The Transfiguration of our Lord – February 14, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the things I’m looking forward to most when this pandemic is over is seeing people’s faces again. I’m not an anti-masker, so don’t read too much into what I am saying here, but I really miss seeing faces. So much is conveyed, so much is communicated, through facial expressions. When people’s faces are covered, they remain a bit of a mystery. It is hard to recognize people. If you do recognize them, it is hard to tell what they’re feeling, what their mood is, what’s going on with them. I’ve heard it said we should continue to smile underneath our masks, as it shows up in our eyes. I think that is true, and good advice, but those hints of a smile in the eyes are nothing compared to the way an unveiled smile shines for all to see.
Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. It is the last Sunday before we begin the season of Lent. And every year on this pivotal Sunday we hear this pivotal story that marks the shift between Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing and his setting his face towards Jerusalem to carry out his true purpose as the Christ the savior.
Before Jesus began his journey to the cross, he took Peter and James and John, his inner circle of disciples, up to the top of a mountain. While they were there, Jesus was transfigured before them. His appearance changed. His clothes became a dazzling white. It was an unearthly white, whiter and brighter than anyone on earth could get them! In Matthew’s account of this same event, he tells us that Jesus’ face shone like the sun.
What is going on here? What does this mean? It is important to note that Jesus didn’t suddenly turn into something different. He didn’t become something that he wasn’t before. Instead, Jesus was unmasked. He was unveiled. The divinity that was always part of his essence was revealed for the disciples to see. His appearance was transfigured such that the glory of God which was veiled behind his humanity shone upon these three disciples, revealing to them the fullness of his nature as fully human and fully divine.
Moses and Elijah were there. These holy men represented the Law and the Prophets. They represented the commands and the promises of God which were now to be fulfilled by Christ Jesus, the Son of God.
Upon seeing this remarkable sight, Peter blurted out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” As a professor of mine joked this week, it was an idea so dumb that the Holy Spirit apologizes for him! “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Peter wanted to prolong this experience. He wanted to linger on the mountaintop. He wanted to bask in this light. But it was not to be. Jesus still had work to do. He had a different hill to climb, the hill called Golgotha, the hill called Calvary.
Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from that cloud there came a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And when the cloud lifted, there was only Jesus.
Jesus ordered his disciples to not tell anyone about what they had seen until after he had risen from the dead. This was just a sneak peek. It was just a glimpse. The glory of Christ would not be seen in its fullness until after the resurrection. But for a moment, the mask was off. For a moment, a bit of the mystery of Jesus was unveiled. They could recognize his divine nature. They could see him as he really is.
The benediction we use as Christians goes back thousands of years. It goes all the way back to the words God commanded Aaron to speak over the people of Israel so that God could put his name on them and bless them. It begins: “The LORD bless you and keep you.” And then it continues: “The LORD make his face to shine upon you.” Some of you may remember the older translations, which said: “The LORD lift up his countenance upon you,” which literally means to show his face to you. It means to reveal his facial expression, to show himself to you. Some have suggested that the connotation here is that God would smile upon you.
Now this was strictly a metaphor for the people of Israel, because, as it is written in Exodus, no one can look upon God’s face and live. But with Jesus this became more than a metaphor! In Jesus, this metaphor became a reality. In Jesus, the disciples could look upon God’s face. They could look directly at God’s glory and live! In Jesus, God had literally made his face shine upon them! In Jesus, God had literally lifted up his countenance upon them. God showed his full facial expression. In Jesus, and only Jesus, God showed fullness of his face. He revealed his mercy, his forgiveness, his saving love, his gracious smile.
Sometimes God is a mystery to us. We can’t always recognize him. Much of the time it is as though God is masked, hidden from us. Sometimes we can’t get a good read on God’s countenance, God’s facial expression, God’s “feelings” towards us. We can’t always get a good read on what God’s mood (so to speak) towards us might be. We sometimes turn to our own feelings or our own circumstances and try to extrapolate from there, but that never works.
If you want to see God’s face, look to Christ.
In Jesus Christ, God has taken off the mask – not only for Peter and James and John, but for you and me. He has shown us his glory today, unveiled for us in that unearthly dazzling white. And as we follow this Beloved Son now in the Lenten season ahead of us – first to the cross, and then to the empty tomb – he will lift up his countenance upon us, and show us his mercy, his forgiveness, his saving love.
God makes his face to shine upon you even now as he calls you to listen to his Son, to hear his promises, to receive his forgiveness. God makes his face shine upon you when you receive him in Holy Communion, where he is transfigured into bread and wine.
As this Beloved Son comes to us in Word and Sacrament, the mask is off, and we can see God’s gracious smile.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church