The Transfiguration
Lectionary Readings: Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

The story we heard today from Luke’s gospel is one of the most remarkable stories of Jesus’ ministry. It is called the transfiguration because Jesus’ appearance is transfigured before his three disciples, Peter, James and John. Matthew, Mark and Luke all recount this story with similar words in their gospels.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on a mountain to pray. And as he is praying, his countenance becomes brilliantly bright, his clothes become dazzling white and he is clothed in splendor. Then Moses and Elijah appear also in glorious light, and speak with him about his departure. The disciples who were asleep suddenly wake up and see this and are baffled. Then a cloud of glory overshadows all of them, and as they are entering the cloud, they hear a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One or my Beloved (Mk 9.7; Mt 17.5), listen to him.!” And then it is quiet and the disciples are alone with Jesus.

Wow! What is the meaning of this? That is what Peter, James and John wonder, too. Luke writes that they are going up the mountain to pray. This glorious event occurs while Jesus is in prayer. In one sense, we see what happens whenever Jesus prays. Pope Benedict writes the following in his book, Jesus of Nazareth:

” The Transfiguration is a prayer event; it displays visibly what happens when Jesus talks with his Father: the profound interpenetration of his being with God, which then becomes pure light. In his oneness with the Father, Jesus is himself “light from light.”

He has communion with his Father whose presence and glory are revealed to the three witnesses. This event also reveals what is within Jesus. Unlike Moses whose face reflected God’s glory. Jesus’ being displays the glory of heaven that is within him. Here, we and the disciples get a glimpse of who Jesus really is. He is the one from heaven where he has lived in glory with the Father for eternity. As the early church Fathers proclaimed, “There was never a time when he was not.” And prior to being born as a tiny baby, his existence had been in the glory of heaven. We see evidence of where Jesus has come from and to where he will be returning.

Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. These are two guys who had been gone a long time before Jesus arrived on the earth in the flesh. Moses, author of the first five books of the Bible and conveyor of the law and Torah of Israel, represents the authority of the law and teachings of Israel. He represents the commandments of God. Moses also predicted that one day a prophet would arise who would speak the very words of God. (Deuteronomy 18:15-18) Israel had been anticipating the arrival of this prophet. Jesus fulfills Moses’ words and all of the Law.

Elijah is one of the greatest prophets of Israel. He never died. He was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. He represents the prophets of Israel’s Scripture. Israel also anticipated Elijah’s coming again ushering in the day of the Lord. (Mal 4.5-6) Elijah once prayed that God would raise a widow’s dead son, and God did. Jesus spoke to the dead son of the widow from Nain, and he arose. Jesus is greater than Moses and Elijah.

After his resurrection, Jesus explains to his disciples that he has fulfilled all of the Law, Psalms and the Prophets. (Luke 24) He supersedes them and completes all they predicted.

The cloud of heaven is the glory of God’s presence. This is the cloud that filled the Old Testament tabernacle and then Solomon’s temple indicating that God was present. The voice of God from heaven declares that Jesus is his beloved and chosen Son, and he commands the disciples to listen to him. This confirms what Peter confesses in John’s gospel, that Jesus has the words of eternal life. The way to life is to follow Jesus and to keep his word. After hearing the voice of heaven, only Jesus and the disciples remain. Jesus, embodying the Law and the Prophets, is the way, the truth and the life. The disciples must follow him.

John later writes of Jesus’ glory in his own gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Jesus is the tabernacle of God, he is the tent where God meets with all people, as he met alone with Moses. Jesus is the gate between earth and heaven. He is the Word and the person to which we must abide.

Jesus doesn’t remain on the mountain in the glory of God. He comes down. Prior to ascending the mountain, Jesus had raised the dead, healed the sick, driven out demons, stilled the sea and fed the multitudes with bread and fish. But also prior to his transfiguration, he predicts his suffering, murder and resurrection on the third day (Lk 9.22). And after returning from the mountain, he reminds his disciples and emphasizes to them that the Son of man is about to be delivered into the hands of men. (Lk 9.44)

You see, this is not the mountain top experience for which Jesus came to earth. Even in the midst of the glory, he is speaking to Moses and Elijah about how he is going to fulfill their words by his departure in Jerusalem. The actual Greek word that Luke uses is the word for “exodus.” Jesus is about to perform a new exodus that will deliver people from the bondage and slavery to sin. Like all of Jesus’ life and ministry, his transfiguration is pointing to the cross.

Immediately after he came down from the mountain of his transfiguration, he meets a man begging him to save his son who is tormented by demons. Jesus, of course, rebuked the unclean, tormenting demon, healed the boy and “gave him back to his father.” (Lk 9. 43) He then makes his way to the cross on which he defeats sin, Satan and death that he might give all of us back to his and our heavenly Father.

When I was in the counseling field, I listened to an expert in school counseling explain that the best way to combat bullying in school is to recruit the most popular, well adjusted and successful students in the school—the ones that most of the students look up to, and get them to befriend and kids getting bullied. The theory is that once bullies see their victims in the fellowship of such supporters they know that there is no more they can do to intimidate them. This is what Jesus did for us. He is the image of God in the flesh, and he befriends us and defeats our bullies of sin, Satan and death.

Whatever wondrous miracles and glorious displays Jesus could have done during his time on earth, none could have accomplished what was required to save us, except his death on the cross. Paul calls his death, Jesus Christ crucified, “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor 1.24)

Immediately before ascending the mountain, Jesus warned his disciples that “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Luke reminds us that like Peter we have to learn again and again that the ministry of Christ is first and foremost the way of the cross and that the transfiguration requires us first to be transformed into the image of the suffering servant who lays down his life for his friends.

It is nice to experience the glories of heaven while on earth, and sometimes we do have our own mountaintop experiences of the presence of God and his clear voice and hand upon us. But like with Jesus, other times of prayer are work and can be described as dark nights of the soul. Jesus also spent a night in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before his death. He sweat drops of blood and faced severe temptations and loneliness. God was present with him then too, strengthening him, speaking to him and guiding him.

In his times of glorious blessing and in his times of tumultuous trials, Jesus prayed. The door of heaven was always open for Jesus, and he was in constant communication with the Father. Because of his work on the cross, that door of heaven is open to us too. The presence of the Father and of the Son is with us. Paul writes that the glory that shone from Moses’ face and that surrounded Jesus on the mountain is in us, because Christ is in us; he calls this fact of Christ in us the hope of glory. (Col 1.27) So, let us also pray on all occasions, scheduled and spontaneous, comfortable and grueling, alone and with others. Add more prayer to your life. If you are busy with anything, be busy praying.

As we are in Christ and he is in us, we are the beloved and the chosen of God to share his love with the world. Paul writes that we ourselves are being transformed into the image of Jesus from one degree of glory to another. As we conform to the image of Christ, he leads us to follow him in becoming a servant to others, so that they might return to the Father’s embrace.

During Christmas break my freshman year at The Citadel, I went on a retreat and ski trip with The Navigators at their retreat center in Colorado Springs. I remember spending an afternoon in prayer atop one of the rocky hilltops around the retreat center. It was an affirming time of prayer and awareness of the Father’s presence, one of those times that God’s grace overwhelms us. I could have stayed there for days enjoying God’s presence. Like Jesus, we have to come down the mountain and engage in the hard work of serving Jesus and being his disciples in the world that is lost and fallen; this work includes prayers before tombs, prayers with the dying and suffering and in the dark nights before the cross. This includes the hard work of praying that the veil of unbelief would be removed from our loved ones’ hearts that they might believe and be saved.

But the transfiguration gives us a glimpse of our destiny and reminds us that even as we face the trials of this life we are the Father’s beloved and chosen ones. As we enter our Lenten season, we are coming down from this mountain of glory and heading to the cross. Like Jesus, though, we have the reward of resurrection in our sights, and the joy of knowing Jesus is in the glory of heaven preparing a place for us in the Father’s presence.

Craig Stephans
Church of the Redeemer (Anglican), Camden, NC

Based on the following lecionary readings: Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13] & Luke 5:1-11

In our Old Testament and gospel readings today, we see Isaiah and Peter in positions of humility and contrition before the presence of God. Isaiah finds himself before the throne of heaven, while Peter comes face to face with God in the flesh.

God gives Isaiah the grace of experiencing his presence in heaven. Isaiah sees the throne of God almighty. He sees God’s glory and is overwhelmed by God’s holiness—his utter goodness. Isaiah can take no action or speak no words except to proclaim his devastation before the sovereign God.

God is described as “high and lifted up,” and his robe of glory fills the temple. Above God’s throne are two seraphim—meaning two fiery ones. These servants of fire cannot bear to look at the glory of God, so they cover their eyes, and they cover their feet as a sign of humility, as with two of their six wings they fly. The seraphim proclaim out loud the holiness of God and the vastness of his glory.

This vision of Isaiah shows God to be Lord of all creation. He is the center and ruler of all things…His glory filling everything and overwhelming all who experience him. Isaiah calls him the “King, the Lord of hosts.” Literally he is the ruler and Lord of the armies of heaven. His rule being not in mere form or symbolism but in his ability and actions.

Isaiah’s only response is to convey his doom. He recognizes that he has no hope in his own nature, heritage, works or virtue before God, and he declares himself “undone,” literally cut-off or destroyed.

One of the fiery, flying servants of God takes a burning coal from the altar and touches Isaiah’s lips with it explaining that the coal takes away Isaiah’s uncleanness and guilt. Isaiah’s guilt has been atoned for which means his sins have been forgiven and punished in a substitutionary sacrifice. The seraph tells Isaiah, “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” He can therefore remain with God, even in God’s glory.

Then Isaiah hears the voice of God asking the question, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The sovereign God rather than conscripting and compelling someone to serve him makes a request. Isaiah accepts the commission of God and responds obediently, “He am I! Send me.” God then gives Isaiah a purpose and calling to take his message to his people.

Isaiah goes on to serve as a prophet of God to the kings of Judah and to all people urging repentance and turning to God. He writes of the suffering servant who will come with God’s anointing of power but will bear the sins and sorrows of fallen humankind.

This vision of Isaiah illustrates the transcendence of God—his holiness, his otherness, and the fact that he is beyond our comprehension in his power and sovereignty. However, it also shows that God is not distant from us; he is not remote or stoic; he is immanently present to people to interact and intervene out of his goodness and grace. He reveals his glorious holiness to Isaiah for the purpose of Isaiah’s repentance and forgiveness that he may proclaim that same repentance and forgiveness of sins to the world. Because of his willingness and obedience, Isaiah participates in the divine work of salvation.

The presence of the altar and the burning coal that cleanses Isaiah indicates an altar of sacrifice in heaven. This represents the ultimate sacrifice of heaven upon the altar of the cross, where the sacrificial lamb is slain. The grace of the cross is indicated in the shadows of this vision. The apostle John writes in his gospel that Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus. (Jn 12.41) The glory of Jesus that Isaiah sees could be the glory that fills the temple or the glory of the suffering servant of God laying down his life for sinners, enthroned on the cross between two bandits.

In Jesus Christ, the fullness of the glory of God is hidden in the flesh of a baby, and as he grows, a child, then a teen and then a man, and finally, it is hidden in a man beaten and crucified. In the beginning of his ministry, after Jesus preached in his hometown, the people there were amazed and wondered at him. But they saw him only as a man…the son of Joseph the carpenter. They rejected him; in fact, they tried to throw him off a cliff.

In our gospel reading today, we see another reaction to Jesus. Peter runs to him, falls on his knees and declares, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Peter recognizes that the glory and holiness that Isaiah witnessed is somehow present and working in and through Jesus. And like Isaiah, he is undone.

The catch of fish is so overwhelming to Peter that he ignores the catch’s value and what this ability of Jesus could mean for his business and prosperity. He recognizes that the significance is greater than anything in this world. He may not have been able to articulate at this point what he would come to know later…that Jesus is the fullness of the God, but he recognizes the anointing of God in Jesus, the Messiah, and he is convicted of his own sinfulness just as Isaiah was in the presence of God.

The cross of Jesus is in the background in both of these texts. In Isaiah’s vision, it is the burning coal from the altar of sacrifice that cleanses him. In Luke’s text, this event with Peter and Jesus is sandwiched between two accounts of Jesus’ miracles and his retreat into desolate places of solitude. Both Isaiah and Peter are forgiven of their sins and accepted by God because Jesus, despite his power, went to the ultimate desolation of the cross.

Jesus sums up his mission that is the mission of God in the world when he says, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”(Luke 5.32) God calls sinners to himself…people like us. During his ministry, Jesus was called a “friend of sinners.” He still is a friend to sinners. In fact, when we allow ourselves to become aware of Jesus’ presence with us, all we can say on our behalf is an echo of Isaiah, Peter and the tax collector in the temple, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

This is the unceasing prayer of the pilgrim in the early 20th century Russian story The Way of the Pilgrim. The pilgrim is a Russian peasant seeking to follow Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing.” The pilgrim becomes a devoted follower of Christ by constantly praying what is known as the “Jesus Prayer,” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer never becomes stale or quaint in our walks with the Lord.

One of my favorite worship songs these days is called “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” The lyrics read:

How deep the father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That he should give his only son
To make a wretch his treasure.

How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns his face away
And wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many to sons to glory.

God doesn’t just cause us to fear him and repent of our sins. He forgives us and makes us his treasure. He clothes us with his perfection, fills us with his Holy Spirit, calls us to himself and commissions us to engage in his mission in the world through various vocations and gifts for ministry. He does have mercy on sinners and makes sinners his sons and daughters.

Immediately after college, I went to work for a home for abused boys. These boys had been beaten down their entire short lives and suffered from horrible self-worth. Prior to Christmas one year, a couple of the other counselors spent weeks refurbishing bikes for the boys. On Christmas morning, each of the 12 boys received bikes that were as good as new. It was not a week before each of those bikes had been abused and wrecked beyond use.

These boys felt their unworthiness to receive such a gift. They saw themselves as not being good enough to enjoy such a pleasure as a new bike, and they mistreated them until the condition of the bikes matched their own. That is the danger of experiencing our unworthiness before God without also experiencing his forgiveness of our sins and his transforming of us into the image of Christ. His grace and love make us worthy to be in his family. So like Isaiah and Peter we can dwell with him forever. It is Peter who would late write that by his divine power God enables us to be partakers of his divine nature that we might be fruitful in our relationship with Jesus. (2 Pet 1.3-8)

In a few minutes, we will confess our sins to God. Be sure to receive the forgiveness that is then declared. And as we partake of the Lord’s communion, know that God has made you his treasure and desires to fill you with his presence. And as we later go out into the world, he desires us to join him in his mission to seek and save sinners.

God Bless,
Craig Stephans, Rector
Church of the Redeemer (Anglican)

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Church of the Redeemer Sermon Jan 31 2010