Michael Barrett shows how the Transfiguration of Jesus brings hope to our lives today.
Transfiguration: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Reflections on Matthew 17:1-9
On this final Sunday before we begin the season of Lent, we hear a simply incredible story. Playing out on a towering mountaintop, are people alive and beyond this life, incandescent light, rolling thunder, booming voices, abject fear, and unconditional love. We call this the transfiguration.
It is a wildly glorious narrative, so absolutely astounding and strange that its very expression warrants belief. Who would or could make up such a bizarre tale? The synoptic gospel authors – Mark, Matthew, and Luke, all of whom report this event, had neither the background nor the experience to fabricate this sort of story.
One of the things to consider about the transfiguration as we move into Lent, is that it serves to remind us that in God’s eyes we are not complete. Roger often remarks that God loves us as we are, yet loves us too much to leave us there. Today’s narrative serves to attest to the authenticity of those words. God delights in the unexpected bettering of His children. Today, we again see God breaking into human history and doing so. There are three aspects of transfigurations we may reflect on today, especially as we move into Lent.
- There are the historical transfigurations of yesterday exemplified by Moses (transfigured on Sinai) and Elijah (swept up into heaven on a fiery chariot) appearing in ancient Hebrew Scriptures.
- There is the transfiguration of today that centers on Jesus and its message about Jesus’ true identity and real mission.
- There is the transfiguration of tomorrow – our transfiguration, yours and mine and that of all creation.
What me? Yes, while we may consider ourselves all grown up, to our Creator we are still children and he has many more wondrous plans for us each of us.
What are Moses and Elijah doing on our transfiguration mountaintop today? The transfiguration presences of Moses and Elijah in today’s reading go far beyond their heroic stature (as important as that is) as a great Lawgiver and as a great prophet. Note four things about their presence.
- They are alive. There is a life beyond this one. They are actively functioning and carrying on a conversation with Jesus.
- While they are gloriously transfigured (Luke clearly identifies them so 9:31) appearing in splendor – they retain recognizable human form. They are enhanced beings, but not completely new entities.
- They share similar lives of service, sacrifice and suffering. They both have mountain top experiences on Mount Sinai. Both pray and both communicate directly with God. Both remain loyal to Yahweh. In both of them, God indwells, and through His grace they have performed many miracles. Each has struggled with worldly rulers, been heavily criticized, felt fed up tired and exhausted, and has experienced rejection by their own tribe, family, and friends.
- God vindicates them both.
One Lenten thought for reflection dealing with yesterday’s transfigurations is that when we are down and out, find our selves floundering in the valley of darkness, when we are exhausted, or feel like people are always and only expecting us to do something more, or when we feel that everything we do seems to invite nothing but criticism, or when it seems like everyone is working against us; in all of that to remember, patiently, that we’re in very good company – Moses and Elijah, not to mention Jesus – and know in the end a loyal and loving God will vindicate us each.
In today’s transfiguration of Jesus, we learn a great deal about the true identity and real mission of Jesus. We can choose to take that message into Lent.
Briefly, it begins with Jesus, taking along Peter, James, and John, retiring to a mountaintop to pray. All of s (a) sudden all holy heaven breaks loose. The inward divinity of Jesus radiates forth – his face shines like the sun and his clothes become as white as light. Yet, he too retains much of his human form. Then Moses and Elijah join him. Three disciples serve as the legally required three witnesses.
But next, one of those disciples, Peter, proclaims It’s good that we are here.” Poor Peter, if he had only left it at that. He has forgotten his contentious rebuking of Jesus just days ago. As Jesus tries to prepare his disciples –‘ I am going to Jerusalem, where I will suffer, and die, and rise again on the 3d day’ Peter interjects ‘Never. This shall not happen (to) You.’ Remember Jesus’ harsh response? Get behind me Satan. (Matthew 16:21-28). Peter offers to erect three structures. Peter is still in denial. Peter is still not on the crucifixion page.
Immediately, while Peter is speaking, God Almighty interrupts with the message This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased. LISTEN TO HIM. Three things about God’s words to ponder:
- Jesus is not just one of three equal prophets. Jesus is divine. Matching tents won’t do. Jesus is unequaled among humankind.
- Listen to Him. I am present in Jesus(.) Understand him and live according to his words and actions.
- Jesus’ mission is not to shelter safely in place on a mountaintop, avoiding the suffering world below. Jesus’ mission is to manifest God’s saving presence and will take place in the midst of suffering. Yes, Jesus will be vindicated, but, death comes before the resurrection; the cross comes before the crown, and the path to an empty tomb passes by Golgotha.
Think about the suffering ahead for Jesus. N.T. Wright notes: the contrast:
Transformation: Jesus revealed in Glory. Crucifixion: Jesus revealed in shame.
Transformation: Shining clothes. Crucifixion: no clothes, nakedness.
Transformation: Flanked by heroes. Crucifixion: flanked by lawless bandits.
Transformation: the Bright cloud. Crucifixion: Darkness covers the land.
Transformation: Peter proclaiming. Crucifixion: Peter denying.
Transformation: God declares Jesus his Son. Crucifixion: Pagan soldier declares Jesus God’s Son.
The message of Transfiguration is that God is preparing us to endure today’s suffering by showing us some of tomorrow’s resurrection’s transformation.
Another Lenten reflection is that, as followers of Jesus, we cannot avoid the cross. But, we are not to accept that suffering and sacrifice don’t matter or that care and compassion don’t count. We cannot isolate ourselves from hardship or heartbreak. We can steel our hearts into unfeeling or repress our compassion into oblivion. We cannot follow Christ by turning a blind eye or a deaf ear or a mute voice to a suffering world. We are called into just that world along with Jesus. Jesus never said ‘I’ll take up your cross so you don’t have to carry it.’ Jesus never said ‘Hey you, take up your cross’. What Jesus did say is ‘Take up your cross and follow me’. In other words, ’as you carry your cross I will be with you as I carry mine.’ We will carry our crosses together.
It is not just believing in Jesus that matters, it is also becoming like Him that matters.
My sisters and brothers, tomorrow’s transfiguration is God’s promised reality in store for each of us.
Those who are wise will shine like the heavens, like the stars for ever and ever. (Daniel 12:13)
The righteous will shine like the sun. (Matthew 13:43)
You will be transformed by the renewal of your mind. (Romans 12:2)
We are to be transformed into the same image [as Jesus]. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
The Resurrection Body (1 Corinthians 15:35-58)
God loves to surprise us by His power and His generosity and His love. That God is already dwelling in the heart of each of us, preparing our transfiguration.
The transfiguration of Moses and Elijah and Jesus that we witness today neither began nor ended on that mountaintop. Each of them persevered over a long, long time in coming to know, in actively serving, and in deepening their loyalty and love for their Creator. They were transformed in the process. We might ponder that process during the next forty days and forty nights. Where are we on the journey of our own transfiguration process?
Today we caught a glimpse of God’s glory. We see that resurrection is not resuscitation but much more. We learn that resurrection is transfiguration brought to life. We sense that God may use transfiguration encounters to prepare and direct us not just for enduring suffering, but to be bearers of His light and love. In this world of crosses, He strengthens us so that we will not break, but so that we will take heart in our coming transfiguration.
And as dramatic as it is, we also learn this morning that God is more than a thundering voice shrouded in a brilliant cloud. Remember towards the end of the reading? God is also that compassionate hand of Jesus laid gently upon our shoulder and that quiet assuring voice that says Get up and do not be afraid.
Perhaps this Lenten Season, we will begin with the reflection that Lent is not about what we are going to give up. Maybe this Lent will be more about what we are going to give to. May this Lent be a blessed part of our transfiguration process!
In this morning’s worship bulletin, you will find a slip of paper. You are invited
- To write on one side, in one or two words (God will fill in the rest) and tell God how you hope He will transform your life, then,
- On the other side, write and tell God how you hope to help transform the life of another.
- Then place that slip in the offering plate as a spiritual offering.
In the name of the God who creates life,
In the name of the Savior who loves life, and in the name of the Spirit who is the fire of life, amen.
Thinking About the Scripture
What words, phrases or images from today’s Scripture caught your attention?
What was one mountaintop experience in your life?
Who would you take to meet Jesus?
Why did Jesus choose Peter, James, and John to accompany him?
What is significant about God’s voice and message?
How has God told you that you are His child and that He loves you?
What spot in your life was for you, most like the transfiguration?
How does suffering shape your view of Jesus’ identity and mission?