FEBURARY 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday... “Glory That Transfigures You and Me”
Two times Mark’s gospel records God’s spoken voice, a “voice from the clouds.” At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, as he is baptized, God says only to Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.” (Mark 1:11) No one else hears that proclamation. Now again, the voice from the cloud speaks, but this time it isn’t meant for just Jesus, but for his inner circle, Peter, James, and John, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.” (Mark 9:7) We’ll come back to that a bit later.
Today we reach the climax of the Epiphany season in the liturgical year. Epiphany is all about revealing, and the texts over the last few weeks have focused on Jesus being revealed in varying ways to the people around him: in his baptism, in the call of disciples; in healing and deliverance miracles; in a new way of teaching, with an authority unlike any of the scribes possess.
We are told the occurrence of the Transfiguration comes six days after Peter’s great confession concerning Jesus, “You are the Christ.” The Transfiguration adds a whole different level of revelation to the epiphany of Jesus. The Greek word is “metamorphose” - translated transfiguration, though we hardly need a definition in our language, as any young child has already learned about the metamorphoses of caterpillars to butterflies and tadpoles to frogs. Already in their earliest stage of development these creatures hold the DNA, the characteristics into which they will finally transform. I get a kick out of the two caterpillars talking to each other. One spies a butterfly soaring above and says, “You’ll never get me up in one of those!” To which the other replies, “Ahhh! Talking caterpillar!”
If I can carry the analogy out, Jesus brings to the mountaintop the divine DNA of Shekinah glory that shines through him, a divinity he set aside in order to become one of us, one with us, one for us, as Paul writes,
“Christ Jesus… had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.” (Philippians 2:5-8 Message)
Daniel Clandenin writes:
Nothing is easier for Christians who have become over-familiar with the gospel texts and traditions then to domesticate and diminish them – taming the ineffable, trivializing the indescribable, cutting and trimming to neuter God so as to manage him.
In his book, “What Jesus Meant,” Gary Wills tries to recapture the radically subversive life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth:
“He intended to reveal the Father to us, and to show that he is the only begotten Son of that Father. What he signified is always more challenging than we expect, more outrageous, more egregious.”
Again Clandenin notes “Wills is not fond at all of Thomas Jefferson’s scissored-down Jesus who is little more than a ‘mild humanitarian normalizer,’ nor the more recent Jesus Seminar scholars, “the new fundamentalism” (as he calls it), who end up with Jesus as a bland cardboard cutout.” He goes on to say “The Transfiguration of Jesus belies the ways we dilute the stringent wine of the gospel. The blinding light, and voice from the clouds challenge faith that has turned tepid, perfunctory, bored and boring.”
In her book “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” Annie Dillard thus asks:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets! Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews! For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return.
Maybe Peter's wanting to build shelters on the mountain of Transfiguration is a forerunner of the way we construct church comfort zones through wanting to pin things down, keep them as they are, bringing them under any little control we can manage.
For many years I never got the Disney production “Fantasia.” It was much later that I began to understand that it was merely a visualization of the orchestration behind it. But one thing I did understand was the sequence with Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, playing with power far beyond his understanding. I believe it’s not too much of a reach to use the presentation in order to grasp how the church of Jesus Christ misses the point of the power it holds.
Remember after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ that Jesus first begins to teach about his impending passion. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) Jesus predicts his death, and then in Mark’s gospel we move immediately into the Transfiguration. There is here the beginning of a grand reversal in the gospel text. The glory of the Transfiguration occurs to highlight what appears to be the opposite: the humiliation and rejection of the cross. Jesus’ passion predictions underscore the cross that becomes his crowning glory only as we see Easter in retrospect. Hindsight is 20/20!
Again, Epiphany means “to make known.” This Transfiguration, this metamorphosis, emphasizes that Jesus whom the disciples followed was not just a rebel Rabbi, clever sage, sociopolitical provocateur, subversive wisdom teacher, ascetic, or failed apocalyptic troublemaker. The Transfiguration portrays him as the Lord of human history, God’s beloved and appointed Son. Transfiguration is seeing the glory of Jesus before the cross even occurs.
The flow of Mark’s gospel is revealing. Chapter 1 gives us Jesus’ baptism and the voice of God saying to Jesus “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.” And in the ensuing eight chapters we get epiphanies, small revealings of just who Jesus is, culminating in Jesus’ first passion prediction and then his Transfiguration on the mountaintop. And once again the voice of God speaks, “This is my Son, whom I love; listen to him!” Then, coming down from the mountaintop, the ministry and passion story leads Jesus to another mountaintop 5 chapters later: Calvary, Golgotha, the point of sacrifice, the cross where Martin Luther says Jesus is enthroned in glory.
Peter gives testimony to the Transfiguration in his second letter. He wrote:
But we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and his coming again. We have seen his majestic splendor with our own eyes. And he received honor and glory from God the Father when God’s glorious majestic voice called down from heaven, “This is my beloved Son; I am fully pleased with him.” We ourselves heard the voice when we were there with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)
The apostle John also alludes to the event, saying, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.” (John 1:14)
The appearance of the two great OT prophets, Moses and Elijah, represent those who, like the disciples at this moment, beheld God’s glory on a mountaintop at crucial periods of discouragement in their mission. Elijah, victorious over Baal’s prophets and hunted by the authorities, flees to the mountains only to be met by God and sent back into the fray. He sees God’s glory in the storm, the fire, and the earthquake, and finally hears God’s still small voice, a whisper in the breeze. (1 Kings 19:11 ff)
Moses comes down from the mountaintop after receiving the tablets as Yahweh’s envoy whose message is rejected by the people, found to be worshiping the golden calf. He re-ascends the mountain, sees God’s trailing robe from the shelter of a rock and God’s protecting hand, and he begins to glow himself, the Shekinah glory of the Lord lifted up upon him. (Exodus 33:18 ff)
The effect is the same for both Elijah and Moses: it changes them and empowers their ministry.
The disciples are struggling in the midst of Jesus’ predictions of impending death, and notably, resurrection. “Coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy. ‘Don’t tell a soul what you saw. After the Son of Man rises from the dead, you are free to talk.’ They puzzled over that, wondering what on earth ‘rising from the dead’ meant.” (Mark 9:9-10 Message)
But Jesus’ Transfiguration actually serves to transfigure the disciples. Peter, James, and John behold Christ’s glory, and it has to affect them.
The voice gives the command: "Listen to him!" "Listen" (akouete) is a present imperative, implying continuing action: "Keep on listening to him" or "Continue to listen to him." God gave Ten Commands in the OT. In the NT, we have this one command. (It should be printed in green.)
Edwards (The Gospel of Mark) notes that this command also recalls a word from Moses, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me.... You must listen to him" (Deut 18:15). [p. 268]
Connected to Romans 10:17, we can conclude that the Christian faith comes through our ears: "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ."
Since these disciples have heard God say, “This is my Son, whom I love; listen to him!” perhaps that is exactly what they do. Maybe they begin to listen more closely, more carefully to what Jesus is teaching. What are they to listen to? Everything of course, but considering the context, Jesus is speaking words the disciples seem to be unable to hear – about his coming passion and death. God appears to be speaking to their lack of understanding about what Jesus will do and the power, and glory, of the cross.
This Sunday that celebrates the Transfiguration of our Lord inaugurates a transition into the season of Lent. During Lent we prepare for the passion of Christ in Holy Week.
Ultimately, the Transfiguration is a message of succession. In our world succession takes on many forms. Democracy has in its design a peaceful transition of power, when not usurped by coup-d’état, violent overthrow, or rebellion. Monarchy’s transition requires someone’s death or abdication. This morning we have numerous instances of succession described: the mantle of Elijah being passed to Elisha, as Elijah rides a whirlwind to heaven; the presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration emphasizing the glory of Jesus surpassing even them; and Jesus’ impending empowerment of his disciples, which of course includes you and me.
In Julia Ward Howe’s classic, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, the fourth verse says:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men (and women) holy,
Let us live to make men (and women) free,
While God is marching on.
As we make this transition from Epiphany to Lent on this Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, there are three things to take note of, that prepare us in this journey: 1) listen to him; 2) see his glory; 3) follow all the way to the cross.
Just as Jesus’ journey now leads up to Jerusalem, so too our journey leads us from these Epiphany texts into the season of Lent and the way of discipleship. Just as the disciples are led from the mountain, so, too, have we been invited and called to walk the walk of discipleship. Brothers and sisters, our God wants very much to be included in every part of our lives. The Holy Spirit is actively at work in the world, the Lord Jesus Christ is with us every moment, until the end of all the ages, just as he promised he would be. We must simply take the time to listen, to look for the one who is the light of the world, the one whose glory we shall one day see face-to-face. As Peter tells us: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19) and Paul concludes, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
In the benediction with which we close our worship service each and every week, the Aaronic blessing of Num. 6:24–26 is quoted, where “the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace”’”
To my understanding, that last part where it says, “The Lord lift up his countenance upon you” literally means for God to place his face on you. In other words, you are to be the reflection of the Father’s glory to the world around you. That is a “glory… that transfigures you and me” for the Kingdom of God’s sake. May we all be blessed to bear the glory of Jesus to a world desperately in need of God’s light.