The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
3 March 2019
St. Joseph-St. John, Lakewood
Somehow by the movement of the Holy Spirit — or as a priest friend in Arizona said, the vagaries of scheduling — I have managed to preach on Jesus’ Transfiguration pretty much every year for the last ten years. I don’t know what more I have to say. But, I haven’t been with y’all for ten years, so something might be new for you.
We hear this story today not just on its own. If you notice, the Prayer Book and our bulletins list today not Transfiguration Sunday, which is how some of our sister churches observe it. But today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany. I’m in green. The Transfiguration as a feast is observed August 6th.
The Revised Common Lectionary, and the Common Lectionary before it, thought it important in the cycle of the church year to continue the pattern of preparation, celebration, growth, quick celebration…before going back into preparation. We start our church year in Advent getting ready not just for Jesus’ coming as a baby, but his coming in glory at the end of time. We celebrate Christmas: the whole of the Incarnation…not just Jesus Meek and Mild, but Jesus fully God and human. The Magi arrive, and then we have some time growing in those mysteries, wondering how we continue to be formed by the stories of Jesus.
Wednesday we go into Lent with Ash Wednesday, back to preparation for forty days. Then fifty days of celebration at Easter. Then 26 weeks of growth on how the resurrection changes us. At the end of that time we celebrate the reign of Christ, on the last Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 29. Today is our blip of celebration between growth time and preparation time. It’s a Sunday when we hear the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. It’s a story that’s in all three of the synoptic gospels, each with their own take.
It’s a story though, that’s very consistent. Jesus goes up to a mountain to pray with James and John and Peter. They’re all sleepy but they fight through their sleep and see Moses and Elijah, who represent the Law and the Prophets for an oppressed Hebrew people. They not only represent the Law and the Prophets, they represent freedom and liberty. Moses who led the exodus…and justice for the oppressed. Elijah the prophet who brings people back to God’s command for justice. Justice for the poor, justice for the hungry.
These three disciples hear Jesus talking with the forebears of Judaism about what Jesus is to accomplish at Jerusalem. Not only do we hear this text today as a blip of celebration, we hear it as we’ll hear later in Lent, as Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, and as we set our faces toward Jerusalem…penitence on Wednesday, and preparation to reaffirm our baptismal promises at the great vigil of Easter.
While Jesus is talking with Moses and Elijah, his clothes become dazzling white. Dazzling white. I don’t really think our language and the whiteness captures what’s happening in the Greek here. I know that because I got a C on my Greek final using this text. Really more than dazzling is something akin to sparkling, maybe something like Dakota or Cheyenne would wear that’s covered in sequins and glitters. That’s what happens to Jesus’ clothes. They’re not just OxyClean’d and bluing’ed white. They’re radiant. They reflect the light.
Then Peter, always Peter, acts before he thinks, speaks before he thinks. All three of the gospel writers say in this instance he talks without knowing what he’s saying. He says, “Jesus, it is good for us to be here! Let’s stay!” None of the gospel writers says that they had planned to go camping or brought building supplies with them, but Peter’s ready to build some booths. They don’t do that.
A cloud comes over them, and in this part of the country we know about clouds coming over us. A booming voice says, again, what is said at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: “This is my son, my beloved, my chosen. With him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Today in Luke’s version of the gospel no one speaks of these things in those days. That’s different from Luke’s likely source material — Mark — where it’s not that they don’t speak of them, it’s that Jesus tells them not to. In Luke they’re just waiting for the right time.
They’re waiting for the right time to talk about Jesus who went up on the mountain and stood with the liberator and justice-bringer of his own faith tradition, and talked about how he would be bringing liberty and justice to the whole of creation on his trip to Jerusalem. They talked about how in Jesus the Christ, God’s call of freedom for all people from oppression, from hunger, justice for the poor has been and is being fulfilled.
Peter, James, and John — despite being sleepy — have to stay awake to see it. For four weeks in Advent every year we’re told the same thing. We have to be awake to see how God is changing the world through Jesus the Christ and through Christ’s body the Church. I’m sure that I said last year — maybe not on this Sunday, but multiple times through Lent and will again this coming year — that Ash Wednesday is the day of penance, making apologies, making right. The rest of Lent has a tone of that but it is not an extended Holy Week nor an extended remembrance that we are dust.
It’s preparation for baptism, for being restored to right relationship with one another, right relationship to God and God’s church, and it’s preparation to remember that we have been transfigured, that in our baptisms we have been joined to Christ in his death, resurrection, and ascension. In Lent we evaluate how we have failed to keep our baptismal promises so that we can make them again and try to do better at Easter.
Every year the Sunday before Lent, the last Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear a version of Jesus going up the mountain, praying, being transfigured into sparkly clothes, his call and ministry being affirmed, and him coming back down — and people not talking about it immediately.
How are we being transfigured? How are we hearing God’s voice that we are God’s beloved with whom God is well-pleased? How are we talking, when we don’t know what we’re saying, like Peter, and needing to listen to God as we go into this Lent?
The Transfiguration is a text that I have preached on more times than I can count, unless I count the Word documents in folder. It’s a text that is holy, that is set aside, that is scripture, because every time it tells us the same story that we need to hear again — just like the Crucifixion and Resurrection, just like the Incarnation.
Through Jesus the Christ God has changed and is changing the world. We have to be awake to notice it, and we have to ask ourselves how we’re being changed like Jesus.