Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John 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 dazzling white.Matthew 17:1-2
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, we shall all be changed, scripture reminds us. When that last trumpet sounds, there will be a new heaven and a new earth. All that we see will be changed, transfigured, made new, by the God who created it all. When Jesus returns, he will come in glory. And we will see him at his most glorious.
And today, through the eyes of Peter, James and John, we get a glimpse of that glory that is to come. Today, we travel up the mountain, with those blessed three disciples, to see Jesus as he will be when he returns in glory.
Peter tells us, in our second reading, that this great miracle of the transfiguration is no myth. He, along with James and John, were eyewitnesses of this majestic moment. They saw Jesus, not as the son of Mary, but as the son of God. And they heard the very voice of God proclaim Jesus as God’s beloved Son. This is no clever myth, Peter tells us. This is as real as anything has ever been. And so, this is as clear and powerful a reminder as we will ever have that Jesus is God. And that when that last trumpet sounds, we, too, will see and hear the glory of the Father’s only Son.
It Is Good to Look Up
Every once in a while, it is good to look up. Every once in a while, it is good to remember what is to come; to remember where we are headed. Because the road can be long, and challenging. We need, sometimes, to remember the glory that is to come.
Life can be difficult. There is no easy way to get through it. And being Christian does not take away all the challenges that life confronts us with. Sometimes, it adds to those challenges.
We are challenged not just to get through life, but to live it for God. We are challenged not just to cope with our sufferings, but to take up our cross. We are challenged not just to love our family, but to love our God and to love our neighbor and even to love our enemy. We are challenged not just to forgive occasionally, but to forgive endlessly. We are challenged to bear all things, to believe all things, to hope all things, and to endure all things. We are challenged to have a love that never ends.
None of this is easy. And that is why, when we get discouraged, it is good to look up. It is good to remember this great miracle, of the Transfiguration of Our Lord; it is good to read this story again, or hear this story again, and to remember. To remember that it is all about Jesus. Everything we do. Everything we are. It all began with Jesus, and it all will end with Jesus. And everything in between is all about bringing glory to Jesus.
To me, that is what this festival is all about. It is about going up the mountain with Peter, James and John, and seeing Jesus as he truly is. Not just as the word become flesh, but as the everlasting Son of God.
It’s amazing, really, that Peter, James and John were allowed to see this.There were other times in Jesus’s ministry when he went up a mountain alone. It could have happened then. (Maybe it did?!) But we know, at least, that in this case it happened in the presence of these three eye-witnesses, Peter, James and John.
Why Just Peter, James and John?
We might wonder, though, why Jesus wasn’t transfigured before everyone. Wouldn’t that have made things a little easier? Easier for everyone to believe that Jesus really is the Messiah? If he just appeared to them, briefly, as the transfigured Son of God?
It must have been tempting for Jesus to do this. In fact, we know that it was. Because it is a temptation that he had already dealt with, back when the devil tried to convince him to throw himself from the pinnacle Temple and be caught by the angels. Surely everyone would have believed that he was the Son of God then!
But I suspect that Jesus knew otherwise. He knew that there would be no proof that would survive the cross. No matter how spectacular the miracle, the cross still awaited Jesus. And the cross would test everyone’s faith. Why would the Son of God allow himself to die in this way? If you really are the Son of God, the doubters cried, save yourself! Prove yourself. Convince us. No matter how clear the evidence, the cross would still force all who believed to live by faith and not by sight. There would be no other way.
The Transfiguration and the Crucifixion
In today’s story, we find Peter hoping to capture the glory of the transfiguration; to put it away, and keep it safe. He wants to preserve the proof that all of this is for real. But the glory cannot be captured.
The glory could not stay on the mountain. It had to descend the mountain. The glory had to walk the way of sorrows, and endure the shame and agony of the cross. There was no other way. For reasons known only to God, the crucifixion was necessary.
The transfiguration is meaningless without the crucifixion. But the transfiguration gave Jesus and his closest disciples a chance to look up. A moment in time when they could remember where all this was headed. When they could catch a glimpse beyond the cross; beyond the tomb. A little hint of the glory of Easter before they walk the way of sorrows.
I suspect that is why this festival comes right before the Season of Lent. We get to catch a glimpse of where all this is headed before we begin our journey through Lent.
Wednesday, we will gather to be transfigured by ashes; to be reminded of our mortality; And to begin the discipline of Lent. It is our way of sorrows. When we take up our cross and follow Jesus, giving up those things that get in the way of our doing this. But first, we go up the mountain, with Peter, James and John, to look up; to look ahead; and to be encouraged on our journey.
It is good to look up. But we can’t stay that way. Just like Jesus and those three disciples, we are invited to come down the mountain, and live our faith in real and practical ways.
And with that in mind, I want to share with you another passage from scripture which uses the word, transfiguration. It is translated, in this case, transformed, but the word is actually the very same one. It is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans Chapter 12:
Do not be conformed to this world, but [be transfigured,] 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.Romans 12:2
Do not be conformed to this world. Be transfigured.
When Jesus was transfigured, it caused him to look on the outside like he already was on the inside. He was, and is, the Son of God, and his transfiguration caused him to look like what he truly was.
But maybe our transfiguration is just the opposite. On the outside, we are all created in the image of God. We are brothers and sisters of Christ, already, a remarkable thing. When God sees us, He sees Christ, through our baptisms into Christ. But what about on the inside? Can we be transfigured from the inside out, so that who we are on the inside begins to look more like who we are on the outside?
Paul challenges us to do just that. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transfigured by the renewing of your minds. You see? In our case, to be transfigured does not mean to have our face shine like the sun, and have our clothes become dazzling white. Our transfiguration will take place on the inside. We will be transfigured, changed, by the renewing of our minds. We will no longer be conformed to this world. We will no longer think like this world. Our goals, our hopes, our dreams, our values; what is important to us, who is important to us, will all be changed.
When we are transfigured from the inside out, we will love what Jesus loves, and think like Jesus thinks. We will act like Jesus acts, and do what Jesus does. We will do the will of God, not the will of this world. We will do what is good and acceptable and perfect to God.
If we want to respond in some way to the miracle of Jesus’ love for us, and his death for us, then we will be transfigured from the inside out. We will learn to act more and more like the Son of God. We will take time to listen to Jesus, to really listen, and devote ourselves to living by his teaching. We will grow in our faith toward God, and our love toward our neighbor. We will look more and more on the inside, like what God already sees on the outside.
If you like theological words, you might say that our sanctification will catch up to our justification. Yes, we are already saved. Justified. By grace through faith. But with God’s help, and by his grace, we can become more and more like our Savior. That is the work of sanctification. That is the work of our transfiguration.
But I don’t want to travel too far down that road today. Because today, the focus really isn’t on us. It is on Jesus. This Wednesday, we will come back here, to have our faces transfigured by ashes, and to begin the work of Lent. We will be invited to spend the next forty or so days: contending against evil, and resisting whatever is leading us away from love of God and neighbor, through the discipline of Lent. And this can be hard, challenging work. Taking up our cross and dying to our self always is.
And that is why it is so good, today, to remember the goal. The reason we do all of this. And to remember where we are headed. Where this world is headed. It is good to remember that the day is coming, soon enough, when the last trumpet will sound. And when we will all be changed, in the blink of an eye. And when the new heaven and the new earth will come to us all. And when we will see Jesus as he truly is. In all his transfigured glory. Thanks be to God. Amen