Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
February 3, 2008
Matthew 17:1-9 Exodus 24:12-18
What’s the last church holiday—the last significant day in the church calendar—that you remember over the last couple of months? Anybody?
Let’s see—Christmas, of course. And New Year’s? Martin Luther King Sunday?
What we may have missed is that the last month and a half have been filled with commemorations of events in the life of Jesus, events that the gospel writer Matthew recorded to show us who Jesus was. There’s Jesus’ birth, of course, and an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream and telling him that the child his fiancée is to bear was “conceived … from the Holy Spirit” and that he was to be called Emmanuel—God with us.
And then there’s Epiphany, when we celebrate the magi following a star to find the King of the Jews.
So there are two names for Jesus—Emmanuel and King of the Jews.
And then there’s the baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove, and God’s voice was heard saying, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”
And now we have the Transfiguration. This happens much later in Jesus’ life, after he has been with the disciples for a while. In the chapter before, Peter calls Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” and Jesus begins to teach the disciples that there is great suffering ahead—persecution and his death.
It’s a turning point of sorts. We don’t know for sure why the disciples had been following Jesus. We just know that somehow they felt compelled to do so—no questions, no doubts that we know about. Maybe they got excited about him, the way some of us do when we read a new author and go out and read everything that person has written. Or we get into yoga—or Pilates or weight-lifting or bowling—and it becomes the focus of our lives for a while. Or maybe it’s a political leader who gets us stirred up and we think, yes, this is what we’ve been needing.
But what would we think if late one night, sitting in a hotel bar, perhaps, one of our fellow groupies admitted that she thought this person was God’s son, and he turned to her and said, Blessed are you—you didn’t get this understanding from people but from God, my Dad. And then he started talking about the persecution and death that were coming. How would we react?
We tend to look back at the disciples and think, “Well, they somehow knew this. It couldn’t have been a big surprise to them.” But I wonder. I don’t think people at that time were any more likely to believe without questions than we are today.
But anyway, not quite a week after this, Jesus takes Peter and James and John up to the top of a high mountain. And Matthew’s gospel says, “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Wow!
And no sooner has that happened but Moses and Elijah show up to talk with Jesus. And then God speaks out of a cloud and says, just as was heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, my Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” And the disciples—those three—they fall to the ground, overcome by fear.
Whatever reasons they had to follow Jesus, I don’t imagine those reasons included seeing the Great Lawgiver and the Most Important Prophet—and hearing God’s voice booming out on the top of a mountain. Before this experience they may have seen Jesus as a prophet—or as a healer or a wise teacher or the best hope of a political future—but now they know. They know that this guy’s lineage goes way past anything they can imagine. They know that he may be a regular guy, but he’s also the son of God.
Y’know, we call this story the Transfiguration, and Jesus’ face and clothing were certainly transformed, but I think that the real transfiguration happened to the disciples. And although the word used in Greek—metemorfwvqh [metemorphothé]—has to do with a change in form, the change for the disciples was in their heads and hearts. They saw the totality of who Jesus was, and their lives were transformed.
And what did this transformation do for them? It didn’t suddenly turn them into different people. But of course, Jesus’ transformation—transfiguration—didn’t do that either. Jesus’ transfiguration revealed something that was deeply true but that had previously been hidden, something vital that had been unknown, invisible, just behind the veil of the ordinary. And I think the same thing happened to the disciples. Something in them that was really important, really true, something that had been hidden in them behind the veil of the ordinary, the day-to-day, the way the world is.
Something that God knew was there but that they didn’t begin to see in themselves until they had encountered God on the mountaintop.
And the same is true for us, I believe. I believe that within all of us humans there is something beyond the ordinary, something that God knows about us, that we probably won’t ever be able to see until we allow ourselves to encounter God, to know God more fully. What is that something? Why it’s God speaking through us, God in us.
Jim Eby shared with me a story from Susan Andrews, a past moderator of General Assembly, about an experience she had while doing Clinical Pastoral Education—
For an hour she wandered up and down the hall outside his room, resisting going in to see him—nauseated by his disease and at a total loss as to what to do. Here she was, a naïve 25-year-old woman. What could she possibly do or say to ease his suffering?
Finally, she walked into the room, took the man’s hand, and started saying the words of the Lord’s Prayer. “And that’s when it happened,” she wrote later. “That’s when the holy broke into the human—when God took over and grace flowed through me. This man stopped moaning, his eyes stopped rolling, his body stopped shaking. He turned to look at me and then started repeating the words of the Lord’s Prayer with me. For a moment, time stood still. There was, in that room, a peace that passes all understanding. A few minutes later, after I left the room, that man’s suffering ended. He died, finding his own peace at last.”
For Susan Andrews, that was a transfiguring moment, a holy moment, a moment when God truly spoke in her and through her, a moment when God was there.
In those transfiguring moments in our lives, be they startlingly clear or of the wait—did-something-just-happen variety, we see God … and we become more than we could ever be on our own. And they happen when we allow ourselves to see God. Perhaps through Bible study … or prayer … or singing hymns on Sunday morning … or teaching Sunday School. Or maybe by coming out on Wednesday evenings in Lent for communal meals and prayer and meditation services. We are transfigured when we come to know God in more ways than before, however it is that that happens for us.
This morning, as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, let us remember that in this sacramental moment, God is with us. This is an opportunity to know God more fully. In the bread and the cup we encounter the body and blood—the essence—of Christ. Let us be open to the opportunity to be transfigured, to undergo a metamorphosis, to be transformed.