Sermon: Epiphany VI – Transfiguration
Light for the Darkness to Come
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
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The Lord be with you.
My friends, we are about to embark upon a journey. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season.
The word “Lent” is an old word for “spring,” and in that respect it is a hopeful season. The days will get longer, and hopefully warmer as we move through Lent. Color will return to the fields and the trees. Flowers will begin to bloom. Life will begin to awaken from winter’s slumber. And best of all, we’ll start playing baseball again!
But spring has its challenges too, doesn’t it! When I lived in Vermont, it brought a time called “Mud season,” when some of the roads and lanes became impassable. Here we often have surprise snow storms. Days can be gray and rainy and temperatures up and down like a roller coaster, leaving you chilled. Spring, when life returns to the earth, has its birth pains as well as its joys.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the final Sunday in Epiphany, the final Sunday before Lent. It marks a momentous occasion in the Gospels, when Jesus took his disciples up a mountain and gave them an unforgettable vision of who he was. As they watched, God took the veil away, and Jesus was revealed for who he really is, the glorious Lord of heaven and earth. His appearance became as bright as the sun. As the disciples fell down in awe, overwhelmed, they saw Moses and Elijah with him there on the mountain. Then God’s voice thundered from heaven as it did at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, listen to him!”
This was a unique experience for the disciples. It was the one time in his life when Jesus was seen in his true glory. Every other day of his life, he looked like an ordinary human being. He didn’t walk around with a halo over his head, as many artists have painted him. He didn’t have a special glow about him. When the prophet Isaiah foretold him, he wrote, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” It’s true that he amazed people with the power of his words and with remarkable works of healing and overcoming evil, but what was amazing was that it was someone who looked just like a common, ordinary man who was doing these things.
But at the Transfiguration, it was different. This was a true heavenly experience. This was a vision of a dimension of Jesus that the disciples had never witnessed. When John wrote about it later in his Gospel, he said, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” When the author of 2 Peter described it, he wrote,
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 had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
This was a once in a lifetime experience. This was never repeated. Even when he was raised from the dead, the disciples did not see Jesus like this. This is the one time when he walked the earth that Jesus showed us his glory, who he truly is, his majesty, his incomparable greatness and splendor.
As I read this story again this year, I wondered why? Why this transfiguration? Why did Jesus take Peter, James, and John up the mountain and give them this experience? Why this unique, never to be repeated encounter with the glory of God?
The answer lies in what is happening in the Gospel story at this moment. Just as Transfiguration Sunday markes a transition to a new season and a new journey that we will take in Lent, this event marked a turning point in Jesus’ life and in the disciples’ journey, according to the Gospels. You see, right before our text this morning, we read these words in Mark, chapter 8:
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly… [and then] He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
It was right after these portentous words about the cross—that’s when Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and they saw him transfigured, they witnessed his glory, they heard God’s voice. Right when Jesus was starting his own journey toward the cross, right when he told his disciples that they were about to make their own journey of taking up the cross, that’s when the Transfiguration took place.
I think Jesus was preparing them for the difficult road ahead. I think he knew that the experiences that lay before them would be so challenging, so trying, so confusing, so unbelievably hard, that he wanted to give them something that would strengthen them and fortify them. He wanted them to know that he would be with them on that journey, but that he was not just any man, not even just a great teacher or healer or miracle worker. He wanted them to see the fullness of his glory and know in their hearts that he was indeed God’s glorious and beloved Son, the true Messiah of Israel, Lord of all.
Why the Transfiguration?
Why did Jesus give his disciples this experience, revealing his glory to them?
To strengthen them for what was to come.
He went up the mountain with them to prepare them for the days to come when they came down from the mountain. The Jesus who was with them on the mountain, revealed in all his glory, also went down the mountain with them. Even though he would not look as he did in that transfigured state, the experience of having seen that was designed to fortify them for the trials to come.
I read one sermon on the Transfiguration that put it this way: “It will be dark where we’re going. We’ll need the light.”
In the days to come, the disciples will see Jesus transfigured in another way. They will see him opposed, arrested, beaten, imprisoned, sentenced, and hung on a cross to die. They will see themselves transfigured and transformed as well. Their confidence will be shaken. In some cases their faith will fail. At important moments along the way to Jerusalem, they will display their lack of understanding, their lack of trust, their hardness of heart. In the end, they will abandon Jesus and run for their lives. It will be a hard and dark journey.
The fire of their faith may fail in the days to come, however, there will be a pilot light in their hearts that will not go out. The experience here on the mountain will guarantee that. No matter how dark the days ahead will be, there will always be a spark, a glimmer, a bit of light. Even though the Jesus who takes them down the mountain will look like an ordinary man, they will not forget the Jesus they saw on top of the mountain. And he is the one who will be with them on their journey.
My friends, remember this Sunday. Remember the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. This is God’s beloved Son; let us listen to him in the days to come.
On Wednesday, we ourselves will experience a transfiguration. We’ll come forward and receive ashes applied to our foreheads. We will hear the words, “Dust you are, and to dust you will return.” We will remember our mortality, our very bodies will be marked with the sign of the cross. Then, like the disciples, our Lenten journey will begin. It will be dark where we’re going. We will need the light.
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Photo by David Cornwell at Flickr. Creative Commons License