February 18, 2007 - Transfiguration Sunday
The “Transfiguration” of Jesus before three of His disciples is one of the most wonderful and most baffling events in the Gospel. On the one hand it offers a fascinating glimpse at the divine glory hidden within the human nature of Jesus. On the other hand, one is left pondering the question, “What was the point?” How did this moment which revealed the ineffable brightness of God in Jesus further His mission and purpose? What are we to learn from it?
It helps to set the Transfiguration in its immediate context. It happens just after three key passages. Simon Peter states aloud that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Then Jesus predicts His crucifixion and death. Then Jesus says that some standing before Him will not die “before they see the Kingdom of God.”
First, then, the Transfiguration is a visible confirmation of the truth of what Peter confessed by faith. The glory of Jesus as the divine Son, the second person of God, existing from eternity, was hidden as Jesus walked the earth as a human being. Peter’s discernment that the Man he followed was divine is remarkable and only possible, as Jesus says in Matthew 16, via a revelation from the Father. But on the Mount of Transfiguration, the hidden glory of the Lord spills out in brightest light.
Second, the Transfiguration is a reminder that the greatest glory of the Son of God lay still on the other end of the road of suffering. Jesus is most glorious in His worst humiliation. Jesus exalted even more highly than in the light of His transfiguration. His exaltation was being “lifted up” to die on the Cross. So in Luke 9:31, the topic of conversation on the mountain was Jesus’ “departure,” that is, His death.
Third, Moses and Elijah were there to talk with Jesus as a clear sign that Jesus was about to fulfill everything predicted in their ministries. Moses represented the law and Elijah the prophets. The story and message of the Old Testament, which is the building of God’s kingdom on earth, was completed by Jesus. As He said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” So the promise that some would see the Kingdom coming before they died was kept there on the Mount of Transfiguration.
The transformation on the mountain looks powerfully toward the other mountain where Jesus completed His mission by departing into death. Yet it is also a preview and promise of the glory that is to be revealed when all that God desires is complete. In Revelation 1:12-16 John tells his vision of Jesus as He will return, blazing with glory, shining with power, with the sword of His Word in His mouth and with stars in his hands. Writing the Revelation, John must have remembered the vision years before and realized how the Transfiguration contained the promise of what he then saw as an old man.
In 1894 football was being played at Gallaudet University, the first college for the deaf. As the team stood on the field planning their next play, quarterback Paul Hubbard realized that what he was telling his team in American sign language could be seen and thus “overheard” by their opponents. So he started the practice of gathering his team into a tight circle in order to hide his hand signals before each play. That little circle was soon adopted by football teams everywhere as the best way to communicate on the field. So the “huddle” was invented.
1,900 years earlier, before anyone ever thought of football, there was an historic huddle preceding the greatest play the world ever saw. Jesus Christ went up onto a mountain and stood in a huddle with the two best players to precede Him. We read in verse 30 of our text that “Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glory, talking with Him.”
The Christian Church has long called this huddle on a mountain top the “Transfiguration” of Jesus, because of the amazing transformation to His appearance. As Jesus prayed there on the mountain, His hidden glory as the Son of God began to leak out, to be revealed in His physical form.
We mark this event with a Sunday in the church calendar for a couple of reasons. First, because the Transfiguration is a miraculous confirmation of who Jesus is, truly the glorious Son of God.
But we also remember the Transfiguration as a major turning point in the story. It’s here on this mountain that the play Jesus came to run was confirmed as the fulfillment and completion of everything God was doing up until then. That’s why, in the calendar of the church year, Transfiguration Sunday marks the end of the season of Epiphany and gets us ready for the season of Lent. It moves us from weeks of celebrating the light and glory of Jesus, to a harder, darker time, a season to remember that Jesus greatest glory is to be found on a road marked with humiliation, suffering and ultimately a gruesome death.
The huddle on the Mount of Transfiguration is not just for those two shining figures who walked out of the pages of the Old Testament. As Jesus talked with Moses and Elijah about what He was about to do, you and I ought to listen in as well, and learn something of the game plan for our own lives. We are to join the huddle.
There were people like you and me up on the mountain. Jesus had taken along His three closest disciples, Peter, John and James. Verse 28 says he took them with Him to pray. Even before Elijah and Moses appeared, Jesus did not choose to be alone, but to pray together with others, to huddle with three friends who walked with Him.
That first huddle of the three disciples and Jesus did not last very long. As we discover in verse 32, “Peter and his companions were very sleepy.” Jesus must have prayed for hours. They couldn’t stay awake. Their eyelids grew heavy. Their heads drooped. They let themselves slump sideways. They drifted off to sleep there on the rocky ground. As you may remember, this was not the last time this would happen. In a few weeks, just before Easter, we will recall how those same three men fell asleep again while Jesus prayed, then in a lonely place named Gethsemane.
Peter, John and James really were like you and me. Weak and weary, they closed their eyes just before everything exciting was ready to start. They gave up when this business of praying with Jesus got too long and tiring. Their eyes were closed when Jesus’ face began to change and grow brighter. They did not see the transformation of His garment from the dingy gray and brown of cheap linen into a white so pure that Mark says no bleach on earth could produce it. They were insensible when two other bright figures appeared with Jesus and began to converse with Him. In other words, they almost completely missed that awesome huddle between three spiritual giants. They were asleep.
Being a disciple of Jesus has its moments of glory. Occasionally you or I find ourselves on a mountain with the Lord. His light is dazzling. There is a stunning answer to prayer and we realize He is near. We receive strength to overcome temptation feel His power. We see a sunrise and are overwhelmed with the beauty of Creation. And in those times when we feel forgiveness and restoration after falling into sin, we experience again the fullness of His grace. Brilliant, shining moments. But in between them we often find long, hard days and hours of just trying to be faithful in prayer, in Bible study, in service to others. We just slog along the spiritual road, and it can be pretty hard not to just grow very weary and fall asleep, like Peter in the huddle on the mountain.
Part of our struggle and weariness is a misconception about what should come out of our spiritual “huddles.” The football fans among us wouldn’t think this about the huddles they watch on television or from the bleachers. But the spiritual misconception is that when we’ve really huddled well, the plays that follow will all be spectacular. A long bomb into the end zone. A quarterback sneak that goes all the way. A clever reverse that draws the defense to one side while a handoff is made to a receiver who takes the ball way down the field on the other side.
A major gain every time seems to be what we expect spiritually. But football fans know that isn’t how it works even in their game. Lots of plays are just sheer grunt work. A short pass for a few yards. A two-yard push up the middle with defenders all over the runner. Over and over, just holding onto the ball and trying to move it forward a little. That’s more like what we should expect in Christian life. Moving inches forward, only a little at time, waiting patiently for the rare miracle play and not being disappointed when it doesn’t happen. And we even go backwards, the spiritual equivalent of lost yardage or a punt. That’s more like reality both in football and in faith.
When Jesus and Moses and Elijah huddled together on the mount of Transfiguration, they talked about the play which Jesus would soon begin to run. Of Matthew, Mark and Luke, only Luke gives us an inkling that the big play was the content of that conversation. Look at the word Luke chose to describe what Jesus would do. Verse 31 says, “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” That’s a strange word for this play, a “departure.”
We tend to think of what Jesus accomplished as salvation, as resurrection, as new and glorious life. And it is all those things. But He only accomplished all that, via a “departure.” He was going to Jerusalem to depart life, to die on the Cross in the horrible way that criminals were then executed by the Roman empire.
If you go to where I spent five years of my life, the University of Notre Dame, you will find a huge portrait of Jesus on the side of the fourteen story Hesburgh Library building. It’s a wonderful mosaic of the resurrected Lord, coming out of the tomb, arms outstretched in His great victory over sin, death and the devil. A procession of all the saints and scholars of history are represented around and beneath Him, following Jesus as the living Word, their first guide to truth.
Many of you probably know that mural at Notre Dame has a nickname based on the fact that it is visible from the football stadium, rising above one end zone. Those outstretched, upraised arms seem to mirror a referee’s arms raised to declare a touchdown. So that great piece of Christian art is fondly known as “Touchdown Jesus.”
What I want us to realize now, as we read this story of Transfiguration, is that our Lord only gets to be “Touchdown Jesus” on the other side of a long road of suffering ending with the Cross. His accomplishment didn’t come at first through some great demonstration of divine skill and power. It began with a departure, a death. Jesus only holds His arms up in glorious victory after His arms are stretched out for Him on the Cross. That’s the grand play that the three shining figures discussed on the mountain. Not the grand entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, not a glorious ascension into Heaven a few weeks later, but a departure into the darkness of death.
Don’t get me wrong. He’s still “Touchdown Jesus.” The power of God raised our Lord out of darkness and death and gave Him the greatest victory in history. Jesus’ arms in heaven are raised high in the triumph and joy of the new life He gained not just for Himself but for all His people. He’s alive and leading that grand procession of all His people. He is the living Word, the source and beginning of all truth.
So if you trust Him and follow Him, He’s going to bring you safely to the goal, to join in a great end zone celebration that will last forever. He’s already run the play, the game is won. You just need to get out of the stands and run onto the field to join Him. But that’s where it gets more complicated than football.
The word “departure” here in Greek is actually “exodus.” Can you hear it? Here was Moses, the leader of the great exodus of God’s people from bondage in Egypt, talking to the One who would accomplish a greater exodus. Moses led Israel in a great departure from their old lives so that God could save them from slavery. Now here is Jesus leading us in a great exodus from life itself, so that God can save us from sin. Jesus died in a great exodus for our salvation. To receive it, you and I are invited forward into our own exodus, our own dying, our own Cross.
Right before these moments of glory on the mountain, though they didn’t understand, Jesus told His disciples very clearly what the play was, both for Himself and for them. Back in verse 22, He plainly predicted His own death. He said that He had to suffer, that He had to be rejected, that He had to be killed, and only then would He be raised again to life. In verse 23, He applied that same strategy to you and me. He said “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
You don’t get the glory without the Cross. Mountain top experiences can fool us into thinking that’s not true. It sure fooled Peter. He saw all that glory shining around him, Moses and Elijah and Jesus, and probably thought he had arrived. This was the end of the game. Touchdown! It was all over but the celebration. So Peter told Jesus in verse 33, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Let’s sit here in the glory. This is a good thing. This is what we signed on for. Let’s just stay here. But it was not time to stay. It was time to depart.
What does Luke say about Peter in that little parenthesis at the end of the verse? “He did not know what he was saying.” He didn’t know, and neither do we whenever we start to imagine we can just stay where we are and have the glory without the Cross. The only way to the goal line is down a long hard field filled with mean opponents and lots of hard knocks. That’s what it means for the salvation Jesus’ accomplished to be a “departure.”
So what should we do? We’re not in a scrimmage. Our opponents are not pushovers. Getting anywhere spiritually is a constant struggle. It’s tempting to give up, to go looking for a different game to play. Maybe find a church where He’s always “Touchdown Jesus,” and they’ve forgotten how He got there. But I don’t believe we want to do that. I believe we want to follow the Living Word, the great Lord of truth, whose true word to us is that if we follow, if we carry our own cross, if we stay in the game, He will bring us across the goal line.
In the meantime, we need to keep playing. We need to take direction from our Quarterback. We need to come together to learn the plays and receive our assignments in the game plan.
The end of the text says that a cloud came over that mountain top and in that cloud they heard a voice which told them simply, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” And when the voice was done and the cloud was gone, there they were with Jesus, just Jesus.
That’s the huddle we aim for when we come here to worship on Saturday evening or Sunday morning. It’s that huddle we are trying to create when we get together in a Sunday School class or a home fellowship or a youth group, or anytime we sit down with others around the Bible and talk about it and pray over it. We are trying to do exactly what Peter, James and John were told. “Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus. Listen together, in a huddle, whether it’s three or three hundred. Join together to hear His Word and thereby learn how to run the next play you face.
I don’t know what stretch of field you are looking down right now. I can’t quite picture which big, ugly brute of an opponent is crouching there to knock you to the ground when the ball is snapped. You know. You may be just be trying to hold position with your child for another day. You may be attempting an end run around conflict at work. You might be struggling to carry the ball through one more week of a difficult marriage. Your opponent could be physical pain that never goes away. It could be a mental darkness and depression that saps all your energy. You could be bent over looking straight into the eyes of a temptation that just grins evilly with the confidence that it’s stronger than you are. You could have any combination of these opponents I’ve named or many others waiting downfield to tackle you. I don’t know. But you do. That’s why the huddle. That’s why we’re here. To hear what Jesus says through His word and through the rest of His team.
We’re here to remember how the game is really played, that it’s not an empty field before us, not a stroll to the goal. We’re here to slap each other on the back, offer encouragement and support, and even run interference for each other. Jesus calls us into a huddle, a huddle that only works when we come together, as a team. It’s in that huddle, in that team, that we find the only hope we have in this game.
So as the Father said to Peter, John and James, “Listen to Him.” Listen to Him. Listen to Him. Learn His Word. Huddle around His Word and take it into your life. God spoke through the Law. God spoke through the Prophets. Now He speaks through His Son. And His apostles wrote down what He said. His Word is in this Book. What He says is the truth. Listen to Him.
We’re here to remember that the game can be won, and has been won already for us. Jesus stood in holy, awesome glory on that mountain. Shining in Him was all the strength and skill needed to win. And after a grueling game, He stood up again in even more glory outside a little grave. And because He is alive He is here among us now. He knows how to play, so we listen to Him. And He calls us to pick up our crosses and run with them. But He runs with us and stands before us. When we do come to the end, when we do cross that line, we will see His glory. We will see the wonderful, glorious arms of Jesus, stretched up in victory and stretched out to gather us in.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj