The following is a sermon I preached on Transfiguration Sunday, March 6, 2011, at The Church of the Holy Comforter in Drexel Hill, Pa. An audio recording is available here.
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
Today brings us to the final Sunday of the season of Epiphany and in a sense its climax. As you may have heard sometime during the season, the name epiphany comes from a Greek word, which means “sudden appearance” or “manifestation.” Merriam Webster defines it as “an appearance or manifestation usually of a divine being” or “a sudden perception of the essential meaning of something.”
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes, “Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” Heaven isn’t someplace distant from earth, on the far reaches of outer space. Heaven lies just behind our everyday experience. We can’t normally see this reality and we don’t always perceive it, but the bible tells us that we are surrounded with a great cloud of witnesses. An epiphany is a pulling back of the veil to reveal the heavenly reality that is hidden from sight. There are times when the glory of God shines through the thin veneer between heaven and earth in ways sometimes subtle but also sometimes dramatic.
In today’s gospel, Jesus leads three of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—up a high mountain presumably so they could be alone and pray. While on the mountain we are told that Jesus was transfigured before their eyes. The Greek work translated transfigured is where we get the term metamorphosis. It basically means to be changed or transformed. Can you picture this? Jesus becomes illuminated with a dazzling light, his face like the sun. Even his clothing becomes as white as the light. Have you ever gone outside just after a snow storm and the light reflected from the snow is so glaringly bright that you have to shade your eyes? I imagine this to be the appearance of Jesus’ garments. I imagine the light coming from Jesus was so intense that his friends could not look on him directly. Suddenly out of the effulgence the three could make out two other men standing with Jesus. The text tells us that they were Moses and Elijah. We are not told how they were recognized as such. We are told that they were speaking with Jesus however.
What are we to make of all of this? This is a strange story. It must be a very important story however. All three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all include very similar accounts of the same event. The second epistle of Peter, which was read today, also refers to it. The gospel of John, interestingly enough since John was among those present, does not refer to it though. I would like to suggest that the three disciples who went up with Jesus, received an Epiphany. An appearance of divinity.
On the mount of transfiguration we are shown Jesus’ true identity. Right in front of his friends, Jesus is revealed as the incarnate Son of God. We catch a glimpse of our own human nature transfigured by the glory of God. Human nature as it was meant to be, the pristine image of God. God created humankind to be his image bearers but that image became disfigured through sin. In Christ we not only see that image restored but humanity made a partaker of the divine nature.
St John of the Cross, a poet and mystic from the middle ages, uses the image of a window. If a window is dirty and smudged its ability to let the sunlight in is diminished. A window wiped clean and clear though lets the sun’s rays pour through it. When sunlight hits it directly it is so illuminated that it appears to be pure light even though it doesn’t cease to be glass. This is how Jesus’ humanity showed forth his divinity in the transfiguration.
Before the foundation of the world God planned to redeem the world through the life, death, and resurrection of his son. Jesus is the purpose of the whole biblical story. The old covenant finds its fulfillment is Jesus. This is why Jesus was shown speaking with both Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the law and Elijah the prophets, the two major sections of the Old Testament. In their time, both men longed to see the day when Jesus would be revealed. Everything they did and said pointed to him.
I’ve often met people who say, “I’ve tried to read the Bible but I just don’t get it.” You may be one of those people. Getting a good study bible and consulting commentaries and scholars will help you tremendously by giving you an idea of the historical context and bigger picture of the biblical story. I definitely recommend you seek them out. More importantly though, you should pray and ask God to show you the meaning of the scriptures. The religious scholars of Jesus’ time knew the bible well, but St. Paul tells us that they read them with a veil over their hearts. God through the Holy Spirit lifts the veil and helps us to see that all of the scriptures point us to Christ. It is through him that they should be interpreted.
Jesus tried to communicate this to his disciples many times. In fact in the previous chapter of Matthew Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection. Jesus understood this to be the culmination of God’s plan for salvation as prophesized by the scriptures. Peter was rebuked then for not understanding, and he shows now that he still doesn’t get it when he says, “Lord it is good for to be here, if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter is still blathering on not knowing what he is saying when the whole company is enveloped in a bright cloud. A voice thunders from the cloud “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him!” This really shuts him up. The disciples are so overcome with fear that they lie face down on the ground unable to move. Jesus touches them saying, “Get up don’t be afraid.” When next they look all they see is their teacher restored to how he was before.
Peter was mistaken to think that they all could remain on the mountain top. They were given a sneak preview of the glory that was to come, but that glory could only come through the cross. Without Jesus’ death, there could be no victory. Jesus would become victor only by means of his crucifixion. The power of sin and death would be vanquished but only at the cost of God’s own son. We cannot have Easter and the triumphant news of the Resurrection with out Lent and Holy Week.
There are some who want a crossless Christianity. They want all of glory, but none of the sacrifice. For them, God exist to shower them with blessing and prosperity. If we want the new and transformed life that comes through sharing in Jesus’ Resurrection, we need to share also in his death. We should take this to heart as we enter the season of Lent, a time of repentance and self-denial. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”