Scripture Text: Matthew 17:1-9 & Exodus 24:12-18
Here we are at the end of a long season of Epiphany. The season where we celebrate the revelation of God’s saving grace for all peoples of the world. The Season of Epiphany is bookended by two other church holidays – with Baptism of the Lord Sunday at the beginning and Transfiguration Sunday at the end. Both days recall events in the life of Jesus – his baptism and his transfiguration. Both days are marked by the voice of God declaring Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. And, if you look carefully – you’ll discover that both days are also Easter stories – stories about death and resurrection.
In the Easter story, we learn how Jesus is executed by the state for treason, is buried, and three days later, resurrects in full body. Jesus’ body is the same, yet he is different. Jesus is made new. And through his resurrection, Jesus is making all things new.
Baptism of the Lord is also conveys death and resurrection motifs. Jesus tells John to baptize him. When Jesus goes under the water, his private, one-dimensional identity as a carpenter from Nazareth, as the son of Joseph – that identity dies. And when he comes up out of the water, his true identity as the beloved, the Son of God is revealed publicly by the voice of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit. This was the early church’s theology of what happened to people during their baptism. It wasn’t just re-enacting the baptism of Jesus, it was also re-presenting our own death and resurrection. In taking your baptismal vows, you promise to turn from all that you’ve ever known in the world and turn towards the way of Jesus. To sacrifice your old life and embrace a new way of life. Going under the watery tomb, your old life dies – is sacrificed. Rising up out of the water, the tomb is opened, and you are resurrected to new life in Christ. You are transformed into a new creation. Still in the same body, but new in mind, soul, spirit, and purpose.
Then there is the Transfiguration. Where Jesus lights up, Moses and Elijah appear, God speaks again, and then Jesus moves on like nothing ever happened. Jesus doesn’t seem to die or resurrect. Yes, Elijah and Moses appear, but if you remember your Old Testament, Elijah never died either – he was taken up into heaven by God. So, what’s going on here? How does this story speak to death and resurrection? And what does this say to us about our own transformation?
As always, I love looking at the original Greek of scripture because it gives us such a richer understanding of what’s happening than our limited English translations. And in the very first verse, we find a word that has more than one layer of meaning. The NRSV text says, “…Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.” The Greek word for “led them up” can also mean “to lift up” or “to sacrifice.” And where did most religions in this time and place offer their sacrifices – on the top of high mountains. In fact, we have a similar story in the Old Testament where Abraham took his son Isaac and “led him up” a mountain because God said to sacrifice him. In fact, when the early Rabbis translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek – a translation called The Septuagint – they used this Greek work to translate the Hebrew word for “sacrifice.” So right from the start, we could also read this sentence as “…Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John, by themselves, and offered them as sacrifice.” But what KIND of sacrifice was Jesus making of them? And doesn’t sacrifice imply that things have to die? And where is the resurrection?
By the second verse, we get the revealing of what I like to call, “Disco Ball Jesus” and the appearance of Moses and Elijah. And despite how amazing and mystical this experience is, Peter does the only thing he knows to do with such a supernatural experience – make religion out of it. Instead of simply immersing himself in this divine experience, Peter wants to trap it, memorialize it, and ritualize it. And so he interrupts this divine moment by saying, “Lord, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain – one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?” But before Peter can finish speaking – God interrupts him,“This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. LISTEN to him.” It’s the same words God proclaims at Jesus’ baptism. But this time, God adds a direct instruction, “LISTEN to him.”
That’s when Peter and his fellow Disciples realize that Peter went too far. And so all three of them fall flat on their faces, absolutely terrified. There goes Peter running his big mouth again, and now he’s going to get us all killed by the Almighty. This is it. We’re done for. All they can do is make themselves as small as possible before God and hope that God spares them for Peter’s ignorance and impulsiveness. But, instead of being struck by lightning, they are touched by Jesus. Jesus goes to them, touches them, and says, “Get up. And do not be afraid.” And that’s where Greek helps us see the resurrection in this story. The Greek word translated “get up” is the same word used in the Easter story for Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus is literally telling them “Resurrect! And do not fear.” And then Jesus immediately heads back down the mountain towards Jerusalem – towards the place where Jesus will actually die and resurrect.
So in the Transfiguration, it’s not Jesus that is sacrificed and resurrected – it’s the Disciples. But dying to what? And resurrecting to what? The answer to that lies in understanding what Jews like Peter, James, and John would have believed about such an experience. During this time there was a lot of Jewish apocalyptic literature being written. Now when we say “apocalypse” we tend to think “end of the world.” But in the context of first century Judaism, apocalypse literally means “to unveil” or “to reveal” what God is doing. And one piece of apocalyptic literature at that time – the Apocalypse of Baruch which was written around the same time as Matthew’s Gospel – describes the transfiguration as something that is given to the righteous after they are resurrected. The text says,“The appearances of their faces will be transformed into radiant beauty…Then will the glory of the righteous be greater than that of the angels.” But in the Gospel, we see Jesus receive the transfiguration before he is resurrected. What is promised to the righteous in the next world already happens to Jesus in this world.
The only other times the word “transfigured” shows up in the New Testament is twice in Paul’s writings. And in this context, Paul is using the idea of “transfiguration” to describe the invisible process within Christians of conforming themselves into the image of Christ, which takes place over their entire lives. Paul describes transfiguration not as a single, autonomous, earthly, mystical moment, but the Spirit-driven process of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God into our lives and our world in the here and now – not later. Transfiguration begins within, but it always moves outward – calling us to follow Jesus wherever he goes. And transfiguration is a life-long process because we will constantly wrestle with the tension between this world and the Kingdom. Because the Kingdom is both “already” here and “not yet” here. And so Transfiguration is an ongoing process of turning away (or “repenting”) from the ways of life in this world and turning towards the way of life in the Kingdom. It’s about dying to your old way of life and resurrecting in the life of Jesus. Transfiguration is about Discipleship. About how are you growing as a Disciple of Jesus Christ. How you are becoming more and more like Jesus. How you are merging your identity with Jesus’ identity as a Child of God. And God tells the Disciples how to do that, “Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus. And then, keep moving forward.
Despite all the time Peter, James, and John have spent with Jesus, despite how much they believe in Jesus, they have NOT truly listened to Jesus. Jesus tells them before the transfiguration that he will have to suffer and die. Yet they don’t seem to get it. Peter even rejects it. And Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan,” for trying to convince Jesus to define his identity by glory and power instead of suffering and weakness. Because the glory is already there. That glory is already given to Jesus. And that glory is revealed to Peter in the transfiguration.
Yet Peter still doesn’t listen. Peter wants to take all this glory, this experience of God, and trap it in a memorial. Doesn’t that just sound like something the church does? Take an experience of God’s glory and trap it in monuments, buildings, and memorial plaques? We even engrave them with “To the Glory of God.” The church even tries to trap the glory of God in worship services, rituals, and theology – where we believe we can actually control God by singing the right songs, doing the right gestures, and reciting the right words. And deep down, that’s why we get so upset when things change in our worship services. We may say it’s because we are uncomfortable with change, but it’s not change itself that makes us uncomfortable. What makes us uncomfortable is that if we change the way we do our worship and rituals, if we change the way we’ve always “done church,” if we change our interpretation of scripture to be more open and inclusive of others, then we fear that we may lose God’s glory.
But if God’s silencing of Peter and Jesus’ immediate march towards Jerusalem teaches us anything, it’s that God is NOT a God of “the way it’s always been.” God is a God of transformation, of transfiguration. God is a God of change. And if we stop moving forward, Jesus is going to leave us behind on the mountaintop with our meaningless monuments, empty buildings, forgotten memorials, wooden worship, rigid rituals, and fossilized theologies. Because Jesus has work to do. Jesus doesn’t have time for you to build monuments, buildings, and memorials. Jesus doesn’t have time for you to rehash irrelevant worship or trudge up tired theologies. Because Jesus is about resurrecting dead things to new life – even the Church. Through death and resurrection Jesus transfigures the Church into a gathering of the Children of God sent out to serve the Mission of God so that all people are transfigured into the Image of God! And Jesus needs you, the church, to willingly sacrifice what you once were so that he can resurrect you and transfigure you into who you are.
Up on the mountain that day, Peter, James, and John became who they are. They sacrificed their former, self-righteous, ritualistic, religious lives in order to be resurrected to a new life of fearlessly and faithfully following Jesus. A way of life and faith that is glorious, but ALWAYS leads to the cross. And Jesus’ transfiguration reveals not only the glory of God within him, but also the glory of God found within us – within ALL Disciples as they follow the way of Jesus. And if we wish to share in Jesus’ glory – both now and in the future – we must also be prepared to come down from the safety of our static mountaintop religions and follow Christ’s way of dynamic sacrificial faith for the sake of others. And you can do that by allowing yourself to be transfigured – by allowing yourself to grow as a Disciple of Christ. And then proclaiming your transformation to others.
And so at this time, we are going to proclaim that transformation. Over the last 9 week’s many of you had a Star Word that I asked you to place somewhere you could regularly see it to reflect daily on your life during this season. And we’ve had a few conversations about our Star Words on Facebook in our Grace Presbyterian Community group. But now I want people to share their testimony of how they’ve seen themselves transform over this epiphany season.
(Members of Grace Presbyterian share their reflections from their Star Words over the Epiphany Season.)