Scripture Readings: Exodus 34:29-35, II Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, one of the lesser-known holidays in the church. It’s a day when we remember the events we read in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus took a few of his disciples and went up a mountain and was transformed right in front of them. We’re going to take a look at what that event means for us today. But before we do I also wanted to mention…
Today is the last Sunday before Lent begins. Lent starts this Wednesday, and of course that means on Tuesday we will be celebrating Mardi Gras and filling up on pastries and sweets before starting on those Lenten diets, right? It’s funny, I never used to pay much attention to Lent when I was a kid. I was raised Presbyterian, and we didn’t ‘do Lent’. I could never figure out why someone would want to give up something they liked for Lent. But when I got older I began to understand: these forty days of Lent are days when we remember all the things Jesus gave up for us. Jesus gave up heaven to be with us, so if we give up something for Lent it’s like an act of solidarity with Jesus. We don’t have to… but then Jesus didn’t have to either.
But we’re not in Lent yet. Today, being Transfiguration, is a day that prepares us – and we see Jesus being prepared as well – for the cross that is coming. Luke says that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus on that mountaintop about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” That is, they were talking about Jesus’ death, about how he was going to depart this life.
One of the questions Jesus was probably asking them was ‘is there any other way for me to do this?’. On Good Friday every year we hear Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39) Jesus did not want to be crucified. He had seen people being crucified before. Crucifixon was a common form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire, and it was horrifying. Jesus had no martyr complex. He loved people and loved life and he did not want to go through that kind of pain. What Moses and Elijah said to Jesus on that mountain assured him there was no other way.
Moses represented the Old Testament, the Law. And the Law taught that sin brings death. If a person sinned, they needed to offer an animal as a sacrifice in their place. That’s why Jesus is sometimes called the “Lamb of God”. Jesus was to become the sacrifice for sin, once for all. After Jesus, animal sacrifices would no longer be needed. And Elijah represented the prophets. He would have reminded Jesus of all the prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, including the words of Isaiah who said the Messiah would be:
“…wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities… by his [stripes] we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6)
Jesus is the one the Old Testament looks forward to. Jesus is the Messiah who would suffer for his people. And Jesus knew this, even before his conversation with Moses and Elijah. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says:
“I am the good shepherd… And I lay down my life for the sheep. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:14-18 edited)
So Jesus knew what was coming. But I think, being human, being faced with the horror of the cross, he needed confirmation, he needed encouragement, he needed to be sure.
Anybody who has ever gone through major surgery can understand where Jesus was coming from. When you go to the doctor and he says, “you need to have an operation” at first you don’t want to hear it. You can know all the facts, you can know what needs to be done, but you won’t want to do it, you don’t want to go through something you know is going to be painful. And most of us won’t set the surgery date until we’ve had the chance to talk it over with someone who loves us, who can assure us: ‘this is the right course of action. And I’ll be there with you.’ That’s what Jesus needed to hear on the mountain top.
So today is a day that remembers one of the pivot points of all of human history. Because today is the day Jesus’ decision was made, to do what needed to be done. Scripture says he ‘set his face’ toward Jerusalem and the cross.
But as dark and as ‘heavy’ as this thought is, today is not a day of darkness. The Transfiguration is a day of light. It’s a day of shining faces, of seeing God’s glory.
Let’s go back to today’s readings for a moment. In the Old Testament we heard about Moses’ face ‘shining’ when he met with God and received the Ten Commandments. His face was shining so brightly from having met God that the people were afraid to look at him. Moses had to put a veil over his face so he could talk to the people without scaring them.
And in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus went up on the mountain, he was shining with the glory of God too. The disciples – at first they started to fall asleep. Which is the same thing that happened in the Garden of Gethsemane; there must be something about being that close to eternity that’s more than human beings can bear, so they slept. But on the mountain they woke up just before the cloud came, and they were terrified, Luke says. Just like the Israelites were terrified of Moses.
Faces that shine with God’s glory frighten us. But they’re not like faces in a scary movie. They frighten us in the sense that they’re too beautiful to bear. They’re too much for us to take in. They are a taste of heaven, a glimpse of eternity. Something we can only begin to imagine suddenly becoming real.
The glow on Moses’ face was from the outside, a reflection of God’s glory. But the glow on Jesus’ face was from the inside – it showed Jesus’ true self, the same self that – after his resurrection – walked through locked doors into rooms where the disciples were gathered. Jesus is living proof that there is another life, another reality, and that he is the way there. And it’s too much for the disciples to take in. But the good news is that the disciples will someday also shine with this kind of glory. Which is why when we see old stained glass windows the saints have halos over their heads –they represent the glow of God’s glory.
And someday we will shine like that too. That’s what Paul was talking about in the passage from II Corinthians. Paul says “if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets” – referring to Moses and the Ten Commandments – which, Paul says, could only show us our sin but couldn’t save us – if this ministry “came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face… how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?” In other words, our salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice, and our faith in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, brings us into glory. Someday we will shine like Jesus. But for right now the reality of this, if we could actually see it, we would be terrified.
I was trying to think of a way to describe how the disciples must have felt when they saw Jesus shining with God’s glory. Because there’s so little in this life we can compare it to. But try this on for size. A few weeks from now the Academy Awards are going to be on TV. Think about how would you feel if you had to get up on stage and give a speech in front of all those famous people and all those TV cameras? We’d be terrified, right? But we will see people giving speeches on the Oscars, cool as cucumbers. The difference between them and us is the people on the Oscars have had time to grow into it. They have studied, and worked at becoming better actors, they have given interviews, they’ve been on TV before, so when it comes time to give a speech at the Oscars they’re ready for it and they can do it without being terrified.
Right now the idea of being transformed into something… otherworldly… is scary. Someday we will stand in God’s glory without being terrified. We will grow into it. But for today, we stand with the disciples in speechless awe.
So what does all of this mean for us? Four things.
First, when we look at Jesus – glowing with the glory that was his from the beginning of time – we realize what Jesus gave up for us. Scripture tells us before he was born, Jesus was in heaven with God. In fact Jesus is God. We don’t worship two gods, we worship one God. Jesus was with God and was God. All the universe, everything we see, everything we can’t see, was created by him and through him and belongs to him. Jesus is the King of it all. And Jesus gave that up to come into our world, to be born like one of us: into a smelly stable, into a poor family, into the oppression that was Roman Empire occupation. How much does Jesus love us to give up who and where he was to be with us?
While he was here on earth, Jesus shared himself with people, fed people, healed people, raised the dead… and still the leaders of the people were trying to kill him. Because they knew Jesus was the rightful king. He was there to replace them, and they didn’t want that. So they made plans to get rid of Jesus.
What these leaders didn’t know was, when the Lord of Life passes through the gates of death, sin and death are defeated forever. Moses and Elijah and Jesus on that mountaintop made plans to use the murderers’ own plans against them… and in such a way that even the murderers could be forgiven, if they were willing. Jesus makes it possible for one of the Roman soldiers who crucified him to fall to his knees at the foot of the cross and say, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matt. 27:54)
Jesus gave up all the glory of heaven to save sinners who could not save themselves.
Second, Paul says in II Corinthians, not everyone will accept this message. Paul says, “their minds are hardened… a veil lies over their minds…” Paul is referring to the veil Moses wore to keep from frightening the people, and what Paul says is: now things are reversed. Now Jesus’ glory has been revealed, and the veil is off! Now we see Jesus “with unveiled faces” he says. And the people who don’t see it, who are unwilling or unable to hear God’s message, are the ones who now have a veil over their minds.
BUT – Paul says – “when someone turns to the Lord the veil is removed.” Paul says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” – freedom from sin, freedom from death – freedom to be transformed into glory. If we know of people whose minds are still veiled, pray for them that the veil will be lifted.
Third, when we look at Jesus’ shining face we are looking at our own future. Paul says it’s like “looking through a glass dimly.” Remember that line from I Corinthians 13? “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face..” He’s talking about glory, and love is part of that glory. The apostle John writes in his first letter: “when Jesus is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is”. (I John 3:2) For those of us who believe in Jesus, who seek to follow him and be his disciples, we are being changed from glory to glory.
And as this happens, people can see it in our faces. People hear it in our words of kindness and compassion. They can see it in our worship and our hospitality. Our lives become a signpost pointing people to Jesus.
And lastly, when the disciples were with Jesus on that mountaintop, and Peter offered to put up tents for everybody, Jesus didn’t get on Peter’s case. Peter’s offer of hospitality was an honest one. But the thing is, Jesus did not come to earth to stay here with us. Peter was assuming Moses, Elijah, and Jesus would be staying. But Jesus came to earth not to stay with us but so we can go with him. The good news is: this world is not our home. We have a future beyond anything we can put into words. Someday ‘we will be like him.’ (I John 3:2)
So as we enter into Lent this week, be encouraged by the vision; and walk into this season of repentance without fear, knowing that our sins are forgiven, and that our future in eternity is full of glory. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/7/16