Transfiguration Sunday 2018
On the Christian calendar, the last Sunday before we start our Lenten discipline is known as Transfiguration Sunday. It is the day we remember this amazing story. It is a strange word, Transfiguration. I’m tempted to think of it in terms of Calvin’s big cardboard box. No, not John Calvin, cartoon Calvin, who with his tiger friend Hobbes used his box that he called the “Transmogrifier” to transform into anything he wanted. Set the dial to the desired new thing and away you go into a bug or dinosaur or whatever you want.
I equate Calvin’s cardboard box with Peter’s suggestion of building booths and Jesus’ dazzling appearance with setting the dial to “Son of God.” In an instant, Jesus appears to be someone other than simply Joseph’s boy from Nazareth. He looks markedly different, substantively different. He has been transmogrified, and those on the mountain with him cannot help but notice.
Matthew tells us a lot has happened before we get to this mountaintop experience. Demons have been cast out, lepers healed, parables told, a girl brought back to life, Jesus has walked on water, thousands fed and Peter has declared Jesus is the Messiah. All that before Moses, Elijah and the voice of God booms through the clouds. So what’s the big deal about the transfiguration? What gets revealed that wasn’t already revealed? What do Peter, James and John know after this event that they didn’t know before?
In short, they see Jesus in a whole new light. All the astounding, wonderful and miraculous things they had seen on the way to this mountaintop had still not revealed the entirety of Jesus’ identity. Peter’s declaration that Jesus is Messiah gets prophetic, historic and transcendent confirmation through the Transfiguration. Jesus indeed is the Messiah, the One in whom law and prophets are fulfilled. The One who is from God and of God and to whom they should listen.
What they now see is as if someone stands on the bank of a lake and gazes into the water. Often the glare of sunlight on the water allows only the surface to be seen. If a cloud passes overhead, however, suddenly the surface is made transparent and the depths of the lake revealed. Just so, the passing overhead of the divine cloud enables the disciples to see past the surface identity into the depths of the full nature of Jesus.
Jesus is not, after all transmogrified, turned from one thing into another. Jesus of Nazareth is the beloved Son of God, the Messiah, fully human, fully divine, executed, buried, raised and ascended. He will not be contained by booth, nor by grave. No wonder the disciples are at a loss for words.
Peter, James and John see Jesus in a whole new light, one so bright, so otherworldly they are left terrified and tongue-tied. Perhaps the greatest transformation that takes place on the mountaintop is not Jesus’ transfiguration, but the disciples’ understanding of the magnitude and majesty of their Savior. In seeing Jesus in a whole new light, there is hope they will begin to see themselves and their mission in a whole new light, too. And the first thing to learn is the hard truth that the Messiah does not allow his disciples to stay in safe spaces far above the chaos and needs of the world.
When have you been so overwhelmed with Jesus’ majesty and magnitude that your proximity to him left you stuttering, awed and unsure of what to do next? When have you thought you knew everything there was to know about our Lord, only to be ambushed by the realization that you know nothing about him at all? Maybe it was a mountaintop experience, accompanied by visions and a voice from heaven. Maybe it was the words of a fellow disciple or the off-hand remark of a stranger, the strains of a familiar hymn or the recitation of a poem or prayer. In short, when have you seen Jesus in a whole new light, and as a result seen yourself and God’s mission for you in a whole new light? That moment is the essence of Transfiguration.
My discipleship has transmogrified, escaped the booth or box I try to keep it in time and time again. It has happened through the influence of those who follow Jesus more closely and better than I. Through their witness I have come to see Jesus and his mission, and subsequently others and myself in a new light altogether. It happens when people who have been egregiously wronged have offered forgiveness; when those who’ve wounded others have done everything they can think of to make amends. I have been left tongue-tied when I have witnessed generosity extended without the slightest thought of reciprocity. I have wanted to preserve forever the moments when I knew without question that God was speaking, only to realize that those moments live on only when they send us out into a world desperate to hear them.
A couple of years ago, after a conference ended, I took a taxi from my hotel to the Atlanta airport. It was a forty-five minute ride, so I made conversation with the driver. Originally from Pakistan, he was a teacher there, but could not find such work here. He and his wife went back and forth to Pakistan when they could. They owned a laundromat there which she ran. They knew of the Christian school our presbytery once had a relationship with. Their daughter was raised in the states and was applying for college. At the time, with my own two in college that seemed our best connection. We spoke about studies, his daughter wanted to be a chemist, mine a biologist. He told me of his fears about the cost of college and making ends meet with his taxi job and his wife’s small business. He talked about the pressure to make a living with new competition from Uber and others. Fares were dropping, tips flat.
He asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a pastor. He asked about you, the members of Chester Pres. We talked about Atlanta, it was getting more expensive. As we pulled to the curb at the airport, I paid, made sure it was a 25% tip and got out. As he handed me my bag, he reached to shake my hand and said “Pray for me.” Then emphatically again, “Pray for me.” I asked his name. I told him mine. Suddenly I saw him in a whole new light. Not just a cab driver, but a brother, one for whom I had been entrusted to pray.
And I saw Jesus in a whole new light. Not the one we had been talking about all week at the preaching conference, not the one contained in the boxes in which I place him, but the one who transcends any limits I try to impose upon him. The one more majestic than the mountains and yet as close as the fellow right in front of me. In those moments of revelation, transfiguration, when like Peter, I don’t know what to say, it is left only to listen. To listen for God. To listen to Jesus. To listen in the clouds. To listen on the mountaintop, to listen in the valley we return to. And to listen in taxis!
For Transfiguration can be all around us.