The Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 11, 2018)
Fairy tales have imaginary stories of people or objects being transformed or transfigured into something else. Cinderella is transformed from a grimy, enslaved, abused step-daughter into a candidate for princess by her fairy godmother, along with a pumpkin turned into a carriage and mice turned into horses that will pull the carriage and take Cinderella to the royal ball. Beautiful Belle meets up with a prince and the residents of his castle who had been cursed by a witch. The prince was turned into a beast, his butler into a candelabra, his steward into a clock, his maid into a feather duster, his housekeeper into a teapot, along with a few other transformed characters in the story.
But the account we heard in the Gospel reading today is no fairy tale. The transfiguration of Jesus really happened. Peter, in fact, makes this clear in one of his letters. In 2 Peter 1, he writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was born to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18). We were there. We saw it. We saw it all. We heard it all. That’s what Peter wants to get across. That this event really happened.
Jesus walked up the mountain appearing as a man, which he, of course, is. But his human flesh was transfigured. His appearance changed. His glory as God began to shine through his human body. His clothes became “radiant, intensely white,” whiter than anyone could bleach them. Matthew says “his face shone like the sun” (Matt. 17:2). Moses and Elijah appear there talking with Jesus, two of the greatest saints of the Old Testament. God’s Law was revealed to Moses, the Law that Jesus came to keep in our place … because in our sin we are incapable of keeping the Law and thus are under God’s condemnation apart from Christ’s perfect obedience on our behalf. Elijah was the prophet that John the Baptist was compared to, and John was the final prophet to appear on the scene and to announce the arrival of the Messiah. And Peter wanted to make three tents for each of these men, tents like the tabernacle where the Israelites worshiped and offered sacrifice. Peter would have loved to stay there for a very long time. Peter may have had good intentions, but, as St. Mark tells us, Peter was so scared he didn’t know what he was saying. A cloud, then, overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud, echoing what was spoken at the Baptism of Our Lord, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Lastly, Jesus was left alone with the disciples and tells them not to say anything about this event until after he is raised from the dead.
What was this event all about? Why did Jesus choose to reveal his divine glory at this point in time? This was the beginning of Jesus’ final march to the cross, the final march that we will be contemplating during the season of Lent that begins this week. Jesus would come down the mountain and face his opponents who would mock him, flog him, and crucify him. Two of his closest friends would deny him and betray him. All along the way to the cross, Jesus would suffer tremendously. He would pray earnestly to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. St. Mark records for us that he was “greatly distressed and troubled” … that he was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:33-34). Jesus prayed if there was any way possible to avoid such suffering and agony. Yet, as you know, Jesus prayed to his Father, “Not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). And so, it seems as if at this point, looking forward to the cross, Jesus reveals his hidden glory as a source of encouragement for his followers. It’s as if he wants to get across the point to Peter and James and John that “This is not all there is. This is not the end. We will go down the mountain and, yes, there will be trouble. There will be more opposition. There will be suffering and pain. There will be death. But behind the veil of my flesh, there is glory. Beyond the veil of death, there is eternal life and resurrection. Behind the cloud with its shadow, the voice of the Father offers his assurance of love … love for me as the one sent to do his will, love for you as I die on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for your sins.”
Knowing the identity of Jesus as he suffers changes our perspective on his suffering. We see that there is more than meets the eye. There is divine glory behind all of it. There is divine love behind all of it. The Father’s love for his Son. The Father’s love for you because you are united to his Son in Holy Baptism. And his suffering is not without purpose. It has meaning. It has a goal. It is meant to absorb all the sin that has ever been committed and put an end to God’s condemnation over our sin, because Jesus bore that condemnation for us at the cross.
Knowing the identity of Jesus as we suffer changes our perspective on OUR suffering, whatever it may be … addiction, arthritis, depression, dementia, congestive heart failure, cancer … whatever has invaded our lives, stolen away our joy, and threatens to snuff out the flame of faith. But there is more than meets the eye. In spite of your pain and discomfort, in spite of your doubts wondering where God is when you hurt so much, remember that there is divine glory and divine love behind all of it. You are not defined by your disease. Your identity is not wrapped up in your ailment or addiction. You are defined by your baptismal identity, as one who is dearly loved by God for the sake of Jesus. And he transfigures your suffering and gives it purpose even when it seems so purposeless, even when you feel so hopeless. He uses our suffering to draw us closer to him and to his Son’s cross, even as we look to him with the eyes of faith hanging on the cross, struggling for breath and bleeding to death. Listen to the words of the author of Hebrews: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons … For [our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but [our Heavenly Father] disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:5-11). Moreover, the same author declares that because Jesus suffered so much, he also really and truly understands when we suffer. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).
Some folks today who respond to suffering are much like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration. They speak without really knowing what they are saying. They mean well. But what they say is dead wrong. They may say things like, “If you just have more faith, things will get better” or “you must have done something wrong … that’s why this has happened to you.” People may have good intentions with these statements, but these statements are faith destroying lies. We live in a world broken by sin. That’s why bad things happen. We endure the consequences of sin … sometimes our own, sometimes that of others. But God does not punish us because of our sins. That was already taken care of by Christ on the cross. Things may get better. They may not. People are not always healed, whether by miracle or medicine. The amount of faith you have is inconsequential. Besides, how do you measure faith? Faith can’t be poured out into a measuring bowl or set on a scale to be weighed. Faith is a gift, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.
But even if our bodies or our minds are not healed, we are still being transformed into the image of Christ. The verses that were omitted in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians speak of this. There Paul is talking about the veil that Moses covered his face with after coming down from Mt. Sinai. He compares that veil to the veil that covers the hearts of the unbelieving Jews of his day. Then, he writes, “But when one turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:16-18).
Many people still have a veil of unbelief over their hearts. God the Holy Spirit removes the veil from our hearts and gives us faith to trust in Christ. Then, he continues to daily transform us into the image of Christ as we view his glory with the eyes of faith. To our natural eyes, things can look bleak and dim and hopeless. To look at the humble body of Jesus, you would see a mere man. But behind his humble body the glory of the Son of God was waiting to shine forth at just the right moment. To see the cloud overtake them on the mountain, you would see shadowy darkness. But behind that cloud was the Father with his voice expressing love for his Son, and he directs us to listen to him.
Jesus goes down the mountain to face the cross.
But we have been with him on the mount of Transfiguration. And so we know that behind the cross and behind his suffering, there is glory. Resurrection is on the other side of the valley.