This is the sermon I preached this last Sunday, the names of congregation members have been removed.
Transfiguration Sunday sermon
Now, it is common practice, or so I’ve noticed, for preachers the world over to begin their sermon by mentioning how confusing, or bizarre, or mysterious the passage they are preaching on is. I think we do that to impress, to make sure that folk know what we do is challenging, to let you know we aren’t just making this stuff up. Yet, at the risk of falling into that pattern I have to say Transfiguration Sunday is a hard Sunday to preach on.
In fact, this Thursday I went to the seminary’s chapel because this text was to be preached on there. I was hoping to hear a sermon to clarify what exactly happened to Jesus on that mountain and what it means for us today. I expected the brilliant mind of a Wangert, or Gafney, or Heen to enlightened me about this text, to give me some sort of base with which to preach my own sermon today.
Yet, when it came time for the sermon something odd happened. Instead of a preacher three seminarians came out and danced for several minutes while holding candles—this liturgical dance somehow represented the transfiguration. Apparently even in that tower of theological learning nothing more profound could be said with words than could be said with waivering flames.
There is of course a traditional way of dealing with Christ’s transfiguration. In it the focus is shifted off of Christ and onto Peter… shifted onto his idea of making three booths, three tabernacles, for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses to dwell in. Peter is lampooned for this tabernacleing and told to get on down the mountain, to leave mountain top experiences behind. Then of course the congregation is told the same message. In essence, if I preached such a sermon today I would be saying, “Tabernacle, quit tabernacling, go down the mountain, go out of this church and into the community.” …And that wouldn’t be a bad sermon.
But being told to get off the hill when we are clearly in the valley makes no sense. The vocation of a preacher is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m afflicted.
I have a confession to make to all of you. In the last two weeks the number of funerals I have attended in my lifetime has doubled. Maybe I should have told Pastor Rogers about this fact, but I kept reminding myself that funerals are a huge part of one’s call to ministry and I need to get used to it. One pastor friend of mine has done three funerals in the last three days.
Now older folk, you know people over thirty, often come up to me and say things like, “Chris, you’re an old 25.” Or “Chris, because of the things you’ve dealt with in your life you’re the oldest 25 year old I’ve ever seen.” But I’ll tell you these last couple of weeks, reflecting upon the nature of the ministry God’s called me to, I’ve felt humbled, I’ve felt like a fairly young, inexperienced, 25.
This is not to say the services haven’t been amazing, because they have. The former mayor came and spoke about Mr. K, and at least as impressive in my eyes those that road Mr. W bus came to see him home. Lutherans from time to time talk about the importance of “vocation” and about “the common priesthood” how a father changing his daughter’s diaper is as holy as a priest performing a mass. And I believe these two men exemplified this in their lives.
Yet, I would still maintain we are afflicted. As Elisha lost Elijah so we have lost W and K.
Now when I say that you have to understand I’m not saying we lost them in a permanent sense, no more than Elisha lost Elijah in a permanent sense. As Pastor Rogers made very clear we don’t do funerals we do homecomings. Yet they aren’t physically here with us anymore, and that can be hard.
So my question today is what can Christ’s Transfiguration say to Elisha? What is the good word today for this prophet as he cries out, “My father, my father!”? What does it mean to those in mourning that God revealed His son on a hill?
In order to unpack the meaning of the transfiguration to Elisha I would first have to get him up to speed about the large movements of history that had happened between his time and that of Jesus. I would have to tell him the sad story of the Assyrian dispersion of the ten tribes of Israel, of the first destruction of the temple and the exile of the Judeans to Babylon. I would have to tell him of the return under Cyrus, the rise of Alexander the Great and how that brought a global culture to the Middle East. I would also describe for him the Maccabean rebellion against the Greeks and the subordination and occupation of his homeland under the Romans.
Only then could we begin to read this passage of the Gospel of Mark together. We would note together that Jesus takes his three disciples up a high mountain after six days. This would click in his mind as a similar situation to that of Moses in the 24th chapter of Exodus. There Moses dwells on Mount Sinai for six days under the cover of a cloud until the LORD shows up like a devouring fire.
Then Jesus is transfigured. That is, to be changed in form. The same word, as a noun instead of a verb, is found in that famous verse of Phillipians chapter 2, “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” From that we can get an idea of what it means that Jesus was transfigured. For a moment Christ was filled with that which he had emptied himself of, the very form of God. And he was wearing a glistening garment whiter than any cloth seen before or since.
Now I have no experience seeing Jesus in his fullness, but I think I had an experience that contained at least a sliver of a shadow of similarity to the experience of Peter, James, and John.
About a month ago a friend took me to see the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Now this musical has a special place in my heart. Growing up I probably watched the 1973 filmed version of it several dozen times. It wouldn’t be saying to much to say that that movie played a decent sized part in my spiritual journey. I would say I am as familiar with Tim Rice’s account of Jesus’ last days as that of Matthew or John.
So it was to my great surprise about a month ago that Ted Neeley, now 65 years old, the actor who played Jesus in that 1973 video that I watched all those times, was reprising his role right her in Philadelphia. No longer was his voice limited by TV speakers and his actions by the small size of my TV screen. He was there in flesh and blood. Likewise I believe, for the three disciples the Christ, for a moment, was present with them in an unlimited way.
An imperfect analogy for transfiguration I’ll admit, but you get the idea don’t you Elisha, the totality of Jesus’ Christhood appeared to those three disciples.
And then comes something that our prophet friend would find very interesting, Elijah and Moses appear! Elijah the preeminent prophet and Moses the Law Giver. So, Jesus, in his transfiguration, is surrounded by representatives of the Law and the Prophets—two thirds of Hebrew scripture.
Peter, in his astonishment, says something that even the author comments is done without thinking, done out of fear. He blurts out, “can I build three houses for you guys?” And perhaps Elisha can understand being overwhelmed by events; after all fiery chariots can be a surprise.
But if what has happened so far is overwhelming what happens next takes the cake. A voice from heaven, the voice of, as today’s psalm says, “The Mighty One” the one who’s voice summons the earth, who dwells in a tempest and devouring fire, the one that the heavens can not help but declare righteous, says, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
This is not the first time these words have been used in this gospel, nor the last. At the start of Mark’s gospel, when he is being baptized by John, Jesus is told that he is God’s son, and at Jesus’ crucifixion the Roman centurion declares, “surely this is the Son of God.”
And I believe that is where this whole thing is going Elisha. I believe the transfiguration is pointing toward the cross. After all the event described previous to it is Peter rebuking Jesus for predicting his own death. The end of today’s lesson speaks of the Son of Man rising from the dead.
What I am trying to say is the unemptied, glorified, Christ appears to Peter and James and John in order to affirm the emptying of himself. Affirm his coming death. Affirm what kind of Messiah, what kind of Christ he is. To affirm the cross.
The cross, foolishness to the gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews. It is written those that hang upon a tree are accursed, thus God’s anointed, God’s saving act, is accursed—a cursed messiah. And so we needed the shining moment of the transfiguration to not be shaken by Calvery, because Christ on the cross is God in the last place we’d ever think to look. And yet that’s exactly where God is.
And if we think about it that's been the way of things for a while. Those that have been coming to my Genesis bible studies know this. We looked at chapter 12 last week. Abram, in his cowardliness and fear of Pharaoh all but pimped out his wife Sarai. Sold into Pharoah’s court, not a place you’d expect God, yet God was there with her and protected her. Later Sarai throws out Hagar and Ishmael, leaving them in the desert to die. Not a place you’d expect God, yet God was there with them. Moses, a man raised in the culture of his people’s oppressors, kills a man and runs away. Not a place you’d expect God, yet God was there with him.
And I haven’t forgotten you Elisha, God was with you when you were in that barren city of Jericho,
provided oil aplenty to the widow, cured Naaman with common water.
And God has been in other unlikely places—with the shepherd boy David, on the ash-heap with Job, in the belly of a whale with Jonah, in a lion’s den with Daniel.
And you know he’s with us here too. He was with us when we buried Mr. W and Mr. K—yes a graveyard is a strange place, but Jesus has been there, and God is there. I remember the last time Mr. B preached he talked a little about his experience of heart surgery. Now Open-heart surgery is something he and I share, we’re both part of the zipper club. Operating tables and hospital beds feel like the last place we’d look for God, but He’s there!
You know some people don’t like communion wafers so much, they say they take too much faith. Not only do you have to believe Jesus shows up in bread and wine, but before that you have to believe the little wafer is bread. But it is in these common, unexpected things, bread, wine, water, and word that we find God.
And with that I come back to my original question: What can Christ’s Transfiguration say to Elisha as he looses Elijah? My answer is this. Jesus was transfigured not for glory but to testify to his dwelling amongst us. To testify to his life, death, and resurrection God’s promise fulfilled for us.