On the Transfiguration of our Lord
Jesus makes sure we don’t lose sight of who God is. He does it by showing us God. “He was transfigured before them.” Jesus cuts through all the notions and ideas we might have. He gets right down to it and says, “This is God and no other.”
So does the Father for that matter. He envelopes these terrified apostles in his cloud and puts an end to any debate or dispute: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.” God has spoken, the cause is finished. Here endeth the lesson.
But why? We ask. Why this weird event on the mountain. Why the glory? Why the ghosts of Moses and Elijah? Why the cloud? Why the voice? Our knee jerk answer, and it isn’t wrong, is that Jesus prepares the path for the Lenten journey. He’s about to be stricken, smitten, and afflicted. Killed to death. So he reminds us who he is: whiter than white, more dazzling than dazzling. He is the White, the good, the God!
Yet on both sides of this moment of glory we find misunderstanding. We hear Peter, ever talking Peter, whose terror couldn’t keep his mouth shut on the mount, tell Jesus the path to the cross is no path for him. Jesus begins unfolding the truth of death and resurrection to the apostles in the week leading up to the transfiguration. Peter hears and says, “No. This shall not be. Take it back, Lord.” This forces Jesus to use the strongest card in his hand, “Get behind me, Satan!” As on the mount, Peter has no idea what he’s saying. So Jesus tells him what to say. “You don’t tell me what to do. I tell you. We’re going and you’re following. I’m bearing a cross and so will you. I’m losing my life and you will lose yours for me. The world will cause you to forfeit your soul. If you are ashamed of this, of me, then I am and will be ashamed of you before my Father.”
Later, after Jesus “puts back” his glory for the moment, we find him dealing with his disciples’ inability to drive out a demon from a man’s son. They fail because they fail to pray. Jesus says to the whole crowd, many of whom stare unbelievingly at the inability of Jesus’ men, and so therefore, God, to help, Jesus says, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?”
And in between: “He was transfigured before them.” Not all of them, just the three: Peter, James, and John. He metamorphosed. He changed. He transformed. He gave them both barrels of the really-real, Jesus as he is.
Reading Mark makes me think of a part of Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim altar piece, painted in the early 1500s. The artwork I’m thinking of isn’t actually of the Transfiguration, but of the resurrection. We see a stark black background. The soldiers pass out, falling or fallen to the ground, bodies all akimbo, struck by the power and majesty they witness. The Lord emerges from his tomb with his wounds and his life.
We’ve seen many images of this, but none like this. It’s a striking image. It seems sci-fi and cosmic and ghostly and ghastly all at once, because Grunewald surrounds Jesus’ upper body in a circle of yellow-orange light, a fire-ball, a sun. It makes Jesus seems ethereal, whiter than white, bleached, dazzling, yet not less real. You can’t not look; he is the light in the darkness. One critical comment notes that with his image Grunewald is “transfiguring the countenance of the Crucified into the face of God.”
Grunewald does just that. Elsewhere in this altar piece Grunewald also gives us the crucifixion of our Lord, and what a juxtaposition, what a contrast. There it’s Jesus all akimbo. The nails twist his hands and feet all out of normal shape. His head lolls at a disturbing angle. The women weep and mourn and pray. John the apostle can’t even look at this jaundiced figure. But John the Baptist can. As at the transfiguration, someone comes from the grave to speak. John points to Jesus, and the lamb standing at the Baptist’s feet gives us the words, “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Jesus talked of losing our life for him; here he shows us who we’re losing it for. He asked if you’d rather gain the whole world and forfeit this? He wonders how you could ever be ashamed of this? What is this? Jesus becomes the white we pray to be, the white God gives; but to do it he becomes the blackest of black, stained and bloodied and gory, a sacred head wounded, bleeding, dying, dead.
We agonize over this. I read recently an article where a church historian posited two different types of spirituality: summery versus wintery spirituality.
Summery spirituality is skittles and beer. It’s bubbly and dwells on the power of positive thinking. All is well, all will be well. If I just think it and convince myself of it, and thus convince God. This summery view sees all things through rose colored glasses. It says, “God loves you and I love you and we all love each other.” It sings “Kum-bay-ah,” and in its worst form comes as the prosperity gospelers who tell you that God wants you to have your best life now and will give you your best life now if you believe hard enough. This summery spirituality is all warm breezes and cool beers and good friends. It comprehends nothing else and sees nothing else as adequately God.
But then there’s the wintery spirituality. We know winter. It blows. It’s cold. It’s fierce. It’s unyielding. It’s unfair. You can die easily in this weather. You can get lost fifty or a hundred feet from your car or your house in this weather. And so it’s a struggle. We bear down against it. We bundle up. We close our eyes to the wind, we lean into it, we slog on.
Which sounds more like your life? I rejoice with you in your blessings and good fortune and in my own. Yet I also know of pain and suffering and anguish. I know of lost control. I know of surgeries gone awry, pain returning, death stalking ever closer and striking indiscriminately. I know of sending someone home from the hospital with God’s blessing only to be back with them momentarily. Yes, in Christ, we are more than conquerors, as Paul said, and indeed we know that “God works out all things for the good of those who love him,” but I don’t always understand and there’s still the rest of Paul’s words: “trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword.”
Which one sounds more like God? We heard Job last week and know well his laments, aches, and pains. Next week we’ll see Abraham climb Mt. Moriah with his son, Isaac. We’ll see him draw the knife to kill him, not because Abraham wants to, but because God commanded it. God commanded it? He demanded this? How about the smoke and fire of Mt. Sinai? Smoke and fire that terrified the people, that caused them to say to Moses, “You talk to us for God; his words will kill us.”
Then of course you have Calvary. The twisted hands and feet. The crown of thorns. The bloodied back and pierced side. The death, the commanded and demanded death of God’s Son, his Son, his only Son. A dark and doleful day. To look into the Father’s eyes that day must have been terrifying, for it’s the Father whose will it was to crush him and cause him to suffer. A wintery blast for sure. Oh, sorrow dread, God is dead!
And yet he lives.
That’s what Jesus discussed with Moses and Elijah. Dying and living, what Luke terms his exodus. We put those two images of Grunewald’s side by side once again. On the one hand, the death of Christ my Lord. On the other, the death’s curse transfigured into cosmic glory, into earth-shattering, tomb-rattling, resurrection glory – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye he goes from being just Jesus to the resurrected Lord!
A gift he presents to us, for he promises that the winter of our discontent becomes the summer of everlasting life in Christ. These are the very gifts we handle, taste, and receive in Word and Sacrament. God meets our greatest longing and desire as he gives to us forgiveness of sins, grace, righteousness, and life after death, he gives us transfiguration and resurrection! This is the preaching we listen to at God’s command, that God’s chosen and beloved Son came into and exodused out of this world in the most gruesome of manners, and yet he remains, as the disciples found him after they opened their eyes again, he remains just Jesus, with us as always, talking to us of the resurrection. His resurrection, and then ours.
But resurrection requires death. God obliges. He takes us up all these mountains, Moriah, Sinai, Calvary, and just as he prepares to strike, the Lamb appears, with his blood, for me and says, “Ego te absolvo! I forgive you.” Jesus shows us God. He cuts through everything we think and feel and think we know about God and at the bottom we find this one whiter than white putting his white robe on me, washing us whiter than white in his blood, declaring it to be so by the glory he possesses and the authority proclaimed his by the Father: “My Son. I love him. Listen to him.” By that authority Jesus speaks us forgiven, Jesus baptizes us sons, Jesus says this food, this bread and wine, nourishes you with my body and blood, until you follow me into glory, until I transfigure, transform, and change you, in a flash, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. At the resurrection of the body. Your resurrection. Your body. Your transfiguration. In Christ. Amen.