This morning we come to the turning point of the gospel narrative. For the past several weeks, we have followed Jesus with his disciples, his students, all over Galilee, witnessing his miracles and listening to his teaching. Jesus has been proclaiming throughout that, “the Kingdom of God is near,” and proving this is true in his actions. Now, his focus shifts: his work of announcing his reign is finished; the time to inaugurate his reign has come. Now he must focus more on training his disciples and equipping them to pick up where he left off. Jesus knows what comes next, how little time he has before the painful events of Holy Week in Jerusalem. Jesus senses this moment, and takes his chief disciples with him for a spiritual retreat, to prepare.
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Manx had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
The Gospel’s Hinge
As I said, the Transfiguration is the turning point of the gospel narrative. Jesus is about to begin a new work and this is the hinge, the point where what he has done so far is confirmed and what he is about to do is made clear.
The Transfiguration proves to the disciples all that Jesus has said and done leading up to this moment. All of the healings of diseases and ailments and paralysis, and all of the casting out of demons, are confirmed to be the work, not of some wandering magician – as the people suspect – or of a rabble-rouser – as the Pharisees fear – but of the true anointed King of God. Jesus’ sudden and complete change in appearance – that’s what “transfiguration” means – to that of complete and dazzling radiance, demonstrates clearly and convincingly that he is who he has been claiming to be all along. Peter, James, and John can have no further doubts about that.
But the Transfiguration is more than a divine certificate of authenticity. The Transfiguration of Jesus prepares his disciples for what’s ahead on Lent’s difficult, dangerous journey. The shining white appearance of his face and clothing are a sign of things to come, of how this whole story will end. Jesus knows and understands the terrifying ordeal he is about to face, and he is beginning to prepare his disciples for what’s ahead. This Wednesday night is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and we will listen to all the occasions in Mark when Jesus warns his disciples about how he must be betrayed and rejected, tried and condemned, tortured and killed, for the sake of the world. But Jesus’ tragic and unjust execution on the cross is not the end of the story. The story of grace does not, cannot, end in death. Every time Jesus warns his disciples about his coming death, he also promises them that he will rise again, that he will return three days later. Good Friday is only half of the story; Resurrection Sunday is the essential “Part Two” of God’s plan of salvation. This moment here, on this mountaintop, is a foretaste, a dramatic hint at what’s to come on that promised Sunday morning. Death is certain; resurrection is wildly improbable. And yet that is exactly what we, and the disciples, see hinted here: Jesus Christ made new and impossibly brilliant! If we have eyes and hearts open to see and understand, this is a sign of greater things to come. Christ is here transfigured. Christ will soon be transformed.
“This is My Son!”
Peter, James, and John all fail to understand this sign, this miraculous, stunning vision. They are baffled by the suggestion that Jesus will rise again from the dead, even after they see, hear, and experience God’s glory at a level that only a few have seen and survived. In fact, those few are standing in their midst. Moses is one of the great leaders of Israel’s past, who spoke with God face to face, entered the great cloud of smoke and fire on Mt. Sinai to receive the Law of God for his people. Elijah, one of Israel’s foremost prophets, also was brought to the top of a mountain, and hidden in a cave, to see God’s glory only after it passed by. God’s glory – which is just another way to refer to the quality of his presence – is so powerful, that it gives power. It is so pure, that it purifies. It is so holy, that it sanctifies, or makes holy. No one leaves unchanged. In the Old Testament, God’s glory, his presence, was to be feared, because no sinful creature could endure it. Anyone who even looked on God’s full glory died. And yet here on this mountaintop stand two epic figures from the past, two men of God who have beheld his glory and lived. And God restores them to earth for this moment, to give counsel and encouragement to his Son, Jesus Christ.
And in their presence and with the glory of God shining from Christ, the disciples are terrified. They speak without understanding: Peter’s suggestion that they build three shelters – for Moses, Elijah, and the now glorified Jesus – makes some sense of what they are experiencing. If God’s glory has come, then it must need a place to reside, a temple. If this glory, this spiritual retreat, would remain here on this mountain, then they too should stay to enjoy it. Things get messy, complicated, scary, when they go down into the valley. What Peter and the other disciples fail to realize is that Jesus himself is the temple of God, the new tent of meeting where the full glory of God resides perfectly, permanently. And this temple must go through the valley, must be destroyed, if it is to be made anew.
The Church has for 2000 years talked about Jesus’ two natures within his one person: that he is both fully God and fully human, and that these two natures are not mixed or confused or divisible. When we read of the miracles of Jesus, sometimes we are tempted to say that these are a work of his divine nature; when we read of the sufferings of Jesus, we are tempted in the other direction, that these are the experiences of the human Jesus. But the Church’s faith insists that we cannot parse out the human from the divine; that Jesus is always fully both, always all God, all man, in perfect unity. This is what makes him the perfect temple of God’s presence in human form. That is what we mean when we speak at Christmas of the incarnation: God made flesh. This is not God wearing skin, appearing to be a man; or a man divinely possessed, presuming to be God. Jesus Christ is the one and only God-man.
We are made in the image of this God, with both physical and spiritual elements, bodies and souls. Unlike the one in whose image we are made, unlike Jesus Christ, our natures our not in sync. In fact, our natures are normally at war with one another. This is one of the consequences of sin, that there is a separation even within our own selves. The great literature of humanity is a commentary on this war, lamenting the discord between the desires of the flesh or the will of the soul. This conflict leads different groups or leaders to recommend following either the body or the spirit. The historical Church, even in its insistence on the two whole, unified natures of Christ, has emphasized at the same time our spiritual nature, sometimes to the neglect or even abuse of our bodies. The world, on the other hand, insists all the more loudly that we are all animal, merely flesh, and tempts us to give in to all our natural appetites.
But the Transfiguration is a dramatic display of what can happen when the body and spirit are truly united, completely in sync. This is not the divinity of Jesus hijacking his physical body, but the body and spirit of Jesus resonating with one another and working together in perfect unity. The occasion for the transfiguration is prayer. Jesus brings his disciples to the top of a mountain for a spiritual retreat, a time of prayer together in preparation. In this season of prayer, Jesus enjoys complete communion with God, so that he shines with the glory of God.
Paul writes in his letters that we are like mirrors, able to reflect the glory of God we receive to others. As we behold the glory of God in prayer, in worship, at the baptismal font and the Lord’s Table, we are changed by that glory, transformed by it. The more we experience, the more we are changed. That is part of the reason why people were so afraid of the glory of God in the Old Testament: you cannot encounter it and remain the same. The glory of God, the glorious love of God at work, transforms us like mirrors into his own image. Because we are like mirrors, however, we also reflect to others whatever else we focus our attention on. If we place ourselves before the character of this world, we reflect that character to others. If we focus our attention on accumulation, we will reflect that avarice and greed to others. If we focus our hearts on pleasing others, we will reflect that insecurity to others. Whatever we spend time and energy to be with, that is what we reflect. Let us be careful, then, to keep company with Jesus Christ, to look on his transfigured face of light and love, in order to reflect more and more that light and love to the watching world. Amen.