are not something that ought simply to be spewed out, but, rather, kept, pondered, considered, and weighed. Jesus told the disciples that they’d only understand the vision enough to talk about it after all the death and apparent defeat would culminate in the cross and resurrection. Take time, and don’t just shoot your spiritual mouth off, without reflection, on transfiguration as if it were easy to understand. I hope there’s still a place for Christian reflection that is patient enough to await further light. Religious zeal without knowledge does more harm than good in the world.
In any case, when Peter did shoot from the hip, spiritually speaking, Jesus said nothing at all. Rather, God got into the act. Suddenly, while the words were still coming out of Peter’s mouth, a bright cloud overshadowed them. If you were a first-century Jew, this would mean just one thing – God was about to make an appearance. If you shared the common belief that no one could look on God and live, then this was cause for concern. Because of this common belief the Bible spends more time talking about hearing God than seeing God. That’s what happens here. And, although there are a lot of passages about the “word of God,” in the Bible there aren’t all that many where God actually speaks audibly to be heard by all. God says “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” If we reflect on these words, we may remember that they are the same words uttered from heaven at Jesus’ baptism to validate his identification with the people to whom and with whom he ministered. It would take time and reflection to remember these words. Then, God said: “Listen to him!” What can that mean in this context, since Jesus is not recorded as saying a single word?
When that voice on the mountain said, “Listen to him,” I think it meant, “Listen to the teaching you received and will receive about the suffering mission of the Messiah, and learn from it what the mission of his people is.” Perhaps Peter wanted to build the three little huts or tabernacles or chapels in order to freeze that experience of highest glory and stay there rather than go down the mountain to what Jesus had predicted and, indeed, promised would happen in the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus’ disciples are to hear (and reflect on, and adopt as the basis of their own ministry), the principle of self-giving, suffering, redemptive love for unlovely people. “Listen to him.” Don’t we often want to listen only about the good times, the growth moments, the victories, rather than understanding that those who imitate Jesus need to listen to him in bad times, the stagnation, and defeats? Transfiguration requires not just witnessing of something about Jesus, it invites a transfiguration of ourselves and how we think of mission.
To go back to a place you’ve probably almost forgotten about, I said that the verb metamorphoo, “to transfigure,” was used four times in the New Testament, that two of them concerned the outer change in appearance or form of Jesus here. The other two times the verb is used of normal disciples of Jesus, and deals with inner change. This time the same word is usually translated not as transfiguration, but as transformation. The first occurrence is in 2 Corinthians 3:18 and refers to the end of the story about which we read in our Old Testament Lesson, which in chapter 34, Moses comes down from the presence of God on Mt. Sinai, he has been transfigured in that outer-sense, and his face shone and terrified everyone. So Moses wore a veil over his face in public to keep from scaring people. Paul takes off from there, and, beginning in verse, 17 writes this:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
The words, “being transformed” could be “we are being transfigured by the presence of God in the Spirit.” The other passage is a more familiar one from Romans 12:2:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
In all four instances of this word, it is not something that people did to or for themselves, whether it was Jesus or plain ordinary disciples of Jesus. He was transfigured or transformed, disciples are transformed or transfigured. It’s not something about which we can buy a self-help book and get it done ourselves it takes action upon us from outside of us.
To me this is where we get to the bottom line of why we bother with this story of transfiguration. It is possible, not just for Jesus, but for us to be transformed, to be turned into something more glorious than we are. Our transfiguration is something in which others are the catalysts. It won’t happen if we do not cooperate in it, but others cannot simply do it for us (even God and Jesus), and we cannot do it alone. It is a cooperative effort of spirit. And it happens in community. The transformation almost always includes the realization growing into the conviction that glory is exhibited in service and ministry to others, and active love of them to help them grow and mature in ways of which they did not dream, in short of becoming a catalyst.
I can tell you on this day when we’re going to think about the long years of work that Maxine and I have done in theological education, that what I’m describing now, being the catalyst for the possibility, reality, and importance of transfiguration or transformation into something glorious is the motive for that nearly 70 years of combined effort. People can be transformed, and it can be a transfiguring experience. The coolest thing in the world to me is when I see the lights go on in somebody’s eyes in a class or sermon or meeting. I’ve learned to spot it. The payoff for all the work of teaching and ministry is the light, the realization, the new awareness, and, by-times, the transformation that happens in real people. I have watched people come into seminary and thought, “O brother, what a mess.” And, sometimes, the light goes on and, then, they’re ready to go out and they are transformed. I say that quickly as if it’s a one-time thing without much work, and it’s not.
I can honestly say I see that in some of you, too. Not that I ever said, “O brother,” because my role here is not that of theological education (at least wholly), but I must say to you, I see transformation, and even institutional transformation, or even transfiguration. May glory continue to come out of service for us as long as we serve together here.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.