Easter, I’m sure most of you know, moves around a bit on the calendar. It’s not the same date every year, like Christmas is December 25th, or the fourth of July is, well, the fourth of July – except in Paris, Illinois where it isn’t any more. Easter is determined by a kind of complicated formula, having to do with the first day of Spring and the first full moon after that.
And since Easter moves around on the calendar, that means the season of Lent moves around, since it is the six and a half week period of repentance and reflection leading up to Easter. And since Lent moves around, it follows that Ash Wednesday moves around. That first day of Lent is this coming Wednesday. We are all encouraged to observe it by attending a special meaningful worship service here, preceded by a soup supper together.
And since Ash Wednesday moves around, why that means the Sunday before Ash Wednesday moves around – and that’s today. The Sunday before Ash Wednesday has a special annual designation of its own, for those who wish to observe it: it is called “Transfiguration of the Lord” Sunday, and commemorates the event we just heard about from Matthew’s gospel.
We don’t observe “Transfiguration of the Lord” Sunday every year, especially since it moves around and sometimes conflicts with some other events we want to pay attention to. But we do have the opportunity to look at this story, which appears in three of the four gospels, today:
Jesus, accompanied by Peter, James, and John, sometimes referred to as the “inner circle” of disciples, or those closest to Jesus, goes to the top of a high mountain; and there the disciples see Jesus “transfigured” – changed, in a very noticable way. His face “shines like the sun,” Matthew tells us, and his clothes become “dazzling white.” Then the very important – and long-dead! – figures of Elijah and Moses appear, and talk with him. This is the part, apparently, that really flusters Peter, for he begins babbling now about building some dwellings. Then a cloud covers them all, and from the cloud a voice speaks: “This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” Brilliant light; a transformed Jesus; historical witnesses; testimony from heaven. These are the sudden, completely unexpected, miraculous features which make up “the Transfiguration of the Lord.”
Such a set of events would be startling enough to read about anywhere; it’s not the sort of thing we expect to come across in a biography! “He was born, he grew up, he worked, he taught, he accomplished, he died. Oh, yeah, and part way through he turned bright white and took a meeting with a couple people who had died a thousand years before.” It’s not what we expect. But especially at this point in Matthew’s gospel, this development provides quite a contrast – because most of the events Matthew has related so far, in the first sixteen chapters, are for the most part fairly normal, regular parts of the kind of lives most people lead. The gospel has shown us Jesus in some very typical human situations.
We read about Jesus facing temptation in chapter 4 – and temptation is something we have all encountered, and know about: Do I do the thing I deep-down-inside know is right, or do I cut corners, try to get away with something “just this once,” rationalize? Do I tell myself it’s OK to be selfish this time, and not think of others? Do I take the easy, more comfortable way, instead of the right way? We know that feeling.
We see Jesus beginning his ministry, also in chapter 4, and we ask questions like: How did he know what to do with his life? How do I know what to do with my life? How do we make those difficult decisions about which direction to go, which choice to make? These are questions almost all people face, some time or another.
We read Jesus’ teachings, in chapters 5 to 7, and they bring up questions we all deal with from time to time:
- What do we do with times of injustice, and persecution, and mourning?
- How do those fit in with God’s promises, of hope and joy and reward?
- Why should I struggle to be a peacemaker, or merciful, or humble, when that can be hard, and just leave me on the short end of the stick?
Widespread, human questions.
And elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, leading up to this story, we see other indications of Jesus’ human side: two instances of Jesus taking pity on a large crowd and feeding them all, understanding the basic human need of hunger; Jesus being tired and needing to get away to rest, and Jesus sleeping, in a boat; Jesus experiencing human emotions, like amazement and compassion; Jesus seeking support, in prayer. In much of his story so far, we have seen many demonstrations of Jesus’ humanity, his sharing in the human condition. We have seen him being one of us.
And then all of a sudden comes this story. Suddenly, dramatically, to provide a contrast which can’t be missed, Jesus’ divinity . . . bursts forth. After all the stories of Jesus’ human side – questions and decisions; eating and sleeping; feeling and praying – now Matthew turns him around . . . and shows us the God-side. “In case you’ve forgotten since chapter three,” he seems to say, “when the voice testified at his baptism; in case you’ve started to think he’s a special human being, but still just a human being; in case you missed the angel’s announcement way back in chapter one, that this child is conceived from the Holy Spirit and will save his people from their sins; here, look at this: bright light, shining clothes, famous prophets as witnesses, a voice from heaven. I dare you to forget this. He is the Son of Man, but he’s the Son of God too. Don’t overlook that.”
“Here’s evidence for your eyes: bright light. Here’s evidence for your ears: a voice from the sky. Here’s evidence to satisfy your legal requirements: two witnesses testifying publicly. Here’s evidence to satisfy your sense of history: the Law, represented by Moses, and the Prophets, represented by Elijah, testifying to who he is. In case while learning how human he was, you’ve forgotten that he’s God . . . listen to what happened on the mountain.”
Our usual categories break down when we reach the story of the Transfiguration. After reading this story, on top of the ones we’ve heard before, we can no longer classify Jesus either as human or as God; we can’t fit him into just one slot or the other. If you think Jesus is just God walking around on earth, unaffected by the human condition, you’ve missed the stories Matthew has told so far, where he’s faced the situations and questions we face. If you think Jesus is just a man, with none of the divine power and glory, you must have bypassed the Transfiguration. If you’re going to believe Matthew, you’re going to have to believe that Jesus is both. You’ve heard several stories of the human side, and now you’ve met the God-side. Jesus is the Son of Man; he is the promised king . . . and he is also the Son of God.
So Jesus has gone from facing human situations, like temptation, and what to do with one’s life, and working out issues of right and wrong . . . to showing his divine side, up on the mountain. We face those human situations too: temptation, what to do with one’s life, working out issues of right and wrong. We’re able to relate to those circumstances, identify with those situations, try to take what Jesus has done with them and apply them to our lives, bring them to bear on what we do. Now what do we take away from the Transfiguration, for our everyday lives and situations?
It’s not that we should go up on a mountain with three of our friends and expect a bright light and a voice and Elijah and Moses to happen to us. We’re not going to find a divine side, a God-side, of ourselves. This is where our set of experiences does not continue down the parallel path with Jesus, with baptism, temptation, life decisions, and so on.
But while we won’t suddenly go up a mountain and be revealed as divine ourselves, we do find a reminder in this story that we aren’t left with just our human condition, just our human resources, just our own best guesses, as we try to work out our human situations of temptation, choices, ethical problems, and so on. While we won’t discover a divine side of ourselves in this story, we do discover that we have access to divine resources in the one we follow, that he isn’t just one of us, the blind leading the blind.
We can be reassured by the evidence provided by the Transfiguration that when we turn to Jesus as a model, as an example, as a teacher, as a guide, we are turning to something more than just another person who’s been through what we’ve been through. In tapping into his guidance, his example, we’re tapping into divine wisdom, and power, and leadership, and compassion. If we try to imitate him, or listen to him, or pray to him, we are striking out after, we see now, in this story, the best and “brightest” . . . there is.
Imagine being lost out in the woods somewhere. Wouldn’t we wish to follow, as a guide, the person who knew the most about those woods – its trails, its roads, its dangerous spots? And who really wanted us to get through safely? Imagine being stuck in the middle of a computer program: “I just can’t make this thing do what I want it to do.” Don’t we want to turn, for help, to a person who knows a whole lot about this program and how it works? Imagine facing a complex medical or legal decision. Don’t we want an expert to help see us through it, not just another novice like us?
OR: Imagine being one of the disciples who have been following Jesus, and who are now with him on the mountain. And imagine, at the same time, being instead a disciple of Charles Manson, or Jim Jones, or another cult leader. In both situations, we can imagine, there must have been questions, at least sometimes, creeping into the back of the disciples’ minds: Am I completely sure that this is the one I should follow? Am I really sure that this is who I’ve been looking for, waiting for? Is his wisdom all that much greater than mine, when I come to the most perplexing of life’s questions? Is his power much greater than anyone else’s, when I’m looking for outside strength to rely on? Are his answers about things eternal anything more than just another person’s speculation? Is his capacity to love . . . greater, bigger, better than I could find in myself?
What a sense of relief, and triumph, and joy – besides awe and confusion – to be on that mountain and see that, yes, this Jesus is the one: the wiser, the stronger, the most loving, the divine. What a feeling of gratitude to God there must be for having sent him to me, and me to him, that I may have someone like that to rely on and follow, in those most difficult or perplexing times of life.
Well, he is the one we follow too. So while we won’t suddenly go up a mountain and show a divine side to ourselves, in the way we’ve faced similar situations to other parts of his story, we are reminded here that we have access to his divine guidance and divine resources as we make our way though this life. The Transfiguration shows us that.
Let us pray: God, thank you for giving us Jesus as a teacher, a guide, a friend, an example. And thank you for the evidence, in today’s story, that he is a teacher and guide and friend and example of great power, and wisdom, and love – that he has a God-side, that he is divine; that the one we follow is so much more than just another one of us. Give us confidence, and hope and faithfulness as we follow him. Amen.