Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-36
February 19, 2012
This year we’ve been looking at the life and ministry of Jesus as told by the Gospel writer, Luke. And I’ve been asking you to “tweak” your mental images of the various events in Jesus’ life. I hope you’ve done that. And I hope those images have grown and become more real for you.
Well, for our next story, we’re jumping ahead a bit. Because this is Transfiguration Sunday. This is the day we celebrate the time Jesus took his three closest disciples and went to the mountaintop. And there they saw this heavenly vision of Jesus transformed!
I can say two things about this story. One, is that I’m sure my mental images of this event are pretty much inadequate! I’m thinking we all probably need some “tweaking” here! The other thing I can say is that I’m pretty sure I’ve also fallen short in the understanding the importance of this story. And I’m betting I’m not alone!
The church fathers gave the Transfiguration its own Sunday. And they placed it in a prominent position, leading into Lent, the holiest time of year. That alone shows that it’s very important. But also, once again, this story is told by three of the four Gospel writers, and that always means a story is important! And I think the fourth Gospel writer, John, may actually have alluded to it in a couple of places!
So, let’s see how well we do at picturing this event. How do you see it? And let me say that this is one story where it’s hard to get a good “mental image.” Because this is one place where there is a huge difference between how something is described in the first century, and how we might see it in the twenty first century.
The Gospel writers all describe the appearance of Jesus in terms of his garments becoming “bright white.” Luke uses the word “Dazzling.” Mark says “glistening.” And he adds, “…as no fuller’s soap could bleach them!” That kinda makes this sound like a commercial for a laundry detergent, doesn’t it?
Well, maybe it helps a little when Matthew says that Jesus’ clothes became “white as light.” Ok, that’s better. But think about it. What kind of light was he describing? Remember, they didn’t have lights! They had fire light, torches, and lamps with wicks. That was about it. And I’m betting that’s not exactly what Matthew had in mind! Perhaps if those people had ever seen neon lights, or mercury vapor lamps, or high pressure sodium, it would have helped them describe this scene more accurately.
Have any of you been to Times Square at night? Do you remember the intensity and the movement of all the lights there? I would define that as “dazzling.” And that might be an understatement! As I understand it, there is a requirement for businesses on Times Square, as to how bright they must have their lights and displays. So maybe if we can picture those lights, maybe that would help us with our imagery of Jesus on the mountain.
Luke goes on to tell us that the “appearance of his countenance was altered.” What does that mean? (Any guesses?) “Countenance” has to do with the face. But, when was the last time you used that word? (How many of you have never used that word?!) So there’s a little “verbal disconnect here.” Again, Matthew helps us understand this a little better. And this might be the most helpful description of this scene. Matthew says, “his face shone like the sun.”
You can’t look at the sun, can you? It’s too bright! It hurts your eyes, even in the day time, when your eyes have “adjusted.” Does that give us an idea of Jesus’ appearance on the mountaintop? It makes me wonder what time of day this took place, and the Gospel writers really don’t tell us. But night or day, this “change” in Jesus, this “transfiguration,” must have been startling – probably even scary! Luke portrays that very well here. Peter’s words about making “booths” seem almost incongruous! They seem almost silly in this situation. And I think it was meant to be that way! (Jesus didn’t even respond to it!)
Ok, now the other thing we need to see here is the importance of this story. I’ve tried to “enhance” your image so that the importance might become greater! Because look what happens next! Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. That alone is amazing! Just to see a vision of those two men on the mountaintop would have been astonishing enough! But to see them with Jesus, and talking about his business – his departure in Jerusalem – well, that makes Jesus hugely important! Luke is the only one who mentions what they were talking about! And that’s important because here were Moses and Elijah, two of the most famous figures in history, and they were talking, not about themselves! They’re talking about Jesus!
Now, in a certain sense, we think that’s the way it should be. After all, this is Jesus we’re talking about! But remember, we know his importance! They didn’t! (Many of the gospel readers probably didn’t, either!) In fact, this came at a time when these disciples were going through a time of doubt. They were unsure about who this Jesus really was. They needed a spiritual boost. And this was the vision they needed!
Well, there’s more here! When we read about “the appearance of his countenance,” that was a reminder of the story we have in Exodus 34. That’s the story where Moses had been talking with God directly, and when he returned to the people, his face “shone” with light. And the people were scared! They were so scared that Moses had to wear a veil over his face when he spoke to them. We need to understand, that there is definitely a link intended between these two stories. And, to connect Jesus to that famous story from the Old Testament, made him that much more important!
Now, I’ve added one more thought to all of that with the title of this message. Because the title of this message has to do, not with the change in Jesus, but the change in us. It comes from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, a letter in which he tells the people so much about his beliefs and his ministry. At the end of chapter three, I believe he alludes to both of these stories. There he writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness, from one degree of glory to the next.” (II Corinthians 3:18)
I love that verse! And I end with it today because it brings this story home to us. I first wanted you to see how amazing this scene was. Because that makes these words of Paul even more powerful! We are being changed into his likeness! From one degree of glory to the next! Of course, the change in Jesus was quick. Our change into his image is slower of course, and it takes place over our lifetime. But that is what happens to us, or should happen to us, when we seek to follow him. It is what we are to strive for as his people!
In his book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” Rick Warren says that “the aim of every believer is to become like Jesus.” That’s one reason Jesus came. To show us how to be like him. When people look at us, it should be our aim that they see Jesus! And just to follow what he did is a tall enough order! But to be changed into his likeness – as we think about this story and the story of Moses with his veiled face – that makes that statement that much more powerful.
So what about you? Ask yourself today, are you being changed into the likeness of Christ? Are you striving all the time to be like him? We are about to enter the time of Lent. And Lent is a time when we try to remember how serious this whole thing is. I think that’s too easy to forget! The more I think about it, the more I believe that one of the biggest problems we can have in our faith is not disbelieving it, but trivializing it!
So, let this be a time when we take our faith seriously. Let this be a time when we know that we are being changed in to likeness of Christ. Let us try, as hard as we can, to see his glory, and to see that glory increase in our lives, and in our Church. And so let us think about that glory, and let it fill our hearts, as we move now into a time of Communion with God and with each other
Eternal God, grant us visions this day of Jesus transfigured. Increase, not only our image of him, but also his importance in our lives. We give you glory, honor, and praise this day. And we pray in Jesus name, Amen.