TEXTS: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9
Transfiguration is not a term that we throw around on a daily basis. In fact, it’s not term that we use at all outside the confines of the church. Yet each year, on the last Sunday of Epiphany, the church celebrates the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ as an annual festival. Beyond that no one seems know what do with the whole business. Sure, it’s a cool story. The disciples get to see Jesus somehow morph from your average everyday guy (who happens to be able to preach like a rock star and to perform acts that no one has an explanation for) to a dazzling entity that is so much more than human that he defies description. His look is light years beyond even Elvis in his sequined jump suit. Jesus the man becomes Jesus the divine; Jesus beyond this earthly existence or realm, God incarnate. But what does all this do for us? What does mean it for us? Does the transfiguration actually change the course of Jesus’ ministry? Does it alter his eventual death and resurrection in any way? Will the Transfiguration make us better Christians because the event is part of our theology and its celebration part of our religious ritual and calendar?
Jenny and I enjoy watching the sitcom “Big Bang Theory”. We recently caught a re-run of a show that had aired originally some time ago where our group of nerdy scientists were bummed out because Shelton’s girlfriend Amy pointed out that one of their favorite movies, “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc”, was based upon a deeply flawed premise. She noted that the movie would ended exactly in the same way if Indiana Jones were not in it at all! That is sometimes the way I feel about the transfiguration, and find myself asking if my faith would be much the same if the transfiguration had never happened at all. At the same time I must admit that all three of the Synoptic gospels record the story, which usually is an indication that the content of the story is critically important, at least to the Gospel writers and therefore to the early church.
So let’s start at the beginning. What does Transfiguration actually mean and how does that meaning apply to the transfiguration Christ? I started my search by simply looking the word up in my Webster’s New World Dictionary. The good Mr. Webster (or his scholarly descendants) was not much help in the first definition, “Transfiguration – the act of being transfigured. (well duh!) It always bothers me when dictionaries use a derivitive of the original word to define that word. A little more study, though, showed the word to be composed of two parts, trans which means “to cross over” or “on the other side of” and figure which means “shape or form”. Trans-figure would then be to change form or shape. And let us not forget the definition of the first half, trans, to cross over to the other side. So Transfiguration is not just the act of changing shape, but changing shape into that which appears “on the other side of”.
In the Transfiguration Jesus is not only changing, but changing into a form that is from the other side, from another place, in this case from another reality altogether; a reality that is not available to people who exist in our reality. In the Old Testament book of Exodus we are told that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets containing a covenant for the people of Israel, his face shone with the presence of God, shone in such an unnatural way as to promote fear among the people. Yet I would be hard pressed to say that Moses was Transfigured. A shiny face, a glowing countenance, does not suggest a new reality of existence or a glimpse of the “other side” of our earth versus heaven understanding of the divine. Others throughout the Bible have shown, in one way or another, some physical manifestation that caused people to know that the person had a special relationship to God; but in my book there was only one Transfiguration, only one situation where a human was shown to be completely divine.
So I’m going to go out on a limb this morning and proclaim that the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ before his disciples was a totally unique, one of a kind event. It was a singular exhibition of the fact that God did and does indeed desire to be present with humankind. The Transfiguration is, above all other events short of the resurrection from the dead, that event that tells me that Jesus was indeed God incarnate; that the full and complete presence of the divine God of heaven and earth resided in the fully human Jesus.
But again, where does that leave us? How is my life changed, how is my life’s path altered because I embrace the Transfiguration of my Lord Jesus Christ? And how is yours? It would be so easy to stand up today and say, “woo-hoo for the Transfiguration” in church, and then completely ignore it for another 364 days. (And I’m sure that many and maybe even most Christians do just that.)
From my teenage years on, one of my favorite poems of all time, favorite in part because I remember fondly singing the poem as has been set into choral form by Randall Thompson, is the poem “The Road Nor Taken” by Robert Frost. It begins:
“Two roads diverged in yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both,
and be one traveler long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other as just as fair
and having perhaps the better claim . . . “
The poem ends:
“Two roads diverged in a wood and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.
Sometimes, as in Frost’s poem, our lives totally are changed by a choice, a choice that at the time might seem rather trivial or innocuous. Sometimes our lives are changed not by a choice that we might make, but rather by an event. I believe that, for the three disciples that accompanied Jesus up that mountain, their lives were inexorably changed by the transfiguration event and by their witness of it. Where there may have been doubt about exactly who Jesus was and what his purpose might be on the face of this earth, the disciples now had proof before them that Jesus was indeed divine, that God dwelt within the personhood Jesus in a way so powerful that it simply could not be denied. And while the disciples still made missteps after the Transfiguration, while they still misunderstood Jesus’ intent and how he would go about accomplishing the imparting of salvation for all who would embrace him, they still knew in their heart of hearts that he was the divine Son of God. And that changed their lives, emboldening them continue to proclaim his good news even when they themselves faced persecution and even death.
The Transfiguration has the power to do the same for you and for me and for anyone who chooses to embrace it. The Transfiguration is our reminder that there is a divine realm out there, a realm where a loving God rules in light and life. In the Transfiguration Jesus allowed his closest friends to glimpse that reality, and through their testimony, those three have allowed millions throughout the ages to glimpse it as they did. The fact that they didn’t know what to do with the event; the fact that they were clearly terrified of what was presented before them does not diminish the event in the least, in fact in my own mind it actually heightens the reality of it. The Transfiguration has within it then the power to make, for each and every one of us “all the difference”. The Transfiguration tells us that we have no need to fear anything, not even death itself, because we been shown the power of God that is greater than death, and a realm of God that transcends death. And if I live my life without fear; that will most certainly made a difference; that will most certainly be different than living a life that is overrun with fear.
Friends, Jesus Christ was transfigured before his disciples and has, through that event, assured us that he was and is the divine son of God, God incarnate, God with us. Let us live in the reality of the Transfiguration so that its power can “make all the difference” in our lives. Amen.