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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

2008-02-03 Matthew 17:01-13 Transfiguration

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Over the past Sundays, we’ve been looking at defining moments in Jesus’ life, between his birth and the start of his earthly ministry. Today, we get ready to get ready for Easter. The forty days of getting ready for Easter is the season the church calls Lent. Today is the day to get ready for getting ready; the last Sunday before Lent. This is the Sunday we annually celebrate as Transfiguration Sunday. This is another defining moment in Jesus’ life. He goes up on the mountaintop to pray. He takes his top three disciples with him, and they see him transfigured, right before their eyes. There, in front of them, stand Moses and Elijah - the two greatest figures in Jewish history. There, in front of them is their teacher and friend, Jesus, talking with Moses and Elijah. And then, suddenly, Jesus begins to glow a blinding white light. It’s as if there’s a tear in the fabric of the universe, with Jesus at its center. God’s light peeks between the curtains and lights up Jesus with its glory. Yes, this is the Messiah. Yes, this is the One. Yes, this man you disciples call, “Teacher,” is the real, true Son of God, not only standing in the tradition of Moses and Elijah, but also eclipsing their brilliance with his heavenly glory. This one you disciples call Jesus IS God.

The mechanics of how the Transfiguration happened aren’t important. The more we fixate on what happened and how it happened, the more we miss the point of WHY it happened. So why, why did Jesus stand and talk with Moses and Elijah? Why did Jesus glow with heavenly light? What does that mean to us?

Why did Jesus stand and talk with Moses and Elijah. It’s a shame, but our Christian tradition neglects the honor due Moses and Elijah. It’s a shame because the more you revere Moses and Elijah, as say, the Jewish tradition does, the more this moment of transfiguration means. It’s as if, say, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln suddenly appeared on TV with one of the candidates running for president, and not only talked with him (or her), but said, “This person will be even greater than we are.” Forget Chuck Norris and Oprah - here’s your all-time #1 celebrity endorsement. This candidate is SO outstanding that our greatest presidents come back from the grave to give their endorsement. Not even Al Gore could lose that election. The two greatest people in Jesus’ religious history appear with him and it’s so much more than a simple endorsement; because Jesus isn’t running for office. It’s not as if having Moses and Elijah by your side is going to convince people to vote for you. Having Moses and Elijah present on the mountaintop isn’t done to convince, it’s done to confirm. Jesus stands in the tradition of the greatest people in the tradition. The appearance of Moses and Elijah confirms Jesus as being “like” them, and also, even more than them.

What did Jesus, Moses and Elijah talk about? Who knows? (“Who’s the better quarterback, Eli or Brady? Do you think the Giants have a prayer?” - probably not.) Again, what they said isn’t important; that they had enough in common to have a conversation, that’s what’s important. These were men who talked each other’s language, who understood each other as equals. It shows Jesus is on the level of the highest of the high. And then some.

Why did Jesus glow with heavenly light? The computer-generated special effects people in Hollywood could have a field day with this one. Actually, compared to some of the stuff they do in movies now, it’s probably no big deal. (“Make him glow? Oh yeah, that’s easy; here, let me punch a few buttons.”) If Jesus were into gee-whiz special effects, he would have invited more than three people to watch, and he wouldn’t have told them, “Tell no one about this until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And if you’re a disciple, you’re thinking, “OK. Tell no one about this. Check. Until you’re what?? Double-check.” Again, it’s not the effect; it’s the meaning behind it.

Jesus isn’t the first person to glow with the glory of God. When Moses comes down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, the Bible says the people saw him glowing an unearthly white. For lack of better words, the Bible describes God as shining brighter than the sun, brighter than the stars. No human can look directly into the light of God, because not only could our eyes not handle it, our minds and bodies couldn’t take it. Which is to say, God is greater, God is more glorious, God is brighter than anything we can imagine. When Jesus shines, it’s as if God’s tearing a small hole in the barrier between this universe and the next, and letting just enough of heaven shine through to let us “get it.”

God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” When last did we hear these words? A couple of Sundays back, when we read about Jesus being baptized, the exact same thing happened. A voice from heaven said, “This is m Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here, on the mountaintop, is a reenactment of the baptism, maybe even an improvement on the baptism. Baptism 2.0. It’s a blessing, and a reminder that we should listen to Jesus, not just because he’s as smart as Moses and Elijah, not just because he glows, but because when you hear Jesus talking, you hear God. So, with the authority of God behind him, Jesus is God’s beloved Son; listen to him. Jesus isn’t converted; he’s confirmed as the one, true Son of God. That’s why he shines.

What does all this mean to us? Why is the Transfiguration so important that we read it every single year? Why celebrate this defining moment?

First, it’s confirmation from scripture that when we worship Jesus, we’re not out there in left field. The Transfiguration is biblical proof that we’re on the right track. Jesus is not just some guy who claimed to be the Messiah; Jesus actually is the promised Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God. He’s the one the Bible has been talking about for generation upon generation.

Second, the Transfiguration is important because it’s confirmation from scripture that you and I can see Jesus for who he really is. We can understand. We can “get it.” We human beings can know something about the divine. What do we do with this knowledge? Well, hopefully, we’ll come up with something more meaningful than Peter did, “Lord, it’s a good thing we’re here. We can build some booths for you and Moses and Elijah.” Notice, Jesus doesn’t even respond to that one. (“No, I don’t want you guys to build me a booth; I want you to pay attention.”) Maybe the Transfiguration’s important to us for that one reason - the message that above all else, Jesus would prefer we paid attention. Pay attention to Jesus. Pay attention to God. Pay attention to what Jesus tells you to do.

And third, the Transfiguration’s important to us because it’s confirmation from scripture that God keeps God’s promises. The glowing light, the appearance with Moses and Elijah, the repeating of the baptismal blessing -- it all works together to confirm that God is in charge. God has a plan. God started a long time ago to redeem people like you and me, and God is working that purpose out. The Transfiguration doesn’t show that God invented something new, that he changed Jesus from regular to super-sized. The Transfiguration shows the opposite; that God is doing something old, something very, very old. God is taking that very, very old message of life and hope and salvation and shining a new light on it, extending it, reshaping it, but all the while preserving what our ancestors knew millennia ago, that God created the world, and made it good. God is still creating, recreating, redeeming, and making good on those promises.

The pronouncement God made on the mountaintop, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” is the same pronouncement we heard at his baptism. “This is my Son, the Beloved,” is the pronouncement we hear when we break the bread and drink the cup. “This is my Son’s body, broken for you. This is my Son’s blood, poured out for you. And, it is good.” God is in charge. God has a plan. God is here. If you’re shining on a mountain, God is with you. If you’re broken beyond repair, God is with you. With one foot in heaven and one foot on earth, Jesus is here. God is with us. On the mountaintop of Transfiguration, God showed us Jesus for who he really is. At the table, God shows us who we are, that we’re still part of the plan, that we’re still called to pay attention, that we’re still able to lift up our eyes and see no one else but Jesus.