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We’ve come to the end of the season of Epiphany. Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent - the season in which the church remembers the suffering and sacrifice of Christ for us. But before we journey into and through Lent we first come to the Transfiguration of our Lord which is a day in which we celebrate the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the final celebration before we begin and enter into the solemn and reflective mood of Lent.
There is a great sense of mystery and awe surrounding the Transfiguration of our Lord making its commemoration very difficult for us to understand. The three disciples who witnessed the event attempted to describe what they saw and heard and experienced as best as they could while Peter confirms the event when he makes a further reference of it and his experiences later in his own letter to the church saying “He [Jesus] received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, This is my Son” (2 Peter 1:17).
It’s sometimes very difficult to explain in words something that we have seen. The prophets Ezekiel and Daniel, along with John in the Revelation attempt to describe scenes which continue to amaze modern readers. “As I looked at the living creatures” writes Ezekiel, “I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces” (Ezekiel 1:15). Shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century somebody rephrased the words of playwright and director Henrik Isben into the more common phrase used today; “one picture is worth a thousand words”.
Pictures do have the ability to convey to the human observer a myriad of thoughts and words. It was only a few years after the resurrection of our Lord that a new art form appeared as it first developed in the ancient catacombs (where Christians would secretly meet) around the city of Rome, possibly inspired by those early Christians attempting to retell the stories of the gospel.
The art form was called ‘iconography’ which is made up of two Greek words meaning ‘image’ and ‘to speak’ or ‘to draw’. After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire Iconography became a popular art form which would also become controversial within the Eastern and Western Church of Christendom. Some began using the icons in assisting their worship of God while others saw the icons as strictly idolatrous and against the Commandment.
One of those icons could have been the one which depicts the biblical story of the Transfiguration of our Lord as depicted here (Image: Transfiguration). Notice how the icon attempts to give us a visual representation of what the Gospel according to Matthew tries to depict with mere words. In the fore we find the three disciples lying on the ground, while the Prophet Elijah stands on one peak, and the Law-giver Moses stands on another peak while Jesus occupies a central peak by himself as he is brilliantly white and bright light radiates forth from him.
We could spend hours looking for the thousands of words being depicted by this masterpiece. The account begins simply; “Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them” (Matthew 17:1-2). In the iconograph, the author portrays the three disciples on the ground, attempting to hide or cover their faces from the glorious light emanating from the Transfigured Lord and then he draws three individual rays of light which begins at Jesus and extend to each individual man.
Without a doubt, the experience had a great impact on the lives of Peter, James and John so much so that Peter recounts the event later in life in his own letter to the church. The intention of those who recounted the vision, the writers who preserved the event in words and those who attempted to visually represent the phenomenon through iconography were hoping that this historical event might have the same impact on the lives of those who will come after them, those like us who read and re-read these stories. All three of the synoptic gospels sought to recount the Baptism, the Transfiguration, and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus in their gospels.
The gospel accounts all agree that the Transfiguration was a wondrous event, one which was witnessed by three people. It’s here that the disciples first get to see Christ shining in all his splendour, in only a dim representation of the glory he once had in eternity as he prays “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:5). Here, Jesus is speaking of the glory which will be made known through his death and resurrection.
But, on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus’ glory is momentarily revealed to his three disciples. As Jesus glory shines in all his splendour, Simon Peter is moved to reverence, to awe and to wonder as he seeks to somehow preserve the moment, like we do with a photograph, by offering to build 3 shelters, 3 sacred shrines for Jesus and the two visiting dignitaries from heaven. “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” (Matthew 17:4). The intention is clear. The disciples wanted to stay on the mountain. And, through this reading we are being invited to catch at least a glimpse of this mysterious and awesome experience, of the glory God, experienced by Peter, James and John.
But there is a problem which is highlighted by this story. One of the things I’ve discovered over the years is that if I’m personally busy taking pictures or video-taping an event I miss out on what is happening. When we are trying to preserve the moment, this can actually get in the way of us observing the moment. Let me explain using a church example you are familiar with.
Personally, I have very strict guidelines about picture taking within the church because I’ve had my share of strange disruptions. Many pastors have made it a policy to not allow picture taking during religious ceremonies because of stories like the one recounted by a pastor who was sitting in a church during an actual wedding.
“I remember a wedding I attended over twenty years ago,” he begins. “The bride and groom stood at the altar, professing their love for one another, as the minister stood before them, reading the solemn vows that they were to take. The attendants took their assigned places at the right and left of the couple. As the bride and groom held hands and prepared to speak their vows of faithfulness a man crept up behind the minister with a camera.
At first, we all thought it was quite humorous and we all believed that he would take one picture and then discretely sit back down. Instead, he lingered behind the minister throughout the rest of the ceremony, snapping one picture after another with his instamatic camera, the flashcube twirling away on the top like they used to do. When, the service finally came to an end and the poor couple’s eyes were nearly blinded from the continuous flashes, the man sat back down. After all those years the only thing that I remember about that wedding is this man wandering behind the preacher with his cheap little camera. Now, I suppose that he had good intentions in mind and he really only wanted to preserve that special moment with a photograph for the couple, but in essence, for everyone else present, this photographer obscured a precious moment in time.”
The transfiguration of Jesus was a precious moment in time. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). This was an Epiphany in it’s most revealing and disclosing sense – as God the Son goes up the mountain and begins to flash forth the light of God glory, as the two greatest and most prominent figures Israel’s history; Moses and Elijah, although they have both been dead for centuries, appear with Jesus as they come in order to give their approval of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant as he is the long awaited and expected Messiah.
It’s in this moment which has been frozen in time for us that we actually have a clear and unobstructed view into the true identity of Jesus. “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). History shows that Jesus lived a normal human life just like the rest of us, working, eating, and sleeping and so on. But, here on the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus is revealed and exposed to us as also being different from us in a very important way. Not only is Jesus a 100% real human being like us, Jesus is also 100% divine – he is Emmanuel; God living amongst us. Within Jesus are two natures at the same moment as we proclaim in the faith statements of the church, that Jesus is fully God and that Jesus is fully human - both at the same moment. This mystery cannot be explained; but must be accepted and believed by faith because without this faith the picture we have of Jesus will be out of focus and there can be no salvation without believing this truly and wholeheartedly.
The story of the Transfiguration of our Lord reminds us of the experience of Moses in the Old Testament. “Moses thought, I will go over and see this strange sight - why the bush does not burn up” (Exodus 3:3) and when Moses approached the bush that was not consumed by fire a voice spoke saying “take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). The revelation of God’s glory in the Word of God, in the Transfiguration, in God’s presence in the Holy Sacraments of Baptism and Communion, even as we hear God’s gracious words of absolution “your sins are forgiven” we might also be changed in ways that move us to bow down, to adore, to kneel before the Lord our God, as we also experience his glory and holiness as we come in His awesome presence. When we find ourselves in the snapshot picture moment with our God, we will find ourselves experiencing trust, love, joy, thankfulness and praise.
As such, Peter, full of awe at seeing this wondrous sight, proposed that the moment be captured for posterity. Without a camera he couldn’t preserve the moment with a picture if that glorious moment could even have been captured by a single photograph or iconograph but instead Peter does the next best thing, believing that in building permanent monuments others years later could also come to this same location and see the place where this phenomenal event took place and believe. But Jesus wouldn’t have any of this. Instead, Jesus, Elijah and Moses are talking about something else. Within the cloud of mystery surrounding the Transfiguration, we can only assume that their conversation must have to do with the events that will take place in the near future.
From this point onward Jesus would cause much commotion among his followers by repeatedly speaking about His departure and His death. “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death" (Matthew 20:18). Jesus’ mind is set on Jerusalem where he plans to die for the sins of all people. But at this point in their journey with Jesus the disciples couldn’t see the benefit of Jesus suffering and dying. And so, at every opportunity, the disciples tried to persuade and convince Jesus to preserve this moment of glory on the mountain and avoid going to Jerusalem altogether. They simply didn’t want to see him suffer because they loved him.
Jesus intentions were different from those of his disciples. Jesus did not come to show off his divine glory to the world as it briefly shone forth only for those three disciples to see it while they were on the Mount of the Transfiguration. In fact, Jesus came into the world in order to do something productive with His glory. It was not Jesus’ intent to parade his glory before the world, accepting the praise of everyone because of the signs and miracles they witnessed. Jesus’ glory would come later, as I mentioned earlier, as His glory would shine forth from His suffering and death on the cross for others. That’s why he set his face toward Jerusalem, ultimately to hang from a cruel cross made of wood, so that his true glory would shine forth as the supreme sacrifice for your sins and mine. It’s at the cross we see the true glory of Jesus as a servant shining forth.
That being the case, we need to ask ourselves why was the Transfiguration is necessary in the first place if Jesus glory ultimately shines through the cross? Why was it so important that all three Gospel writers wrote about it and Peter makes reference to it again years later? What those three disciples witnessed, experienced that day would strengthen Peter, James and John for the future trials that they would have to face on the way to Jerusalem and also for the years of trials that would follow them as followers and Jesus Christ. The Transfiguration strengthens us as well.
After Jesus ascended to heaven the disciples would be sent to the ends of the civilized world to preach the good news and call the nations to faith in Christ. It was not an easy journey for them as they were criticized constantly, always on guard against arrest, torture, and death. Yet the Transfiguration strengthened them on their journey, especially when the accuracy and honesty of their message was challenged.
If you see Jesus as simply another important human person in history, then his life will have little or no impact on your life. But if you see Jesus in his glory, dying on the cross for the sins of the world, and more importantly, dying for you personally, then you will know the love of God and you will have the certainty of God’s forgiveness of your sins. Christ’s glory continues to shines amongst us today as Jesus comes to us through His Word and Sacraments. His glory shines through us, to encourage each other, to give us hope, and joy and to shine forth His light which transforms lives, to empowers lives and to reminds us “it is good [Lord] to be here” (Matthew 17:4) as the glory of our God continues to shine forth through us today - until the end of time.
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We are a family of followers of Christ, who learn and share the Good News of Salvation, making disciples of Jesus Christ.
We hold weekly Sunday morning services at 10:30 am. We also host a Bible Study each Sunday morning at 09:30 am and on Tuesday afternoon at 1:00 pm. Please join us.
Our music team plays from a repertoire of many hundreds of Christian songs and Hymns, occasionally with new arrangements of traditional and contemporary selections.