Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 6, 2005
The Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
Sermon: "The Transfiguration Reveals God's Glory to Us This Day"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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."
The Transfiguration Reveals God's Glory to Us This Day
Last Sunday after the Epiphany - February 6, 2005
One of the recent actors whose work I have begun to appreciate is Jim Carey. He has starred in several movies that have been funny, and yet, had significant theological meaning. However, it is not only his choice of movies that have intrigued me concerning this actor. I first became intrigued with him when he starred in the movie about Andy Kaufman of "Taxi" fame. I was watching a segment about the making of this movie. According to the report, Jim Carey spent hours watching tapes of Andy's performances. He spent more hours interviewing the people in Andy's life. He also spent hours in front of cameras and mirrors working on Andy's mannerisms and stage characters. When filming started he asked the crew and other actors and actresses to call him Andy. He stayed in character for the entire filming of the movie both off the set and on the set. In other words he became Andy Kaufmann. He transformed himself to be like the man he was portraying. This task was no easy feat.
Jim Carey transformed himself into Andy Kaufmann. He made himself into someone that he wasn't. Even though he could copy his expressions. Even though he could sound like him. Even though he could mimic his stage characters, he still was not Andy Kaufmann. He was still Jim Carey. He must have really come close to being Andy. Some friends and some fellow actors and actresses who knew Andy said it was very spooky watching Jim Carey in this role. They said at times it was like Andy was standing in front of them again. Jim Carey had fulfilled his goal.
This morning we see not a transformation but a transfiguration. Jesus is transfigured before the disciples. But there are some interesting parallels in this reading of the event that are very important. These parallels are deliberately presented by the writer of Matthew because he wants to prove a point. He wants to show Jesus for who he is, not just a prophet, but the Son of God.
In order to establish his point he goes about it in an interesting way. He uses symbolism and imagery from Moses and the Exodus but in a different and more powerful way.
As you know Moses brings the people of God to the foot of Mount Sinai. As you know Moses goes up the mountain on several occasions. The mountain is shrouded in a cloud. In the cloud the people see lightning and they hear rumbling like thunder which is described as God's presence. When Moses comes down the mountain his face shines. He actually covers his face with a veil. As the Jewish history unfolds Moses becomes the great leader and prophet who led the people out of Israel at God's command. He also was the one who spoke to God and whose countenance changed as a result. Moses is one of their greatest leaders and greatest prophets. He is changed as he talks with God.
Now, we come to the scene with Jesus. Jesus invites Peter, James and John to go with him. The three of them proceed up the mountain. Like Moses, they are climbing the mountain. When they reach the top, Jesus is transfigured. His face shines like the sun. His clothes are dazzling white. The full divinity of Christ as the Son of God is revealed to them. They see him as fully human and fully divine. It is not just his face that shone. Moses is changed. Jesus is transfigured. His full identity is revealed and the glory of God shines forth.
Then Moses and Elijah appear. They talk with Jesus. The two greatest prophets of the Hebrew people come to Jesus. Jesus does not go to them or call them. They appear before Jesus. Peter sees all this and says this is great. We can build three booths here. We can build three dwellings, one for each of you. He wants to capture this moment. He wants the Messiah to be what he has always dreamed he should be, the great king of Israel who will restore Israel to greatness. They will be the nation of nations. They will be the greatest of all the world, famous and powerful.
Before he can finish what he is saying, a bright cloud appears over them. It is like the cloud that appeared on the mountain at Sinai. From the cloud they do not hear rumbling; they hear a voice. The voice speaks directly to them. The voice tells them, “Jesus is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” In fear Peter, James and John fall to the ground. When Jesus tells them to arise, the cloud is gone and so are Moses and Elijah.
Can we see how the writer of Matthew compares Moses and Jesus? Moses was considered to be the savior of the people of Israel. He led them out of slavery. He walked on God's holy mountain. He spoke with God and he was changed.
Jesus is also the savior of God's people. He is the savior of all of God's people in the whole world. He also walks on God's holy mountain. However, he is not changed. His identity is revealed. God chooses to reveal his identity as the Son of God to them through his shining countenance and dazzling clothes. God reveals his greatness as Moses and Elijah speak to him. God proclaims his identity as the Son of God when they hear the voice of God from the cloud. Jesus is not just a prophet. He is the Son of God, the One who will bring salvation to the whole world.
One thing we have to remember is that this story was not written in this manner for the disciples who were with Jesus at the time. This story was not written for the ones who did not go up on the mountain. The writer of Matthew uses this story to teach his own community about the identity of Jesus. He is writing them and informing them through the stories he has learned about who Jesus is.
Furthermore, he writes to inform not only that immediate community but also the disciples who will follow them. We are those disciples. We are the disciples who read this story today. We read this story to understand that Jesus is more than a prophet. We read this story to understand that he is more than a king. We read this story to understand that he is more than a great leader. Jesus is the prophet of all prophets. He is king above all kings. He is the leader of all of God's people from all of the corners of the earth. Jesus is the divine Son of God who comes to us, to teach us, to lead us, but most of all to die for us. He comes to offer us life eternal through the sacrifice of his own self in full humanity and full divinity. It is not simply Jesus the man who dies on the cross. It is Jesus, the Son of God, the Beloved, who offers himself on the cross for our salvation. The writer of Matthew helps define for us the full and true identity of Jesus so we can see what God accomplishes for us.
Sometimes I wish we could se Jesus on that Holy mountain. Sometimes I wish we could see his full glory revealed as Peter, James and John did on that day. But then I think about the wonder of the cross. I realize we have seen the true identity of Christ. We see his glory fully revealed when we see that empty cross and know that he is indeed the Son of God, our Savior.