This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Februay 3, 2008, on Transfiguration Sunday. I hope yours is a wonderful day with God’s people!
Exodus 24:12-18 NIV
12 The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction.”
13 Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.”
15 When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
1After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Immortality in the Movies
In 1985, a charming movie directed by Ron Howard — remember Opie on The Andy Griffith Show? — premiered. The movie was Cocoon, and the cast included veterans of stage and screen such as Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Wilford Brimley, and Maureen Stapleton. The story line was simple: Aliens led by Brian Denehy, returned to earth to retrieve some of their friends who were encased in “cocoons” beneath the ocean. The aliens made the mistake of temporarily stashing their cocooned friends in a swimming pool located near a retirement home. Several of the male retirees made it a regular habit to break into the pool for a swim. Only one day they encounter a pool full of barnacle-encrusted giant easter-egg-like cocoons. Undaunted the group swims anyway, only to discover the next day that they are youthful and vigorous again. I said the storyline was simple, not believable.
Anyway, the movie is really about the quest for immortality, because the aliens offer all the senior citizens who want to go, a trip to their planet where everyone lives forever. Of course, if they choose to live forever, they have to leave friends and family. And, there’s the rub. Some go, some don’t, some think they will go, then change their minds. The movie was a very clever device for addressing the desire humans have for immortality.
But, that’s not my point. I’m telling you the storyline, so I can tell you this one tiny part. Steve Gutenberg is the young captain of a small fishing boat, rented by the aliens to go out to sea to retrieve the cocoons. Brian Denehy is the head alien, only he looks just like, well, Brian Denehy. No big oval head with almond-shaped eyes on skinny legs. No sir, Brian Denehy is an all-American alien, or at least that’s what we think for a while. Also on board, and helping Brian-the-alien with the retrieval of the cocoons was a beautiful young woman, who also appeared very normal. One day she goes below to change out of her diving gear, and young Mr. Steve Gutenberg peeks in the window. Much to his surprise, not only does she unzip her wet suit, she unzips her entire outer layer of skin, and takes it off like an overcoat on a hot day! Under that human-body-mask, is a creature of light, with an almost human form, but glowing like a star in the sky. Of course, Gutenberg almost faints, and there the story takes off.
When We Think of God’s Glory We Think of Light
Now, I realize I took the long way around to make a very small point, so let me make it. Today, despite what the media says about this Sunday, today is Transfiguration Sunday. We read the passage from Matthew’s gospel about the transfiguration of Jesus, and we have just read the Old Testament precursor to Matthew, the story of Moses going up to the glory of God on Mt. Sinai. Just about every time in the Bible when we encounter the glory of God, we get a picture of blazing light, of luminous presence, of consuming fire. We don’t have time this morning to look at all those places, but you know the stories –
- The story of creation, where God says, Let there be light, on the very first day.
- The story of God appearing to Moses in the burning bush. God says it’s holy ground.
- The story of God appearing to guide the nation of Israel as a cloud by day, and fire by night.
- The story of God validating the tabernacle, and ultimately the temple, by resting his shekinah glory — the luminous, awesome, visible glory that is God’s — over those structures.
- The story of God responding to Elijah’s call for consuming fire on the altar, prophets of Baal, and barrel-loads of water, and God does it.
- The story of Elijah being taken in the chariot of fire into heaven, bypassing death on the way.
- The story of angels who appear in blazing light to shepherds who are “sore afraid” in King James language.
- The story John tells of the Light which came into the world who lights all who are in the world.
- The story of Paul being blinded by the light of God, until his eyes are opened to the truth of God.
- The story of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, and of God as the light of the city, where there is no need of the sun by day, or the moon by night, for God is its Light.
The glory of God as light comes at us from all directions in both Old and New Testaments. Vladimir Lossky expresses the theology of the Orthodox Church when he says –
In the mystical theology of the Eastern Church, these expressions (of God as light) are not used as metaphors or as figure of speech, but as expressions for a real aspect of the Godhead. If God is called Light, it is because He cannot remain foreign to our experience.
Orthodox folks take this business of God is Light very seriously, and so should we. But, Orthodox Christians are not the only ones to take God is Light to heart. Fifteen-hundred years ago, as Patrick took Christianity to Ireland, the emerging Celtic Christian church believed that the Light of God was evident not only in the Bible, but also in creation. Listen to this ancient poem about the birth of Jesus and the response of all creation –
This is the long night…
It will snow and it will drift…
White snow there will be till day…
White moon there will be till morn…
This night is the eve of the Great Nativity…
This night is born Mary Virgin’s Son,…
This night is born Jesus, Son of the King of glory…
This night is born to us the root of our joy…
This night gleamed the sun of the mountains high…
This night gleamed sea and shore together…
This night was born Christ the King of greatness…
Ere it was heard that the Glory was come…
Heard was the wave upon the strand…
Ere ’twas heard that His foot had reached the earth…
Heard was the song of the angels glorious…
This night is the long night…
Glowed to Him wood and tree…
Glowed to Him mount and sea,
Glowed to Him land and plain,
When that His foot was come to earth.
– The Book of Creation, J. Philip Newell, pg 12-13
So, not only does Jesus bring the glory of God to earth, but all creation responds by “glowing” God’s light back to God. The Celtic Christians believed that the Light of God infused all of creation, and that light would respond to God’s presence by glowing back to God in return.
Moses, Elijah, and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration
Which brings us back to our story. Peter, James, and John have accompanied Jesus up the mountain where something wonderfully miraculous happens. As they watch, Jesus is transfigured — changed into something they have never before seen — into a glowing, radiant Light. If that weren’t enough, Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus and talk with Him about the future. Moses is glowing, Elijah is glowing, Jesus is glowing — radiantly white, pouring light from their clothes, their faces, their hands, their arms, light floods from all around them.
And God speaks. Again. The same words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism — “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased: listen to Him!” With that, the disciples who are looking at this display of light, fall on their faces overcome by fear. Not surprising, because we would probably do the same.
Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. All who have seen the glory of God, face-to-face, in person. Moses and Elijah both were called friends of God. Moses the lawgiver, who ascends Mt. Sinai to receive from God the Law of God. That Law will distinguish God’s people from all other people on the earth. Moses has stood in the presence of God, closer than any person ever stood; so close that his own faced glowed with radiant light. That glow of God so disturbed the nation of Israel that Moses had to put a veil on his face to keep from scaring the people of God.
Elijah, the prophet of God, representing all the prophets of God. Elijah who has seen God’s provision for a widow and her son, and God’s judgment on a king and kingdom that worshipped false gods. Elijah, so profoundly in tune with God that God sends a chariot of fire, pulled by horses of flame to carry Elijah in their whirlwind to heaven.
Jesus, who himself has stepped out of the throne room of heaven down to earth, and who has cloaked himself in the form of a man, masking His own glory to all the world.
Except on this day, this day we call the day of transfiguration that glory is no longer masked. Now some folks think that the miracle was that Jesus glowed radiantly like the sun that day. And that Moses and Elijah were also luminous with the glory of God all over them. But I’m not so sure.
As a kid, did you ever catch lightning bugs? Some people call them fireflies, but in Columbus, Georgia, all the 10-year old boys I knew called them lightning bugs. You could catch them in a jar and watch them for hours. But without fail, if you were a 10-year old boy, you had to hold one for yourself. And, sometimes if you held one too tightly, or grabbed one out of the air too quickly, your lighting bug met his untimely end. All you were left with was a glowing streak of lightning bug juice on your hand. Well, imagine that all over your body, then multiply by about 1,000, and you have the idea that most folks have of what happened on the mountain that day to Jesus and Moses and Elijah.
But, I think the miracle is what happened to Peter, James, and John. I believe that it wasn’t Jesus who was transfigured before them so much as it was the change that came to those three disciples. And for the first time since they had followed him, they saw his glory. “Glory,” John would later say, “as of the only begotten Son of God.” I think what happened that day wasn’t that Jesus was changed, but that Peter, James, and John were. Listen to Vladimir Lossky again –
The Transfiguration was not a phenomenon circumscribed in time and space; Christ underwent no change at that moment, even in His human nature, but a change occurred in the awareness of the apostles, who for a time received the power to see their Master as He was, resplendent in the eternal light of His Godhead. — The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky, pg 223.
The Light of God’s Glory Changes Us
From that time, Peter, James, and John were not the same. They had seen the glory of God and they were changed because of it. Not perfect, but changed. No longer was following Jesus just about wondering how he did miracles, or how the healed the sick, or even how he reimagined the Law of Moses for the people of God. From that day forward, these disciples knew that Jesus was on a mission, a mission to bring the kingdom of God to the people of God. A mission to make all things new.
A mission in which the shekinah glory of God no longer rested over the Temple, but on their Teacher. A mission that encompassed the Law and the Prophets, not just a populist revolt. So, they were changed by the glory of God, just as Moses had been changed, and just as Elijah had been changed.
A very sweet, yet powerful story is found in The Revelations of St. Seraphim of Sarov, written in the early 1800s, only a couple of hundred years ago. This Russian story was recorded by Seraphim’s student, who was with Seraphim one morning.
The student said to the monk Seraphim, “I don’t understand how one can be certain of being in the Spirit of God. How should I recognize this should it happen to me?”
Seraphim patiently reiterated the lessons he had already taught this disciple, only to have the student reply, “I must understand better everything you have said to me.”
To which Seraphim replied, “My friend, we are both in the Spirit now…Why won’t you look at me?”
“I can’t look at you, Father,” he replied, “your eyes shine like lightning; your face has become more dazzling that the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look at you.”
Seraphim said, “Don’t be afraid, at this very moment you’ve become as bright as I have. You are also in the fullness of the Spirit.”
Listen to what this disciple, this student monk, wrote then, in his own words,
Encouraged by his words, I looked and was seized by holy fear. Imagine in the middle of the sun, dazzling in the brilliance of its noontide rays, the face of the man who is speaking to you. You can see the movements of his lips, the changing expression of his eyes, you can hear his voice, you can feel his hands holding you by the shoulders, but you can see neither his hands nor his body — nothing except the blaze of light which shines around, lighting up with its brilliance the snow-covered meadow, and the snowflakes continue to fall unceasingly. — The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, pg 227-8
C. S. Lewis in his book, The Weight of Glory, said, –
For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophesy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door…We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is on the first sketch.
– The Weight of Glory, pg 43.
God’s glory changes us. It changed Moses on Mt. Sinai. It changed Elijah on Mt. Carmel. It changed Peter, James, and John on Mt. Tabor. No, we do not need to build tabernacles to the glory of God. God has already built his own. We see God’s glory in creation, if our eyes are open. We see God’s glory in His Word, if our spirits are open. We see God’s glory in others, if our hearts are open. And the glory we see changes us, so that one day that same glory may rest on us, revealing the Light of God that has long lived in our hearts, eager to be released to a world of darkness.
The little children’s song had it right,
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine,
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine,
Let it shine,
Let it shine.