Transfiguration of the Lord
Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strips come to mind when I read the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Do you remember Calvin’s big cardboard box? He dubs it a “transmogrifier” and tells Hobbes the machine will turn you into something other than what you already are. Set the dial to the desired new thing and away you go into a bug or dinosaur or whatever you write on the side of the box. I equate Calvin’s cardboard box with Peter’s suggestion of building booths and Jesus’ dazzling appearance with setting the dial to “Son of God.” In an instant, Jesus appears to be someone other than simply Joseph’s boy from Nazareth. He looks markedly, substantively different. He has been transmogrified, and those on the mountain with him cannot help but notice the change.
Much has happened prior to this mountain top experience. Demons have been cast out. Lepers healed. Parables told. A girl has even been brought back to life. Jesus walked on water, thousands have been fed, and Peter declared that Jesus is in fact the Messiah, all before Moses and Elijah appear and God booms a divine decree from the cloud. So, what’s the big deal about the Transfiguration? What gets revealed in this story that wasn’t already been revealed? What do Peter and James and John know after this event that they didn’t know before?
In short: They see Jesus in a whole new light. All they knew and had witnessed, as miraculous and astounding as those things were, did not reveal the entirety of Jesus’ identity. Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah gets prophetic, historic and transcendent confirmation through the Transfiguration. Jesus indeed is the Messiah, the one of whom the prophets spoke, the one who fulfills the law, the one who is from God and of God and to whom they should listen. It is noteworthy the Transfiguration is bracketed in Mark’s Gospel by Jesus predicting his passion. Jesus, dazzlingly clothed, flanked by Elijah and Moses, heralded by God, will be the one who will be betrayed, killed and who in three days will rise from the dead, his appearance different yet again, his identity the same. Jesus is not, after all, transmogrified, turned from one thing into another. Jesus of Nazareth is the beloved Son of God, the Messiah, fully human, fully divine, executed, buried, raised and ascended. He will not be contained by booth, nor by grave. No wonder the disciples are at a loss for words.
Peter, James and John see Jesus in a whole new light, one so bright, so otherworldly, that they are left terrified and tongue-tied. Jesus, the one who heals the sick and walks on water, the Messiah, is the Son of God, the fulfillment of law and prophets, the one alone to whom they should listen and follow. Perhaps the greatest transformation that takes place on the mountain is not Jesus’ Transfiguration, but the disciples’ understanding of the magnitude and majesty of their Savior. In seeing Jesus in a whole new light, there is hope that they will begin to see themselves and this mission in a whole new light, too. Beginning with the hard truth that the Messiah does not allow his disciples to stay in safe spaces far above the chaos and needs of the world.
When have we been so overwhelmed with Jesus’ majesty and magnitude that our proximity to him has left us stuttering, awed and unsure of what to do next? When have we thought we knew everything there was to know about our Lord, only to be ambushed by the realization that we know nothing about him at all? Maybe it has been a mountaintop experience, accompanied by visions and a voice from heaven. Maybe it has been in the words of a fellow disciple or the off- handed remarks of a stranger, the strains of a familiar hymn or the recitation of poem, prayer or creed. In short: When have we seen Jesus in a whole new light, and as a result seen ourselves and God’s mission in a whole new light too?
My discipleship has transmogrified, escaped the booth or box in which I had placed it, time and time again through the influence and example of those who follow Jesus more closely and better than I. I have come to see Jesus and subsequently his mission, and others, and myself, in a new light altogether when people who have been egregiously wronged have offered forgiveness, and those who’ve wounded others have done everything they can think of to make amends. I have been left not knowing what to say when I have witnessed generosity extended without the slightest thought of reciprocity. I have wanted to preserve for the ages moments when I knew without question that God was speaking, only to realize that those moments live on only when they send us out into a world desperate to hear them.
Just last week I spent some time in a taxi in San Francisco. I made conversation with the driver. Originally from Iran, he has been in the United States many years, retiring from the trucking business only to realize that he couldn’t live off of his Social Security payments. That’s what got him driving a cab, 16 hours a day, four days a week. It was the cost of housing, he said, “that kills you,” that makes such unrelenting demands. “Sometimes,” he said, “we really suffer.” He lived an hour from the city where it was cheaper, but still making ends meet was a challenge. Not long before we arrived at my destination, he asked what I did for a living. I told him I was a pastor. He asked if I preached every week. “Most weeks,” I said. Our conversation drifted to the beauty of the place around us, the many things there were to do in the area, “if you have money.”
He pulled over to the curb, I paid, and he got out to get my bag. As he handed my suitcase to me he said, “Pray for me.” Then emphatically again, “Pray for me.” I asked his name. I told him mine. Suddenly, I saw him in a whole new light. Not just a cab driver, but my brother, one for whom I had been entrusted to pray. I saw Jesus in a whole new light, too. Not the one I flew across the country to speak about. Not the one present on the seminary campus where I was to stay. Not one contained in the boxes in which I place him, but one who transcends any limits I try to impose upon him, more majestic than the mountains on my left and right, and yet as close as the person right in front of me. In those moments of revelation, transfiguration, I don’t know what to say, but I am left only to listen, for God, to Jesus, in the clouds and in taxis too.
- When has your understanding of Jesus changed? What caused your understanding to shift?
- Have you ever had a “mountaintop” experience that you wanted to preserve? What was different after that exceptional experience of the holy?
- Why is it important that Moses and Elijah are part of this story? How do they represent continuity with Jesus and God’s salvation history?
- Where are other Bible passages where God’s presence is revealed and concealed through a cloud? Look at Exodus 24:15 and Exodus 40:34, for examples. What’s the significance of the cloud?
- Read the other accounts of the Transfiguration. What are the unique elements in each account? What do those distinct details reveal? (Matthew 17:1-9, Luke 9:28-36)
- How do we listen to Jesus?
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