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Jesus Made Known: Transfigured

March 3, 2019 Sermon
Jesus Made Known:

First Scripture Reading: Matthew Matthew 16:24-28
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Second Scripture Reading:  Matthew 17:1-9

17 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 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.” 5 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!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9 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.”

Message – “Jesus Made Known: Transfigured”

Do you remember how the season after the Epiphany began?  (Not the day OF the Epiphany, the day on which we read of the visit of the magi to the Christ child, but the first Sunday AFTER the Epiphany.)

We’ve journeyed a long way since then, so I’ll remind you.  We started the season after the Epiphany at the Jordan River, where Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, was baptizing people.

And I asked you to imagine you were there in that wilderness place, away from the temple, away from the religious establishment of the time, even away from the civil establishment and authorities, in a blank canvas kind of place where strange and transformational things happen, looking, seeking, hungering for something else, something from God, God who had seemingly been quiet for some 400 years.

I spent quite a bit of time helping you imagine the scene.  You might recall that the scene ended with Jesus of Nazareth being baptized by John, at which point the heavens opened up, a dove descended upon Jesus, and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Think back to our scripture reading for this morning.  Some things about the scene are almost identical, aren’t they?  Just as Jesus’ ministry began in a wilderness place, now, at the critical turning point of His ministry, Jesus took some of His disciples to another wilderness place, this one atop a high mountain.  Another wilderness place, another blank canvas kind of place where strange and transformational things can happen…and, of course, DO happen. And just as a strange anachronistic man in the form of John the Baptizer pointed people to God in that wilderness place by the river, two people who were real live blasts from the past – Moses and Elijah, two people, by the way, who likely would have come to mind when the crowds saw John at the Jordan River – two people who were real live blasts from the past appeared on this transformational mountaintop space.  And just as a voice from the heavens interrupted the proceedings at Jesus’ baptism, a voice from “the clouds” – pretty much the same thing as the heavens, the way Matthew was using the terms – a voice from the clouds said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

While the locations are different, and the specifics of the happenings are somewhat different, in so many ways the season after the Epiphany ends in much the same way that it began.  But it’s in the subtle differences that we discover in this scene Jesus’ identity being revealed as very different than in the event of Jesus’ baptism.

In that first scene, the one by the Jordan River, everything happened as a way of beginning Jesus EARTHLY ministry, so everything that happened pointed to some very tangible things about Jesus and paved the way for the kinds of identities of Jesus we’ve been talking about for six of the past seven weeks:

  • Jesus as God’s Son – something of the rather intangible God but in the very tangible flesh;
  • Jesus as capable of being tempted;
  • Jesus as teacher;
  • Jesus as give of teaching that are the solid foundation for life while on this earth;
  • Jesus as truth teller;
  • Jesus as feeder of the hungry;

I hope you can see a pattern: what was was begun in Jesus’ baptism was primarily about life here and now.  Sure, there were hints of a future life, but Jesus’ identity so far in Matthew’s gospel, at least in the passages we’ve been given by the makers of the Narrative lectionary, has been given in terms that would help usher in the kingdom of heaven HERE, on earth.

And then, with transfiguration, everything changes.

  • The transfiguration took place up on a high mountain, which is quite a contrast to the site of Jesus’ baptism, which is believed to have taken place pretty near the lowest point on earth, around 1,200 feet below sea level.  You might recall that the ancients described the place where God lives using the same term for the place where the stars and celestial bodies are: in English the word is “heaven”. The whole point is that Jesus’ baptism very clearly took place “down here”, while Jesus’ transfiguration took place “up there”.  Something about Jesus is changing.
  • Right before this passage, and continuing on into this passage, Jesus started talking about death, his death.  And the reality of Jesus’ imminent death absolutely permeates this scene, whereas it wasn’t mentioned during the scene of Jesus’ baptism.  Something about Jesus is changing.
  • The anachronistic blast from the past kind of guy who participated in Jesus’ baptism was a living, breathing, human being, Jesus’ own physical cousin.  The anachronistic blast from the past kind of guys who participate in Jesus’ transfiguration are Moses and Elijah, two guys who died many centuries ago.  Something about Jesus is changing.
  • Oh…and Jesus got transfigured.  In this scene atop a high mountain, Jesus’ appearance literally changed right before the eyes of Peter and James and John: “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”   What’s being described here is Jesus’ divine presence, Jesus’ otherworldly presence, being displayed to people of this world. These disciples seemingly receive a foretaste of a reality of the near future, the near future when Jesus will belong completely to the divine world instead of seemingly wading half in the earthly world and half in the divine world.  These disciples, as evidenced by Peter’s words, didn’t seem to GET what was going on, but something about Jesus was changing.

Y’all, the whole point – to me anyway – of this scene, the whole point of God offering these disciples this amazing glimpse into the divine world, is to clearly transition Jesus from one part of His ministry to the next, from a ministry of THIS world to a ministry of journeying toward the cross and death and resurrection and ascension, of journeying toward the DIVINE world.  The point of this passage is to tell the disciples that God is calling Jesus’ focus away from earthly things and toward heavenly things.

Which, by the way, has quite a bit to do with the liturgical seasons of the Universal Church, the transitioning of seasons that will take place this Wednesday.  In my ministry, I’ve heard people proclaim loudly that Jesus never instituted the season of Lent , that Jesus never talked about these liturgical seasons, and so there’s no biblical reason for us to celebrate them.

I wonder?  If God so clearly demarcated Jesus’ ministry into distinct parts:

  • If God spent hundreds of years preparing God’s people for the Messiah (which corresponds with the liturgical season of Advent);
  • If God made such a big deal out of Jesus’ birth, providing an extraordinary birth well outside of what is typical (which corresponds with the liturgical season of Christmastide);
  • If God spent so much time making Jesus’ identity known in terms of ushering in the Kingdom of God here on earth (which corresponds with the season after the Epiphany);
  • If God clearly changed the nature of Jesus’ ministry at the time of transfiguration and pointed Jesus toward the cross and gave Jesus’ a ministry more intentionally focused on the eternal Kingdom of God (which corresponds with the season of Lent);
  • If God so clearly resurrected Jesus and sent the resurrected Jesus back to prove and interpret resurrection (which corresponds with the season of Eastertide);
  • And if God so clearly made good on Jesus’ promise of sending God’s Holy Spirit to call the Church into being and inspire people like Luke and Paul to help generations understand Church through the millennia (which corresponds to the season of and after Pentecost);

If God so clearly separated Jesus’ ministry into distinct segments and transitions in this way, complete with big neon signs like birth, baptism, transfiguration, death, resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out of the promised Holy Spirit, why exactly do we resist the notion of liturgical seasons to remind us of HOW God worked through Jesus?

OK, off my mini-soap box.  Let’s get back to the story of scripture for today.

I hope you agree that God was indicating a major shift in Jesus’ ministry through transfiguration.  It’s like baptism, but NOT like baptism…in so many ways, even more ways than I have described. It’s a change.  It’s a transition from a focus on earth to a focus on heaven.

But here’s the thing, the change wasn’t going to be easy to accept, so God needed to do something beyond dramatic, beyond miraculous, beyond what had become “normal” for God-with-us…so the disciples (and us) would accept the change.

How do I know, how do we know, that the transfiguration was given to help the disciples accept something that might otherwise seem unacceptable?

While I’ve mentioned a great many differences between Jesus’ baptism and His transfiguration, there’s one I’ve alluded to but haven’t directly mentioned yet.

At Jesus’ baptism, the voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” At Jesus’ transfiguration, the voice from the heavens added three words: “Listen to Him.”

Why “listen to Him?”

I’ve got some ideas:

  • Listen to Him because what’s coming is a big change, something you’re not expecting;
  • Listen to Him so that you can begin to start understanding, which is something you haven’t been doing too well up until now;
  • Listen to Him because He’s now pointing to things beyond this world, to the divine realm, that are even MORE difficult to follow than the things you’ve misunderstood so far;
  • Listen to Him because you’re not going to like or even want to go along with what’s coming;
  • Listen to Him because He’s not going to be with you much longer, so the words he speaks now are critical for your future without Him;
  • Listen to Him because He is about to say with His words and actions some of the most life-giving things ever said, some things that come from the heavenly realm.

With the words “listen to Him”, God both points to the challenges the disciples will face to accept what’s coming and points to the amazing, world-changing impact of what’s coming.  Y’all, Jesus’ transfiguration ushers in a change in Jesus’ ministry, a new stage of Jesus’ ministry that is both more concerned with eternal things than His ministry was before AND more concerned with urgent things here and now…because Jesus wasn’t going to be around in physical, tangible form much longer.  You could say the transfiguration was the beginning of the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

But, during this season after the Epiphany, I’d like to say it a different way, a way more consistent with what we’ve been talking about this season, in terms of God making Jesus’ identity known.  In the event of Jesus’ transfiguration, God made Jesus’ identity known as the One who bridged earth and heaven, who stood firmly in both realms, to transfer knowledge, wisdom and power typically reserved for one realm, the heavenly realm, to the other, to earth, to us.  And that has some amazing implications for us:

  • We are reminded now, more than ever, that Jesus’ teaching and preaching and miraculous power comes from the heavenly realm, to us.  What Jesus said and taught and did is BETTER than what we find in the earthly realm. In other words, through Jesus, we gain access to this amazing other realm. We should pay attention.  We should hunger to learn as much as we can from Him.
  • We discover through Jesus that the bridge between the earthly and heavenly realms CAN be crossed.  It happened right there in the story. Three disciples saw Jesus’ heavenly form. Three disciples stood before long-dead prophets.  Something strange and yet powerful took place then, which means it can take place NOW. Which is pretty weird and yet rather amazing to consider.  When you hear people describe their experiences of the other realm, don’t be so quick to dismiss them. The barrier has been crossed before and will be crossed again.
  • What happened next in Jesus’ ministry, the things he would say and do, the things we’ll be looking at for the next month and a half, they’re last things, so they’re urgent things, they’re important things.  During the Lenten season, we Christians intentionally increase our focus on God. And on Sunday mornings, we should pay extra special attention to the things Jesus said and did. He knew they would be the last things He said and did, so he offered at the end of his earthly ministry the most important and urgent teachings and actions.
  • And finally, Jesus didn’t reserve the right of crossing over, of straddling the earthly and heavenly realms for Himself.  He offered the gift of God’s Spirit that we might all have constant access to the heavenly realm. God’s Spirit is available 24/7, trying to show you the best things possible.  And Jesus was journeying toward an end of His earthly ministry that would pave the way for us to travel across the barrier eternally to enter that heavenly realm…so that life on this earth would not be the end for us.

My friends, as we end this season after the Epiphany, God makes Jesus known as the One who makes the eternal heavenly realm available to us.  God was not required to open the heavenly realm to us, but God DID; God opened it out of love, and out of that same love God calls you to enter….here, now, always.  Amen.