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Bethany Evangelical
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Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Transfiguration 02/07/2016

Peter, James and John thought they were just going up on the mountain to pray with Jesus, just a little quiet time away from the crowds; but that’s not what they got. What they got was a glimpse of Jesus and a glimpse of reality that they weren’t ready for. It was like a curtain was pulled back and, at least for a moment the truth of Jesus’ full identity was revealed to them as they saw him in what the Orthodox tradition calls the uncreated divine light. They saw Jesus’ appearance change, his clothes became dazzling white, they saw Moses and Elijah those great heroes of the faith talking with him. For a moment, they were part of a different realm, a heavenly realm, sharing in the glory, far from everyday ups and downs, far from the challenges and struggles of the world at the bottom of the mountain.

Peter, James and John are described as being terrified in the midst of this experience which is easy enough to understand. Other stories and events had given hints that Jesus was more than a prophet, more than a teacher, perhaps more than human, perhaps even a little scary, and on the mountain of Transfiguration they were able to see that “more” even if was more than they were ready for. They were able to see the more of Jesus’ divine nature. To experience humanity fully, Jesus had emptied himself of that divine nature, but here, on the mountain, for a moment Peter, James and John experienced Jesus as the Son of God, and, not surprisingly, it did overwhelm them, moving them into the realm of unexplainable mystery.

It’s noteworthy, I think, that the season after Epiphany, the season in which Jesus’ identity begins to be revealed, it ends not in “Oh, now I get it” clarity, it ends in mystery. In a sense we’ve gone from the Christmas Eve story of the birth of a baby which is deeply theological but which most of us also find heartwarming in its humanity, but now the Christmas cycle ends in divine mystery a long way from the heartwarming humanity of Christmas. Any thought that a relationship with Jesus is just about being warm and cozy is challenged by this story.

In a sense, what this Transfiguration experience represents is the classic religious mountaintop experience, a moment for Peter, James and John when they came pretty close to experiencing the full reality of God. If they were looking for proof about who Jesus was, it appears that they got it and on hearing the story maybe it sounds like the kind of proof any of us would like to have. If we could just have that glimpse, that moment, that mountaintop, something spectacular that would make it all real. We might think that’s what we want but it could be a case of be careful what you wish for.

Nobody can handle those mountaintop moments for long; Peter, James and John quickly returned to bottom of the mountain reality and so did Moses in the Mt. Sinai story. The apostle Paul had a different experience of divine light and the voice of Jesus in his road to Damascus conversion but it didn’t last long for him either before he was back dealing with the down to earth implications of what had happened to him. While it didn’t last, what the moment did to all of them was that it changed them. Their vision was different.

This story winds up not just being about Jesus, It’s just as much about a transformation in the apostles’ ability to perceive the truth. By the grace of God they were able to see Christ in his glory, glory that transcended the concrete reality of the world and the concrete limits of their vision; this new vision would change how they saw the world at the bottom of the mountain.

One of the points that’s always made about this story is the fact that Peter, James and John did have to come down from the mountain. Peter wanted to stay there and preserve the moment with the misguided idea about building three booths, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah; but that thought was quickly overshadowed by the voice from the cloud saying “This is my Son, listen to him.” They couldn’t stay there because such moments don’t last, and there was work to do at the bottom of the mountain because it’s the bottom of the mountain that represents the world Jesus became part of, a world that includes a heavy dose of brokenness.

The disciples and others started it, but the bottom of the mountain work is still there to be done. The voice from the cloud saying “This is my Son, listen to him,” is addressed to us too. The trouble is, most of us probably haven’t had the mountaintop kind of experience that Moses had, that Peter, James and John had, that Paul had; we don’t have that to draw from. We haven’t had that divine light show to inspire us; we haven’t heard with our own ears the voice that speaks out of the clouds to motivate us. For us it’s all in imagining the story, but maybe that’s enough because as we hear the stories we do get glimpses of that divine glory full of grace and truth. Our vision is changed and our ability to imagine reality beyond what the world says is possible is changed.

Sometimes divine holiness is revealed in the stories about Jesus like this one today, sometimes it’s in the stories Jesus told. Holiness happens though, in stories where a misbehaving son is welcomed home, where a person who is supposed to bad turns out to be good, where a leper thought to be untouchable is touched and healed, where a harvest of wheat exceeds what is thought possible, where lowly shepherds are the first to hear to news of the birth of a Messiah, where even a tax collector is called to be a disciple.

You and I may not have been to the mountaintop, but we’ve heard the stories and they all represent glimpses of holiness that changes us. With that change, seeing with the eyes and vision of Jesus, we are better able to do the bottom of the mountain work. With that vision and through that action we are also being transformed.

That’s the verb and tense that Paul uses in today’s portion of Second Corinthians: being transformed. “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” What that implies is a process. The Transfiguration describes a moment, a dramatic, all of a sudden transformation for Jesus. For us, that’s not usually how it happens. Instead, it’s a process; we are being transformed.

I found today’s Prayer of the Day kind of interesting. The central petition in the prayer says, “Transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity.” Who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity. I found that interesting because it reflects Eastern Orthodox theology more than Lutheran theology: God became human so that we might become divine.

That’s the Orthodox understanding of the incarnation and it leads to what they call theosis or divinization, the process of becoming divine. By that they mean that we share not in the essence of God, we’re still human, we don’t turn into God, but we share more fully in the attributes of God, things like love and mercy, compassion and forgiveness which, when you think about it, are things that are revealed in the stories about Jesus and in the stories he told, those glimpses of divine holiness; but it’s a process, a lifelong process, not an instant change.

The process includes participation in the sacraments and the worship of the church, but it also includes that bottom of the mountain work that the ELCA describes as “God’s work, our hands.” Engaging in that work is part of “being transformed.” Whether you call it theosis or divinization or being transformed, the image is of Christian life lived close to God, attentive to the glimpses of divine holiness so that over time we are changed, we are healed, we are made whole, we are more like God.

It’s also important to note what Paul says at the end of today’s lesson after talking about being transformed: “This comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” It’s easy to sucked into “It’s all about me, I just have to try and do better, then I’ll be more like God and I’ll make God happy.” It’s important to remember what Paul says: We do participate in the process, but it’s also about the Spirit at work in us. It is only through the Spirit that our efforts are transformed into holiness.

For most of us it doesn’t happen in a flash of light on top of a mountain. It’s more likely to happen at the bottom of the mountain, in the midst of the messiness of life. But it does happen; we are being transformed.

Pastor Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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