Transfiguration

The Rt. Rev. Robert Johnson, TEC

The Episcopal Church

Matthew 17:1-9

February 14, 1999

"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."

The church calls this event the Transfiguration of Christ. Jesus was "transfigured": the figure, the image, the look that he had, the face that showed to others was changed over. The appearance of his face changed. Jesus had a different look.

Transfigurations are big business today. I don't know anybody who doesn't want one, including me. And many of us work hard and spend a lot of money to get one -- a new face, a new look, a changed appearance.

Early last December at the conference center of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, I saw with my own eyes lots of transfigurations. Living in close quarters with a hundred and fifty teenagers at our annual Bishops' Ball provided me ample opportunity to see transfigurations. On Saturday evening, we changed from grimy. fatigued, messy-haired campers into clean, combed and smartly-dressed guests at the dinner and dance. Many were outrageously dressed, but smartly dressed nevertheless!

By the way for you parents who sometimes despair of ever doing anything right with your teenagers and who are scared to death that you are rearing a generation of empty-headed reform-schoolers, let me reassure you that not everything you are doing is wrong. There is hope. Your teenagers do not always behave with you. They are frequently transfigured -- not only in their appearance but also in their action, their attitude, their thoughtfulness. So don't despair. Keep on being your best with them, and one day they may be their best with you.

Transfigurations are big business because we are very aware of the face we present to the world. And we will alter our face to our advantage if we can. Sometimes the change is not just in looks but in our whole image -- including our name.

Larushka Shikne did not like the image he thought his name projected, so he changed his name to Laurence Harvey.

Issur Danielovitch Densky did the same thing and became Kirk Douglas.

In the same way, Frances Gum transfigured herself and her image into Judy Garland. Archibald Leach became Cary Grant. Aaron Schwalt became Red Buttons. And would you have paid money to see Marion Morrison in the movies? Maybe, but Marion didn't take that chance, he became John Wayne.

Remember that in Holy Scriptures many people got new names to go with a new life and a new image. Abram became Abraham. Sarai became Sarah. Jacob became Israel. Saul became Paul. Simon became Peter, "The Rock."

Transfigurations are not the exception. They are the rule. We are all being altered in the appearance of our face, our countenance. We are all changing. To live is to be continually transfigured. So who are we becoming?

I don't mean to suggest that Jesus' transfiguration was a triumph of cosmetology. It wasn't. He did not have it done to himself, it was given to him. St. Luke's Gospel says that Jesus was praying when it happened.

And as it turned out, it happened at the best of times. It happened just before Jesus' life changed direction dramatically, just before Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem, toward danger, toward death.

That transfiguration -- that change in Jesus' face, that change in direction of his life -- is most appropriate for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. The transfiguration bridges the two seasons, from the Epiphany to Lent. The transfiguration reminds us one more time of the specialness, the uniqueness of Jesus' identity. St. Luke's version of the story reports a voice from the cloud: "This is my Son, my Chosen."

The transfiguration turns our attention to the suffering that Jesus will endure. St. Luke calls it "his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem."

That's an interesting way to describe Jesus' passion and crucifixion, isn't it? Not as a misery to be passively endured but as a journey to be undertaken, a task to be done a "departure" to be "accomplished."

I say that Jesus' transfiguration happened at the best of times because just before suffering, just before trial, just before a difficult test, just before a dangerous journey is the best time to receive reassurance and the best time for your friends and family to receive reassurance too.

All of us need to see the glory of God before we face the hard times. All of us need the reminder of God's presence and God's purpose when we go through any "valley of the shadow of death."

Before leading Jesus toward the final confrontation in Jerusalem, Good visited Jesus, and his friends, with an experience of glory.

Over the centuries, Christians have learned to trust that sequence, even to bet their lives on it; suffering will come, yes. But before the suffering, there will be a strengthening visitation of glory, a reminder that Jesus -- and we -- are never asked to face suffering alone.

You may be thinking that I am mistaken. "If we are going to face suffering, we will first receive an experience of God's glory." "Not likely," you say. That's not the way your life has been. If glory comes at all, it comes after the cross, not before. And if you are thinking that, you have a strong argument. Life is often like that. We don't see the light until after the darkness. We are unprepared for the cross until we see the resurrection.

But my point is: We are not as unprepared as we think. Sometimes we do get our own special transfiguration before a crisis, our assurance that no matter what happens we will be safe with God. But even if that does not happen, we are still not unprepared. We always have Christ's transfiguration to encourage us. Through the Scriptures and by faith, we can see God's glory before the cross; we can glimpse God's plan before the suffering, we can believe God's purpose in the crisis even before we live through the crisis.

Instead of reading: "Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain," try reading this: "Jesus took with him Sue and Bob and Mike and you and me up the high mountain."

You and I can be witnesses of Christ's transfiguration just as surely as Peter and Jesus and John were. We are in that story too. Through faith we are with Christ in the glory of his transfiguration. And his glory gives us strength just as it gave Christ strength.

We do have crosses to bear, pains to endure, crisis to face. And as we move into Lent, our crosses and Christ's cross will occupy more of our attention. We do carry crosses, but we do not carry them by our own strength alone. We do not face any crisis in our own strength alone. In faith we see Christ's glory, and his strength becomes our strength, and his glory becomes our glory too.

Who are we becoming?

That's a good question for this bridge, Sunday between Epiphany and lent. Not "Shall we become someone?" We have no choice. We are continually becoming someone different, continually changing, continually being transfigured.

Who are we becoming?

Christians are continually becoming like Christ.

Please join me in the prayer for the last Sunday after Epiphany, from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

"O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain. Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into the likeness from glory to glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."


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