Summary: The great significance of Jesus’ transfiguration is that it lifts us beyond our limited capabilities; it pulls back the curtain of our own worldview and gives us a glimpse of the fullness of God’s kingdom.
For the second year, Mary Ellen is playing Upward Basketball, and Ken and I are co-coaching her team. An important part of the Upward program is the weekly devotionals that take place during part of the practice time. This year, the girls have been learning about faith. The verse throughout the season has been Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “We live by believing, not by seeing.” This week the devotional led us through considering what it might be like to describe life on dry land to a fish living in the ocean. Such tales would certainly be hard for a fish to believe, but just because the fish’s worldview is limited to the ocean doesn’t mean that land and life on land don’t exist. And the same is true when it comes to our belief in God and Jesus Christ.
Ken and I have talked with the girls about how, even though we can’t see God, we can believe in him because we can see the things God does in this world like the sun rising and setting, and all the animals and plants that God has made, and the way that God helps sick people get better. And we’ve talked about how we can believe in Jesus even though we’ve never met Jesus because we have the gospels, all the stories that people who knew Jesus tell about everything that Jesus did and taught while he was living in this world. And one such story is the one we heard this morning, the account of Jesus’ transfiguration.
Just before Jesus’ transfiguration, Jesus is traveling with the disciples, and he asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples tell him that some say he is John the Baptist or Elijah, while others say he is a prophet. So then Jesus asks the men, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” Now, in the transfiguration, we, along with Peter, James, and John, get to see what that means. What the transfiguration tells about Jesus, though, is probably much more significant than we realize. It seems like something of a fairy tell, but the story of Jesus’ transformation or transfiguration describes what was an actual event with the deepest significance for everyday reality. As Jesus stands on the mountaintop with Peter, James, and John, he is transformed before them. His clothes become dazzingly white, brighter than anything you can imagine. And this transformation is a sign. It is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, even bathed in, the love, power, and kingdom of God, such that it transforms his whole being. This transfiguration is the physical sign of God’s message spoken just moments later, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him.”
It’s easy enough to dismiss such events as some sort of odd hallucination. Jewish scriptures and traditions tell of various events like this; when the veil of ordinariness that normally prevents us from seeing “inside” to the reality of the situation is drawn back, such that we can catch a glimpse of the greater reality. And indeed, that is what happens in this moment high atop what was probably Mount Hermon, just north of Caesarea Philippi. Needless to say, the disciples are quite scared. Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to mind as the events unfold, trying to make sense of the whole scene as he ties it into the the prominent Jewish festival, the Feast of Booths. According to some Jewish expectation, God would usher in the new age, the “Day of the Lord,” during the Feast of Booths. Peter was, of course, wrong about the timing, but God’s words are a reminder to pay attention to all that Jesus is teaching them about the future of God’s kingdom.
So what is it, exactly, that Jesus is teaching the disciples and others? Can we look at this whole situation, not just from the human point of view, but from God’s point of view? Think about all that has happened in the gospel up to this point. Jesus has been leading the disciples to this new view of God’s kingdom. In extraordinary action and puzzling but profound words, Jesus has been unveiling for them what God is up to. The disciples are having their eyes opened so that they can see for the first time the inner reality of God’s kingdom and the central truth that, even though he doesn’t look like what they expected, Jesus really is the Messiah! Now Jesus takes the disciples up Mount Hermon and his kingdom-revealing work continues, but now on a different level. It’s like a child with a microscope who can look for a moment upon a different reality and afterwards see everything in a new way.