The Last Sunday of Epiphany

I Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 27; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Mark 9:2-9

“On the mount of transfiguration a veil is withdrawn, and the glory which the disciples are allowed to see is not only the glory of a future event, but the glory of Him who is the Son of God.” So ends the section on Mark’s narrative of the transfiguration in Michael Ramsey’s book “The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ.” The former ABC’s remark is an apt one to begin with this morning, a summation of the various rich threads of meaning woven into the Transfiguration text. In the gospels, taken as a whole, there are three events of greatest importance: The Incarnation, the Passion, and, nestled between those two mountainous events, a third peak, the Transfiguration.

I have preached on this text every year since we began, this being the 5th, and I continue to find ways to nuance, emphasize, look at this text from different angles. It is a story largely ignored in my formation in the Scriptures growing up, indeed I did not recognize the significance of it until after graduate school. It is an event of supreme importance, one that, like the Incarnation, I am still trying to understand, and perhaps never fully will. Rather than try to examine every element of it today, I want to focus on one aspect, leaving others for future sermons.

At root, the Transfiguration is a foreshadowing of the parousia, the second coming of Christ when he, in glory, will judge the world and establish his new creation once and for all. It is not referring to the resurrection Christ, who is far more humble even in new life, but rather the Christ who no longer conceals his Godhood, but rather it blazes out from behind the veil of his human body. And, as Ramsey put it, it reveals that the Christ of glory to come is present there, with the disciples, his divine person making an appearance from his human body, like a lightbulb burning with so much light as to almost shatter. He is where God has tabernacled among humanity. 

Let us examine the basic contours of the story again. First, he is transfigured. The word is where we get our word for metamorphosis. In every example I looked at in both biblical and other sources, with one exception in Romans 12:2, it means an actual change of appearance, materially, physically. Whatever the change, we are not told here how Jesus looked different, only that his clothes were dazzlingly bright. Think, kids, of a butterfly. It begins as a tiny egg, resting on a plant; it then hatches, and is a larva, what we call a caterpillar, roaming and eating. One day, it forms a home around itself and becomes a chrysalis, a hanging pod where, inside, an amazing transformation, a transfiguration is taking place. Then it finally happens, the chrysalis shakes, the transfigured creature shaking off its container, and it bursts forth, full of beauty and color and elegance as it flies. It is a butterfly now, but before, did the butterfly not exist? Perhaps it did…it just had not been revealed to be a butterfly yet. This is what is happening here with Jesus, that his true nature, what he really is, is being shown to his disciples, so that they can trust him that he will do what he has promised: to make the world new again, without fear, sadness, or pain. 

The disciples looked on Jesus closer to the way he truly was, and what he would become. They saw in Jesus God, the glory manifest in Him. Like Moses when he had to stand in a cleft of rock as God passed by, the disciples see, through Jesus, a mere ray of his glory; as Irenaeus put it, Two facts are thus signified: that it is impossible for man to see God; and that, through the wisdom of God, man shall see Him in the last times, in the depth of a rock, that is, in His coming as a man.” Jesus is the rock that allowed them to see the glory of God…but not too much, yet. There, what existed in him overflowed, and the line between the material and immaterial worlds became thin, enough for the disciples to see, like a sheer fabric stretched tight.

There is too much, as I said, to discuss here. We could talk about the significance of Elijah and Moses, and of the cloud, shimmering with light coming from its center, with the tabernacles and their significance as a celebration of God finally ushering in his kingdom. But since I cannot fit it all into this time, I want to save some for later and focus on this one element: That in the face of Jesus the disciples saw the face of God. The transfiguration is the sign of Christ’s return, Lord of creation and shining with his eternal, divine glory, yet also man. What that means, for us, is that the transfigured Christ points towards our destiny: to commune with God forever, and to do so face-to-face. We, in our unglorified states, would die if we were to look upon the utter, consuming glory of God. Even in Christ, we are not able to do so. Yet, when Christ returns, we will “behold the fair beauty of the Lord,” as the Psalm put it. We will be glorified, as he was, and in our union with Christ, we, though remaining human, will also be more than human, able finally to gaze upon the very Holy Trinity, and not be consumed. 

To draw on Irenaeus again, The glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God.” We are stunted in our vision. We see the world around us and think, “man, this is great. I have food, and paintings, and beer, and sex, and music, and cars, and gardens, and physics, and games, and all the rest,” and we, looking at these things, fail to behold that which is awaiting us, fail to appreciate what it all means, and points to; The eternal God, in glory, inviting us into communion with Him, to be transfigured ourselves, and to delve never-endingly into the complete and yet ever-growing joy of beholding him face-to-face.

Yet…we only have to wait for the fullness of this, but not the part. The disciples saw part, and what were they commanded to do with it? This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Just like at Jesus’ baptism, we are told along with them to listen to Jesus, to follow him. Jesus was not here delivering, making holy, and glorifying the nation, but rather three disciples, who listened and believed his word. We are capable of the same thing, to behold with the eyes of faith the glory of God in Jesus Christ, when we hear his word, and follow him with trust and obedience.

And to what do we obey? This whole story immediately follows Jesus’ declaration that he must suffer and die, that he will rise again, and that those who follow him must bear their own crosses behind him, losing their lives in order to save them. To receive that transfiguration in its totality requires moving through suffering and death. To be remade into those who can see God face-to-face, we must follow Jesus through the valley of the shadow of death. 

That may be where you are now. You may be suffering, struggling, aching for transformation, to be made into someone who can never decay. You will be; the transfiguration shows us that Jesus is the one who is both God and human, and we are united to him, and will be made like him. Right now, we are called to hearken to his word, to know we will receive through grace what he already is by nature. So we press on in faith, trusting that the glory shown that day was but a taste of what we will receive: to be remade, people who will see God, face-to-face. Amen.

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