Transfiguration.23 “Transfigured” Matt. 17:1-9
“And after six days Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain and is transfigured
before them.” Which begs the question: “six days after what?” Great question! Six days after
telling them he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and
scribes, be killed(!) and be raised again the third day—and, that anyone who would come after
him, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Jesus. For whoever will save his life
shall lose it: and whoever will lose his life for Christ’s sake shall find it.
Whoa… that’s a little harsh, isn’t it? Do you really think Jesus meant all that stuff about
denying oneself, hating our lives as they are now, dying with him in order to live? Is trying to
save our lives really a deadly sin? That seems pretty extreme.
Well, this is why Transfiguration is always the last Sunday of Epiphany. Epiphany varies
from 4 to 8 Sundays, but whatever the last Sunday of Epiphany is, it’s always the Transfiguration
Gospel. And the next Sunday is Lent. Transfiguration is showing us why the whole repentance,
self-denial thing of Lent is crucial for us—why no one who refuses to be crushed by the weight
of our sin for the 40 days of Lent will ever see the Resurrection Day.
“Huh! Why is that, Pastor?” Another great question! You have so many good questions! It
seems that seeing the glory of God, all majesty uncovered, would be a peak experience, even a
mountaintop moment (see what I did there? Peak experience? Mountaintop moment? The
disciples were taken up a high mountain to see the Transfiguration? Never mind). If we imagine
the Transfiguration was pleasant and uplifting, it makes the downer of Lent seem incongruous.
And so the disciples thought. Peter was just telling Jesus six days before (after hearing
the predication of suffering and death for the Lord and for us) that he is surely mistaken about
this. Nothing so dire as violent death could happen to the LORD (or to his chosen ones 😉 And
Jesus tells Peter that he’s Satan himself for talking such nonsense. And leads him up a mountain
and is transfigured, face and clothing and body shining like the sun, Moses and Elijah in all their
glory shining right along beside him, talking with him about this exodus the LORD is about to
accomplish in Jerusalem (the main thing that interests them, the cross business 😉
Here’s the thing: seeing the unveiled glory of God is not a peak experience in the sense of
something delightful and pleasant and life-affirming. It was not that, at all, for the 3 apostles!
The King beautifully translates this verse that seeing the glory of God and being enveloped by
the bright cloud did not cheer their hearts, but made them sore afraid, so afraid it hurt. “Make it
stop!” was basically what Peter was saying with his genius idea of making three tabernacles—
one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus—so that they would not have to see this
terrifying light and be destroyed by it.
God made a tabernacle (you will recall) in the Exodus so that his glory would not destroy
the sinful people of Israel. It might be helpful to recall a couple previous times when the holy
prophets got a glimpse of the unveiled glory of God. The first one was Moses on Mt. Sinai,
Exodus 33, getting the Torah and asking if he could see God’s glory? God said “No. No one can
see my glory and live. But I’ll tell you what: I’ll put you in a cleft of the rock while my glory
passes by and cover you with my hand and then take my hand away and you can see my
backside. But no one can see my face and live.”
And when Moses comes down from seeing God’s backside, his face shines so brightly
and supernaturally that it scares the beejeebers out of the children of Israel and they make him
put a bag over his head until it stops. (Another thing that gives Peter the idea of covering up the
heavenly light because it burns like fire and scorches not only eyeballs but your whole being).
Which calls to mind another time a holy prophet, Isaiah, saw God’s unveiled glory. God
came swooping down to the temple in Jerusalem, or swooped Isaiah up to the heavenly dwelling
(I favor the latter, most like the former, the text leaves it open, I’d say) and Isaiah (chpt. 6) saw
the Lord high and lifted up in glory and the cherubim and seraphim worshiping and singing his
glory. And Isaiah said “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I
dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of
Seeing a man down, a seraphim, one of the rescue squad, swoops down with a live coal
from the altar and jams it in Isaiah’s mouth: “Open wide and say “Ahhh!” and says “your
iniquity is purged, that should help”. Isaiah seems… shaken, not stirred by the experience; and
when the LORD asks if anyone wants to run a little errand for him back to earth? Isaiah is all like
“Oooh! Oooh! Here am I! Send me! Send me!” He was kind of tricked; because the mission was
impossible. Not just very difficult. It seems to have ended in Isaiah’s violent death. It was telling
Israel the truth of God and they didn’t like the truth. Not one little bit. Killed the messenger
because they didn’t like the message (as they were and are wont to do 😉
Now, I think we might see the need for transfiguration! The glory of the LORD is
indeed a delight and joy beyond imagination—for the holy angels, the saints. For the rest of us,
it’s a consuming fire, a terrifying thing to see. It literally undoes us, as Isaiah testifies. It is not a
benign procedure. It hurts, literally, like hell!
And yet… it is awesome! The only thing about the Zombie Apocalypse that is difficult is
pretending we’re not excited, right? Rite.
Why would anyone want to follow Jesus if it means taking up a cross, denying ourselves,
suffering, and dying painfully with him?!!!? Because… it’s the only way to get the sin out of
us (the hot coal Isaiah received was just a temporary fix). And it is the sin in us that makes the
glory of God burn like fire instead of shine like the sun on a Caribbean beach with a gentle
breeze wafting over us. Same sun. Different people soaking it up.
I recently joined a Master’s swim team. It was the only way to get to swim outside in a
beautiful, always 80* pool, which is lovely. But the workouts are less lovely. There’s usually a
point, halfway, 2/3 through, where your shoulders are burning, your lungs near bursting, and, by
yourself, you’d quit. Then your buddy Michael sees you’re struggling, pretends he’s beat, says
“You lead; you go this” And with Michael on your heels, you do got this.
And at the end, there’s this endorphin rush, fist bumps, joshing, laughing, and you feel…
amazing. A tiny, little taste of… transfiguration.
The glimpse of Jesus’ glory on the mountain terrifies; yet, also, draws us in. To shine
like that! To be able fully, to enjoy that! To reflect it so we become just like the LORD himself,
bright, shiny creatures, ourselves, transfigured by the sight, the sound, so we not only see his
glory, the beauty of God; but we become glorious, beautiful, bright, too…
What would you give to be transfigured like that? Really, what wouldn’t you give?
Maybe you’d even take up a cross, deny yourself, lose your life, for Christ’s sake? Jesus says it
only hurts for a moment; while the glory lasts… forever. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.