And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.Matthew 17:2, NRSV
How do you picture the God who speaks to you? (PAUSE) Let me help you out a bit. Close your eyes. Find that peaceful place inside your head. And picture Jesus – the Jesus you pray to at night, or in the morning as you arise. Do you have the image in your head? (PULL UP AVIV ALUSH MASK) Open your eyes … is this him? No? OK, so the hot Jesus, Aviv Alush, from the movie The Shack isn’t for you, I guess. Too friendly? … too much of a hottie, maybe? … maybe you need someone with a more earthy presence?
OK, close your eyes again … same peaceful place … same image of God. Is that image back in your mind again? (PULL UP TED NEELEY MASK) OK, open your eyes … better, right? How about Ted Neeley, playing the hippie Jesus of the 1970’s rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar? No? … the brooding, edgy Jesus doesn’t work for you, either? That’s all right, we have other options.
Close your eyes once more – peaceful place – image of Jesus. (PULL UP SALLMAN MASK) How about this … if this isn’t a familiar image to you, then one doesn’t exist. What, no excitement about this one, either? Maybe because Warner Sallman’s 1940 painting the Head of Christ, is an image that has been reproduced over a half-billion times since Sallman painted it. The problem with this image is that it is so familiar … so familiar that it has become two-dimensional and somewhat invisible. (PULL UP ASLAN MASK) So … any Chronicles of Narnia fans here – how about Aslan?
OK, OK, … I’ll stop. But this silly little opening, highlights the problem we have with a faith that is over 2000 years old. How do you speak to and engage a God who hasn’t walked the earth in flesh and blood for two millennia? In some ways, that is what Transfiguration Sunday is all about. Meeting the God who meets us in our lives, even when … especially when … we are at risk of missing that encounter with the divine.
The challenge is … in most of our Gospel stories, we meet a Jesus who is pretty human. That is certainly the case in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is born as a baby … is circumcised and named … and gets bar-mitzvah-ed when he is twelve like most other Jewish boys. He then disappears for a while, just like most teens in the Christian church after they are confirmed. He comes back on the scene as an adult … finds some friends … and hangs out with them. He eats and drinks … sometimes with the wrong crowd. He gets in trouble and is punished. He dies at the end of his life. He also preaches and teaches … he heals people and he does some miracles … but he isn’t the only person doing those things in first century Palestine. In so many ways, Jesus life is ordinary … it resembles the life of others have lived.
And that is the risk God takes in sending us a Jesus that is so human, that we can see ourselves in his life. It may be why two out of every three people in the world DON’T believe in Jesus. The risk is that in all of the humanness, we might just miss the divine presence of Jesus, hanging around at the very edge of our sight. The risk is that Jesus might come to earth, live and die, and fade back into history with no one noticing. And so, God sends us a clue … a big clue … it is called The Transfiguration. It is an image of Jesus as the LIGHT that banishes the darkness from the world. A LIGHT that brings warmth and hope to our lives. A LIGHT that points us to the brightness of the empty tomb on Easter morning, when God finishes the job of saving God’s people. The Transfiguration of Jesus is a glimpse at the last page of the book, so that we know how the story turns out in the end. So much so, that some scholars think that the Transfiguration story is actually a post-resurrection story … a story from the forty days that Jesus walked the earth after his resurrection. Which St. Mark then placed right into the middle of his Gospel as a little peek into what God had in store for the children of God at the end of this great Jesus story.
You could make the argument that the modern-day church likes that theory. Because 40-50 years ago, as many churches were creating cycles of Bible readings for every Sunday of the year, called lectionaries … the decision was made to move the Transfiguration from its original festival date of August 6th, to its current place as the final Sunday of the Epiphany season. Why the need for this festival to occur on the final Sunday of the Epiphany season? … because of the next season upon whose threshold we stand. And that season is? …. LENT. And the season of Lent leads us to the most dismal and dark day in the church year? … which is … Good Friday.
Yes, we need the story of the Transfiguration on this very day, so that we can survive the season of Lent. So that we are reminded where our hope lies. And so that we can understand and embrace this coming Lenten season, not as one of despair … but as one of hope. We need this festival at this time as individuals, and as communities of faith. We need it as a reminder of the promise God speaks to us each and every day in our prayers, in our reading of Scripture, and through the voice of the created world. The promise that Jesus is raised from the dead … and that we will share in that same resurrection when our days on earth come to a conclusion.
You could make the argument that this is also a turning point in St. Peter’s life – the moment he fully sees the risen Christ that he will preach about to the early church in his ministry. Peter has the chance to see, face to face, the God who will both judge him and also forgive him for his betrayal outside of the High Priest’s house, that awaits Jesus and the apostles maybe 8-9 months from this moment in time. And Peter has the chance to see, face to face, the God who will transfigure Peter himself, when he is bathed in the light of the risen Christ, and sent out into the world to lead the Church into its call to be a light to the nations. That’s a sermon for another day, I suppose. So, for today … know that in this transfigured vision of Christ … you also see your God … you also are transfigured with the Light of Christ … and you also are sent into the world to be a light unto others … …with your actions … with your words … and with your hearts. Amen.