Our program staff has been doing a Bible study together this year on Mondays, and this week’s focus was on the crucifixion. It was appropriate timing since we have been looking at the role of the cross in Paul’s teachings to the Corinthian church. We were also thinking about the transfiguration of Jesus, though, since that is the focus for today. Mandy made the comment that she thought the transfiguration and the crucifixion were closely linked – that the transfiguration shows us the divinity of Christ and the crucifixion shows us his humanity. We talked about the crucifixion being kind of a reverse transfiguration.
Transfiguration is a strong word, not a word you use in a halfhearted way. The Greek word it translates is metamorphosis, which means change from one thing to another. The example we always think of is the caterpillar which weaves itself a cocoon and when it emerges it is a butterfly instead of a caterpillar.
A way we use the word is to say that a person’s face is transfigured by grief, or pain, or by joy. There is something immediately noticeable about the person’s appearance, whether that be the beaming glow of joy or the tearful sobs of grief. These are the red letter days of life which are never forgotten.
Well, Mandy, reading commentaries about this passage this week has confirmed that you were right on the money in linking these two events. Matthew in particular draws close parallels in how the stories are told. Lamar Williamson actually suggests that there are three crucial events which are tied together, adding the baptism of Jesus, where God speaks to Jesus and confirms his Sonship to him. Second is the transfiguration, in which the disciples see and hear a revelation of the divinity of Jesus. Third, says Williamson, “is the crucifixion, a sort of reverse transfiguration, in which the sight of Jesus dying in utter abandonment to the will of God wrings from the lips of a Roman army officer the confession, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God.’” (Interpretation, Matthew, p. 161)
The first confession, at the baptism, is full of radiant promise, just as each baptism is; the second confession, at the transfiguration, combines glory and suffering; and the third, at the crucifixion, is a witness to steadfastness in despair. The transfiguration is the heart of the understanding of Jesus as the Son of God because of the way it draws glory and suffering together “to present the paradox of divine power and weakness, lowliness and majesty, in the person of Jesus Christ.” (Ibid) Williamson continues, “For those who have eyes to see, his very suffering in steadfast obedience to the will of God is a mark of God’s own glory; but that glory can only be understood by resurrection faith… Jesus is revealed here as the Son of God, the one in whom is manifested simultaneously the splendor and the lowliness of God.” (p. 162)
Tom Long specifically compares the accounts of the transfiguration and the crucifixion in Matthew. “In the transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes shine with the glory of God. At the crucifixion, the soldiers gamble over his garments. In the transfiguration, Jesus is surrounded by Moses and Elijah; at the cross he is surrounded by two criminals. In the transfiguration, Jesus is declared to be ‘God’s Son’ by the voice of God from the cloud; at the crucifixion, the words ‘he said “I am God’s Son”’ becomes a taunt of mockery on the lips of the religious authorities. At the end of the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah have departed, leaving Jesus to stand in singular glory; at the end of the crucifixion, Jesus dies in humiliation while the crowd stands around waiting to see ‘whether Elijah will come to save him.’ In both events, three of Jesus’ followers are specified as witnesses – the transfiguration by Peter, James, and John, and the crucifixion by Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome, the mother of Zebedee’s sons. The parallels suggest that we are to read one story in the light of the other, anticipating in the shining splendor of the transfiguration the suffering by which this glory will be won and discerning in the shame of the cross the very glory of God.” (quoted by Long in the Westminster Bible Companion, p. 194 – from Garland’s book, Reading Matthew, pp. 183-184)
It always helps, as Paul Harvey says, to know “the rest of the story,” because that helps us keep each particular story in context. We cannot know the Christ who is transfigured into the exalted, glorified Lord of creation without also knowing the Christ who is transfigured by powerless suffering on the cross. We cannot stay on the mountain of transfiguration in our faith journey.
Indeed, after the transfiguration had ended, Jesus and the disciples came back down the mountain to find a horde of humanity with suffering and bickering and a father with an epileptic son and a frustrated and humiliated group of disciples who had been unable to do anything for him. It is the same in our lives. We have a mountaintop experience or at least some positive growth in faith and service, then we are confronted with a close friend with a cancer diagnosis or the loss of a job, and we are tempted to allow the negative to wipe out the positive. Many of you heard me tell this story yesterday, but it is so appropriate for this sermon I’d like to share it again.
It was at the memorial service for Alice Little, who I regard as one of the true saints I have known in my life. Alice’s body was transfigured by a crippling disease which made walking difficult and painful as well as many other life activities. She didn’t let that stop her, though. And while her body was transfigured for the worse, her spirit was always transfigured for the better. She radiated joy, love, peace, and faith.
So a couple of months I asked her what her secret was. I said, “How did your faith help you keep moving long past when most people would have given up and gone to bed or a wheelchair?” She said, “I realized that God had a plan for my life. If this was part of it, I needed to accept it, keep moving, and do the best I could.” There is some advice to write down and put on your mirror or somewhere. “I realized that God had a plan for my life. If this was part of it, I needed to accept it, keep moving, and do the best I could.”
I’d like to ask you to turn to hymn 193, which we will be singing in a minute. It is a familiar tune, but a new text to our hymnal. Jaroslav Vajda has written a text which invites us to step into this transfiguration story which is so odd and outside our experience. He also has grasped this connection between transfiguration and crucifixion. The first three stanzas are about the transfiguration: “Jesus, take us to the mountain, where with Peter, James and John, we are dazzled by your glory… What do you want us to see there? What do you want us to hear there?” The fourth stanza moves to the crucifixion: “Take us to that other mountain where we see you glorified, where you shouted, ‘It is finished!’ where for all the world you died. Hear the stunned centurion: ‘Truly this was God’s own Son!’” The last stanza calls us to respond and tell the story in our own lives.
I first ask you to stand as we confess our faith using the Apostles’ Creed, then join in singing this hymn together.
David J. Bailey
March 2, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church