Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday – March 3, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Lent has been on my mind. This past week I put the final touches on the bulletin and the Powerpoint for our Ash Wednesday service which will be held this Wednesday. I wrote a new confession of sin for that service based on the Ten Commandments and Luther’s explanation of the commandments in the Small Catechism, so I’ve been thinking about sin and repentance. Our family usually gives up something or takes up some new spiritual practice for Lent, so I’ve been thinking about spiritual disciplines. I checked to see where the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday service were so I would be ready to burn them to make the ash I’ll use to mark you with the sign of the cross as I remind you that you are dust, and to dust you will return, so I’ve been thinking about mortality.
I stopped by Haggen the other day to pick up some milk while all of this weighty stuff was running through my mind, and as I headed back to the milk cooler I saw a gigantic display of Easter candy. There were chocolate bunnies. There were pastel-colored M&Ms. There were Peeps. There were Cadbury eggs. My first thought was, “Good night! Lent hasn’t even started yet and they have all this stuff out! This is ridiculous!”
My second thought, though, was more positive. As I passed back by that display on my way to the checkout, I looked at all the bright springy colors, smiled to myself and thought: “Easter is coming.”
As we come to the end of the season of Epiphany today and look to the beginning of Lent we hear about how Jesus took Peter and James and John at the top of a high mountain. And what these disciples saw there, even if they didn’t realize it at first, was a sign that Easter was coming. They had a hard road ahead of them, but for a moment they caught a glimpse of the glory of Christ. They caught a glimpse of what would ultimately be his victory over sin and death.
While Jesus was praying on the top of that mountain, the appearance of his face changed. It started to glow with an unearthly light. His clothes became a dazzling white. They saw the divinity of Jesus shining through. They saw the Jesus that death could not destroy. They saw the radiance of his eternal power and glory! For a moment, the disciples caught a glimpse of Easter!
Suddenly there were two other men there talking with Jesus. It was Moses and Elijah! They appeared in glory, Luke tells us. They had long been dead, but now they were radiating with heavenly glory. Death had no power over them! The disciples caught a glimpse of Easter!
Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus. Wouldn’t you love to know what they were talking about? Well, you can, because Luke tells us! They were speaking of his departure. This is Luke’s gentle way of telling us they were speaking of his death. The actual word in Greek here is “exodus.” Just as Moses led an exodus out of slavery into the Promised Land, now Jesus was going to lead an exodus of his own. He was going to lead people out of sin and death and into the Kingdom of God. And he would do it through his death and resurrection. This is what he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. The disciples got to listen in on this conversation, and in so doing, whether they realized it at first our not, they were hearing the good news that Easter was coming.
And then, to cap this amazing scene off, a cloud came. To you and me a cloud isn’t anything unusual. Here in the Pacific Northwest we are enshrouded in clouds all the time, right? But this cloud was special. This cloud meant something. In the Old Testament, God indicated his presence by coming in the form of a cloud. God led the people through the wilderness as a pillar of cloud. God descended on the tabernacle, Israel’s portable worship space, in the form of a cloud. As we heard in our first reading, when Moses went up Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, God came in the form of a cloud. When the temple was built in Jerusalem, a cloud descended upon it, telling the people that this was where God’s presence would dwell. Now that cloud enshrouded all of them. Now this cloud descended on Jesus. God was there! And then, from that cloud, God spoke. God said: “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him!”
And just like that, the whole thing was over. What the disciples had seen, even though it may not have crossed their minds initially, was a sign that Easter was coming. They saw Jesus shining with the glory of God. They saw Moses and Elijah in glory, free from death. They heard them talking about a new exodus where sin and death would be conquered once and for all. They saw the cloud of God’s presence pointing them to Jesus, the source of their salvation. Easter was coming!
I find it fascinating and encouraging that the disciples get this sneak peak of Easter in the midst of some very earthy, very human stuff they’re dealing with.
First of all, we hear that they were tired. Some commentators have speculated that maybe this happened at night, which admittedly would have made for a better light show when Jesus’ face and clothes lit up. Others have suggested that this is a sign of their spiritual laziness, which we see in other parts of the gospel narrative. Either way, the disciples were tired when they witnessed this remarkable transfiguration of our Lord. They barely managed to stay awake for it.
We also hear that Peter’s initial response to all of this was confusion. He thought that what he was seeing with Jesus and Moses and Elijah all there warranted a building project. He wanted to start a capital campaign. He wanted to build something, perhaps a monument, perhaps a place of worship, perhaps three of those tiny houses so they’d each have a place to sleep. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Luke tells us that this proposal was born of confusion, that Peter didn’t know what he was saying.
And then, as the cloud formed around them, all the disciples were terrified! God hadn’t even spoken yet and they were already trembling with fear!
What utterly human reactions. What utterly human experiences. And this glorious vision of the transfigured Christ came to them in the midst of all this. In the midst of their tiredness, their confusion, and their fear, they were given a sneak peak of Easter morning.
As we join Peter and James and John today on the top of that mountain, we have our own human stuff we’re dealing with too, don’t we? I know that many of us are tired. We’re tired of turning on the TV or picking up our phones and seeing what new craziness the world is up to. I know that many of us feel confused from time to time. We’re confused about where God is and what God is up to in our world, in the church, in our lives. I know that many of us are anxious, or afraid, or maybe even terrified, about all kinds of different things.
Lent isn’t just a season of the church year, it is a reflection of the very real things we deal with as human beings, and so even though it isn’t quite Lent yet, we also gather here today with an awareness of our sin, an awareness of the ways we are failing to be the kind of people God is calling us to be. We gather here aware of our need to be more spiritually disciplined. We gather here today aware of our mortality, of how fleeting and fragile our lives are. There are plenty of things besides ashes that remind us of that, isn’t there?
Friends, it is right in the midst of this that we catch a glimpse of the glory of God. We catch this glimpse in the Word, which fills our heads and our hearts today with this radiant vision of Jesus shining on the mountaintop. We catch this glimpse in the baptismal font, which sparkles with the living water where we were joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, where we participated in his new exodus out of sin and death and into forgiveness and eternal life. We catch this glimpse at the table of the Lord, where we enjoy a foretaste of the heavenly feast to come.
To those of you who are tired, or confused, or afraid, know that Easter is coming. Even now Christ Jesus has given you a glimpse of his glory. And wherever his light shines, new life is just around the corner.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church