Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God. While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, "Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands." But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
Happy Transfiguration (The church word for the event reported today, about Jesus change in physical appearance and meeting with Elijah the great prophet and Moses who brought the law of God to the people). This is one of those church days that you will not find greeting cards for, no one ever says this day is too commercialized, there are no campaigns or bumper stickers to keep Christ in Transfiguration. At the same time, it is one of the days that help shape our faith and understand God’s love revealed by Jesus. Many different churches around the world are celebrating this event today on the last Sunday before Lent. We are at the end of a church season called Epiphany. This part of the year starts with the visit of the 3 magi or wise men, who bring gifts to the newborn Jesus. Each of their gifts reveals that Jesus, that Child born on Christmas, is God with us. Gold revealed power and royalty, Frankincense revealed worship and divinity, Myrrh revealed suffering and death. The other major events that reveal this child born on Christmas is God with us include Jesus baptism by John, where God’s voice announces “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased” and the wedding at Cana (Jesus first miracle in John’s gospel, where water is turned into wine, not exactly a profound and vital event but God acting as necessary in the world, helping fix mistakes and interfering with things). As we have gone through the Gospel of Luke this year, we missed those stories but we have seen Jesus revealed as God with us through healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, forgiving sins, teaching with authority and welcoming all people into the kingdom of God.
With the Transfiguration the question is no longer who was born on Christmas, It is not even really who will face temptation in the wilderness, (despite this story always happening right before lent), it is “who will suffer and die on the cross”, who will endure these things for the salvation of all people. Right before the Transfiguration there was great confusion over who Jesus was. Herod thinks Jesus is John the Baptist, back from the dead and very pissed at his murderer (Herod is tricked into having John killed against his own better judgment). Others say Jesus is the return of the prophet Elijah who was taken into heaven centuries earlier or another of the ancient prophets. Even Jesus disciples seem to be unclear about Jesus identity
Right before going up the mountain, Peter proclaims who Jesus is, declaring that Jesus is the messiah of God. In response Jesus points out this was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit and sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
After this, the disciples are more confused, each one afraid but desperate to ask “wait a minute, if you are the Messiah, how can you suffer and die”. As Peter, John and James go up the mountain with Jesus, they have no idea what to expect. Once there, they witness the Transfiguration, the revealing of Jesus glory. Like Jesus being the Messiah and suffering, they now face another hard question they are afraid but desperate to ask “wait a minute, why not go and share this in the heart of the city, in the center of the temple, show the people who you are, and take over the world”. (Today, we would say put it on youtube or instagram, it’ll go viral, be something lots of people look at)
Instead, Peter’s plans to capture and keep this experience is dismissed. You get the sense that Peter wants to use this event as the centerpiece of the great Messiah marketing campaign. After all, lots of people could help the sick, many teachers were floating around, there were other claims to being the messiah, but the Transfiguration, that was special, that was proof that Jesus was the Messiah. There will be no booths, not even a mention of this event. No, after the Transfiguration, Jesus is back to the daily grind. Jesus is once again greeted by a great crowd, who all want something from him and do not understand his words.
I want to explain away Jesus frustration and anger with the crowds but that is a very human moment. It is like coming back to work after a long vacation, seeing all the things that piled up, sorting all the emails, returning calls and realizing the things you avoided before you left did not get magically resolved on their own. After all, Jesus just experienced this profound moment of power and glory and the next morning was back to being misunderstood and asked for stuff. The Transfiguration is a reminder of God’s glory, it is reassurance of God’s power but it is also a reminder that God is present is suffering, not offering easy escape to all those who believe, or a get out of pain free card, it is a reminder that God is with us in this world.
(I added this Sunday morning after reading Chris Hedges book, American Facism during the week) We have to keep in mind that for millions of Christians in the United States, this idea of Jesus suffering, or being with the suffering, walking with the outcast and showing power in weakness is ridiculous. There are many churches that center around Jesus as power, as having dominion over all things (power he gladly gives to their leaders since they are so awesome). People see Jesus as being with the rich and strong, rewarding faith and punishing the other. These churches take advantage of people, isolate members from truths and have gained a great deal of wealth, power and influence in our nation with their manipulative, non-biblical story. It’s our work to show another way of understanding God’s revelation to the world. Yes, God has dominion over all things, Yes Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, but Jesus always used that power to help, unite, heal, forgive and welcome all people. He never became emperor or showed any desire to (he outright rejects any suggest of it). He never struck it rich (again, nor did he show any desire for it). Jesus did not teach us the secrets of being rich, healthy, powerful and conquer our enemies, he did not show his followers how to be great at getting worldly things, he invited us to care about Godly things.
I wanted to end with looking at 2 different perspectives on the Transfiguration, where someone elses words say things better than I can. In his second letter, Peter in chapter 1, verses 16 and 17, writes
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
Here, the Transfiguration takes on its role in telling the story of revealing God’s love for all people through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The one who raised the dead is the one who died, the one who healed the sick is the one who suffered, the one who was Transfigured died a shamed criminal, The messiah endured all suffering and defeated sin and death. It points away from great signs of power and points to Christ’s death and resurrection as the way of our salvation.
In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the prayer for Transfiguration is:
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
As we start Lent, we are invited to take these gifts, to offer each other the light of God.