One of my favorite memories from a few summers ago took place when my children were young. They found a number of monarch caterpillars in the yard, so we decided to purchase a butterfly habitat. The children placed the caterpillars inside and gathered plenty of milkweed for the caterpillars to eat – which they found just down the road at the intersection with Route 30. Then we watched as each caterpillar formed a chrysalis, and after a few weeks the butterflies emerged. It was magical. We all took such delight in watching the whole process unfold. And it reminded me that we human beings really are just like hungry, little creatures crawling along this earth—aching to become butterflies who can really fly. We long for transformation – to tap into our deepest longings, and to become the truest, fullest versions of ourselves. Our gospel reading today has a lot to tell us about how that transformation can happen. It provides us with a clue as to how we as human beings can begin to shine.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the same event which we refer to as “the Transfiguration.” But I have to admit, this event in Jesus’ life never made much sense to me when I was younger. It sounds more than a little strange. Jesus takes three of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—up on top of a mountain to pray. While Jesus is praying, suddenly the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white. And his followers see two people, Moses and Elijah, speaking with Jesus.
My dad’s best friend from college is a pastor, and Ashley and I remember him preaching on this passage 25 years ago. We’ll both never forget how he started his sermon. As a child of the 60s, he was careful to explain to his congregation that when the Transfiguration took place, it wasn’t as if the disciples put on their beads, passed the pipe around, and had a group hallucination. It wasn’t that kind of mountaintop experience! Something of far greater significance is going on here. During our time together this morning, let’s briefly consider 1) the Background, 2) the Meaning, and 3) the Implications of the Transfiguration.
I. The Background to the Transfiguration
First, the Background. In order to understand what happening here, you have to remember the story from Exodus 34 which we read this morning. After rescuing his people from their bondage in Egypt, God leads them to Mount Sinai. God’s glory comes down on the mountain in the form of smoke and fire. I don’t know about you, but I find the term “glory” a bit abstract and hard to grasp, so here’s a simple definition: Like the rays streaming from the sun, God’s glory is the outward shining of his inward being.
So God’s glory comes down on Mount Sinai, and then God speaks. He gives the people the 10 Commandments. He instructs them in how to live their lives in response to his grace. Notice the order. God does not give the people the law, and then agree to rescue them if they obey it. No, he saves them, and then gives them the law.
That is the essence of the gospel. The gospel is not: If I obey, God will accept me. But rather: God accepts me in Jesus Christ, and therefore I obey. I’m not motivated by a sense of duty or obligation in order to try to win God’s love, but by a sense of gratitude and joy because I’ve already received God’s love in Jesus Christ. The gospel is not “law then love,” but “love then law.” But the people can’t handle hearing God speak. In sophistical theological terms, they freak out! The tell Moses: We’ll listen to you, but we can’t bear to listen to God directly. From that moment on, Moses would go up on top of Mount Sinai—into the thick darkness—all alone, to listen to God’s voice and to bring down God’s Word.
But a strange thing happens as a result. Moses’ face begins to shine because he has been talking with God. It’s as if his face becomes a mirror that reflects that brightness and brilliance of God’s glory. But the people didn’t like that either. They found it more than a little disturbing. So Moses began to wear a veil when he was around them to cover his face. Do you see the contemporary relevance of this? Many people today find this whole idea disturbing, too.
You could imagine someone saying: “I don’t like this notion of a God who speaks because that would mean that God has a claim on me. I don’t believe there is a Truth with a capital ‘T.’ There’s no truth outside of myself that tells me my identity, my purpose—who I am or how I am supposed to live. There’s no truth that tells me the essence of what it means to be a human being or what is right and what is wrong. In order to be free—in order to become my authentic self—I have to make my own truth.”
That kind of thinking is so popular it has become commonplace. But reflect with me about this for a minute. If that’s what you think – then what you’re really saying is: “When I get up in the morning, there’s no one for me to listen to, no one for me to follow, no one for me to obey. There’s no truth out there—outside of myself—to which I must submit.” That might sound convenient. You might like the sound of that. But here’s my question for you: Is it realistic? Is that really how the world works?
And here’s another problem. If God doesn’t speak to us, then we can’t speak to one another. What do I mean by that? Let me give you an example. One person might say: “I believe love is the essence of reality. That is my truth. Love is what life is all about. And therefore we all have a duty and a responsibility to treat absolutely every single person without exception with equal dignity and respect. That is fundamental to the universe.”
But another person might say: “Look, if there is no God, then I can see why I should be good to people who are close to me—who affect my own well-being. But there is no compelling reason why I should care about people who, for all practical purposes, are irrelevant to my own life and happiness. Love is your truth, not mine.” Think about it. How could Martin Luther King, Jr. call people to racial justice? Only by pointing people to a truth outside of themselves. Do you see that? If God doesn’t speak to us, we can’t speak to one another—at least not about the things that really matter.
II. The Meaning of the Transfiguration
So if that is the background to this event, what is the meaning of the transfiguration? In context, you will see that this event is not really as strange as it seems. Jesus goes up on mountain to pray. But this time, the glory of God does not just come down on the mountain. This time, the glory of God comes down on Jesus. Jesus himself begins to shine with the glory of God. And the disciples see Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus. Why those two? Moses was the law-giver. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets. So together Moses and Elijah represent “the law” and “the prophets”— the sum total of all God had to say to his people up to that point in time.
But the disciples–obtuse as ever–don’t get it. Peter thinks this is one of the most incredible things he’s ever seen so he offers to build a little shrine – a mini temple – to Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Why? Because he’s having the paradigmatic “mountaintop experience” – and he wants to try to hold on to this moment for as long as he can. But he doesn’t realize that this moment is merely meant to be a signpost – pointing beyond itself to something greater. It would be like pitching a tent in front of the sign that marks the beginning of a trailhead rather than following the sign to the summit of Mt. Marcy. The transfiguration is not an end in itself. It simply marks out the trail we are meant to follow.
Let me show you what I mean. Centuries beforehand, Moses explained in Deuteronomy 18 that just as the people did not want to hear God’s voice at Mt. Sinai, so one day God would raise up an even greater prophet like Moses. Moses says:
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—" (Deuteronomy 18.15).
That’s why God interrupts Peter as soon as he suggests making a few little shrines. All of a sudden a cloud overshadows them, and God speaks from the cloud. But he does not merely say: “This is the prophet Moses was talking about.” No, someone greater than a prophet is here. God says: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” He is the one to whom you must listen.
All of this makes me wonder if the author of the book of Hebrews had the transfiguration in the back of his mind when he wrote the opening lines of his letter: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrew 1.1-3).
In other words, when you look at Jesus, you are looking at God. When you listen to Jesus, you are listening to God. Jesus is the ultimate and final Word from God. He is the truth that comes to us from outside of ourselves to tell us who we really are and how we are supposed to live. He’s the one who shows us how to become the truest, fullest versions of ourselves. He’s the one to whom we must listen. He’s the one who makes us shine. But the question is how?
III. The Implications for the Transfiguration
Let me turn to my final point which is the implications of the transfiguration for us. There’s a fascinating little detail in this passage that would be easy to miss. Did you notice what Moses and Elijah discuss with Jesus when they appear in glory? They speak to Jesus about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” That’s such an intriguing way of putting it. They were preparing Jesus for his departure — for the climactic and most harrowing experience of his life – an event that we will celebrate together at this table in just a moment. They were preparing Jesus for the cross. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem knowing exactly what he would face when he arrived there. And even Jesus needed a little encouragement as he stared down death.
Moses and Elijah assure Jesus that his cross will not be a senseless tragedy or a meaningless death. No, he is going to accomplish something through his death. His cross will be the chrysalis out of which new life will emerge – not only for Jesus but for all of us who follow him by faith along the trail that he has marked out for us. This doesn’t come out in our English translations, so this is one of those places why you are glad you pay your ministers “the big bucks” for having learned Greek in seminary because the word “departure” is literally the word “exodus.” Jesus’ death on the cross will not be merely a departure from this world, but an exodus. In other words, Jesus’ death on the cross would be a rescue operation.
Years ago, my children had an aquarium filled with seven little GloFish. But we were going away for the summer to come up here to Saranac Lake, so we asked our friend Mary if she would be willing take care of our fish while we were away. She happily agreed, but the only problem was how I was going to transport the tank from our apartment on 57th Street to Mary’s apartment on 68th Street. Being the resourceful New York City father that I am, I decided to put our baby stroller to work. I poured half of the water out of the tank, placed it in the stroller, and began making the trek to 68th Street, accompanied by my four children.
Everything was going just fine until I hit a rut in the sidewalk. The tank lurched, and the water began to sway, first this way, then that. I tried to steady the stroller to keep the tank from falling, but I failed. The tank slipped out and crashed on to the pavement, creating little rivulets of water that flowed dangerously in the direction of the storm drain.
This turned into an amazing New York City moment. If I had been all by myself, people would have passed by, saying: Who’s the idiot trying to transport a fish tank in a stroller? But I was surrounded by four young children who immediately burst into tears as the fish flapped on the sidewalk. All of a sudden, 10 to 15 people who were walking by saw what happened and immediately sprung into action to be part of the rescue operation. Some went for the fish and scooped them out of the gutter. Others picked up the shards of glass and threw the damaged tank into a dumpster. Others donated water from their water bottles and filled a mason jar with water that I happened to have in the back of the stroller. We saved all the fish!
Then we finally arrived at Mary’s door with no tank, four children with tear-streaked faces, and a mason jar filled with seven GloFish. I told Mary, I’m going to leave the children and the fish with you. You’re a kindergarten teacher so you can handle it. I’m going to the pet store to get a new tank, and I’ll be right back! It’s a great story, but what I want you to understand is that you are of even greater value than seven little GloFish. Jesus willingly went to the cross to put into motion the greatest rescue operation the world has ever known. His death was not merely a departure, it was an exodus.
Moses knew a thing or two about an exodus. Just as God used Moses to lead his people out of their bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt, so God chose to use his Son Jesus to lead his people out of their bondage to the ultimate enemies of sin, evil, and death so that we might experience our true freedom as the children of God. And that is why we should listen to Jesus above and beyond everyone else. So as we come to the Lord’s Table this morning, I want you to ask yourself: What voices am I listening to? What voices compete for the attention of my mind and the affection of my heart? What voices are shaping my patterns of thought and behavior?
Some voices are more helpful than others, of course. But the voice that we were made to listen to is that of Jesus. And he is speaking. Jesus speaks to us through his creation. He speaks to us through wise friends and counselors. He speaks to us through his providence and the circumstances of our lives. He speaks to us through our joy and celebration, but especially through our sorrow and suffering. Above all, he speaks to us through His Spirit, through his Sacraments, and through his Word.
He’s the only one who can tell us who we really are and how we are supposed to live. He’s the only one who can help us become the truest, fullest versions of ourselves. He’s the only one who has blown a hole through the back wall of death so that he might transform us little caterpillars into butterflies who can really fly. The Apostle Paul tells us that when we behold the glory of God revealed in face of Jesus as though reflected in a mirror, then we, too, are transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Corinthians 3.18). Jesus is speaking. The question for you and me is: Are we listening? Learn to listen to Jesus and that’s when you will begin to shine.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirt. Amen.