Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A - February 26, 2017

The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Last Sunday of Epiphany

Year A

February 26, 2017

The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor


Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then 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.” While 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!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As 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.”(Matthew 17:1-9)


Each year, to help us make the transition from Epiphany into Lent, we get to hear the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain, the granddaddy of all Epiphanies. As you’ve heard me say before, Epiphany is the season in which the identity of Jesus becomes clearer and clearer, and today, that identity is made perfectly clear - whatever the disciples, or any of us, choose to make of it.

I’ve always wondered what the transfiguration of Jesus must have actually looked like, what it felt like, what it really meant to Jesus, to his disciples…to Elijah and Moses!  The story is in three of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which is a good indication that something very real and life changing happened on that mountain.  But what difference does this mountain top experience make to us, today, who sit here 2000 years later and “know the whole story?”  How does it matter?

The word transfiguration means a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.   It is difficult to understand exactly what happened to Jesus during his transfiguration. Unlike Moses, who radiated the divine glory that shone upon him, Jesus' transfiguration comes from within.  And there is something to that. It means that what Jesus became was something he already possessed. 

When the word transfiguration is used in a non-biblical context it always talks about a change that works from the raw materials that already exist – a face may be transfigured by joy.  An “ugly duckling” may be slowly transfigured into a radiant beauty.  Sculptors transfigure a block of marble into an exquisite statue. If you’ve ever been to Florence to see Michelangelo’s statues of the prisoners freeing themselves from the stone, you get this.

So I ask again, how does the Transfiguration of Jesus matter to us?  Or better, how does what transfiguration means actually matter?  I know this sounds like a nit-picky point, but bear with me.

My sense is that nothing I say to you about the transfiguration of Jesus into a glowing white image on a mountaintop with God’s voice booming in the background - about how that is an amazing thing - is going to make you feel any more of a sense of redemption or salvation.  I know you - and I’m pretty sure I’m right about this.  And yet, the Transfiguration may represent something – something significant - that might lead to your healing, your wholeness, your redemption.

And what is that something? Change. At its core, the story of the Transfiguration is about change.  But more than that, it shows us how change can be difficult but necessary. Change rocks our world, but when it happens, it’s probably because our world needed some rocking. Change demands reorientation, a different perspective, a new way of seeing things.  And yet, as we all know, change often happens before that new perspective we need is fully in place.

Which is, I suspect, what is going on with Peter in today’s reading from Matthew.  He’s caught in that suspension between wanting things to stay the same and knowing that change is inevitable.  Jesus has already warned Peter that things aren’t going to stay the same, and in fact were going to get pretty bad before they get better.  And yet, Peter still clings to the idea of hanging out with Jesus and the prophets of old, safe and secure on a mountaintop, basking in Israel’s former glory. “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings (or, in the literal Greek, tents!) - one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Let’s stay right here, forever!

Like Peter, when confronted with change, we tend to build our own tents – which I think is a great metaphor for this in-between experience. Not a permanent structure, but a structure just the same - to give us more time, to hold on to something we likely know cannot be held. To capture, even briefly, a moment that might carry us through the change that is about to happen.

That is what transfiguration is like in our own lives, it’s that threshold moment between what was and what is to come. You get a glimpse of what could be, but you know, it actually was all there along. Like that statue hidden in marble. Think about the transitions you’ve had to make in your life – whether in your relationships or your work or your lifestyle.  It’s not that you haven’t recognized what the change might look like. You just wonder if you are ready. If you can handle it. If you are prepared. We all do this.  In our efforts to cope, we erect tents in which to keep what we can hold onto, but also to capture a memory of how it used to be so we can deal with what is to come.

Yes, Peter wants Jesus to stay. But Peter also needs the memory of Jesus, in his radiant glory, to stay -the confirmation, the assurance, the promise - because he will need it later on – not only in those final days in Jerusalem, but in his own final days.

Letting go is nearly impossible, without first holding on.  Which is something to be mindful of as we move into Lent - holding on when letting go.  Holding on when letting go of our images of God. Holding on when letting go of control. Letting go of certainty. Holding on when letting go of convictions. Even letting go of the crucifixion.

This story of transfiguration is such an important one as we transition to Lent because it insists that we keep what once was and what can be in tension – that the what can be of Lent and Easter, the what that is essential to the Christian life – is both constant change and the resistance to it.

This is in fact, what all of life is about.  We are constantly moving through change - in relationships - with partners, with friends, with children. We experience change in our vocations  - new jobs, new locations, new skills.  We recognize major life changes - graduations, marriages, children.  And throughout all these changes, we tend want to hold to what was, even as we look toward the hope of what can be. And this is painful - to exist in a place which is “already but not yet.” There is, so much of the time, this sense of grief over what was and yet excitement for what is to come.

Transfiguration happens to all of us.  It happens in those moments when you know that change has to happen, but you are not quite ready. The moment when you have a hundred million reasons to walk away but you just need one good one to stay, as Lady Gaga puts it.  When you are desperate to hold on and yet you know you have to leave. When you need to leave and yet you insist on holding on.

And this, for me is what the transfiguration of Jesus is about.  It’s not just the glory. It’s not just a lesson on getting over it and coming down from the mountain. It’s the knowing that moving on is essential for us to reach our potential, even if you’ve yet to reconcile the past. It’s realizing what you need to walk into, what you have to live in to, is so incredibly hard when you have yet to come to terms with why you should. Jesus’ life was all about this kind of change.  It is what he lived for.  It is what he died for, it is at the core of our healing, our wholeness, our redemption.

Change is a matter of the heart, the mind, the whole self. Change exposes. Change changes. But change, at least in my mind, is the very essence of what it means to walk in the way of Jesus and live most fully into who we were created to be.  Remember, transfiguration comes from within…it is our own world waiting to be born, so that God’s world can be born. 







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