A sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration August 6, 2017
Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed.
The Feast of the Transfiguration is fixed on the day of August the sixth. Every few years that day is on a Sunday, and since it is a major feast of the Lord, it supersedes the lessons for the Sunday.
Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake they saw his glory—Jesus was praying on that mountain and the groggy disciples saw God’s glory manifested in his face. I have always found the Transfiguration difficult to preach, because it is not the same kind of story that we usually see in scripture—rather than being about instruction, or making a moral point, or showing Jesus confronting the powers, or healing, or welcoming—the Transfiguration is an image: Jesus on the mountain, praying, transformed in the glory of God and accompanied by the two key prophets of Israel, Moses and Elijah.
The story is at a key position in the Gospels, but it is not really about something happening to Jesus. We see Jesus praying, and his face reflects the presence of God, the love of God, the Glory of God. It is not that he doesn’t always manifest these things, but up on that mountain, alone, with nothing else happening and the disciples just sitting there, they could see his face, and the Glory of God in it. His clothes were a dazzling white, the garments of celebration and joy, for wedding feasts, or the coming of the Kingdom of God. Moses and Elijah also appeared in God’s glory. Moses had received the law before God’s face, Elijah had been taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire; through them God had guided his people, encouraged them, corrected them.
The Gospel says that they were speaking with Jesus about his departure—if we are looking at the Greek, it says that they were speaking to him about his EXODUS, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. In other words, as, God did with Moses, he set the people of Israel free in the exodus from Egypt, so God would set all of us free in what Jesus would do in Jerusalem. The Exodus was not cost-free, there was forty years of wandering in the desert, suffering, complaints, people died. So also, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem entailed his suffering and death. And being Jesus’ people—living in his resurrection—is not cost-free either. We are called to die to self, die to selfishness and scheming, to abandon self-serving ideas of privilege and our own self-righteousness or entitlement.
But this is called the Glory of God. The glory is the celebration of life, not fear. Glory is the celebration of God present with us now, and in the time to come. God’s glory is God’s presence—and not what we tell God, or what we think we want.
God is with us, in the face of Jesus, dressed in dazzling white and celebrating with us. Peter is awake but groggy. Later in the Gospel, on another mountain, Peter and the other disciples sleep while Jesus prays. In Gethsemane, they are lost and confused, and Jesus is alone with God. Unlike in Gethsemane, on this mountain the disciples see the Glory of God in Jesus face. So Peter sees it, though in his grogginess he doesn’t really understand what Moses and Elijah and Jesus are saying about Jerusalem. Peter sees the prophets, he sees Jesus among the other two, great archetypal prophets, and he perceives the Glory of God, and he says, “Let’s build three booths!” Three because now we have three great prophets and Jesus is one of them. But the cloud comes and covers them all. And the voice. The voice speaks. “This is my Son, the one I have chosen. Listen to him.”
Jesus is the one, not one of the three; but the only begotten Son. The prophets give us context for the love and action of God. The Glory of God is not whatever we make of it, it is the love of God in this real world, saving God’s real people—in the Exodus, in the word of the prophets, in the faithfulness of Israel and the call to repentance. But at the end, Jesus is the one—the Chosen.
And suddenly, the cloud is gone and the three disciples are alone with Jesus. The Glory of God has not gone away, but those special manifestations evaporated. And they were silent.
There was nothing more to say. There was Jesus. The Glory of God and the voice from the cloud said, “This is my chosen one, listen to him.”
We listen to Jesus’ compassion, we know his healing; healing of hurt, sorrow, or despair. We listen to his words of hope—hope that will not disappoint us, because it is grounded in Jesus’ real presence with us, courageously, in this real world. The glory of God shines in his love that will never fade or abandon us.
O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.