Turning Points and Transformation

Turning Points and Transformation (Feast of the Transfiguration)

Exodus 34: 29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

Turning points and transformation – that’s what we’re about today – turning points and transformation.  Jesus is transformed, and he arrives at a turning point in his life and ministry.  With the announcement last week of the call and imminent arrival of Father Rich, your next rector, you, the people who are St. Timothy’s, are at a turning point in your life.  It will be interesting to see how you will be transformed – both individually and as a congregation – as you begin this next leg of your journey.

Usually we hear the story of the Transfiguration on the last Sunday of Epiphany.  It’s a wonderful high point before we plunge into the depths of the season of Lent a few days later.  This year, since the Feast of the Transfiguration – August 6 – falls on a Sunday, we get to look at the story again, taking a break from our journey through the Gospel of Matthew.  (I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to take a break from the images of being thrown into the fire and of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth!).  Just for today we move to Luke’s Gospel.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus’ Transfiguration, and that speaks both of its importance and of its truth.  It likely really did happen.  In each of the three accounts, the Transfiguration occurs just after Peter has identified Jesus as the Messiah, just after Jesus has told his disciples that part of being the Messiah, part of that identity, will involve his rejection by religious authorities.  That rejection will lead to his betrayal and suffering and death, which in turn will lead to his resurrection three days later.

Jesus takes three of his disciples– Peter, James, and John – up a mountain.  It seems he was hoping to find God there on that mountaintop.  Or at least he was getting away from the crowds and distractions down below to have a better chance of listening for God.  Imagine the scene that unfolds.  While Jesus was praying, his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white, and the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples saw him in all his glory.  They saw Jesus as more than the earth-born son of Mary.  They saw him as the eternal Son of God as well.  It’s easy to see the parallels with Moses who climbed another mountain to find God, to speak with God.  God appeared to Moses in a cloud.  When he returned from his mountaintop encounter with God, his appearance, too, was changed.  His face shone.

Peter, the well-meaning but sometimes bumbling disciple, wants to capture and preserve the moment of Jesus’ Transfiguration.  We’d be getting out our phones to take selfies with them, but Peter went for what was available in his day.  I can hear the enthusiasm in his voice.  “Come on, guys, quick!  Let’s build three booths, three dwellings for these three holy ones we’ve just seen – one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus.”  As Peter was speaking, a cloud – a sign of divine presence – enveloped them.  They were terrified.  And then God spoke to them from the cloud, “This is my Son, my Chosen,” – the same words spoken from the cloud at Jesus’ baptism.  This time God adds, “Listen to him!”

With three versions of the same story, I always like to look at the different details a particular Gospel writer includes. Luke tells us something about the time of day this might have occurred.  I’ve looked at this story of Jesus’ Transfiguration many times, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that it occurred to me it likely took place at night.  I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that before.  Perhaps it’s because I wouldn’t think about setting out to climb a mountain at the end of the day, leaving me there to find my way down in the dark.  Perhaps it’s because only Luke tells us the three disciples Jesus had invited to go with him – Peter, John and James, – were weighed down with sleep.  Later, these same three disciples will also be weighed down with sleep when Jesus asks them to watch and wait and pray with him on another mountain, the Mount of Olives.  On the night before his death, these disciples will fall asleep while Jesus prays again, this time in anguish that he might be spared his coming death.  If the disciples were so sleepy on the Mount of Transfiguration, it makes sense that it was nighttime.  I can imagine their vision of the Transfiguration was all the more spectacular if it did happen in the dark.

Only Luke tells us Jesus prayed when he got to the top of the mountain, and it was while he was praying that the appearance of his face and his clothes were changed.  Only Luke tells us what it was Moses and Elijah were saying.  They were talking about Jesus’ departure, but really the Greek word would be better translated exodus.  This exodus, Jesus’ death, was not something that would happen to Jesus, it was something he would accomplish.  And this Moses the Law-giver and Elijah the Prophet are confirming what Jesus has already told his incredulous disciples he must do: that he must die in order to lead his people out of their bondage to sin and death into the freedom of abundant life in him.   We remember that in Luke’s account of the baptism, it was while Jesus was praying following his baptism that the Holy Spirit descended upon him and that God’s voice spoke from the heavens identifying Jesus as God’s beloved son.  Once again, it is while Jesus is praying that God’s voice speaks and confirms Jesus is the beloved Son, the chosen one.  And, the voice compels the disciples, “Listen to him!”  Pay attention to him.  Follow what he says and what he does.  It was in that experience that the three disciples’ knowledge of Jesus changed.  He was something more than the man they had been following as teacher and rabbi.

The Transfiguration marks a turning point in Jesus’ life and ministry.  Tempting as it may have been, Jesus and his inner circle of disciples do not stay on the mountain following their spectacular encounter with God.  They have to go down from the mountain.  They have to go back to work.  Their ministry in Galilee is wrapping up.  From this point, Jesus’ face is set towards Jerusalem where betrayal and death await.  Just as Baptism was his preparation for ministry, so the Transfiguration serves as his preparation for his final trials.

Transfiguration and transformation come from the same Middle English root word meaning “to change shape.”  In the Transfiguration, the depth of who Jesus is is brought to the surface so those around him can see it.  His face, clothes and appearance are transformed.  Jesus’ face shone, and Luke tells us the three disciples “saw his glory.”  Jesus is transformed, showing the true depth of who he is.  The sound of the heavenly voice confirms what they have seen.  As we ponder this story, we wonder, was it Jesus who was changed, or the disciples?

Beginning a new chapter in your journey as a congregation, there will be opportunities for you to discover the depths of who you are.  This turning point in your communal life can serve as a turning point for each of you on your individual spiritual journeys.  As we think about the Transfiguration and about Moses’ encounter with God on top of Mount Sinai, we’re reminded that on our individual journeys, prayer is a crucial component.  Setting some time apart, some time away from the demands of our daily routine, is one way we might come to see the glory of God in greater depth and be transformed.  How does that happen for you?  Perhaps you have a special place, one where you’ve encountered God in the past, been more keenly aware of God’s presence.  Some find that in a particular place in their home, perhaps a chair they go to for daily time of prayer.  Some have found our diocesan retreat center at Shrine Mont to be such a place.  I could see it was for my grandson Sam when I picked him up from camp on Friday – and got to be the celebrant for their closing Eucharist.  As we think about how we might draw closer to God, Luke’s version of the story especially commends prayer to us. Prayer really is conversation with God, and I sometimes need to remind myself that prayer is two-way conversation, listening for God as well as – even more than – talking to God.

There are many examples of transformation in the people of the Bible.  Esther was transformed from a beauty queen to a courageous woman who dared risk her life in order to save the lives of her people.  Peter was transformed from a fisherman to the impetuous, well meaning but often coming up short disciple, and then to the stabilizing rock upon which God built the Body of Christ.  For me, the most dramatic example of transformation is the Apostle Paul.  Following his encounter with God on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus changed from the one who zealously persecuted the followers of Christ to become a great leader of the Christian Church, indeed to be THE apostle to the Gentiles.  All of these examples began as ordinary people.  Yet each one of them had within them the potential to become – with God’s help and with some intentionality on their part – what they eventually were transformed into.  Each one of us, too, have within us all that is needed for our transformation.

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his appearance was changed.  His face shone because he had been talking with God.  Jesus’ changed appearance also reflected the glory of God.  I wonder how we might reflect to those around us our time with God?  Will we be changed by it in a way that folks around us can see and take note?  That might be one of the hopes for life together as you embark on the next chapter of your life as a parish…that others will see God’s glory reflected in your faces and in your life together and be inspired to come and join in the fun you have and the good work you do..  Amen.


The Rev. Jacqueline C. Thomson

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Herndon, VA

August 6, 2017