Transfiguration, Year C, March 3, 2019
Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-43
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When you hear the word “transfiguration,” how many of you think of Harry Potter? I know I do. For those of you who are not fans, transfiguration is one of the subjects taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It is taught by Professor McGonigal, who is capable of changing herself into a cat whenever she wants to. And on a daily basis, she teaches young wizards and witches how to transfigure things: to turn needles into matchsticks, and rats into teacups, and any object into any other object. Transfiguration, you see, literally means to change shape. Leaving aside the world of fantasy, to transfigure something is about making one thing into something else. And not in little ways, either. To transfigure something is to completely and radically alter it. It’s about conversion. It’s about transformation.
Today is the Sunday of the Transfiguration. It is one of the minor festivals of the church year that we celebrate every year on the last Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. On this day, we remember the transfiguration of Jesus, when he went up on a hilltop with some of his disciples, and changed before their eyes into something heavenly, something glorious. For a few brief minutes they saw him not only as their friend and a fellow human being, but also as the Son of God. Two of the ancient Jewish heroes of the faith, Moses and Elijah, appeared with him and spoke with him. And a voice from heaven repeated the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!” And then, things went back to normal, and Jesus and the disciples went back down the mountain, and Jesus began walking to Jerusalem to be crucified.
Jesus was transfigured before his disciples’ very eyes. He lit up like a superhero in a movie. It was the first time that the glory of God was revealed, not just in Jesus’ actions, but in his appearance. Jesus’ nature did not change—he had always been God’s Son, fully human and fully divine—but that nature had been hidden. There, on that mountain, for just a few brief moments, he was revealed for all to see. The power of God wasn’t just something he could call on to heal people or feed people, it was a part of him. What changed was that the disciples could see that, even if only for a short time.
But Jesus’ appearance wasn’t the only thing about him that had been transfigured. His mission was transfigured, too. This is the hinge point of Jesus’ story. Before this, Jesus had been wandering around the area teaching and healing and feeding people and eating with them and welcoming them and, generally, doing ordinary ministry. After this, Jesus’ face was set towards Jerusalem. After this, Jesus started teaching his disciples about his coming sacrifice, suffering, and death. Jesus didn’t stop teaching and healing and loving people along the way, but there was an urgency to it. A sharper edge. Jesus was getting ready to die to save the world: Jesus was getting ready to use his own suffering, death, and resurrection to begin the transfiguration of the whole world into the kingdom of God.
When you get right down to it, God’s work in the world is all about change. It’s about bringing life to places where there is death. It’s about bringing healing where there is woundedness. It’s about bringing salvation to places where there is sin. It’s about turning this world into God’s kingdom. And none of that happens quickly or easily, and none of that will be complete until Christ comes again, but that is what we’re here for. The church is not a social club. The church is not here so that we have a place to have coffee and chat with our friends once a week. It’s certainly not here just because we’ve always done it that way. No. The church is here so that we can worship God, and here God’s word, and be transformed by God’s presence in our lives, and sent out into the world as God’s people. The church is the place where ordinary, sinful, conflicted and conflicting human beings are gathered into one and formed into the body of Christ. God does not call us to remain mired in all the things that have shaped us—our society, our fears, our sins, and the words and actions of others. God does not call us to conform to the ways of the world. God calls us to be made new in Christ. God calls us to be transfigured.
The problem is, most people … don’t really want to be transfigured. We don’t want to be changed. Even if we’re not happy with who we are, we’re used to it. How many times have you seen someone stay in a bad situation or repeatedly make the same bad choices over and over again? This is something that humans do a lot of. We cling to what we’re used to even if it’s terrible, because then we know what to expect. We want life to be predictable. We want to feel that we have control. Acknowledging that there are things outside our control—even God!—is scary. Letting God start us on a journey we can’t see or imagine the end of is pretty dang unnerving. Which is why we tend to respond in fear, or denial. We pray for God to do the things we want, but we very rarely pray that God will change us according to God’s will.
When Moses spoke with God directly, God’s glory shone on and around him, and the people of Israel were afraid. He had to cover his face so that they couldn’t see the visible manifestation of God’s power. The people had promised to follow God’s commands and be God’s people. They had promised to worship God and put God first; and yet they were still afraid of God’s power manifest in their midst. And no matter how much the promised to love and serve God, they kept going astray. They kept returning to old ways. They kept hollowing out God’s words until they were following the letter but not the spirit. They set up society the way they thought it should be, and told themselves they were following God’s will. They kept turning away. They did not want to be changed into the people God kept calling them to be.
But don’t be too harsh on them. After all, the disciples were no better. They heard Jesus’ teaching, and they saw his glory manifest on that mountain, and they did not understand. They chose not to understand. They wanted God’s power to fit neatly into their expectations. They wanted God’s power to be something they could control. They wanted God to turn the world into what they imagined, with themselves in positions of power. And when Jesus tried to talk about his death, when he tried to talk about sacrifice and resurrection, they didn’t listen. They told him to be quiet. Peter and John and James saw Jesus transfigured before them, but they didn’t allow themselves to be changed by that awesome sight. And, when at last Jesus was arrested and put on trial, they fled. Peter denied Jesus altogether. It took both the Resurrection and Pentecost to get them to truly follow Jesus out of what they were used to; and even then, they sometimes fell back into old habits instead of following where the Spirit led them. There have been times in Christian history where a group of people, large or small, truly opened themselves up to whatever God might ask of them, and each time they accomplished amazing things. They were transformed, and so was their community. But it never lasts for long, before we slip back into our old, bad habits.
And think about us, here, today. How many of us come to Christ to be transformed? How many of us truly conform our hearts, minds, and lives to Christ? All too often, even devout Christians come to church hoping for their opinions to be confirmed, rather than opening themselves up to the possibility of something new. And this is true regardless of ethnicity, age, political ideology, gender, economics, or nationality. We want Jesus in our lives as long as he has the same opinions we do and doesn’t ask us to do anything we don’t already want to do.
But what if we were willing to change? What if we opened our hearts and minds to Christ and allowed him to transform us according to his will? I don’t know what that would look like, but I bet it would lead to awesome, amazing, wonderful things. May we be open to the transforming love of God, now and always.