Readings: Gen 12:1-4a; Ps 121; Rom 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17 or Matt 17:1-9
I have titled the theme of my sermon today ‘Transfiguration’ following in line with last week’s sermon on the ‘Temptation’ of Jesus in the desert, since alliterative titles are clearly a vital and necessary sign of a holy and well-conceived sermon series. I leave it to next week’s preacher—Sue, I believe—to fall in line, making whatever wranglings of text or theology are necessary in order to come up with an appropriate T-starting sermon theme title.
So, as the title suggests, I am going to spend the sermon-minutes today reflecting and ruminating on the event of Jesus’ transfiguration. I would like to bring into the reflection the passages we have heard previously, detailing the Abrahamic story of God’s promise, the sacrifice of Isaac, and then Paul’s commentary in Romans on Abraham’s justification. I would also like to weave in elements of my own background and personal journey.
I am strongly drawn to images and stories of transformation. I am attracted by this idea that an object, a person, a life can, in a moment, become radically altered. The Bible is full of such moments, and we can read Jesus’ transfiguration in connection with them. Take Saul on the road to Damascus, when Jesus stopped him and said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. Saul was blinded by the vision of Jesus before him, the light of the world piercing his eyes, and for three days, Saul’s sight slept, as in a tomb, until one of God’s messengers touched him, and scales, like grave clothes, fell from his eyes, and he became Paul. I wonder what metamorphosis overtook him in that darkness, when the scales fell from his eyes—was it like coming out of the womb into the light of day for a second time? These moments of radical transformation are enticing in part because they involve a direct and seemingly sudden interaction between the human and the divine. Saul is at one moment Saul, an event occurs (really only covered in a few short verses), and Saul is now Paul. The whiplash must have been extreme.
And to continue the examples, prior to his own transfiguration, Jesus was already speaking about this Divine movement, a Divine change in being. The alternative Gospel reading for today was from John 3. To be honest, I dismissed it right out of hand, opting for the passage from Matthew, because John 3 more than any other passage of scripture recalls to my mind a childhood of Bible study, scripture memorization, conservative church culture, prayer meetings, accountability groups, mission trips, and Sunday morning services. Not that any of these things is in and of themselves bad—but they have collectively formed a system which I have found painful. So, John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son...’ etc etc is the sign and hallmark of my previous relationship to God. In John 3, Jesus also speaks about being ‘born again’. Thus:
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]” 4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’
And therein lies the phrase that dominates evangelical Christian culture—to be ‘born again’. A re-birth; a literal renaissance. Change, transformation, transfiguration are bound up in notions of the kingdom of God; they are, as Jesus says, the entry points of the kingdom. So in the story of the transfiguration, Jesus’ final line is: ‘ 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”’ A momentous change has taken place, and Jesus points his disciples to a time in the near future that signals the start of a new order: when ‘the Son of Man has been raised from the dead’.—when a second, perhaps more mighty transfiguration has taken place (that of the revitalization of the dead body)—ushering in the Kingdom of God.
If you will indulge me for a moment, I would like to pull the schoolboy essay trick of quoting from the dictionary for some easy content. I, however, feel wholly justified in doing so since I spend several hours a day pleading with the Oxford English Dictionary to tell me the definitions of words that went out of fashion four centuries ago. Anyway, back to the topic at hand: definitions. I have been using a general vocabulary of change so far in this sermon—transformation, transfiguration, change, metamorphosis, but in the passage about Jesus, the Bible translation chooses to use the word ‘transfiguration’ (and, indeed, the word ‘transfiguration’ is so connected to this particular passage of Scripture, that one of its definitions is ‘the change in appearance of Jesus Christ on the mountaintop’. But its primary definition is: ‘transfiguration n. the action of transfiguring or state of being transfigured; metamorphosis.’ The noun form of the word is related to its verb ‘to transfigure’ which comes with its own definition: ‘to alter the figure or appearance of; to change in outward appearance; to transform’. I find the slight differences in definition to be quite interesting, as the two definitions appear to be in tension with one another. The verb ‘transfigure’ refers to outside shape—‘to change in outward appearance’. The noun—‘transfiguration’—however is glossed as a ‘metamorphosis’ which can involve more than a change in outward appearance, but is rather conceptualized as a ‘complete change’. In the span of time between verse one and verse eight, Jesus undergoes a radical experience. He is—the verb—transfigured. But perhaps the transfiguration—the noun— is about more than a change in outward appearance, and is in fact more representative of a culmination of all that’s gone on before rather than a sudden and momentary experience. The transfiguration then took place not instantaneously on a mountaintop but slowly, starting even at his birth, and continuing through his time of temptation in the desert, through his ministry, and here—on this high mountain—the change, which has been sub-ficial, sub-dermal, manifests itself in an awe-filled and luminescent moment.
I have, to this point, been spouting some rather disorganized thoughts about transformation and transfiguration—though the sermon may pass the T-in-the-title test, it likely fails the ‘three points and a conclusion’ test. But then, I am not sure that there are always clear points to be drawn from instances of change. We may be able to examine the causes leading up to it, or the effects proceeding from it, but the moment itself is often hard to pin down. I would now like to shift to a question: what about after the transfiguring event? Here I would now like us to recall the passages that were heard relating to Abraham.
The first Genesis passages concern God’s promise to Abraham—to make him a great nation, to bless him and through him, to bless all people. During the second passage we see God’s test of Abraham and the sacrifice—or attempted sacrifice—of Isaac. And finally in the Romans passage we hear Paul’s commentary on Abraham as a man justified by faith.
Kierkegaard in his short but powerful work ‘Fear and Trembling’ ruminates on the Abrahamic story and the Abrahamic journey of faith. It has been a few years since I have read the book, but one of the more striking ideas I remember from it is Kierkegaard’s assertion that the real test of faith for Abraham comes not from the ‘will he or willn’t he’ of the sacrificing Isaac bit, but rather the return to society—the coming down from the mountain, and the re-accepting of his son ‘with joy’ as Kierkegaard describes it. Or, the reintegration into life as it was before. While you may have been distracted by all that business going on in verses 1-18 of the Genesis passage, verse 19 is in fact a key phrase ‘Then Abraham returned to his servants’. Because that’s just it—no life can go on ‘just as before’ after such an experience. Something has fundamentally altered—something life altering has happened, has been done to Abraham. The angel stayed his hand, but what must Abraham think of a relationship with a god who would put him into such a situation in the first place? Yes, he has demonstrated a resignation of his will to the Almighty by going up the mountain, even by placing his son on the altar, but he demonstrates faith in the going down the mountain, in continuing onward. This is Kierkegaard’s admiration for Abraham: that Abraham could resign himself to God’s command and then receive Isaac back with joy. The mountain for Abraham is his own transfigurative experience.
I think the idea of transformation, even in a seeming instant, resonates with me because of my own experience of transformation. Indeed, I would imagine that all of us have experienced these moments which, like Jesus’ sudden change on the mountaintop, seem to clarify all that has gone before and significantly alter all that will come after. Personally, my own coming to terms with my sexual identity was just such a defining moment—in one moment a blithe asexual and in another moment a deeply frightened homosexual. The mental transfiguration that occurred felt like a mountaintop experience—not in the glorious sense as Jesus’ experience on his mountaintop but rather in a harrowing test sense as Abraham’s experience on his mountaintop. As I look back on that period of change in my life, I identify with Abraham’s transformative experience but also with Kierkegaard’s skeptical admiration. How can we understand change that is both monumental and painful, and can we continue to relate to God in the same way after the moment of transfiguration? In response to the second question, I think ‘no, change in ourselves alters our relationship to God’—but I do not think it must necessarily change our relationship with God. I am not ‘Christian’ in the same sense or even same terminology as I was two years ago—I do not seek to convert the masses, and, as mentioned, I have problems relating to standard tenants (and even verses) of evangelical Christianity. But at the same time, transformation has placed me in a new position to consider and relate with God.
One more thought before I conclude: I have been listening to many podcasts over the last three months since one of my jobs involves some fairly mindless work. Recently I’ve been listening to the speeches and sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. through the Black Media Archive. I was listening to his speech to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961, and he begins talking about an old order, represented by prejudice, racism, and injustice giving way to a new order, a time in which justice and civil rights will extend to the African-American community and the wider global community. But he says something very perceptive about the transition-ry period: he says that we must not walk with bitterness into the new age. That the pain caused by the old and reflected in the time of transition itself must be let go of if we are to walk unencumbered into the new. The change Jesus undergoes on the mountaintop is both figuratively and literally a ‘mountaintop experience’—a highlight, but prefiguring the dark road that lies ahead to the Cross, a time at which he chooses to release bitterness by saying ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ He is free to enter into death—but he is also free to enter into a resurrected life.
To conclude: transformation is both individual and social—Jesus, in a single verse, is transfigured. But he is also transfigured ‘before them’, that is, before the disciples. The change takes place or manifests itself in Jesus because the disciples are also experiencers and participants in it. And not just the disciples, but Elijah and Moses, as well. And the force and nature of the change is strong and overwhelming for the witnesses. Peter, no doubt shocked and confused, says the first thing he can think of: ‘I will build three shelters for you’. Not only is the statement just a bit, well, off—but it also misses the point. Jesus is transfigured, he becomes ‘white as the light’—the change is a visible one, one to be witnessed, not sheltered. The moment of change is, itself, a glorious moment, but it cannot be sheltered in the sense of hidden, nor can it be sheltered in the sense of contained, or maintained and perpetuated. A shrine to change somewhat misses the point.
So as we consider moments of change in our own lives, and as we experience this time of transition in the life of our church—notably in how and where we worship and in how congregational life will appear in the passing of the LMC and the arrival of a new centre, let us recognize that these moments are inspired and touched by the Divine. And that our responsibility is to enter into it with hands that are not clenched but rather open-facedly welcoming the new.