Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
Here we are about to take the plunge into Lent. As happens every year, the gospel readings for the last Sunday after the Epiphany tells the story of the Transfiguration, this journey that Jesus takes up the mountain with a few disciples.
This idea of transfiguration—of someone becoming something unexpected, beyond expectations, something more beautiful or elevated—is a staple of storytelling. Don and I started thinking about movies that are about such transformations: the Star Wars saga, of course; My Fair Lady; Edward Scissorhands; Pretty Woman; Schindler’s List; Billy Elliot; and almost every Disney movie. We like stories where people change and grow. And the Bible is full of such stories too. Just looking at the Old Testament, we have first the story of Abraham and Sarah; then Moses; Jacob; Samuel; David; and, in the story of Jonah, the transfiguration of everyone in the city of Nineveh.
But in this story of Jesus on the mountaintop, we get a little bit of a twist on the transformation story. Jesus is transfigured physically, but only to blossom more fully into who the gospel writers have all along been telling us he is. We hear it today from the Gospel of Matthew, our primary focus for this year. Up to this point in Matthew’s gospel we have had the story of Jesus’ birth, his baptism and temptation in the wilderness (which we will return to next Sunday), the calling of the disciples and various miracles, and several teaching discourses. This story marks a turn in the story, for within two chapters Matthew will begin the story Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for his crucifixion, and resurrection. This is a crucial pivot point in the story; and just in case we’ve missed it, we are meant to be assured that Jesus is truly God’s son, and that therefore, the journey before him is set.
But it seems to me that the Feast of the Transfiguration is not really a story we pay a lot of attention to. In fact, the Feast of the Transfiguration is actually on August 6. But those who put together our schedule of readings each Sunday thought it was important—so important that they determined we would remember it every year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. And so most mainline Protestant churches have named this last Sunday in the weeks after the Epiphany as Transfiguration Sunday. The Catholic lectionary gives a different reading for today—they read from the Sermon on the Mount and leave this story for the August feast day. Anglicans, however, read the story today but also keep August 6 as the Feast Day. That’s just the way we Anglicans are – always landing somewhere between the Roman Catholics and other Protestants. We even have a term for that: the via media, or middle way.
But even with two times each year to remember the Transfiguration, I still don’t think we know quite what to do with it. One commentator has said, “Make no mistake, ‘transfiguration’ is a strange word, one that you almost never use in everyday speech. Transfiguration Sunday isn’t all that much more familiar, and it is easy for preachers to underestimate how little our hearers know what to make of the day.”[i]
He goes on to say that “Transfiguration leans unmistakably into Lent, as Jesus comes down from the mountain to head to the death he speaks of during that very descent.”[ii] With the Transfiguration Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem, where his destiny as the son of God will reach its zenith. And if we take our faith seriously, we are also at a turning point. The season of Lent is marked begins again this coming Wednesday, when we will again be marked with ashes and told, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We spend a time in penitence and preparation, especially working on reconciling ourselves to the larger cycle of mortal life and death.
And what’s more, the Transfiguration foreshadows Easter. As Jesus and the disciples descend from the mountain, Jesus says, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” One guesses they must have been completely confused by this command, which only became clear to them at the moment of resurrection at Easter. In some ways, our upcoming days of Lent and Holy Week are summed up in this strange event of the Transfiguration.
I am particularly intrigued by the story as I imagine myself in the shoes of the apostles. Imagine it: Jesus takes them on a journey up the mountain. At some point on the journey they see Jesus glowing with what seems to be an inner light; then they behold none other than Moses and Elijah, the fathers of the faith, in conversation with their illumined teacher; then a voice confirms what Jesus has already revealed to them: that he is none other than the Son of God. This morning’s reading makes it clear that this was for the disciples an utterly astonishing turn of events: upon hearing the voice, they fall to the ground and are overcome by fear. Again we hear that common gospel refrain: “do not be afraid,” along with that admonishment not to tell.
Peter, of course, is the only one of the disciples who speaks in the story. And in our reading from the second letter of Peter, we hear his first-hand account of the event. Interestingly, irony is embedded in the passage—scholars are fairly certain that this letter was written long after Peter was dead, by a scholar in Peter’s tradition. The letter adopts Peter’s voice to tell the disciple’s version of the story, and to assert that we must believe in the truth of this event. As one scholar has said, “the writer of 2nd Peter is slamming ‘cleverly devised myths’ in favor of eyewitness testimony, even as the pseudonymous writer himself is most likely using the Gospel stories to imagine how Peter might have written about Jesus’ transfiguration.”[iii]
The passage argues that we should take this story seriously; that we must understand this message to be “a lamp shining in a dark place.” And the story’s veracity is affirmed by this eyewitness account–even though we know (as the original readers likely knew too) that these words are not actually Peter’s. What do we do with that?
On the one hand, it would seem to confirm what some want to say about the Biblical account—that it is all story. In our modern era many are quick to relegate the Bible to myth—to believe that these are stories created to illustrate a point, but that they are not factual. But that, of course, goes directly against what the writer of 2nd Peter (even if he is not, in fact, Peter) is saying. And it reminds us that this is a story passed down to us by living, breathing people, telling the story of real people and their encounters with the divine. Christianity is not an elaborate myth, created to illustrate a metaphysical point. Christianity has a history with living breathing people who populating that history.
In fact, these are the oldest texts that you and I read regularly—they come from a completely different time, with an equally different sensibility, a different way of understanding the world. They beg the question that we will hear from the mouth of Pilate in just a few weeks: “What is truth?”
Now there’s another irony: in this time, when the meaning of truth is widely debated by politicians who believe they have the power to define truth, people of faith must think about our truth—what we believe. How do we reconcile with today’s world the very different relationship to veracity that characterizes Jesus’ time and place 2,000 years ago? How do we find a truth that makes sense to us here and now?
I think we find the answer back in the Bible. Peter asks us to remember that real people have passed these stories along to us. They were not creating an elaborate myth; they were telling their own stories. They were explaining how they understood the world to work, and how they experienced God’s interaction with God’s creation.
We are prompted to ask, what does it mean to be a witness? What did it mean to those who lived in or near Jesus’ time, and who told the story of our Messiah? And what might being a witness mean to us? What do we witness to? What is the story we tell?
The Transfiguration is a story of the revelation of truth: God undertakes this strange and elaborate turn of events to confirm for the disciples (and therefore, as the ones listening to their witness, us as well) that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. I hope that each of you, who comes to church regularly, who endeavors to be part of the mystery, also has a truth to tell. A truth about the ways that you have seen your life changed on the journey of love; a truth about the people who have embodied Christ for you in a very real way; a truth about the ways that Christ has seeped into your life.
As we embark upon the journey of Lent, working to find new meaning, deeper meaning, in the most fundamental story of our faith, let us all keep our eyes focused on the truth that is ours through the grace of Jesus. Let us work this season to see the ways that we have been transfigured through the gift of Christ, and how we might tell the story of this truth in our lives for a world hungry for both transfiguration and truth. Amen.
[i] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=900, accessed 02/21/2020.
[iii] Grundy, Christopher. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 449.