Transfiguration Sunday for many Christians falls on the last Sunday before Lent, on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday—the day that is the official beginning of the Lenten journey toward the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection on Easter morning. This celebration is an appropriate one for this last Sunday, because it foreshadows the glory of God—in a truly glorious way with dazzling light atop a mountain. And yet the glory of God isn’t first and foremost something that is shiny, or bright, or immediately desirable.
Christians believe and confess that the glory of God is made most visible in the cross—an emblem of suffering and shame, of complete and total degradation and humiliation. “We proclaim Christ crucified,” the Scriptures succinctly put it, which is a stumbling block many and foolishness to still others, but for us, the cross is the power of God and the wisdom of God. In the cross, the glory of God—his love for us—is most clearly seen for what it is. And yet the cross is not devoid of glory in the ethereal, dreamy, resplendent, sublime sense either. The glory of God on the cross and the glory of God on the mountain of transfiguration are manifestations of one and the same glory. And so today, I want you to consider the tension, the juxtaposition of humility and splendor, and how they both work together to reveal the truth of God’s glory—and ask yourself, “What does that mean for me, today?”
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Suppose we have a ball. Suppose it weighs about 2 ounces. In fact, I have a ball right here. And it weighs 2 ounces. Now, if I hold this ball out from the pulpit like this, it’s about 5 feet off the floor. As I hold this ball here, this ball has a certain amount of energy. That is to say, this ball has energy stored or pent-up within it. In physics, potential energy is the energy which an object has due to its position in a force field. The force field that’s most applicable to this ball right now, this 2-oz ball that I’m holding 5 feet above the floor, is earth’s gravitational force field. If I let go of the ball, the gravitational force field will act on the ball, and pull it downward. But that gravitational force field works on different objects differently, depending on their mass—or what we might call their weight—and the distance that they need to travel. Remember—energy is related to mass, time, and the speed light, as good ole Dr. Einstein taught us some years ago. Energy is inherently about movement.
We can calculate the potential energy of this ball pretty easily. We simply need to multiply its weight by the force field by the distance it travels. Doing that math, we find that this ball that weighs ⅛lb, on earth with a gravitational force of 1g, at 5ft above the floor has a potential energy of 0.625 foot-pounds. And because that doesn’t really mean anything to you or me, let me tell you that it’s equal to 0.89 joules. For comparison, it takes about 60 joules to power a 60-watt lightbulb for one second. So this 2-ounce ball at 5 feet above the floor doesn’t possess a lot of potential energy, a little less than one watt, but because it does have mass, is in a force field, and can travel a distance, it does nevertheless possess potential energy.
Let me drop this ball.
As that ball fell, the potential energy was converted to kinetic energy, or energy expended during movement, but it expended its potential energy. It used its potential energy and converted it to another kind of usable energy. Now that it’s on the floor, it has a different kind of energy, but we won’t go into that. Science is fun, but let’s not get lost in the details! Suffice it to say that all objects, from the smallest to the largest, possess potential energy that can be converted into other forms of energy as that potential energy is used.
Thank you, Steve, for checking my math on all that physics. It’s nice having a mechanical engineer who can help someone like me who knows just enough to be dangerous understand things better. “Rely not on your own understanding,” the Proverbs say. Another good way of saying that is, “Stay in your own lane”—wisdom we might all do well to take to heart a bit more. But thanks, Steve, for your help checking my homework, so to say!
Potential—today’s readings, particularly the gospel and the second lesson, are about potential. Last week, you recall that I reminded you how St. Paul writes to the Corinthians as he struggles with the truth of God’s grace made real for us in the happy exchange. For those of us baptized into Christ Jesus, God made him—that is, Jesus—to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. God exchanges our broken waywardness, whatever separates us from full relationship with God, for the obedience of Jesus in order that nothing stand in the way of our good relationship with God any longer. Put in other words, what is true for Jesus is true for us, and what is true for us is true for Jesus. And so today, we have Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. What is going on here, and what does it mean for us?
This transfiguration event happens immediately after Jesus predicts the kind of death he will undergo, saying, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Today’s gospel text picks up right on the heels of this line, although were told it was eight days later that he was up the mountain with Peter and John and James.
Now—this is a very, very, very important detail, one we might easily overlook, but it’s significant. What’s significant? That this happens eight days later…Remember that God created the heavens and the earth, or in other words, all creation, in seven days? The work of Jesus is the work of new creation, of a new thing that is springing forth…the first day of a new world order. It begins on the eighth day—the beginning of a new creation. What happens on this mount of transfiguration is the revelation of God’s glory on the eighth day. In his transfiguration, Jesus is changed, transfigured in light and brought into communion with the whole history of God’s people, from the law in Moses to the prophets in Elijah.
But this glorious transfiguration, this complete change, this metamorphosis as the Greek says in Matthew’s gospel, also comes with an admonition from God, an admonition for the disciples, for Peter and James and John who were present, but also for us—“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” In this glorious transfiguration that brings the great figures of the past, God’s chosen servants over millennia, into the present in this moment on the mountaintop, God also points the disciples, points us, to the future by telling us, “Listen to him.” There’s more to come, and we must listen…
But what is to come? What is to come is what Jesus was just speaking of eight days earlier, and what we’re told he was speaking of with Moses and Elijah. “They”—that is Moses, Elijah, and Jesus—“appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Even in the midst of this dazzling, almost indescribable event, Jesus was fixed on the work he must accomplish in Jerusalem—the work that he was sent to do. Namely, that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. All this is to say that his glory, the glory of God, is not some dazzling, otherworldly, transportive ecstasy that is removed from the reality of life. The glory of God goes through the very lowest points of life and through that, is raised up to newness of life—transformed, transfigured from death into life again. Glory doesn’t come without death.
But what does this have to do with us, today? Our second lesson, from Paul, again to the Corinthians, helps us understand, to see a bit more clearly, how Jesus’ transfiguration matters for us today. “We are transfigured much like the Messiah,” Paul writes, “our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
Did you pick up on the important detail there?
Our lives become brighter and more beautiful as God enters them and we become like Jesus…What Paul is speaking of here is the potential that is within each of us—potential poured into us at our baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit, the same energizing force who first ordered creation, who raised Jesus from death to life again, and who daily renews us in relationship with God. This Holy Spirit is at work within us, transfiguring us in our humanity to the glory of God…Converting our potential into reality.
How does the Holy Spirit do this? She reminds us of God’s love for us, enlightens us with her gifts, makes us holy and keeps us in true relationship with God, just as she reminds, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church and keeps us all with Jesus Christ in the one common, mystical union. The Holy Spirit goads us to service. The Holy Spirit beckons us to prayer. The Holy Spirit moves us to give. The Holy Spirit entices us to study. The Holy Spirit summons us to worship. The Holy Spirit lights a spark underneath us and ignites the potential that is within us to become brighter and better disciples of Jesus, ready to die to ourselves and live to God’s greater glory.
This day, this Transfiguration Sunday, we are on the precipice of the holy season of Lent—the time where we enter into intentional contemplation and reflectiveness about our lives in relationship with God. During these next weeks, let us engage more fully, engage more richly, engage more truly in the acts of discipleship—in worship, study, prayer, service, and giving—that our lives might be transfigured more and more in the same way that Jesus was transfigured.
Let us use this time to journey with Jesus, knowing full well the way of death and resurrection is not easy—but let us journey with Jesus from this glorious foretaste on the mountain of transfiguration to the mountain of the cross and onto the garden of recreation. Let us listen to Jesus, heed his words, and know that though the way of glory treads through the valley of death, we fear no evil, for God is with us, and the glory of the Lord awaits us once we have died with Christ and rise again with him in newness of life. We have the potential. Let us unleash it.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.