A Sermon for March 2, 2014: Transfiguration Sunday, Matthew 17:1-9
One of the most treasured places in my life is the Montreat Conference Center in Black Mountain, North Carolina, just outside of Asheville, where I’ve attended numerous summer youth conferences since I was a teen.
Of all the experiences I’ve had at Montreat, the one I cherish the most is climbing to the top of Lookout Mountain—with friends and youth group advisers when I was younger and with the Pleasant Hill advisers and youth now as an adult in my late 30s.
There is something mystical about Montreat that compels one to awake with joyful anticipation, shortly before dawn, for a 20-minute hike. The destination is well worth the morning chill, the achy legs and heavy breathing that comes with a journey up a windy, steep and sometimes rocky terrain.
Because once the top is reached, the most magnificent sight can be seen—a pinkish-orange sun emerging from behind a nearby mountain range of trees to cast its brilliant glow on every living thing, even the souls of those of us who come to bask in the radiance while overlooking a luscious green valley and Montreat below. Reveling in the light of the Creator with friends is a hallowed moment—a joyful invitation to open eyes and hearts to see God present in creation and one another. Encounters such as this are a mere reflection of the glorious revelation that Peter, James and John witnessed while on a mountaintop with Jesus.
The transfiguration of Christ is a brilliant, strange and mysterious story that is nearly beyond comprehension. And yet Christians around the world once again recognize today as Transfiguration Sunday and in anticipation of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, they read the story of how Jesus is transformed atop a mountain.
What are we to make of this incident in Jesus’ life? How are we to understand this supernatural phenomenon in which the appearance of Jesus physically changes—his face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming as white as light? What is the significance? Why is it so important for our lives, especially as we approach Lent?
This transfigured Jesus is a hard image to depict. Ancient paintings and modern artwork fails to properly capture the event, and the actual description of the transfiguration is a difficult concept for us to wrap around our brains. The transfiguration is certainly not an earthly or tangible occurrence like Jesus’ feeding of the crowds with fish and loaves or healing a blind man with a mixture of mud and spit.
The best I can figure is that Jesus’ transfiguration is like a magnificent sunrise that opens up a brand new day or it’s the pivotal moment in any great story or film where the viewer is awe-struck by the shiny hero.
Like Superman who radiates truth, justice and the American way as he swoops into Metropolis to defeat a criminal mastermind.
Or Harry Potter who shouts Expecto Patronum as he casts a blinding white light from his wand toward the ghoulishly evil Dementors.
Or Han Solo who, while blazing through space in the Millennium Falcon, knocks Darth Vader’s ship off course so that Luke Skywalker can fire the crucial shot to blow up the Death Star.
Or Luke Skywalker who, after celebrating the defeat of the Empire, sees the spirits of his Jedi mentors Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, and also his father and fondly smiles and nods his head in respect to them.
The transfiguration of Jesus is like those exhilarating movie scenes, the huge turning point in the Gospel of Matthew. The transfiguration is that heroic dadadada-da-daaaa moment.
The slight difference, however, between the illuminating moments of movie icons and Jesus is that the Son of God doesn’t proceed to vanquish his enemies.
Jesus doesn’t swoop in to take out the religious leaders and Roman authorities with one super punch. He doesn’t wave a wand and cast a spell. Nor does he shoot lasers from a space ship or wield a light sabre.
Instead, Jesus instructs Peter, James and John to not talk about what they saw on the mountaintop until after Jesus’ resurrection. And then, following a few chapters in the gospel where he preaches, teaches and heals, Jesus goes non-violently into Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, beaten and crucified because his practice of God’s goodness threatens the powers-that-be.
The transfiguration is a reminder that Jesus is the hope for ages, the One who comes to fulfill the law and the prophets. The spirits of Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain with Christ because Jesus is the embodiment of the Ten Commandments and the dreams of the prophets who proclaim God’s kingdom will overcome the corrupt kingdoms of the world.
Jesus is the Divine-in-the-Flesh who uses a cruel death to expose the powers of the world and their desire for glory and dominion. For this, Jesus has been baptized and claimed as a beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.
This is what transfiguration is about. It’s God quickly flashing his hand to let us know that God has all the cards and is about to make the biggest play anyone has ever seen. Only it won’t be a royal flush of monarchs with swords who lay siege on the Empire. Instead it will be an unarmed Savior King who—through great sacrifice—peacefully conquers with unconditional love and steadfast mercy.
Transfiguration is synonymous with many familiar words: transformation, transition, mutation, modification, etc. The most fitting and appropriate synonym for transfiguration as it relates to God’s actions in Christ is the word revolution.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a glimpse of revolution. A revolution of unfathomable love that comes down to heal and transform a broken world.
A type of rebellion that is mightier than any mob armed with guns, stones and Molotov cocktails.
A holy insurrection of non-violent proportions that puts fear into the hearts of the religious authorities and Caesars who hold a tight grip around God’s people.
Like Moses and Elijah who challenged the pharaohs and kings and helped free God’s people from slavery and oppression, Jesus confronts the powers by giving himself up to free the world.
And the powers don’t stand a chance of thwarting God’s plan anymore than Peter has an opportunity to make the work of God fit neatly into his own comfort zone.
The Rev. Maryetta Anschutz, an Episcopal priest, says:
The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe. We also cannot escape the light that God will shed on our path…God will find us in our homes and in our work places. God will find us when your hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from God and when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell. So ‘get up and do not be afraid.’
Transfiguration is when God tells each and every one of us that it is time to stand tall and be a part of God’s revolution.
God’s love revolution.
God’s mercy revolution.
There’s an energizer, a popular song with liturgical movement, which the youth have done at Montreat youth conferences and shared in worship with this congregation called Revolution. The lyrics by singer Kirk Franklin go like this:
No crime! No dying! Politicians lying,/Everybody’s trying to make a dollar.
Makes me want to holler/The way they do my life
There’s gonna be a brighter day/All your troubles will pass away.
A Revolution’s comin, yes it’s comin, comin/Revolution’s comin.
A revolution is coming, and all will be transfigured by it.
All will be transfigured. No exceptions.
Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped end apartheid in South Africa, once wrote:
The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is “untransfigurable,” that the whole of creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration, when it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God, when it will not be just dry inert matter but will be translucent with divine glory. Christian history is filled with examples of transfiguration. An erstwhile persecutor like St. Paul could become the greatest missionary of the church he once persecuted. One who denied his Master not once but three times like St. Peter could become the prince of apostles, boldly proclaiming faith in Jesus Christ when only a short while before he was cowering in abject fear behind locked doors.
There are hundreds more examples of transfiguration—instances in your life where you’ve seen the sparks of the Divine revolution ignite the sacredness within humanity. Times when you have seen the holy shining brightly in the faces of other human beings…
The homeless men of Clifton Sanctuary Ministries who are trying to put their life back together.
The children who raise their hands in the middle of the service for a worship bag.
The police officer who directs traffic following a serious automobile accident.
The New Orleans resident who moves back into a home once filled with the water and debris from Hurricane Katrina.
The checkout girl at Kroger who puts in a double shift for a co-worker who is in the hospital.
The former addict who mentors a young person who has lost their way.
The elderly man who takes in a stray dog.
The daughter who takes her cancer-stricken dad out for a dinner and a movie.
That is transfiguration.
That is revolution.
That is God’s vision of love for all of creation.
As the late theologian Walter Wink so eloquently put it:
Transfiguration is living by vision: standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling to it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us.
In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self worship or when groups or committees or even, rarely, when whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst—on the way to the cross.”
Transfiguration is happenin.
Are you ready to be a part of it?
 Feasting on The Word, Year A, Volume 1: Advent Through Pentecost. Transfiguration Sunday. “Pastoral Perspective” by Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz. Westminster John Knox Press. (2010)
 God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu. Doubleday Publishers. (2004)
 Imagining the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource. Pilgrim Press. (1996)