a sermon on Luke 9:28-36 for Transfiguration
preached on February 10, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Please raise your hand (or write in the comments!) if you have used the word “transfiguration” at all outside the church in the last year. I didn’t think there would be many of you! Transfiguration is one of those very “churchy” words that just don’t mean much unless you’re well-connected to the life of the church. This strange day, Transfiguration, that comes up every year on the Sunday before Lent points us to a story told in all three of the synoptic gospels, where Jesus and several of his disciples go up on a mountain for an incredible spiritual encounter as Jesus meets up with Moses and Elijah and his face and clothes shine brightly.
Transfiguration is just not something we encounter every day. We just don’t see faces and clothes shining brightly or things almost magically changing before our very eyes. This is the stuff of fairy tales, not of real life. Now I think we actually have seen some transfiguration around us over the past couple days as our landscape took on a new and glorious brightness as things shifted from the general winter grays on Thursday to the dreariness of rain and snow on Friday and finally to the beauty and wonder of a bright snowy landscape yesterday and today. But we all know that this glory is only temporary. Already the snow is a little dirty and gray, and by Tuesday much of what is left will be nearly black, leaving us to wish for spring all the more.
The Transfiguration of Jesus parallels these patterns of snow quite well, I think—it gives us a beautiful glimpse of glory before we are forced back into the mundane of the everyday even as we long for something more. The story gets at so many of the recurring images that we have of Jesus and the disciples. Here we see the strange human person of Jesus who suddenly has divine power and presence. We see a connection to the life and history of the people of Israel as Moses and Elijah appear. We see three disciples along for the ride who want to “get it” so badly that they completely miss the point of what is happening. And we even hear another mysterious voice from the cloud reminding everyone of who this Jesus is.
The story is simple but compelling. Luke tells us that Jesus took three of his disciples up on the mountain with him to pray. Suddenly, as he was praying, his appearance changed. His face looked different, and his clothes turned a dazzling white. If all that wasn’t enough, two other figures appeared on the mountaintop and started talking to Jesus. They were talking about his departure and his journey to Jerusalem, and it soon became clear to the disciples that it was Moses and Elijah with him. Peter, James, and John were very tired, but somehow they stayed awake to witness all of this. As the conversation came to an end and Moses and Elijah were leaving, Peter stopped them and suggested that they should find a way to extend this moment. He even was willing to make it happen—he’d build three dwellings so that they could all stay as long as they wanted! But then a cloud appeared around them, and a voice spoke up: “This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him!” After the voice, Moses and Elijah were gone, and the disciples were alone with Jesus. When they went down from the mountain, they were speechless as they waited for what was next.
Like so many of the stories of Jesus’ power and glory from the gospels, I for one am left somewhat empty afterwards, wondering what all this means. We can pretty easily sort out what Jesus teachings mean even if we have to reinterpret them for today, and the crucifixion and resurrection stories have centuries of interpretation that give them an important role in our life of faith. We can even assign some meaning pretty easily to moments of transition in Jesus’ life, like his birth or his baptism.
But wonders and signs are much more difficult. Jesus’ miracles, for one, don’t always make sense to our ears that normally hear of the wonders of modern medicine. And while when Jesus casts out demons I recognize that there is some great power being shown in the person of Jesus, but I wonder what we ought to do today when we don’t recognize demonic activity in the same way or share this same power. And the Transfiguration leaves me scratching my head and wondering what this story might possibly inspire for us today. It doesn’t seem to be much more than a wonderful moment when we can discover the mystery of God’s presence among us.
Just as a snowstorm doesn’t carry a lot of meaning in our lives unless the effects go on for weeks or months, the Transfiguration too seems like a relatively forgettable moment in the life of Jesus, just another moment when we see Jesus’ power and glory revealed— and the disciples continuing their usual bungling and fumbling that seems to show up whenever they are faced with the reality of who Jesus is. To most people outside the church, people who see the Bible as a book of stories and not an authority on faith and life, people who are even more confused than I am about Jesus’ miracles and healings and casting out of demons, stories like the Transfiguration are mythical at best and just plain crazy at worst.
But there is something more going on here for us. Even if we don’t fully understand this strange moment, this glimpse of the glory of Jesus can help us to see him more clearly in his time and in ours. Everything that Jesus has done up to this point in Luke’s gospel—the preaching, teaching, and healing that has marked his ministry around Galilee—looks different now that Jesus has shone with this strange glorious light. He is not just a faith healer or an inspired teacher—he is one who has standing and status that comes from beyond himself and is more fully revealed little by little, with each new encounter.
But this glimpse of Jesus’ glory doesn’t just end here on the mountaintop. As his life and ministry continues, Jesus keeps showing his strange and wonderful way to everyone he meets. In his death, it is opened anew once again as we see that even God’s holiness is open to the depths of human pain, suffering, and sin. And most of all, in the resurrection, we see the greatest exposition of this glory as we learn that God’s power and glory extend over anything and everything—even death.
But the real gift of the glory of God revealed in Jesus’ Transfiguration atop that mountain comes as it shows up in our own time. There are countless ways to get a glimpse of this glory in our world. We can see it around us in the wonder of nature, in the beauty of a morning snowfall, in the joy of children, in so many things in our lives. But these glimpses of glory are exactly that: glimpses. They do not show us the full wonder, power, and love of God in our midst. We can’t see everything that we need to know about God just from opening our eyes to see a beautiful snowfall or vista or even by experiencing the wonder of relationship with our fellow human beings.
Yet when we gather as the community of faith, we get a deeper glimpse of that glory than we can have on our own. When we gather as the people of God, our united vision helps us to see things that we might have missed on our own. When we sing songs of praise or offer words of prayer and thanksgiving, we get a closer look at the new world that we also glimpse in the Transfiguration. When we come together to fight for justice, to intervene in the pervasive yet quiet hunger in our community, to step up and say that the poor will not be forgotten anymore, we start shining the glory of God out into our world all the more. And when we gather at this table, we gain not only a glimpse of the glory of the resurrected Christ but also some food for the journey so that we might live out this glory all the more.
So today, as we remember this great glimpse of glory on the mountaintop, as we gather here at this table hoping for our own glimpse of Jesus’ wonder and love, may we glimpse the full glory of God in Jesus Christ in our worship and our sharing so that we might go forth to shine his glory out into our world brighter than even a sunny post-snow day throughout these wintery, Lenten days and beyond until we shine brightly in the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.