Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse
Last Sunday after Epiphany
February 11th, 2024
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9: 2-9
In a way, if you think about it, Jesus had it easy. His birth was a celebrated event, his place as the Son of God had been set out for him. All his life, people had been telling him he was special.
John the Baptist, certainly among the most holy of men, had announced his coming, and baptized him in the name of God. He was performing healings for the sick and bereft that were seen as miracles.
And now, on this Transfiguration Sunday, we are told of how Jesus, high upon a mountain praying with his disciples, was suddenly cast in a bright light from heaven, and how a cloud appeared, and the voice of God rang out, saying: “This is my beloved; listen to him.”
And so Jesus was transfigured, from a wandering rabbi with special skills at healing, and a wondrous birth story, to a divinity so much greater. God appears in a cloud, and names Jesus for the rest to hear. It could not have been clearer than that.
So that’s what I mean when I suggest that Jesus had it easy. The path to his transfiguration - his transformation – was laid out before him with holy fanfare. He had so many Easter eggs pointing him in the direction he was meant to go, he could have fed 5,000 with the omelette.
The path was not easy - let’s make that clear, as well. Few have travelled a more difficult distance, in the end. But he knew the way to go. It was brightly lit by signposts all the way.
It is not so easy for us to find that same transformative path, at least most of the time. We don’t typically get a cloud, announcing to our friends – announcing to our own selves, that we matter - that we are special—and that people should suddenly see us differently, that we are made for great things.
I would argue that we miss the more subtle ways that God imparts this knowledge to us. But mostly, we have to rely on more abstract ideas to be transformed along the paths of our lives - ideas such as faith and hope. We have to take the lessons of the gospel out of the time in which they are set and align them with our particular modern-day issues. This isn’t always easy. Our own transfiguration journey is not so clearly laid out before us.
So what can we learn from such a wondrous tale? How can the experience of the disciples on that mountain, that moment of divinity for Jesus, help us leap to our own transfiguration – that change we want to make?
Well, there is the obvious one: had the disciples not been on the mountain with Jesus, they would never have witnessed anything odd. And perhaps it also took that quiet space for God to speak in more a forceful way. In that sense, we may think that the disciples – and Jesus – together created an opportunity for the transfiguration to happen. They left the road and went up the mountain – to rest and pray and clear their heads, yes – but also to quiet the noise around them. To be transfigured, we must create opportunity; we must put ourselves in a place to listen or to be challenged or to be mindful.
I think another important part of transfiguration is love. Think of Peter’s request to Jesus up on the mountain: he wanted to stay. But why? Was it because he hated the world down the mountain? Or because he loved Jesus so much, he wanted to save him from the world? Peter, on more than one occasion, is the voice that seems to be pulling Jesus from his path – but why? It is all for love. We know this because of how Peter chose to live afterwards. That love is what made the transfiguration of Jesus so hard on the disciples. It brought them over the hill they had been climbing, to understand what the gospel and Jesus really represented. And what did Peter learn? It was something he continued to struggle with after that moment on the mountain, even though he knew it to be true. Jesus could not be kept from the world, because he was for the world. Jesus could not be who Peter saw on the mountain – and Peter could not be the man who followed that Jesus – without going back down the mountain.
I also think transfigurations require a measure of belief for them to happen. I don’t mean strictly a belief in the gospel, or even for Peter and the disciples, but a belief that God really had spoken in that moment on the mountain. That is still a very fact-based belief: it happened, or I heard it, so I believe. When I have seen transfiguration happen, it has been because people made the leap to believe that peace and healing and hope were possible. I imagine the disciples, there in that moment on the mountain, could see Jesus draped in light. They could see it, they could understand what it meant, it could fill every part of them, because they had already chosen to believe.
I see transfiguration every day. I visit someone who is a little cranky and I give them communion, and they relax, and smile, and they are changed by the gift of God’s grace.
Year after year, on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, I have seen families weep with terrible, crushing sorrow, and then I have seen them, reach a place where, on that day, they can laugh and tell stories and bask in the light of their loved one. This kind of healing through grief is perhaps the closest example, that I witness as a pastor, of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop. Like Jesus, the loved one did not truly change; but their family loved and believed until they saw the fullness of them, their transfigured presence. And the family understood that their loved one could be gone but also present, lost but also resurrected. That they could be sad, but also laugh. That is the incredible power of transfiguration.
Transfiguration means a change, and usually a holy or divine one. But that doesn’t mean it requires a mountaintop and a cloud to happen. In fact, as we can also see, the transfiguration of Jesus perceived by the disciples began much, much earlier, probably even before he called them from their boats, in the questions they asked themselves in the quiet moments,
Most of the real changes I have seen people make have been much more down-to-earth. They happened without fanfare but with hard work and clear thinking. In fact, even for Jesus, we could argue that while God’s voice was a dramatic touch, a seminal moment, the real transfiguration of Jesus occurred with each step he took, with each person he healed, each lesson he taught. His true transformation happened when the people believed in him and in the gospel he was preaching.
Life isn’t static. Change happens all around us, for worse and for better. We know the statistics on climate change are not good, that the transfiguration of the earth is not heading in a positive direction. We see, so clearly among our Ottawa Lutherans, how the church is changing, morphing into something new - both because it has to, and because it wants to. Society is evolving. Because it has to and because it wants to.
It’s that combination of desire and need that pushes us into transformation. In fact, knowing we need to change is never enough on its own; we must also want to change. We must believe in it.
This Transfiguration Sunday, God is specific with us: Listen to what Jesus has to say. That includes the kind of forgiveness, knowledge, and gratitude that can be transformative in our lives, that can help us more clearly hear the voice of God speaking to us, to bring us more fully into relationship with others. It is not easy.
Because change is not easy. It’s true, we may not have a cloud clearing the fog for us. But we have the gospel, and the life of Jesus, to be a transfiguring influence in our lives. “Here is my beloved,” the voice of God said. “Listen to him.” Listen well, and be transfigured. Amen.