A sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, given in worship at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 19 February 2023.
It’s Transfiguration Sunday again! We hear this story every year on the last Sunday of Epiphany, before we head into Lent—this year, from the version that we have in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 17:1–9).
The Transfiguration is about a vision. It tells a story where the power of the divine broke into the ordinary world to give hope and inspiration. It is a complex story, with lots of things going on. The true nature of Jesus’ identity, his relationship to the Jewish tradition, God, his relationship with his disciples, and what is going to happen when they come down off the mountain are all in this story. Then there is the question of what this means for us at the church today. So there is lots to think about.
To give the context, just prior to this, Jesus had revealed to the disciples that he is to suffer, be rejected, killed and resurrected. The disciples do not understand, and arehorrified. Jesus reminds them of the cost of discipleship: if any want to follow Jesus, let them renounce their self-centeredness. Those who play it safe will perish; those who give their lives for him and the gospel will be saved. These would have been hard words to hear, let alone live out.
But just six days later, something changes. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain. There he is “transfigured”, that is, his clothes become dazzlingly white in Luke, and he is “metamorphosed” in Mark and Matthew, where his face shines just as Moses’ did when he had been “talking with God” (Exodus 34:29), a sure sign of God’s presence.
Let us pause and consider the phrase “he was transfigured before them”.The word “transfigured,” is very important. It comes from a familiar Greek word that is known to us today: “metamorphosis.” It means to completely change or transform such as a cocoon transforms into a butterfly or a tulip bulb transforms into a flower.Jesus was transformed into something closer to God, and along with the appearance of Elijah and Moses, the disciples experienced a glimpse of the divine. A cloud, traditionally symbolic of God’s presence, appears and a proclamation is spoken by the divine voice, echoing the words of Jesus baptism, “This is my son, the chosen one, listen to him”. It is an epiphany moment. But the vision ends suddenly, and what then?
There has been a lot of debate about what really happened and what the disciples saw. To quote C.S. Lewis, “What you see . . . depends a good deal on where you are standing: It also depends on what sort of person you are.” (C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, in The Chronicles of Narnia [New York: HarperCollins, 2001], 75). As we might anticipate, what the disciples see is a vision that put Jesus at the heart of Jewish tradition alongside the great prophets, Moses and Elijah, and establishes his authority as the messianic one. It transcends the ordinary space-time dimensions of Matthew’s narrative, creating a “thin place” where the veil is momentarily lifted and the divine enters the earthly realm.
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade in her article on the Patheos website describes it very well: “There in that thin place, divinity touches humanity. Transcendence touches immanence. Love touches fear.” (Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky)
I like to think that the disciples were touched by this vision, a vision that gave them to courage to abandon their former dreams of a Messiah who would reestablish Israelite rule over the land and instead keep going along the road to Jerusalem and death out of love for their master. It would keep them going in the days of the early church, continuing to nourish their firm belief in Jesus as messiah.
As well as an uplifting experience, Peter’s words show it was a disorienting experience and a frightening one. Matthew writes that upon hearing God’s voice theyfall on their faces in terror. Jesus has to touch them and tell them to rise and says the time-honoured statement of most heavenly beings when they encounter humans – “Do not be afraid.” Jesus’ presence reassures them and they get up and descend back to their mission and ministry.
What is the relevance for this is story from two thousand years ago? What can we draw out from its message of divine transformation?
Firstly, it reminds us that we all have those moments when something was transformed for us. Our wedding day, the birth of a child, the recovery of a loved one from illness, beautiful places in nature and the spaces inside soaring cathedrals can all be thin places where we become aware of the presence of God and find a glimpse of eternity. We find the memory of these things uplifting and inspiring and draw upon them to remind ourselves of hope and joy when things seem mundane or don’t go so well in our lives. Such things remind us we are loved by God who presence is available to us in our fear and gives us courage.
Secondly, this story reminds us that Jesus is with us, not just in a thin place or transformational moment, but also in our everyday moments, that divinity is always within the reach of humanity. The story affirms that in our normal lives, Jesus’ reassuring presence is still there, walking down or up the mountain with us, telling us not be afraid and to take heart and go on with our tasks and our work.
And the story reminds us of our long tradition of holy people, people whose stories inspire us and who we can draw upon for inspiration and courage. Jesus is not alone in his work in this story. He is with Elijah and Moses, the great prophets of Israel, and his transformation implies he is one with them at that moment. His words to his disciples imply that he is at one with them as well, as they share in the moment where God’s approval is bestowed on Jesus and addressed to them all. Jesus is notalone in the universe, nor are we. He doesn’t just offer himself, but the deep hope and light of those who preceded him and those who will come after him. He is the human manifestation of the divine, where transcendence touches immanence.
Such is the power of God’s transformative processes that the cross, once an instrument of death, became the source of hope for all Christians. Through the cross, pain and sorrow were transformed into a luminous vision of hope and confidence in the future. Not only that, Christians believe Jesus’ resurrected presence lives on through the spirit and his words and the stories about him, undergirding our ordinary world with the resurrection hope of renewal.
At some point or another in our lives, all of us, like the disciples, will fall flat on our faces after the highs of life, too afraid to do anything or not knowing how to move forward. This story encourages us not to keep staring at the ground, which can only lead to despair, but to take heart and pick ourselves up to continue what we are called to do.
This story encourages us to know the presence of Jesus and take in our hands the power of this luminous vision of hope and renewal to not only inspire ourselves, but inspire those who currently see no bright future. Whether it is through feeding hungry people, providing a safe place to meet and socialize, or inspiring someone to keep on going, we can make the vision of God’s kingdom a real and infectious thing.
Reflective Prayer (from Spill the Beans)
May our imaginations inspire us, lift us from the mundane that we might rise above the clay and find ourselves within touching distance of what is eternal and sacred.
May our eyes unfold for us the shift on the horizon that reveals how thin a place this is, only a whisper away from the breath of God.
May our minds be unbound and dare see beyond the rules of religion that we might invite the One who is beyond all things to call us into your story.
May our prayers deepen us not with familiar and comforting words but with silences that call us beyond doctrine and dogma.
May our faith stretch us, calling us from moribund traditions towards the journey into God where we have not yet been and where the church dares us not to go.
And in such a place, may we wait, pause, linger, and wonder … and ponder what is yet to be revealed. Amen.