February 10 & 11, 2018 Transfiguration
Mark 9: 2-9
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
What first hit the screen as a Japanese cartoon in the 1980s later became a series of five science fiction action movies. These blockbusters have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, and the money trail can be traced all the way back to a toy made by Hasbro. You might be familiar with the name of these toys that can change from robots into cars and trucks and airplanes. They’re called Transformers. A commercial about them had a jingle that began with the line: “Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye.”
More than meets the eye. That would be a pretty good way to describe Jesus too. When Jesus lived on this earth he looked like a human being, because he was a human being. And he did all the things that regular people do. He walked and talked and wept and slept. There were times when Jesus gave the world small glimpses of his power (his miracles), but for the most part he kept his true identity a secret, until he led three of his disciples to the top of a certain mountain.
On that mountaintop Peter, James and John saw that there was much more to Jesus than meets the eye. There they became eyewitnesses of Jesus’ transfiguration, a display of his divine glory. And for the next few minutes, let’s imagine that we are there too and we too experience The Transforming Power of the Transfiguration. And let consider what it meant for Jesus and what it meant for Jesus’ disciples.
The transfiguration was an extraordinary event, but it began in a rather ordinary way. Luke’s account tells us that Jesus took his disciples to the top of a mountain to pray, something he had done dozens, if not hundreds of times before. A mountainside offered a quiet refuge, a place where there would be no distractions, a place where Jesus could talk with his Father without any interruption.
But the stillness and the quietness of this private prayer vigil was suddenly disrupted by what happened next. Without any warning Jesus’ clothes “became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Luke reports that “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (9:29). Matthew adds that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun, and his clothes became as bright as the light” (17:2). For just a moment, Jesus the man revealed himself as true God. For a brief moment in time, God pulled back the curtain and put his divine power on display.
And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that Jesus wasn’t the only glorious figure standing there. There were two other men, two Old Testament heroes of faith, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glorious splendor and were talking with Jesus. From Luke’s account we know that “they spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (9:31). We aren’t told what they talked about, but what we do have allows us to make an educated guess about the content of their conversation. As Old Testament believers, Moses and Elijah put their trust in God’s promise to send a Savior. They believed that God’s promises would find their fulfillment in the person who stood before them. And they understood that the time for that fulfillment was drawing near. Jesus knew it too. He knew what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. He knew that he would need strength for the journey. And Moses and Elijah were there to provide it, to comfort Jesus, to support Jesus, to encourage him to complete his soul saving mission.
And if Jesus was encouraged by what he heard from the lips of Moses and Elijah, we can only imagine how he felt when he heard the words that came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Jesus had heard words like these before. At the beginning of his ministry, at Jesus’ baptism, God the Father expressed his unconditional love for his one and only Son. Three years had passed, but nothing had changed. Jesus was still perfectly willing to carry out his Father’s will, even if it meant that he would have to die.
And when Jesus’ predictions about his suffering and death became reality, when he was arrested by his enemies, when he was deserted by his friends, when he asked from the cross why his God would forsake him in his darkest hour, I would like to think that Jesus was able to find comfort in this moment. I would like to think that Jesus drew strength from his transfiguration as he remembered the encouraging words of Moses and Elijah, as he replayed in his mind his Father’s declaration of enduring love.
The transfiguration was a high point in Jesus’ life, but he was not the only one who benefited from this experience. Remember Peter, James and John? We haven’t talked about them very much up to this point, but they were there on the mountain too. And what they did and what they said and what they later wrote, all of those things help us remember how much the transfiguration means to Jesus’ disciples.
The disciples’ initial reaction when they saw Jesus in his glory was fear. When the disciples were exposed to their glorified Lord they were exposed. The Lord’s holiness literally shined a bright light on their sinfulness. They couldn’t stand in the presence of perfection, and so they fell facedown to the ground.
And yet, as scared as they were, there was a part of them that didn’t want it to end. Peter said: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Peter was caught up in the moment. He had been given a glimpse of divine glory, and he didn’t want this amazing experience to end. What Peter didn’t understand was that his plans interfered with God’s plan.
What if Jesus would have accepted Peter’s offer and set up camp on the mountain? What if Jesus would have turned to Moses and Elijah and said: “You know what? I like Peter’s idea. I’ve decided to stay?” If Jesus would have stayed on the mountain, there would have been no triumphal procession into Jerusalem. Without Palm Sunday there would have been no Good Friday. Without Good Friday there would have been no Easter Sunday. And without Easter, without the crucifixion and resurrection we would have no forgiveness, no peace, no hope.
The reason we do have all those things is because Jesus didn’t listen to Peter. He descended the mount of glory so that he could ascend the hill of shame. Jesus went to Jerusalem, and Jesus carried his own cross to the Place of the Skull outside the gates of Jerusalem for you. He gave up his glory for you. He gave up his life for you. And three days later Jesus rose from the dead to declare victory over sin and death and the devil for you. He saved you.
The risen Lord appeared to his disciples that same day, on the evening of the first Easter, and no doubt his presence among them was a source of great encouragement. And long after Jesus had left them, when things got tough, when their message was rejected, when their lives were threatened, the memory of seeing their resurrected Lord gave them the courage and the confidence to go forward.
It was a special blessing for the disciples when they saw Jesus after his resurrection, but three of those disciples were on the receiving end of another blessing. Peter, James and John were also eyewitnesses of Jesus’ transfiguration. And we don’t have to wonder what kind of impact it made on their lives because they have provided us with their own personal testimony.
In the opening chapter of the gospel that bears his name John declares: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14b). In the first chapter of his second letter Peter describes the amazing things he witnessed that day: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
Did Peter, James and John remember what happened on that mountain? You bet they did. Did what happened on that mountain make an impact on them? You bet it did. When John was exiled on the island of Patmos, when Peter was arrested for preaching about Jesus, when James was sitting on death row waiting to be executed by King Herod, I can’t help but picture these disciples picturing the transfiguration, and smiling. With their own eyes they had witnessed divine glory. The power that had transfigured Jesus on that mountain had also transformed them. And so they weren’t afraid to follow Jesus. They weren’t afraid to talk about Jesus. They weren’t afraid to die for Jesus because they knew that earthly death was their ticket to eternal glory.
And because we are disciples of Jesus too, the transfiguration gives us the same confidence. This isn’t just a cool story that leads us up to Lent. This wasn’t an isolated event that impacted the lives of a few people. Jesus’ transfiguration transforms us, and it changes the way we look at life. When you are struggling, when you are discouraged, when everything you see around you seems to indicate that our country is becoming more godless with each passing day, remember that there is more to this world than meets the eye. Remember that your ascended and glorified Lord will be with you always, and remember that he is still using his almighty power to protect and preserve his people.
If you recently lost a loved one, or if someone you love was taken from you years ago and you can still feel the void in your life, God doesn’t want you to forget about them. He wants you to remember them. Remember that the glory we can only read about, that we can only imagine, that glory is theirs right now and it will be theirs forever.
If your body doesn’t work as well as it used to, if you need to take a handful of pills every morning, if you are going in for another treatment or coming back from serious surgery, when you look in the mirror and stare at your own mortality, don’t be afraid. Remember the transfiguration. Remember God’s promise that he will transform your lowly body so that it will be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:21). And remember that the day we celebrate today anticipates a much more glorious day, the day when we will bask in eternal glory with Peter and James and John and Moses and Elijah and our Savior Jesus in heaven. Amen.