Lessons for the Feast of the Transfiguration: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36
We should be observing the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost today, but this year, there is a break in the pattern. Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, which always falls on August 6th, and this Feast outranks Pentecost 9. In fact, there are only a handful of feast days so important that they take precedence over a Sunday, and all of them are feasts related to Jesus himself. Today we commemorate how Jesus was transfigured before his closest disciples, Peter, John, and James— how his glory was revealed in dazzling white light, and how God’s voice proclaimed, “This is my Son, my Chosen: listen to him!”
“Transfigure” is not a word often used in conversation nowadays. We might use “transform” or “alter” instead, or even “change.” But none of those common words really express what is going on here. Mark and Matthew use the Greek word “metamorphosed” to indicate that Jesus became something new. Luke tells us that Jesus’ appearance was “changed” or, in Greek, “became something other.” Jesus’ face became different, and his clothing became dazzling white. So, we use the very mysterious and mystical word, “transfigure.”
What is really going on, though? In Luke’s Gospel, the scene of the Transfiguration follows directly on the heels of scene where Jesus puts a question to the disciples: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’
He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’
Who the crowds say that Jesus is has been set up by Luke’s narrative – he’s John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the ancient prophets arisen. But it is Peter who speaks the deeper reality: “You are the Christ of God.” While Peter says this, it is not clear that he or the disciples understand the full ramifications of what it means. Jesus continues on and tells them the Christ of God, the anointed one, must suffer and die at the hands of the very religious experts who claim to speak for God! This teaching just doesn’t make any sense to a first-century Jew – surely it perplexed the disciples.
This change in the appearance of Jesus’ face is reminiscent of the change in appearance of Moses’ face as he came down from Sinai, which continues the theme of Jesus being one of these ancient prophets. It is at this point our idea that Jesus is either Moses or Elijah is shattered when both of these ancient prophets appear with Jesus and begin to speak of Jesus’ departure – or, in Greek, “exodus” – which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. All three appear in glory as they speak of another exodus – an exodus through the suffering of the cross. Suddenly, the meaning of what it is to be the Christ of God is revealed as the veil is lifted for the disciples to see.
As Moses and Elijah depart, Peter, not really knowing what he was saying, blurts out his offer to build three booths: one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. While Peter’s thinking was lacking clarity – cloudy, if you will – a cloud descends on the disciples and they enter the cloud filled with terror. They hear a voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This voice interrupts Peter’s babblings about booths and brings clarity to all of the disciples: Jesus is no ordinary prophet. He is not just another great teacher. Jesus is the Son of God, the Chosen one, and this is why we are to listen to him.
The story of the Transfiguration is one that grounds the identity of Jesus as Son of God, but through the experience of suffering, death and resurrection. Luke’s narrative hints at the glory of the empty tomb, but only after Jesus says it will come through the darkness of suffering and death. The earthly trappings of glory – power, riches and fame – are not the same as the glory of God brought to us through the cross.
But there is another interesting question that arises in this scene. Is it only Jesus that was Transfigured? Jesus is changed, to be sure, but it seems to me that Peter, John, and James were transfigured as well, their eyes now open to see Jesus as he really is, clothed in light and revealed as the Son of God. And the disciples’ lives are changed too, after this experience of God’s presence: before, they thought they were following a remarkable teacher; after, they know their lives are being woven into God’s plan for the transfiguration of the world. Indeed, after their conversation with Jesus about his identity Jesus confronts them with that ultimate task of discipleship, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” And then they followed Jesus up the mountain and their eyes were open.
What experiences in your life frame the way you see and understand the world? Much of the way we experience the world is fixed by circumstances beyond our control: who our parents are, where we are from, the language we speak. But sometimes we have moments of clarity which allow us to see the world in a new light, from a bird’s-eye view. These are moments when it seems we can see beyond ourselves and our limitations, into the heart of reality. When you have this kind of experience, you can be fairly certain it’s because you have been in the presence of God. Transfiguration is a natural consequence of being in God’s presence.
Jesus took his disciples up on the mountain hoping to find God there. They were on a quest, actively seeking God’s presence. Like Peter and John and James, God is calling all of us to climb the mountain with Jesus. Jesus leads his disciples up there because he knows that’s where God lives. The same is true for Moses in the reading from Exodus — God is found on the mountaintop, where your vision is clear and all the noise of everyday life subsides.
But even though it is easier to find God on the mountaintop, that is not the only place God can be found. All of us came to church this morning, hoping to find something of God here. And God feels especially close in the beauty of the natural world: stars shining in the sky, waves falling on the ocean shore. Poets and visionaries can attest that these are places you can find God. When you’re lost or lonely or wondering what’s next, find a church to pray in, or a mountain to climb, or a forest to walk in — remember those places you have felt God’s presence before and go seek God there again.
Of course, there’s always a temptation to stay put on top of the mountain — to use that sacred space as a place to hide from the problems of the world. Peter — bumbling Peter, as usual —gives into this temptation when he asks Jesus if they can build dwellings on top of the mountain and just bask in God’s glorious presence forever, content, but removed from all the trouble brewing down on the ground below. The answer is no. God needs us to go down from the mountain and out into the world, and take some of God’s transformative love with us to share.
Truthfully, it isn’t only in those beautiful and set-apart places that we can find God. The whole world is filled with the glory of God, if we only have eyes to see. John Neafsey, in his book A Sacred Voice is Calling, writes that the most important place we can hear God’s voice is in the cry of the poor. Neafsey means that eventually, we have to go where we know God is. And we know that God is always alive in the struggle for justice. We know that God lives among the marginalized, that God fights for the poor and upholds the weak. This is another place to seek God’s presence, and to hear God’s voice in the story they tell. And from listening, to learn how best we can share God’s love with one another, and see unity where we thought there was division.
There is no place on earth that God’s love does not go. If we open our hearts to God’s Spirit and go looking for God, we will begin to see God’s presence all around us. Our transfiguration comes as our eyes are opened and our hearts changed. And the people who seemed so different from us before — the poor and the marginalized — we will see them as they really are: made in God’s image, just as we are; we will see how Jesus’ life was spent for them, just as it was for us.
Open your eyes and see the world as it is— beloved by God. Let your heart be transfigured by God’s love. Take that love down from this mountain and use it to bring more love into the world.