August 6, 2017 – The Feast of the Transfiguration
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Every Sunday, all over the world, Christians take a little trip away from the rigors of ordinary life and climb up their own mountain top, where they look for Jesus. Since the first Christians climbed back up the steps into the Upper Room one week after the resurrection of their Lord, we have been stepping aside from the rest of the week to behold the glorified Son of God. This time apart is supposed to be an opportunity to be recharged and refreshed. This moment of meeting Jesus is supposed to give us the strength we need to follow him back down the mountain, back down into ordinary life, where we carry him with us into the world. But I suspect that we’ve been climbing up the nine steps it takes us to get from the front of St. John’s to the altar rail for so long that we’ve forgotten who it is that we’ve come here to meet.
Who do you think Jesus is? Who is it that you expect to meet today? It turns out that I’m not the only one asking. Right before today’s gospel lesson, in Luke 9:18-20, Jesus said to the disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and they answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” Then, Jesus looked at them and asked, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter replied, “The Messiah of God.”
He was right, of course. Jesus had shown them some pretty amazing things up to that point. He had cast out demons and healed lepers. He had made a lame man walk and pronounced that his sins were forgiven. He had even raised a widow’s son from the dead. He had taught the disciples to call the poor blessed instead of the rich and to see the mournful and hungry and persecuted as those whom God favors. He had described God’s kingdom in strange ways—like a sower who scattered seed all over the place. He had even fed 5,000 people with only a few loaves and fish in the kind of miracle that only someone like Moses could pull off. And, through it all, no one other than the demons had recognized who it was that had done all of that…until Peter put it all together.
Whom have you come here to see today? What sort of Jesus do you expect to encounter? A great teacher? A mighty prophet? A powerful healer? Are you here to find the one who can heal your infirmities, who can tell you how to live a good life, who can help solve all of your problems? When Peter finally saw what had been hiding right in front of him all along, when he at last recognized Jesus as “the Messiah of God,” surely he and the other disciples rejoiced at what they had found. Their master, their teacher, was the one whom God had sent to win the victory over the forces of evil and everything that stood in between God’s people and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. But, as soon as Peter had said it, Jesus let them know what being the Messiah really meant.
Jesus said, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And he wasn’t finished yet. Then he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
Confused? So were the disciples. It doesn’t make sense that God’s Messiah would end up betrayed by one of his followers, rejected by his own people, and handed over to the Roman authorities for torture and execution on the cross. It doesn’t make sense that the Messiah’s followers would be destined for a similar fate. But that’s exactly the messianic ministry that Jesus had in mind. And that’s why he took Peter, John, and James with him up on the mountain to pray.
While he was praying, Jesus’ countenance changed, and his skin began to shine with a brightness like the sun. His clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly Moses and Elijah, symbols of the Law and the Prophets, stood with him, speaking to him about his upcoming departure (or “exodus,” as the Greek word puts it), which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. If that wasn’t enough, God’s own presence overshadowed them all in the form of a cloud, and the Father’s voice boomed, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Was there any room left for doubt? This was God’s way of showing that the Law and the Prophets, which is to say all of the expectations of the Jewish people, were pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises. Even God himself had spoken to the disciples, letting them know that Jesus and his strange prediction of suffering and death were exactly what God had in mind for his chosen one.
And my favorite part of it all is that the disciples almost missed it. Luke tells us that they were heavy with sleep but managed to shake it off just in time to see their master’s glory revealed in front of them. And we, too, run the risk of missing it when we climb our own mountain each week, expecting to see someone who Jesus is not. If we are here to meet the triumphant one without first journeying through the cross, we will leave without having encountered the real Jesus.
There’s a reason that Jesus told the disciples to keep his predictions a secret. And there’s a reason that Peter, James, and John didn’t say anything about the Transfiguration until after the resurrection was accomplished. It’s because people who look at the life and ministry of Jesus with the eyes of this world instead of through the eyes of God’s kingdom cannot see who Jesus really is. He is God’s chosen one, but he has been chosen to suffer on behalf of the suffering. He is God’s anointed one, but he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor and the oppressed and the forgotten. The path of God’s Messiah must always lead through the cross and the grave before it can emerge in the light of the resurrection. And, if we are going to follow him, if we are going to experience the risen Christ who meets us here every week, we, too, must die with him before we can behold his true glory.
We do not come into this place to seek refuge from the burdens of this life. We come here to be delivered from the presumption that God is only with the successful, the joyful, and the prosperous. We come here not to encounter a God who is only found in the victories of life, but to meet a Lord who has taken all of life’s struggles onto himself in order that they might be defeated. Only when we come here to experience the glory of God that shines first in the darkest places of this world can we receive that glory and take it back with us into the world. That is our God, that is God’s Son, and that is our calling—to bring the light of hope and love to the places and people of this world that need it most.