Transfiguration Sunday


The diet and fitness industry generates tens of billions of dollars each year. In fact, between now and 2028, it’s projected to grow by almost 172 per cent.


No doubt you’ve seen how its products and services are marketed. In ads targeting women, there’s an attractive woman with a perfect body who holds up a supplement or demonstrates an exercise routine, with the implicit promise that you too can achieve a body like hers.


In ads targeting men, there is a man with chiseled abs, strong arms, and broad shoulders. He demonstrates a workout routine, which will deliver the same results to you too, if you are committed to following it.


These ads are often accompanied by “before” and “after” testimonials. Here’s a picture of the person before trying the routine.  He’s out of shape and unhappy. And then there he is 12 weeks later. Behold his total transformation! His body is sculpted like that of a Greek god.


There is promised a “before” and an “after” in the disciples of Jesus. And just as it’s in the time between that the real struggle occurs for the dieter and the body builder, so also for the disciples.


For this reason, there is a need for encouragement. There is a need for a vision of the goal towards which the struggle is moving. The disciples need to have an “after” testimonial, so that they can continue in the struggle, without growing weary and losing heart.


This is precisely what Jesus gives Peter, James and John in what the church has called the transfiguration. The word refers to the moment in which Jesus undergoes a transformation before their eyes.  Matthew tells us that “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white.” This hints at the promise of the glorious resurrection to come—of both Jesus and ultimately his followers.


It is the “after” testimonial that is on display to the disciples. What it does it do for them?  It serves to reassure them that they are not mistaken in their following of the One who has told them that he must undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes.


It reassures them that they have not undertaken the rigors of their training in discipleship in vain. The transfiguration presents itself to them as a prophetic word, pointing to the future, thereby becoming a light on their path (K. Barth). One recalls here the promise God gave to the Babylonian exiles through the prophet Jeremiah: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to bless you and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11)


But if this epiphany of divine glory is not enough, there is more. We pointed out last time that Matthew’s first readers were Jewish. In hearing the authoritative teaching of Jesus, they must have been prompted to ask themselves: “If I believe in Jesus, am I breaking with the God of my fathers?”


The two figures who appear before the disciples, luminescent in the reflected light in which Jesus appears, reassures them that they are not. They are Moses and Elijah.


Moses stands for the law and Elijah stands for the prophets. The law and the prophets refer to the covenant history between God and the people Israel. This we know as it is told to us in the Old Testament of our Bibles. That Moses and Elijah are with Jesus here shows that Jesus stands in continuity with this history. But he stands in continuity with it only to fulfill and renew it. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).


In this regard, it is significant that the two are talking with Jesus. In his First Epistle, Peter tells us that the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to us, searched diligently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow (1 Pet. 1:11).


Here are Moses and Elijah, the prophets who are no doubt focused on this very subject in their conversation with Jesus!


No wonder the spectacular event evokes an excited reaction from Peter. “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”


Does this reaction sound strange to you? Is it a response that we expect? How are we to understand it? 


Before we venture an answer, we have to acknowledge that tradition has not always been kind to Peter here. Bible students who have commented on this scene have criticized Peter for his reaction. They say that Peter’s plea to Jesus to stay on the mountain is an attempt to keep him from going to the cross.


In this connection, we must recall that immediately preceding this episode Jesus explained to the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Then Peter spoke up: “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”


This is why the great church father Augustine exclaims in his sermon on this lesson: “Come down, Peter! You wanted to rest on this mountain; come down, preach the word! God was reserving this life on the mountain with Christ for you, Peter, after death…. The Life came down, that he might be slain…and do you, Peter, refuse? Come down, Peter.” 


At first glance, this comment seems right on the mark. And in any case who dares to question so great an authority as St. Augustine, who by all accounts makes the short list of the most brilliant theologians who have ever lived?


But on further reflection, it is legitimate to mount a challenge to the great church father, at least on this point. It is right for us to ask: Is the desire of Peter to rest up on that mountain really wrong?


In the ancient world, places of worship were atop mountains. Indeed, in the Old Testament, God’s dwelling place is Mount Zion, a term used first for the city of David and later for the Temple Mount.


The Psalmist exclaims: “I rejoiced when I heard them say: Let us go up to the house of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1). David himself exclaimed: “Oh, that I might dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple” (Ps. 27:4).  


What else were Peter and his companions doing but gazing upon the beauty of their transfigured Lord?  Peter’s desire to dwell there all the days of his life was far from wrong; on the contrary, it was good and right.


Life is hard. The life of a disciple of Jesus is even harder. To linger in the presence of God, to enjoy his beauty and goodness, to feel the comfort and peace that he gives—how can this not be good and right?  


Is this not what those students, and later the general public, at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, have been showing us this past week?


The chapel service that began there on Wednesday, February 8, has not ended! It’s still going strong after more than a week! People have been content to linger in God’s presence, praising and worshipping him through music and prayer through all hours of the day and night.


Christian YouTube influencer Alisa Childers happened to be in a nearby town last weekend, so on Sunday morning she drove over to attend the service. She described the atmosphere at the chapel as sweet and calm, very similar to a sanctuary on Sunday morning before the service is about to begin.


Asbury’s student body president Alison Perfater concurs. “There is nothing weird here. There is no spell casting or magic dust. There is only God’s friendship…You can sit with him. You can experience his deep gentleness. You can experience his deep love.”


The revival, having attracted international attention with the help of social media, has drawn visitors from across the country. And thousands are connecting with God through confession, prayer, and song.


In one of the interviews, Perfater said: “at some point, we all have to go back to class.” So too this is what Peter and James and John realized. Their experience comes to abrupt end. Even while Peter was still speaking, a cloud overshadowed them. And from the cloud there came a voice. It is God’s voice.


In the Hebrew Bible to hear God’s voice is terrifying. In our Old Testament lesson, it is only Moses and Joshua who go up the mountain to bring back the tablets of stone, on which the finger of God inscribed the law and the commandments. When God spoke these words earlier from Mount Sinai, the people then also saw the cloud. They saw the lightning and heard the thunder; they heard the trumpet and saw the smoke, and were terrified. They pleaded with Moses, “speak to us yourself, and we will listen. But do not have God speak with us or we will die” (Ex. 20:19).  


When they heard God speak from the cloud over the mountain, the disciples fell to the ground in fear. In a condition of extreme fear, the knees buckle. Human beings cannot help but fall to the ground. But as God then was merciful to the people of Israel, so God here is merciful to the disciples. As God then appointed Moses to speaks his words to his people, so God here appoints Jesus to speak to his disciples.


“Listen to him!” These are the last words that Peter and the disciples hear from the cloud.


We are told that no prophet in Israel has ever arisen like Moses, with whom the Lord spoke face to face, as with a friend. But Jesus is God’s own word. When God speaks his word, it is Jesus Christ himself, who is none other than God’s eternal Word.


The disciples then felt a gentle hand. They looked up and saw only Jesus. There is no one else who can calm our fears like Jesus. What more did they need? They can go down from the mountain. But they don’t go down alone. Jesus goes with them.


Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent. There is a reason that the Transfiguration comes immediately before Lent. Today we are on the mountain top with Jesus. We have caught a glimpse of his power and glory. Next week we will be in the valley with Jesus. And thereafter, we will follow him in his sufferings, as he endures the opposition of his enemies, as he follows the path marked out for him, the path that leads to the cross.


With Jesus, then, we are in the “before.” We are disciples on the way. But, as we have said, in order to keep going, we need a vision of the “after.” We need to be assured that there is a goal that in the end will make all the struggle and the sacrifice worthwhile.


Many of us keep wallet-sized photos of loved ones in our wallets and handbags, or probably more often today, in our phones, so that they are with us wherever we go.


Occasionally, when we are in a dark place, or wonder what it’s all for, we will look at the pictures of those children or family members, and they inspire us to keep going.


May we not imagine that the brilliant image of the transfigured Jesus as it was emblazoned on the minds and hearts of the disciples was meant to serve the same purpose for them?


They were about to follow Jesus into Jerusalem, where they would witness the rejection, betrayal, arrest, and public execution of their Lord. Things were going to get dark for them, and they were going to wonder what it was all for. Of course, they did not have photographs they could keep on them and look at, but they must have had an image of their transfigured Lord that they could not efface from their minds.


The transfiguration points to the resurrection, as we have said. The reason that Jesus brought his disciples up that mountain to show himself in his glory was to assure them that the suffering and death he was about to undergo in Jerusalem was not the end of the line. There would be resurrection. They did not understand then and would not understand later. But no doubt this strange event came into focus after the first Easter, when they became eyewitnesses of a Jesus who was raised to life through the power of God.


Let this Easter expectation also guide us as we begin our own Lenten disciplines this Wednesday, whatever may they be. But let it also guide us at all times, especially when we have to come down from our mountains and walk in our own valleys of the shadow of death. Amen.  






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