Transfiguration

At that time, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead.”

MATTHEW 17:1-9

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. It was the will of God to make a mighty showing of the glory and majesty and divinity of Jesus to the apostles so that they would recall it later and know that Jesus suffered willingly when he died. This story is the beginning of the end of Jesus’ ministry.

A few of them walk up the mountain with Jesus and the mighty presence of God shows up. Last night we read the story from the book of Exodus. I want to read it for you again.

The Lord said to Moses: Come up to Me into the mountain, and stand there; and I will give thee the tablets of stone, the law and the commandments, which I have written to give them laws. And Moses rose up, and Jesus his attendant, and they went up into the mount of God. And to the elders they said: Rest there until we return to you; and behold, Aaron and Or are with you; if any man have a cause to be tried, let them go to them. And Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the glory of God came down upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the Lord called Moses on the seventh day out of the midst of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was as burning fire on the top of the mountain, before the sons of Israel. And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and went up to the mountain, and was there in the mountain forty days and forty nights.

Why does the name Jesus show up in the story of Moses? It is because the name Joshua and Jesus are the same name. In Hebrew the name is Yehoshua. When you write it in Greek there is no “sh” letter. Also, all men’s names must end in S in Greek. So when the Jews translated the Hebrew bible into Greek, they represented Yehoshua with the Greek Yesous. In the Latin-speaking Western Christian world, Yesous from Greek becomes Jesus.

But when the English protestants made their English Bible they translated the Old Testament directly from Hebrew to English, and wrote “Yehoshua” as “Joshua” in English. But it’s the same name. It means “Salvation.”

What can we conclude then? First, the assistant and successor of Moses is named “Salvation” or “conqueror” or “deliverer.” Joshua the saviour and conqueror takes over after Moses and leads the people into the promised land.

In the story of the Transfiguration someone with the same name, Joshua, is taking over the work of the people of God who followed the law of Moses. Jesus/Joshua is the new leader after the law has been fulfilled, and the people of God are being led into the promised land of the Kingdom of God in the Church.

So the story of the transfiguration is a statement on behalf of the Church about who we think Jesus is.

Jesus meets with Moses on the top of a mountain, in the cloud, with the glory of God present once again. Peter thinks that this is simply a continuation of the old story of Moses on the Mountain. Moses has come back, and Elijah too. Now we can sit here on the mountain and talk with each other. Peter thinks this is a restoration of the old Israel, that it will be just like it was in the Old Testament.

But the Father speaks and tells Peter to listen to Jesus. Jesus is not just meeting with Moses and Elijah in the presence of the glory of God. Jesus is the glory of God. Now Jesus is the one who is shining.

This reveals to Peter and the others that Jesus was the glory of God all along. Jesus was the one who gave Moses the law. Jesus was the one who parted the red sea. Jesus gave Elijah the prophesies. Jesus has been the God of Israel all along. Jesus is not named after Joshua, Joshua is named after Jesus because Jesus is the real deliverer and saviour.

But we don’t even begin to understand the point of this story until we read the next bit of the gospel. What happens after they are up on the mountain? When they come down, Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he will go to Jerusalem. And in Jerusalem he will be crucified and die and rise again on the third day.

The disciples are so dismayed by the thought that Jesus will die that they do not even hear him say the second part: that he will rise from the dead. The disciples cannot imagine something good existing on the other side of death. In their minds, death is final. Death is defeat. And defeat is unthinkable for the Messiah.

The disciples rebuke Jesus and tell him to stop talking like that. Stop all this death talk. It’s morbid.

What is the glory of God that Jesus reveals on Mount Tabor? Is it the magical ability to do anything you want? Does he show the disciples that he is a magician? A genie who grants wishes?

I am always struck by the words of our Great Doxology.

Glory to thee who has shown us the light
Glory be to God on high
And on earth peace, good will towards men.
We praise thee we bless thee, we worship thee
We give thanks unto thee  for thy great glory.

Let’s stop there. “We give thanks to thee for thy great glory.” Why would we thank God for his glory? If the glory of God is his power, his ability to make the sun and moon and stars, why would we give thanks for it? It’s like thanking someone for being tall and handsome.

Why would we thank someone for that? It is an aspect of who they are that they did not create. You did not decide how you would end up looking.

If the glory of God is simply is might and power in the sense that we normally think of might and power surely there is nothing to give thanks for. He is mighty. That is just a fact about God.

But let’s keep singing the great doxology.

O Lord, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty,
O Lord the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
That takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world receive our prayer.

Now we are beginning to see what we give thanks for. Jesus takes away the sins of the world. Now it makes sense to be thankful.

The glory of God is not some unbeatable power to do powerful things like we normally think of power. The glory of God is Jesus’ willingness to die for us. To take away the sins of the world.

In the vespers stichera for Transfiguration, we read that the Father says to listen to the one who has destroyed death by his crucifixion. But this story happens before the crucifixion. The fathers who wrote the hymns understood that it is the crucified Jesus who speaks to Moses on Mount Sinai.

What is it that shines so brightly in Jesus? It is his love. It is his trust in the Father. Jesus trusts that he will rise from the dead after the crucifixion. Jesus loves us so much that he is willing to die for us. That is what shines brighter than the sun.

We are reminded of the transfiguration so that we also will decide to die to sin.

St. Peter recalled after Jesus had risen from the dead that the transfiguration proves that Jesus died willingly. Jesus has all the power in heaven and on earth and when he died it was not proof that he was defeated. When he died, it was proof that he triumphed.

St. Peter wrote about this in his letters. He wrote,

BRETHREN, be more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall; so there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Therefore I intend always to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to arouse you by way of reminder

We celebrate the Transfiguration in order to be aroused to action.

In what way are we like the disciples on the mountain? We also hear Jesus telling us about his death on the cross, and yet we do not want to hear about it. We do not even hear him when he promises us that he will rise again?

When we go to confession we are often ashamed and too timid to speak about our sins and tell the whole story. We tell the priest a few small things, in a hushed voice.

But many times we do not tell the whole story. Some people just decide not to go to confession at all. It’s too personal. We think the priest is going to judge us and get mad at us. We think the priest is going to tell us that we are bad. Maybe he won’t like me afterwards. Maybe I won’t be forgiven.

This fear is killing us. This fear is keeping us from the one thing that can actually save us. Fear is the undoing of the love of Jesus.

Confessing our sins is like dying. It is like jumping off a cliff. We face something that we fear almost more than death. We are very afraid of our own failures. This is what it means to die to sin. We are dying to sin when we openly admit the thing that is shameful and that we have tried to hide. We face sin and we decide that we accept even death. We accept even the thing we fear the most because the only thing that gives us any hope of not being the person we are ashamed of being is Jesus. Jesus is the only person who can help me to be a better person. Jesus is the only person who can help me to stop being ashamed.

The following story is from Eusebius, the first Christian Historian.

Towards the end of his life John the apostle went to live in Ephesus. From there he used to travel to the Christian communities in the surrounding districts, appointing pastors, encouraging the people, and settling disputes. One day he arrived at a certain place where he had appointed a pastor some time earlier. While he was there he met a young man, who was exceptionally handsome and strong. John spoke to the young man about the gospel of Christ, and the young man responded with great ardour of spirit. So John took him to the pastor, saying: ‘I entrust this young man to your keeping. Under your guidance may he grow in the faith and the love of Christ.’

When John had left, the pastor took the young man into his home, treating him like his own son. After some months he gave him baptism, which he declared to be the seal of faith. The pastor now allowed the young man much greater freedom. But unfortunately, the young man was not yet mature enough in the Spirit to use this freedom wisely, and he was led astray by others of his own age who were idle and dissolute.

First they took him to expensive entertainment, making him pay with his own money. Then, when his money had run out, they took him out at night and showed him how to rob money and jewellery from people’s homes. Like a powerful hard-mouthed horse, he took the bit between his teeth, galloping off the straight road and down a precipice. He directed his youthful vitality to evil, just as earlier he had directed it to righteousness.

After some time, John returned to the place where he had met the handsome young man. He said to the pastor: ‘Come now, pay me back the deposit which in Christ’s name I left in your keeping.’

At first the pastor was taken aback, thinking that he was being asked for money which he had never received. John saw his confusion and added: ‘It is the young man I am asking for.’ The pastor sighed and started to weep. ‘The young man is dead,’ he said.

‘How did he die?’ John asked.

‘I mean he is dead to the world,’ the pastor said, and related what had occurred.

John immediately went off to the place in the hills where the young man and his evil friends were living. When he arrived, the men seized him. John made no attempt to escape and asked no mercy.

‘I demand to see the young man whom you have led astray,’ John cried out.

The young man heard the commotion and came to see what was happening. As soon as the young man saw John, he was filled with shame, and he started to run away. With a sudden burst of strength John broke free of his captors, and, forgetting his age, ran after the young man. As he ran, John shouted out: ‘Why do you run away from me, my child? I am your father; I am old and frail. Be sorry for me, not frightened of me. You still have your whole life ahead of you. Soon I shall die, and I will intercede for you with Christ.’

The young man, who had lapsed into evil ways, heard the apostle John begging him to stop. As John referred to himself as the young man’s father, tears welled up in his youthful eyes, and his legs began to tremble.

Finally his legs could run no further, and he fell to the ground. John caught up with him, panting at the exertion of running so far. As soon as he had regained his breath, John knelt down and clasped the young man to his bosom. At first John could not speak, but only weep; and he baptized the young man a second time with his tears. The young man also wept, and John knew that those were tears of repentance.

John took the young man’s right hand into his own, and placed it over his heart. ‘I solemnly pledge’, John said, ‘that I will not rest until I have gained pardon for this young man from the Saviour himself.’ John then let go the young man, and began to pray. After a few short minutes John smiled broadly, knowing that Christ had gladly forgiven the young man, and was ready to welcome him back into his fold. So John led the young man back to the town. And there the pastor who had baptized the young man welcomed him with open arms.

I invite you to come stand on the mountain with Jesus and to see his glory. Come see the glory of Jesus when you confess your sins. Not as a way of ascribing guilt to yourself, but as a way of articulating what it is that you need help with.

What is standing between you and your calling to be conformed to the image of God? What weakness do you have that you need help with? What is it that you can’t stop doing even though you want to? The glory of God is revealed when you and I allow the love of Jesus to win over the fear that we have by listening to the promise that Jesus loves us and will forgive us and heal us. When we give up the fear that we hold on to tightly like a blanket we find freedom and joy.

Lord Jesus Christ, our God, we are not worthy that you should come to enter under the roof of our bodies, we are not worthy to receive your body and blood in the Eucharist today. We are ashamed and heartbroken because we do not know how to be holy as you are holy. Please heal us by your forgiveness and your love today and make us worthy even though we are unworthy. Make us worthy to leave fear behind. Help us to renew our dedication to love and to serve others as you did, and to partake of your death so that we might live with you forever. Heal our fear and give us boldness to love you and to be your children.