Reverend Philip Stringer
LET US PRAY: Enlighten our hearts, O God, through the hearing of your word and the meditations of our hearts, that we may be strengthened in faith and bear a bright witness to the world, through Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. Amen
In Jamestown there is an Historical Marker, with the title, “Beards Hat Shop,” and it reads “William Beard made and sold hats at his well-known shop, established before 1795 and later operated by his son David. The site is 1-1/3 miles North.
Close to where I live now, outside of Madison, is another marker, this one titled, “Slink Shoal Sluice,” and it reads, “Dan River improvements built 1820’s by Roanoke Navigation Co. include sluice & wing dams 1/4 mile East.
These signs and others have led to a running joke in my family. When we see an historical marker we’ll exclaim, “Look! Something important happened somewhere else!” or “Hey, everybody! Nothing happened here!”
I think about those signs when I read about the Transfiguration of Jesus, because nobody really knows exactly where it took place. Some scholars point to Mt. Hermon because it is close to a village Jesus visited just before. Others point to Mt. Tabor because it is close to a village he visited after. I can imagine markers there that read, “something important might have happened here. . . or somewhere else.”
It certainly isn’t Peter’s fault that we don’t know where it took place. Really, of course, it doesn’t matter. It isn’t the place that we care about-- it’s what happened there that is important to us. In today’s Gospel reading, we are told about a truth that applies to us even today— namely, that the fullness of Jesus Christ in glory is with you— even if the power of his presence is sometimes hidden from our eyes.
In Peter’s eyes what he saw on the mountain was an event-- an historic moment in time which had occurred at this place and would pass. Perhaps he also saw this as Jesus receiving his credentials-- this event proved that he was the Christ. By building booths at the sight, Peter hoped to preserve the memory of the moment-- it could become a place of pilgrimage.
Peter’s idea to build monuments on the site didn’t gain any traction with those involved— namely, God the Father Almighty and the Prince of Peace.” They don’t even acknowledge the idea, which is a pretty good indicator that Peter was missing the point.
So what IS the transfiguration? Wasn’t it an historical event? What happened there? Wasn’t Jesus changed? There are two words which sound remarkably alike, but which can have very different meanings. They are TRANSFIGURED and TRANSFORMED.
“Transformed” means that something is changed from one thing, into another. So if Jesus had been “Transformed,” he would no longer be what he was before. The Jesus that they saw with the shining face and the brilliant garments would have been a new creature-- NEW CREATION-- a different being than the Jesus that they had known.
But “Transfigured” means that only the outward appearance was changed. What Peter and the others saw was not Jesus being changed; It was more like the outer Jesus being peeled back, revealing the glory that had always been present within him. So, Peter, James and John were the first to get a glimpse of Jesus in his glory.
When they came down off of that mountain, Jesus had not been changed back into the ordinary Jesus -- Jesus Christ in glory was merely cloaked once more in his humanity. So, the difference between a “transformed Jesus” and a “transfigured Jesus” could not be greater. The Christ they saw on the mountain was the same Christ who went up and then came down.
It is only in the words of God that Peter and we begin to comprehend the real significance of what took place on that mountain. In the presence of God’s Word, Peter and the others fall to the ground and hide their faces. They, and we also, cannot stand before God.
As we walk through this event, I believe it is helpful for us to note what Jesus DOESN’T do-- He does NOT chastise Peter and the others for their lack of understanding, or their inability to stand before God. What he DOES do are three very important things: First, Jesus comes to them-- to the place where they have fallen before God. Then he TOUCHES them, and then he gives a command.
The Father says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” These are not merely words inserted by Matthew to try and persuade you to believe in Jesus. This is a command for them and for us-- The Father speaks these words, and the stage is set for us to hear an important message. Peter and his companions fall to the ground before God in terror. The Father says to listen to Jesus, and what are the first words out of Jesus’ mouth: He tells them to “Get up and do not be afraid.” He tells them to “rise.” In these words, the fullness of the work of Christ are expressed.
He comes, he touches, and he commands, “rise.” These are the same things which he does and says time and again to the dead and to the crippled: he comes to them; he touches them and commands them to rise. And how fitting this is. For as Peter fell short in his attempt to please God, so do we fall short. And together we lie before God as the dead-- unable to stand. Unable to face God.
But Christ comes to us as he did to Peter and to James and to John and to the dead. In the simple form of a human the glorious Christ came to them, and in the simple forms of water, and bread and wine, he COMES to us in these days-- and he TOUCHES us -- and he COMMANDS us: “RISE and do not be afraid.”
It was only when they heard his voice that the disciples were able to look up-- and when they did, they did not see a great cloud which overwhelmed them. They did not see Moses-- the man who brought them the law-- the overwhelming law. And they did not see Elijah, who spoke a prophecy of judgment. They saw ONLY Jesus. It is almost comical the lengths to which Matthew goes to draw our attention to this fact. He writes, “And when they looked up, they saw NO ONE except Jesus HIMSELF…. ALONE.” Get the point? — ONLY Jesus. For in Jesus the old covenant of the Law has passed away, and the judgment of God is satisfied. In the humanity of Jesus, the whole story of God’s work of creation and redemption finds its fulfillment. Everything is wrapped up into Jesus.
The cloud, Moses, and Elijah are gone, and Jesus alone remains. And this Jesus, the one who’s glory was revealed on the mountain, left the mountain for the purpose of entering Jerusalem. The one who’s face shone like the sun is the one who was crucified.
What Peter had failed to see was that the value of what he saw on the mountain was not in that it happened at one moment on the mountain, but that it was forever true that this glorious Christ exists. Indeed, the memorable event isn’t on this mount, but on another mount. It is on Calvary, where Jesus is not merely transfigured, but is indeed transformed-- for he is, truly, changed forever on Calvary. It is there that he became-- and forever will be-- the crucified one. This is why he instructs them to be silent in our lesson. What they have seen is of no value to them without Calvary. There is the place where his glory is— although wrapped in flesh— is truly revealed.
And that is where his glory meets us, also. The Glorious Christ is with us TODAY-- in our everyday lives. It is this Jesus who is glorious who COMES to YOU, and who TOUCHES you and says with power: “Rise.” He says this in the midst of your living-- at school, at work, at home, at play, at the store, in the car-- he is with you, calling you to walk in newness of life; to RISE and NOT BE AFRAID.
And he is here, in our worship-- and uniquely and especially he is here in the waters of our baptism and at this table. Here is a wonder, indeed— the reason we sing our hymns and pray our prayers, is not because he was transfigured but because the Jesus on the mountain was willing to be cloaked in flesh-- and now-- to come in water, and bread and wine. When you come up here, you hold the Almighty in your hands and take him into your body. He comes to us this way for the same reason he came to Peter and James and John-- he comes to tell us, “rise.” Not by your own power, but by his.
We do not need an historical marker to tell us that the Transfiguration took place somewhere else. We, like Peter, James and John, can lift our eyes from this rail— in this place— and find that the one whose face shines like the sun and whose garments are as white as light-- the one who comes to us in water and wine and bread-- is also the one who is unfailing in his faithfulness to us, and goes with us into the world, that we may live in a sure and certain hope. “Get up and do not be afraid."