a sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year A]
Every time the Sunday of Jesus’ Transfiguration rolls around, someone in my family brings up a story from my childhood which I am too young to remember anything about but which I’ve heard so many times that I feel like I can remember it. Do you have stories like that in your life? One of mine revolves around this strange event of Jesus’ life. Often my uncle, who is also a Lutheran pastor and who was in seminary at the time, will text me or message me on Transfiguration Sunday and remind me of it.
As the story goes, I was about three years old at the time and my dad was reading a magazine that had a little comic of Jesus’ transfiguration. I guess the little cartoon drawing got my attention because I was standing next to him and looking over his shoulder. Curious to see what I thought, my dad asked if I knew who the people were. I pointed to the person in the middle, who was depicted with a beard and wearing a white robe, and said, “That’s Jesus.” Then my dad pointed to the two older guys on either side of Jesus and asked me if I knew who they were, probably hoping in some way that I was a child prodigy, or a model Sunday School student. I was silent for a second and then answered, “That’s Bert and Ernie.”
No, I was not and am not a prodigy, but now I can say that every year when Elijah and Moses are standing there holding a conversation with Jesus I think of Sesame Street. And, truth be told, to many 3-year-olds there are few figures who hold greater authority in life than Bert and Ernie. They teach life lessons. They model how to get along as opposites. They are arguably the most famous pair in the whole world of educational TV, representing not just different personalities, but different ways of dwelling in the world. And suffice it to say if a three-year-old had been on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, that kid would have been really impressed with Jesus if Jesus were hanging out with Bert and Ernie.
Being impressed with Jesus is what the transfiguration is really all about. The light, the clouds, the voice—whatever else our modern minds want to make of this strange and mysterious event up on the mountain, it’s clear that it’s meant to get our attention on Jesus. It tells us this is who we’re dealing with here. He is not our ordinary teacher. He dazzles. He shines. He has authority like no one else. He is on level with or even above the greatest figures of Israel’s history and faith, the pillars that God’s Word is based upon: Moses and Elijah.
It would be like being in a Super Bowl huddle with 24-year-old Patrick Mahomes and wondering just what he’s made of and then looking up and seeing him talking with Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. It would be like calling in the young IT person your company has just hired to set up a new network and set up a new anti-virus system and then peeking in the employee break room to find her conferring with Steve Jobs and Alan Turing. Jesus may still be relatively new to the disciples up on the Mount of Transfiguration but it is clear from all that happens that something absolutely groundbreaking is happening in him and all eyes and ears need to be on him. God loves him. God has placed him on this earth to demonstrate what God’s righteousness is like. Move over, Bert and Ernie. Today’s episode is brought to you by the letter B, for “Beloved.”
The disciples’ reaction is about what we’d expect. It’s about what we’d expect because we do this too when we’re amazed and dazzled by new people and new experiences. We want to prolong them, bottle them up, save them for later. I’ve seen the youth as they prepare to leave Winter Celebration, often getting teary-eyed and clinging to their friends, wishing they could somehow stay at Eagle Eyrie all the time. Many of us have felt the urge to keep that Christmas Eve candle lit just a little longer and only blow it out at the last possible minute. We want Christmas to “last all year.” I’ve myself struggled to come home from vacations or get back into the swing of things after a particularly meaningful time away with friends and family.
Peter’s up on that mountain, in the moment, and says, “It is good to be here,” and then he comes up with this idea to make three tents for Jesus and the Elijah and Moses. Peter’s so impressed with Jesus that he doesn’t even think of where he and James and John are going to sleep. But then before any of that can take place, a cloud rolls in, Moses and Elijah disappear, and Jesus tells them all it’s time to head back down the mountain.
And then he does something very strange—maybe it’s the strangest thing of all in this whole episode. Jesus tells them not to mention any of it until after he the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. Typically people come away from amazing spiritual experiences and want to share it, want to let people know what happened. This particular transfiguration Jesus wants to remain a secret.
Just who is Jesus? That’s what’s at stake here. How we’re going to talk about Jesus and explain his presence in our life is not just a transfiguration issue, but a daily challenge. I was once at a pastors’ conference and heard Richard Graham, former bishop of the Metro DC Synod of our denomination, say, “Jesus is the light of the world. Christians don’t advance the conversation in a helpful way when we say to the world, ‘Jesus is just an interesting option.’”
Jesus is announced as God’s Son, God’s beloved, not just another great teacher or leader in a list of great teachers and leaders, and if the point of his transfiguration is to get all eyes on him, to notice how special he is and to make us impressed, then it appears the disciples will need to keep following and listening to him. God wants them to keep listening and moving with Jesus when they come down the mountain.
There is a movement in this story, you may notice, from seeing and experiencing to hearing and following. At first the disciples see things—the dazzling white clothes, the authority figures of ancient Israel, the bright could that overshadows. But by the end of the story, all those visions are gone and they are left with sound—God’s command to listen to Jesus, and Jesus’ own words of “Do not fear” and his urge to “Get up.” The key then to understanding who Jesus truly is, the key to deepening our relationship with him, will lie not in seeking out or prolonging the religious experiences, as holy as they may be, but in listening to him, taking in his words, realizing that in Jesus, God has given us someone we can always count on.
This past week in Confirmation Class we were looking at the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, that long middle section that talks about Jesus, and we were specifically discussing Jesus’ death and resurrection and what it means for us. How do people of faith explain what Jesus’ death on the cross actually accomplishes and why his death plays such an important, I would say, indispensable part of his love for us. We talked about how in some ways Scripture presents Jesus is a sacrifice for us, that he lays down his life like a lamb so that the guilt we bear and the sins of the world can somehow be erased and we can be reconciled to God. Then we looked at how some parts of Scripture talk about Jesus as a rescuer or a liberator that he comes to redeem us, set us free from the ways of darkness and selfishness that hold us captive. And then we talked about how in some ways Jesus is shown as our purifier. His death purifies us of our sin like water and shows us how powerful love is—how powerful unconditional love is—in its ability to make people new again.
There are other ways that Scripture talks about Jesus’ death, of course, but those were the three we looked at—sacrifice, rescuer, and purifier. And then the confirmands were asked to share of those three which made most sense to them. Here’s how Scripture talks of Jesus. How do you talk about him? It was quiet for a moment but then one of the confirmands raised his hand and said Jesus is a purifier for him because each Sunday after worship he feels purified, cleansed and renewed to go forth into the week. One young woman said that she feels Jesus is more of a rescuer because she has felt Jesus’ presence in her life when she was going through some really difficult stuff and that Jesus was there for her, bringing her out of it.
Hearing their testimonies was so moving for me. It seems to me that kind of faith comes from someone who has realized that what makes Jesus so impressive and authoritative is not that he provides flashy religious experiences but that he comes down the mountain and enters the world’s pain. It seems to me that kind of faith comes from people who know that the two most important people Jesus is seen standing beside, and in conversation with, are not Elijah and Moses, but the two common criminals that hang next to him on the cross. That kind of faith is born in someone who has come to understand, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the most dazzling Jesus ever gets is when he is stripped of all his clothes and left to die. If God’s Beloved Son is crucified, died, and is buried, then there is no limit to how far God will go to give us his righteousness.
Life can be so hard. The valleys can be dark and the road treacherous. I think Jesus does want his disciples to save up this awesome vision for later, after all, to bottle it up in their minds eye. If you, like me, wonder what’s going on with this transfiguration, after all, if you’re wondering what to do with it, how Bert and Ernie might fit in, then just let the vision sit with you. Let the vision of Jesus transfigured in glory sit with you and then continue to listen to him. Get up on your feet and hear his word not to be afraid. And when you’re moving through days of grief and sorrow that never seem to end when you begin to think in your guilt and doubt there’s no way you can be put back together again, no way anyone could purify or rescue you, then remember of where this all is eventually going to go.
Listen: God’s beloved has come to you. Tell that story over and over. He was transfigured. He is risen. Jesus is the light of the whole world. And his love is most impressive thing the we’ll ever know.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.