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.
What are we to make of these familiar events in the life of Jesus like the one of the transfiguration that we have before us today? I’ll tell you what we are NOT supposed to do and that is make them about us. They are FOR us but they are not ABOUT us. I will explain what I mean.
When I was a curate, the Rector brought in a friend to preach on the Feast of the Transfiguration. He hyped him as a preacher so much that you would have thought Billy Graham was coming to town. Well the guest preacher’s sermon was a long story of a girl that he knew in school who had red hair and was plain and plump. Then when he saw her years later she had transformed into a ginger haired beauty. So the story of the transformation is to give us hope that we too can change. At the end of his sermon the Rector should have been like Alex Trabeck with a buzzer in his hand to make the buzzer, you-are-dead-wrong, sound. The transfiguration of Jesus Christ is not a biblical infomercial about us and our ability to be changed. The point of it, of course, is to declare the divinity of Jesus. The last time anyone saw someone shine with that kind of brilliance was when Moses was standing before God on the mountain. Except Moses only reflected God’s brilliance while Jesus was the source of it. So if God shone like that and Jesus shone like that then Jesus must be God. The story of the transfiguration is about Jesus, not about us. And yet the story of the transfiguration is for us. In what way?
First it is for us in the very fact that it declared the divinity of Jesus. Jesus didn’t need that information. He had been telling and showing His disciples all along that He was God the Son but they were not getting it. Before this event, Jesus has walked on water, fed the 5,000, cast a demon out of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and healed both a deaf man and a blind man but the disciples still needed to purchase another vowel. It was not coming together for them. Actually what is more interesting and so human is that they would get it and then they wouldn’t get it. They would go from declaring Him to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, to being confused and not trusting Him about what He was trying to accomplish.
That never happens to us, right? Once I realized that I have a heavenly Father who loves me and knows my needs, I have not worried a day since. I have never been concerned about my day-to-day life, my health or my future because that is all in God’s hands. In actuality while that should be true it isn’t. I’m just like the disciples who get it and then don’t get it. We walk by faith and not by sight and so we need constant reminders, like this story of His transfiguration, that He is God and has it under control and so we can trust Him.
It’s hard to hold on to the truth. The world and the flesh and especially the devil fight against us. There are spiritual forces that don’t want us to get it and can even blind us to the truth. I was taking food to the Food Bank last week and when a woman saw me she asked if I was a priest and when I said “Yes” she said that she needed my help. I was expecting for her to hit me up for some money but instead she said that she needed help getting back in Church. She said that every Saturday she decides to go but then something tells her not to go and so she does not. I told her that the voice telling her not to go was satanic and she acted surprised. It had not occurred to her that it would be the work of the enemy to keep her out of Church. I told her that she needed to make a resolve that unless she was sick or dead, there would be no excuse for not going. I told her that once you do that it becomes a godly habit and it’s a part of your life and the battle ends.
Two other ways that this story is FOR us can be seen in the collect of the day. First, the light of His countenance, that is the revelation that He is God, is reveled to us so that we “may be strengthened to bear our cross.” But it is not just the knowledge that He is Divine but it is the revelation that He is the Divine One who promises to be with us always. That He is the God who unites Himself with us, is how we receive the strength to take up our cross. Max Lucado puts it this way in his book on Grace. “No other religion or philosophy makes such a claim. No other movement implies the living presence of its founder IN his followers. Muhammed does not indwell Muslims. Budda does not inhabit Buddhists. Hugh Hefner doe not inhabit the pleasure-seeking hedonist. Influence? Instruct? Entice? Yes. But occupy? No.” (p.9). In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul speaks of a glorious mystery that has been hidden through the ages and then he tells them what that mystery is……it is Christ in you, the hope of glory. This was the mystery that had moved the Apostle from a religion that is about learning all the rules and then trying hard to keep them to a relationship with Christ where as the Prayer Book puts it, “that he may dwell in us and we in him.”
The second way this story, while not about us is for us, is that we are to “be changed into His likeness from glory to glory.” The point of the cross we are to bear is so that we die to ourselves and are resurrected in Him. The process of sanctification, or being made holy, is that every day, little by little, there is a little less of me and a little more of Him. St. Paul put it this way. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and delivered Himself up for me.”(Gal 2:20).
I want to be quick to add that this is done in the context of love and not out of some form of dualism or self-hatred. We are not called to die to self because God wants to eradicate us or because our humanity is evil. God’s goal for us is to glorify us along with His Son and to do so we must become like His Son. His plans for us are beyond what we can think or even imagine and so we are called to crucify our goals to attain His. Years ago I heard a great preacher describe it this way. God has spread an enormous banquet table before me and I am standing there with a bologna sandwich in my hand. God then asks me to set down the bologna sandwich and join Him at the table and I have a choice to make. It should be an obvious one but how many people chose to hang on to their bologna sandwiches? How many times have I?
This whole idea of being glorified with Christ, requires that there is a life beyond this life and the transfiguration proves that. Elijah and Moses appear talking with Jesus. They aren’t dead, they aren’t asleep, they didn’t become one with the Universe. Moses and Elijah were still Moses and Elijah and they were talking with Jesus. The text says that they were speaking to Jesus about His departure which He was to soon to accomplish in Jerusalem. This strange way to put it is of course a euphemism for His upcoming crucifixion.
Isn’t it fascinating that the saints in glory knew what was about to happen among men but the guys on the ground were clueless. Peter, James and John might have well been named Larry, Moe and Curly. All Peter could think to do was to offer to make three booths, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. This was something that Jews did on an annual basis, to make huts out or branches and live in them for a week as a constant reminder of their time in the wilderness. It was called the Feast of Booths. It would be like our parish renting a school cafeteria once a year and having Mass there to remind us from where we have come.
So Peter offers to do this and in St. Mark’s version of this event it says of Peter, “For he did not know what to say for they were all terrified.” Peter was of the philosophy that when you do not know what to say, say the first thing that pops into your head. That is never a good idea, especially when you are in the presence of the Divine. Silence is often the best choice which is why Anglicanism is not afraid of silence and why we do not feel the need to fill every moment of worship with either words or music.
Peter’s comment about building the booths also showed that he had missed the point. This is how the scholars of the English Standard Version put it the notes of their Study Bible. “Once more, Peter and his companions do not grasp the greatness of the Messiah (and they give references to 7 other occasions). They go on; “Peter sees Jesus merely as someone similar to Moses and Elijah and wishes to raise tents for them.” (notes on Mark 9:5 p.1911).
I had never thought of this before but I can see their point. To make equal booths or tents would be like having the Bishop over for dinner and rather than giving him the chair at the head of the table, telling him to sit wherever he likes. Respect would give him a place of honor and so if Peter had truly understood who Jesus was, he would have thought of a way to honor Him above Moses and Elijah. But since he didn’t understand, it didn’t occur to him.
Peter is such an easy target throughout the Gospels but if we read the Scriptures reflectively then we will see ourselves in him. It’s not like I have never stepped out of line or spoken out of turn. How about you? What is wonderful about Peter’s story is that every time he messes up God steps in to redeem Him. When he walks on the water and starts sinking, Jesus pulls him to safety. After he denies Jesus, Jesus seeks him out in Galilee and restores him to leadership. In this case God the Father intervenes and stops Peter from making another stupid comment by saying “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to Him.” Notice where the Father is focusing Peter’s attention; Peter who has not yet grasped the greatness of the Messiah. The Father says nothing of Moses or Elijah and He emphasizes that not only is Jesus His Son but He is His Chosen, He IS the Messiah. The call to listen to him is an echo back to the prophecy of Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 that God will raise up a prophet like him and the people will listen his words. And Jesus’ words fulfill the Law and the Prophets and so we are called to listen to Him because He is greater than either.
So while the transfiguration is not about us, it is for us. Even though we know better we still too often live as if this life is all there is. There used to be an expression, “Life is not a dress rehearsal so live it.” While I get the point, and agree that we should be living life, I still believe, that in a very profound way, that expression is wrong. The transfiguration tells us that this life is indeed a dress rehearsal. We want to build booths and make this life permanent but God has plans beyond this life. As we will be reminded this week, we are but dust and to dust we shall return. But God’s kingdom is forever and we are called to live in that kingdom. It is that reality that should shape how we live in the here and now. Just as with the disciples, we may not fully understand what God is doing, but the Father’s call to listen to Jesus was a call to trust Him and that is what the event of the transfiguration asks us to do.