FIRST READING Exodus 34:29–35
29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
PSALM Psalm 50:1–6
1 The mighty one, God the LORD, has spoken; calling the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. 2 Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God shines forth in glory. 3 Our God will come and will not keep silence; with a consuming flame before, and round about a raging storm. 4 God calls the heavens and the earth from above to witness the judgment of the people. 5 “Gather before me my loyal followers, those who have made a covenant with me and sealed it with sacrifice.” 6 The heavens declare the rightness of God’s cause, for it is God who is judge.
SECOND READING 2 Corinthians 3:12–18; 4:1–6
Chapter 3 12 Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13 not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. 14 But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. 15 Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Chapter 4 1 Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
GOSPEL Mark 9:2–9
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
TRANSFIGURATION AND TRANSFORMATION
Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University wrote a remarkable study of the significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ titled, Jesus Through the Centuries. Dr. Pelikan demonstrates how Jesus has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture. Each age has made Jesus relevant to its own needs. Jesus has furnished each new age with answers to fundamental questions as every generation has had to address new social problems that tested the more fundamental questions of human existence. The world had to take note of Jesus as a rabbi, as the Cosmic Christ, the Ruler of the World, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the Son of Man, the True Image of Man, the Great Liberator. In many other ways Jesus furnished the answers and the images that affected society in positive ways.
Dr. Pelikan’s thesis is that Jesus did not and does not belong to the churches and the theologians alone, but that He belongs to the world. This isn’t to say that we can make Jesus what we want Him to be; quite the opposite. It’s to say that the Christ is adequate for all our needs and that Jesus transcends culture in such a way that He is able to belong to each age and to address the issues of all time. To understand that, we can do no better than to look to the Holy Gospel for today, which celebrates the Transfiguration of our Lord. In that momentous event, we learn how and why Jesus belongs to the centuries.
Mark begins his account of the Transfiguration by saying that “six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John and led them up a high mountain apart”. From the literal standpoint, the six days is referring to the time between this event and when Peter made his confession, “You are the Christ.” It was also at that occasion that Jesus informed the disciples that He would have to go up to Jerusalem and suffer and die, but that after three days He would rise again. It was then that Peter said that they would not permit this to happen, and Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus also said that this was God’s will and that if any would follow Him they would have to take up the cross and be willing to lose one’s life in order to find it.
While we have a feeling that the Transfiguration followed six days after that incident, we’re sure that Mark also wants to impress the fact that the glorious moment on the mount was the prelude to our Lord’s great passion. What transpired on the mount was a beginning for those events that would reach their climax in the death of and resurrection of Christ. For this reason it’s important for us to see that Mark’s reference to the six days is also a figurative comparison to the six days when Moses prepared himself to climb Mount Sinai to meet with God and upon his return Moses’ skin shone because he saw the glory of God. Therefore, it’s hard for us to read the story of the Transfiguration of our Lord without thinking of the parallel to the account of Moses on Mount Sinai.
Just as Jesus is transfigured in this brilliant display of light that made Him into a dazzling sight, who should appear but Moses himself along with the prophet Elijah. Both of the legendary figures had been assumed into heaven after they had completed long and faithful careers as prophets. It was obvious that they are a part of the company of heaven who live in the presence of God. What’s important to note is that their ministries had been filled with the same kind of torment, temptation and persecution as had been crammed into the ministry of Jesus. No other prophets had also suffered so much faithlessness and testing from the very people whom they had served so faithfully. Therefore, God could not have sent better representatives to talk with Jesus as He looked at His future mission and passion.
Moses and Elijah were the experienced veterans who could talk about what they had encountered. Mark simply records that they “were talking with Jesus.” But it’s the evangelist Luke who tells us that they talked about “his departure which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). They were preparing Jesus for what He still had to face; that the worst was yet to come. However, no doubt, they also could assure Jesus that God would see Him through death all the way through the tomb via the resurrection. What capped this counsel of comfort was the voice that came out of a cloud that overshadowed them, “This is my Son the Beloved; listen to him!” Then suddenly it was all over. The disciples “saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.”
The whole effect was so startling for the three disciples that they were frightened. They weren’t simply stunned; Mark says they “were terrified.” They were party to an extraordinary religious experience. The cloud that had overshadowed them was the same as the shekinah, the cloud that had traversed with the children of Israel as a sign of God’s presence. It was also the same cloud as the one that enveloped Mount Sinai when Moses went up to be the mediator for the people. Therefore, we can’t blame the disciples for being terrified; the disciples behaved no differently than the children of Israel who had been frightened by the scene at Sinai. It was as though Peter had been carried back to that scene in the Old Testament and this could well be the reason that he suggested that they make three booths, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
Certainly, booths would not suggest permanent memorials like shrines or temples. Booths would be reminiscent of the temporary structures that the children of Israel built in the wilderness. Or the booths that Peter suggested could also recall the tent of the tabernacle which had been the place of worship in the wilderness. What’s noteworthy here is that Peter indicates that he puts Jesus in a scene that would be comfortable for all three, and that impermanent shelters also suggest that he also knows the scene must move on. But what Peter suggested was the best that he could think of at the moment, since the disciples were next to being speechless.
The Transfiguration was unlike the many marvelous signs that they had witnessed Jesus perform. This was something done for Him and to Him. Their fear was understandable, just as it was for the children of Israel in the desert. Sinners who stand in the presence of the holy and righteous God run for some kind of cover. Peter tried to make the most of the moment by trying to prolong it. Even temporary shelters could house these sacred people for a time. They could decide later how to continue with this remarkable experience. It’s obvious that Peter felt a compulsion to try to do something with Jesus. And as usual, Peter was the one to make a bold suggestion.
And as Peter was inclined to do, Peter thought that he could make the most of the situation by suggesting how Jesus could preserve the best of the scene. As earlier Peter had mentioned that Jesus should put the cross out of His mind, here he thinks that Jesus should try to stay on the mountain and prolong what was happening in this glorious sight. This was as good a place as any to hide out and away from the threat down below in the city. Up here on the mountain they could spend their time in useful teaching, prayer and devotion. However, Peter’s brilliant idea of what could have been, wasn’t part of God’s plan.
Moses and Elijah had come to discuss the unfinished business that lay ahead. The voice that spoke the benediction from heaven was also clear on the matter. While that special word which had to be of great consolation and inspiration to Jesus, also gave special instruction to the witnesses to this marvelous happening, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Peter, James, and John were exhorted to pay attention to what Jesus had to say and what He would do. It was an affirmation of what Jesus tried to explain six days earlier and what Peter tried to ignore.
No sooner had that voice faded, when the disciples could see no one “but Jesus only”. Then, “as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead.” The disciples were to listen to that, but as usual they didn’t pay very good attention. One might expect that they would have engaged Jesus in some meaningful dialogue about the resurrection from the dead and how He would accomplish that. One would think that they would have been excited about that kind of news, because Jesus was claiming that He would be able to defeat the worst enemy of all, death. But there were absolutely no indications at all, that these three disciples understood them or remembered when Jesus was crucified that He had promised to rise from the dead. But, then again, we can’t be too hard on the disciples for not getting the full import of what had taken place before them and how Jesus had instructed them. I tend to think that if we had been there we would have reacted in much the same way.
Probably most of us wouldn’t have been able to think anything to say either. We would have been numb and speechless like James and John. It would have been strange indeed if any of us looked forward to suffering. We have a tendency to think those people are sick who find delight in suffering: We all do what we can to avoid it. Peter was saying what we all think, “Who needs the cross? Let’s remain where it’s safe and we can pray and avoid all the trouble.” Besides who can understand the resurrection? No doubt we’ve read in newspapers, books, and journals that people believe in the immortality of the soul. If that’s the case then who needs the resurrection?
The problem is that many people don’t want to believe that Jesus had to leave that most beautiful scene of glorification to come down into the world of sin and death and die for us sinners. We don’t like to believe that the only way possible for God to make it clear and plain to us that it should be us that die for our sins but can’t, was to have Jesus die in our place. The only way that God could make it plain to us that God is willing to forgive our sins and share eternity with us was to raise Jesus from the dead and promise that He would do the same for us. It’s apparent from this story, however, that as plainly as Jesus did tell that to the disciples, at that moment, they couldn’t comprehend it. And we have to admit that we all struggle with that truth as well. However, in spite of our struggles, like those of the disciples, Jesus did accomplish what He said He would.
The transfiguration event wasn’t what Peter wanted to make of it. This was God’s special moment for the strengthening of His Son to prepare Jesus for the cross and the resurrection. By doing so, Jesus completed the work that far transcended what Peter would have made of Jesus. Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). This is why Dr. Pelikan could demonstrate that Jesus belonged to the centuries.
Jesus isn’t one who belonged to one age, one movement, one revolution, or one phase of history that was soon to pass. The One who dealt with the reality of our sin and judgment and gave us life and hope by the resurrection from the dead, is the One who furnishes us with the forgiveness, the freedom, and the hope for dealing with all the ills that confront us. Our Lord’s moment of glory on the mountain was to prepare Him for the hours of agony and suffering in His passion that He might win eternity for us. From Him we gain the strength to work, to suffer, and to die in the sure and certain hope of eternity. But the Transfiguration was more than a preparation for Jesus, it’s also a lesson for us.
Many of us have been to places like Lutheridge or mountain retreats where we have searched for discoveries, epiphanies and wisdom. Today, however, I’d like for us to think about these Mountaintop stories – especially that of the Transfiguration – not so much for what they might tell us about the geography of the surrounding mountains, but how they might shed light on our mission of sharing God’s word in our community.
While our New Testament lesson deals with the Transfiguration of Jesus, both the Old and New Testament stories are also about transformation. When Moses returns from the mountain, he’s physically changed – his faces shines from the radiance of God. Jesus is likewise physically changed in today’s Gospel lesson. However, there’s a big difference to be noted here. In Jesus’s temporary Transfiguration, Jesus is revealed as a Divine being. This is evidenced by God Himself witnessing to who Jesus is by saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to Him.” Moses, and the disciples were permanently transformed by their respective experiences; Moses physically and the disciples emotionally. Paul also points out in his letter to the Corinthians, that the latter event – the Transfiguration – also heralds a spiritual transformation, a metamorphosis, not just for Peter, John and James, but indeed for all of us.
In a sense, metamorphosis is what living a Christian life is all about. But before we think about that transformation, I’d like to share with you some insights from a sermon that was delivered more than 50 years ago. Edwin Munson, who was pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Rock Island, Illinois from the 1930s to the 1950s, was considered by many to be a leading voice in the former Augustana Synod.
Pastor Munson found much that was interesting in Luke’s account of this pivotal event. Something in particular he found especially noteworthy in Luke’s account of the Transfiguration is what it has to say about the importance of maintaining an atmosphere of prayer. Luke notes that it was while Jesus was praying that His appearance changed before His disciples’ eyes. This is a sign to Munson that Prayer is, as he puts it, “practicing the presence of God.” Another striking feature of the Transfiguration highlighted by this sermon is what it teaches us about the nearness of the spiritual world.
Having faith, for Munson, went hand-in-hand with having knowledge that we’re never far from God as a source of peace and strength. People who have a well-developed faith, according to Munson, “will find balance, poise, courage and hope, as they sense the reality of the unseen and eternal in the midst of the visible and temporal.” Finally, Munson finds in the Transfiguration an emphasis on the transitoriness of what he called “exalted experiences.”
Like Peter, we all wish to capture and prolong our mountaintop moments, even though it is, of course, impossible to do so. Still, Munson believed that such exalted moments were nonetheless of vital importance in all of our lives, and that the memory of them serves a valuable purpose. As he saw it, “We should believe in our best moments, in our noblest impulses, and in our most spiritual insights. Then we’re able to live up to them,” he wrote.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the hallmarks of living a Christian life is that for us, profound transformation is not an aberration, but an expectation. As Christians, we see as central to our work the creation and cultivation of an environment in which transformation is not only allowed, but encouraged. This of course begins in baptism where “our gracious heavenly Father liberates us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are born children of a fallen humanity; in the waters of baptism we are reborn children of God and inheritors of eternal life.” This is, of course, the beginning of our spiritual transformation.
In baptism God brings us in, forgives us and makes us His children but we have a part to play in this as well. As St. Paul puts it, we need to “die daily” to the influences of the old Adam. We must turn to the Lord so that the veil of hard heartedness can be removed and we can then begin to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. We must renounce, as Paul writes in our epistle reading for today (1 Cor 4:2) the shameful things that one hides”. We’re to be renewed, as Paul explains in Romans, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:1-2) This world teaches that we are our own god and that everything we do, should be to please ourselves. But this isn’t what Paul is telling us, we’re not to copy the customs and teachings of this world, rather we’re to look to God and His teachings so that we can be transformed into the likeness of His Son.
In closing, I’d like to consider how this is done in the context of our lives as Christians by using the framework from Munson’s sermon. How might he have applied those aspects of Christ’s Transfiguration which he found so noteworthy to the ideal of transformation? How might this congregation help us prepare for spiritual experiences, commit to practicing what we’ve learned from those spiritual experiences in the presence of God, and commit to better engaging in this world as a result of those spiritual experiences? For this congregation, it means asking ourselves how we can, with the help of God, assist our members and those who worship with us transform into the likeness of Christ and in doing so transform this world?
We do this by recognizing that this spiritual transformation is a lifelong process. Therefore, we must be deliberate in developing our teaching ministry through Sunday school, Youth group, Bible Study and Sunday worship in order that each member can fully understand their Christian calling. It’s only by the transforming power of God that we can realize what God is calling us to do. God is calling us to leave the mountain and share that glorious experience of being in God’s presence with a world in need and share with them the relevance and need of Jesus in their lives today.