Sermon for March 2nd, 2014

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Matthew 17:1-9

1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

Heavenly Body, Heavenly Host (Transfiguration Sunday)

Today is transfiguration Sunday. Last Sunday we were in "ordinary time" and next Sunday we begin the season of Lent, the long difficult journey to the cross and to Easter Sunday. But this Sunday, we are neither here nor there; we are in a strange, liminal space, an in-between space, an in-between time. Geographically speaking, in today's text we are up on a mountain, and strange things happen up in the thin mountain air where time lingers and almost seems to stand still. Today is transfiguration Sunday.

Transfiguration comes from the Latin word transfigurare. Trans (to cross or to change) and figurare (shape, form, or body). And that's what Jesus does in this passage -- his body transforms. It becomes radiant and glowing. Other bodies, other figures also "come across" from some other time and place: the figures of Moses and Elijah -- bodies that have long since passed from the earth seem to have taken concrete tangible form once more.

The transfiguration is considered one of Jesus' miracles, although it is unique among all of his miracles, and I'll explain why in just a moment. All of Jesus' miracles involve transformation or transcendence of some sort -- he transforms the water into wine, he transcends the water and the waves and the storm. But by far, the largest category of all Jesus' miracles is transformations of the body: He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, makes the lame to walk, raises Lazarus from the dead. Body transformation is Jesus' specialtiy. But the transfiguration is the one miracle in which Jesus transforms his own body, and that's what makes it unique among all the miracles. So, to summarize all that, Transfiguration is (among other things) about the transformation of the body. Hold that thought, we'll come back to it later.

Speaking of transformation, the Bible has gone through a few transformations itself. The most obvious transformation is linguistic, it has been translated (which is a type of transformation) into English from older languages. We've already mentioned one of those--the word transfiguration comes to us from Latin, and before the Bible was in English it was in Latin. Before it was in Latin, it was in Greek. That's the language the New Testament was originally written in, and in that original Greek, the word "transfigured" was another word that should be familiar to us: The word Matthew uses in verse two is μετεμορφωθη. It means basically the same thing as transfigurare -- to change forms -- but it's also where we get the English word metamorphosis from. And there's a very small difference, a very slight nuance between "transformation" on one hand, and "metamorphosis" the other. It's a small distinction, but I think it's significant here.

Transformation or transfiguration is typically neutral. It's just change. It's not necessarily "bad" change (that would be dis-figuration or de-formation) but it's not necessarily good, either. Metamorphosis, on the other hand, usually has a positive connotation. A catepillar "metamorphs" into a butterfly, and we usually consider that an improvement (I imagine the butterfly does too!).

When I was growing up, there was a cartoon series (and a very lucrative line of toys, too) called "Transformers." They were cars that transformed into robots...or maybe they were robots that transformed into toys. Which one was better, the robot or the car? Neither! That was what made them so cool -- robots are awesome, and cars are awesome, so now you have a toy that can be both, it can transform, it can go back and forth as many times as you want it to.

And that's another difference: Transformation is a two way street -- something can be transformed both into and out of its form, but metamorphosis is usually a one way street -- the butterfly never becomes a caterpillar again. Metamorphosis usually implies progress, a journey, significant life change for the better.

We tend to thing of God as constant, eternal, never-changing, the same yesterday, today, and forever! There is certainly some truth to this, but like most things in scripture, it's more complicated than that. Jesus is God, and throughout the course of his life on earth, Jesus changes. Jesus transforms, Jesus undergoes metamorphosis. His transfiguration on the mountain is actually one of many milestones we celebrate on his journey through life: Incarnation, Baptism, Transfiguration, Resurrection, Ascension. To summarize all that, Transfiguration is more than just change. It's metamorphosis.

One more thing, and then I'll (hopefully) tie all this together. Jesus' transfiguration up on the mountain has been described as the place where heaven and earth come together. This often happens on mountains (remember Moses and Mount Sinai?). It's why we call an encounter with God a "mountaintop experience." I've always thought that those who live near mountains live closer to God, but I'm probably biased. Jesus' transfiguration is the mountaintop experience to end all mountaintop experiences: Moses and Elijah show up, Jesus starts glowing, and God speaks from the Heavens. No wonder Peter, James and John "fell to the ground and were overcome by fear." Actually, the original Greek here reads "and they wetted their undergarments and screamed like little girls." (I'm just kidding...mostly). In any case, to summarize, the presence of the living God and creator of the Universe is not for the faint of heart. It's probably best that it only happens up on the mountain and doesn't last for a long time.

So. I've said a lot about Transfiguration, but at some point comes the most important theological question of all: So what?!? Or, to put it more politely, why does Transfiguration matter? What can we learn from Jesus' Transfiguration? Three things.

  1. Our bodies matter. Jesus cared about bodies, enough to heal them, enough to change and transform them, including his own. As individuals, then, and as a church, we should care about bodies, too. We tend to think of church as a place where we can grow spiritually, or emotionally, or intellectually. In fact, as Presbyterians, we're really good at the "intellectually," and sometimes we get stuck there. But transfiguration teaches us to watch our figures. Like our intellect, our spirit, and our emotions, our bodies are a gift from God. Our bodies matter.
  2. Don't just change. Metamorph. Or, to put it differently, strive to make the kind of changes in your life that carry you forward, not backward...that carry you upward, not downward or sideward. That may sound overly simplistic, but this is especially challenging for institutions and people alike, especilly as we grow older: "I just want things to be the way they used to be again." But Jesus calls us ever forward, ever onward, through metamorphosis after metamorphosis. And what doesn't kill you...makes you a butterfly.
  3. God speaks to us on the mountaintops. But notice the variety of ways in which God speaks! The most obvious is the audible voice from the heavens, and some people do hear God's voice that way. I'm not usually one of them. And that's ok. Remember the appearance of Moses and Elijah? God also speaks to in the voices and images and traditions from the past. Remember the cloud? Sometimes God speaks to us through the fog and the clouds and mysteries that we can't quite understand. Sometimes God speaks to us through the beauty of the mountains and the wonders of creation. And there's one more thing. Remember what happened when the disciples fell down in fear, overwhelmed with it all? The very next verse says, "but Jesus came and touched them, saying 'get up and do not be afraid.'" Sometimes God speaks to us in the gentle touch and the kind words of another person. In fact, often it is the simple, quiet things like these that are the most profound, the most transformative.

I hope you have many mountaintop experiences in your life, many transfigurations and metamorphoses, where God speaks to you and is present with you in a powerful way. I also hope that as often as you can, you have the chance to be the gentle touch and kind voice of God in the lives of everyone you meet.