A Sermon for Sunday, March 3, 2019 at Emory Presbyterian Church—Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday, Luke 9:28-43
On the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, Christians across the globe celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord, which marks a significant transition in Jesus’ ministry where upon he “set his face to go to Jerusalem” to die.
Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus, through suffering, death and resurrection, is the hope of the ages—the One who embodies the Ten Commandments and fulfills the dreams of the prophets who proclaim that God’s kingdom will overcome the corruption of earthly kingdoms. Jesus is the Divine Light-in-the-Flesh whose cruel demise exposes 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.
The Transfiguration of the Lord, that big, mountain top reveal of Jesus’ identity and purpose, is an illuminating moment for the disciples Peter, James and John, and it is a powerful event for us to consider as 21stcentury followers of Christ.
It is particularly fitting to recognize Christ’s transfiguration when you, the congregation, and I, as your new pastor, are beginning the next chapter of ministry at Emory Presbyterian Church. The transformation we’ve both experienced separately over the last two years has now brought us together in this very hour and place.
Neither of us are the same as we were a month ago. We’ve been changed. We are still changing. Even now as we take in each and every breath, change is happening and will continue to occur. Our relationship with one another is forming and our faith is being shaped by God’s magnificent presence in our lives as we seek to embody Christ’s love in all that we do.
Transfiguration. transformation. change. It is a natural part of daily living that can be exciting, fascinating, and striking to witness and embrace.
Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu said God made the concept of transfiguration obvious to him while attending a church leaders’ meeting to discuss the issues of apartheid in South Africa. In his book “God Has a Dream,” Tutu writes:
“During our discussions, I went into the priory garden for some quiet. …It was winter: the grass was pale and dry and nobody would have believed that in a few weeks’ time it would be lush and green and beautiful again. It would be transfigured.
As I sat quietly in the garden, I realized the power of transfiguration—of God’s transformation—in our world. The principal of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again. Or when the tree with gnarled leafless branches bursts forth with the sap flowing so that the birds sit chirping in the leafy branches. Or when the once dry streams gurgle with swift-flowing water. When winter gives way to spring and nature seems to experience its own resurrection.
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.”
Transfiguration. transformation. change. It is awe-inspiring and liberating, and well to be completely honest, it can be daunting. Many of us can relate to the disciples on the mountaintop who are perplexed to see Jesus’ face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming a dazzling white and the long-dead prophets Moses and Elijah suddenly appearing and talking to him ; and Peter who tries to give a profound response but instead anxiously and awkwardly asks Moses and Elijah if they want to have a sleepover. And we can understand what it’s like to be stunned into silence as Peter, James and John are when hearing God’s voice speaks to them.
Peter, James and John are usually judged unfairly for staying quiet and choosing not to tell anyone about what they witnessed after coming away from the mountain. At first glance, it does seem unusual that they don’t instantly run around telling everyone about the amazing phenomenon they’ve seen. It doesn’t make sense that they would be able to push that incredible story to the back corners of their minds and not let a word of it slip from their lips. Their decision to not speak about the transfiguration event is often interpreted as a sign of their disbelief in who Jesus was and why he had come to dwell with humanity.
However, I wonder if their silence is not a weakness but a strength. To take time for discernment, meditation and prayer is always a good practice. Similar to Desmond Tutu sitting quietly in the garden, the disciples are also contemplating the meaning of Christ’s transformation in their own minds and hearts. They don’t speak of it or share with anyone because it’s too wonderous to describe, and they need time to reflect silently.
You’re familiar with those type of experiences–those amazing, breath-taking mountain top experiences that render us awe-struck and speechless:
Falling in love. Getting married. Seeing the birth of a child. Listening to soul-stirring music during Good Friday Tenebrae. Riding a monstrous roller coaster. Staring at vastness of the Grand Canyon. Reclining on the beach as the sun goes down. Reading an inspiring piece of literature. Spotting baby deer in the woods as you drive along the highway. Gazing at a night sky full of stars. Reuniting with old friends or family members you haven’t seen in decades. Receiving unexpected good news from medical tests.
All of these are experiences of transfiguration—circumstances so incredible that we can’t come up with the right words to describe what is happening. We try and we fumble before eventually resigning to the truth that all we can do is stand there and bask in the mystery of God’s power and glory. Some of the most compelling transfiguration events in my life have been:
my wedding day,
my children’s births,
my ordination to the PC(USA) 14 years ago,
youth trips to Montreat and Asheville, North Carolina,
The rock band U2 leading thousands of people in the singing of Amazing Grace at the Georgia Dome,
a box of letters and cards from family and friends that Elizabeth collected for me when I turned 40 a few years ago,
And last Sunday when interim pastor Brady Radford gifted me with that splendidly made walking stick as a symbol of transition in this faith community.
I never cease to be amazed by the power of God’s transformation in my life and the lives of others. And over the years, I’ve realized there is great value in simply being mindful of the moment and entering into quiet reflection.
Experiencing transfiguration gives me hope that God has changed, is changing and will change everything for the better. To quote the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All that I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all that I have not seen.”
Emerson’s statement helps me remember that while the power of God’s transformation is immense, we can’t remain stuck in the wonder of transfiguration. We can’t stay forever on top of the mountain, even when Christ is shining brightly in the midst.
Like the disciples, we have to leave the mountaintop and continue following Jesus’ light into difficult and messy places. Luke tells us that the day after Peter, James, John and Jesus come down from the mountain, a large crowd approaches and a distressed father bursts forth with his son who is being plagued by a demon. Jesus immediately rebukes the unclean spirit, heals the boy and returns him to his father—all of which astounds the crowd.
Transfiguration. Peter, James and John see it lived out and on display in their community and world. The disciples see Jesus’ essence differently since the event on the mountaintop. They know him to be the incarnated light of God’s love. And seeing Jesus differently means seeing oneself and others differently too. As a noted religious scholar explains it: 
“Transfiguration is never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level.”
Jesus has come to lead the way toward healing, liberation and love and to radiate light in the darkest of corners. His journey will lead him through ashes, torment, sorrow and death by the hands of those who greatly fear change and refuse to see the image of God in other human beings.
We are meant to accompany Jesus on the path and participate in his mission of transfiguration for the world. “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes/Turn and face the strange,”the rock prophet David Bowie once crooned, is our calling in this life.
In a sermon delivered in February 2011 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Desmond Tutu reminded the congregation of their calling, which is also true for us:
“We are agents of transfiguration. Go forth and transform your personal relationships, your community, God’s world so that it becomes hospitable to laughter, to joy, to caring, to sharing, to compassion, to justice, to freedom, to peace. And you know, transfiguration can happen because you have smiled on someone carrying a heavy burden. Transfiguration can happen because you uttered a word of concern. …
You are the agents of transfiguration as you walk the pavements of this city. Become an agent of transfiguration. You don’t need to do anything that is spectacular. …
Sitting in your car in rush hour, fuming because (there are so many other stupid drivers), instead as you look around at your fellow drivers, why not become what you are—an agent of transfiguration. Hold one, hold two up before God because maybe that one has just had a devastating diagnosis. That (other) one might be rejoicing; share in their joy—holding up God’s world gently, tenderly so that God will transform it, will transfigure it.”
Each of us are agents of transfiguration. We are called to be the change that God desires for the world—to face the strange and the astonishing and let it permeate our hearts, minds and souls. We are called to be transformed by God and to help transform God’s world through acts of unconditional love and acceptance of others, especially the broken and marginalized. The closing hymn of our worship service eloquently puts it this way: 
Arise, your light is come!
The Spirit’s call obey;
Show forth the glory of your God,
Which shines on you today.
Fling wide the prison door;
Proclaim the captives’ liberty,
Good tidings to the poor.
All you in sorrow born,
Bind up the broken-hearted ones
And comfort those who mourn.
“God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time” by Desmond Tutu, 2004, Doubleday/Random House
Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Lori Brandt Hale, 2013, Westminster John Knox Press
“Changes” by David Bowie, Hunky Dory, 1971, RCA
“Arise, Your Light has Come!” PC(USA) Glory to God Hymnal, Hymn #744 (FESTAL SONG)