Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on The Transfiguration of the Lord, Sunday August 6 2023;
Readings – Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Luke 9:28-36
“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Luke 9.29
Today’s gospel reading is one of two times in the church year when we hear the story of Jesus’ startling and brief alteration into something more glorious. We call this story The Transfiguration, and this year the fixed date of the Feast, August 6, happily falls on a Sunday. If for some reason we don’t hear the story in August, we usually hear it in February, on the last Sunday of Epiphany. (For more on why we hear the story twice during the liturgical year, click here).
It’s a story that’s important and worth hearing twice because it tells us who Jesus is. It connects the Jesus we are familiar with, the human preacher and teacher, with the figure of mystery and majesty described by the prophet Daniel, “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7). If the gospels tell us how Jesus become flesh and dwell among us, then the Transfiguration story reminds us that Jesus came from God in heaven.
It’s called the Transfiguration because Jesus is, albeit briefly, changed into something better, something glorious. It occurs to me with some amusement that if people aren’t interested in the theological meaning of the story, they will at least understand the idea of transfiguration and would like to experience it themselves. People want to be transfigured. Just look around our town of Collingwood and it’s easy to find cosmeticians, aestheticians, plastic surgeons, Yoga studios, orthodontists, gyms and fitness centres, all focused on offering a newer, younger, fitter, slimmer, more peaceful and more attractive you.
Or, go into a bookstore or go onto Amazon and do a search for “Self Help” books and you’ll find countless titles that will guide you to becoming happier, healthier, fitter, more efficient, more positive, and more popular. I find it amusing, by the way, that in our local used bookstore, the few Christian titles there, including a copy of our own Mary Lou’s history of this parish, are included in the “Self Help” section. I haven’t really figured that out, because Christianity has nothing to do with self help, and has everything to do with relying on God’s help.
Indeed, this whole story is about reliance on God. Jesus does not transfigure himself. It’s telling that the story, is as Sarah Henrich puts it, “embedded in prayer”. Jesus, along with three of his key disciples, has gone to a mountain to pray (Lk 9.28) and this is a pattern with Luke. On three previous occasions that Jesus withdraws to pray on key occasions such as after acts of healing or after choosing the twelve disciples (Lk 5.16, 6.12, 9.18). Throughout the gospels we see Jesus nurturing his relationship with his Father, and his miracles and acts of power seem to flow from Jesus’ prayerful obedience to God’s will.
Likewise, the choice of the mountain is significant, as mountains are places where God reveals God’s self and speaks to those chosen by God. In the Hebrew scriptures, both Moses (Exodus 19) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) spoke with God on mountain tops, and Moses himself is transfigured on Mount Sinai so that his skin is shining (Ex 34.29). It’s often said that the the presence of Moses and Elijah, often shown just slightly below Jesus in icons of the transfiguration, show that Jesus sums up the Law and the Prophets, that he embodies all the teachings and all the hopes of Israel. The sheep in our cartoon today also make the lovely point that whereas Moses and Elijah could not in their lifetimes bear to see God in all God’s glory, now they can see the face of God in Jesus – as can we!
Perhaps the most important detail in Luke’s version of the Transfiguration story (it occurs in the three Synoptic gospels but not in John) is Luke actually tells us what Jesus is discussing with Elijah and Moses: “they were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk 9.31). The words “accomplish at Jerusalem” seem to point to the cross and the resurrection that will follow, though all this is still unknown to the drowsy disciples below. What’s most interesting is that the Greek word Luke uses for “departure” is “exodus”, which is the same word used for the name of the second book of the bible. It’s the only time in all four of the gospels that the word “exodus” occurs. Why is that?
I think the likely answer is that Jesus, like Moses before him, will come down from the mountain and lead his people to freedom. The word “exodus”, for the Jews and for us (think of Dr King’s use of the exodus imagery in his “I Have A Dream” speech) speaks of escape and release from slavery. Jesus will be a second and a greater Moses; his journey to Jerusalem and to the cross will lead his people out of the land of sin and death. Jesus lives, dies, and rises again so that his people, us, can be free from the guilt of sin and the fear of death. As the Collect for Peace in the Book of Common Prayer puts it, in serving Jesus we know “perfect freedom”. As Sarah Henrich observes, the promise of the Transfiguration story is that Jesus will come off the mountain to lead us to safety: “God will deliver God’s people from slavery as often as God must do it”. That promise alone is why the Transfiguration story is worth hearing twice a year.
The story ends in a somewhat muted way. The glory fades away, Moses and Elijah vanish, the three houses that the disciples want to build are not needed because Jesus must go and his friends must follow. They don’t understand yet and so they keep silent, but surely they must have left with greater hope and faith in Jesus. And the words from heaven, the same words heard at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” apply just as much to us as they do to the disciples. Our calling today, our vocation, is to follow Jesus, to listen to him, and to fix our hope on him.
For me, I find this story incredibly liberating because it frees me from the burden of self-help. At the end of the day, we don’t have to rely on ourselves to improve ourselves. All the self-help books on Amazon aren’t going to make me younger or healthier, at least not for long. As Marilyn Monroe once sang, “Time rolls on, and youth is gone, and you can’t straighten up when you bend”, as I think many of us here today know all too well! Likewise those of us who carry burdens of guilt or shame know that therapy and counselling have their place, but the unconditional love and forgiveness of Jesus will set us on the road to being a new creation, alive and happy as God always wanted us to be. In other words, it’s not diamonds but Jesus that is our best friend, and in his glory on the mountain we see something of the same glory and radiance that is ours if we wish to follow Jesus.