How often do we meet people from our past – an old school friend, perhaps, or a work colleague, and we say to them, “You haven’t changed!” We mean it as a compliment, that the years have been easy on them, that they look the same. But of course, sometimes you only have to meet that un-changed person for coffee and hear how the years have gone, and you realize that underneath it all, they have been very much changed.
This morning, we hear the story of the Transfiguration, the moment in our gospel when God put the stamp, so to speak, firmly on Jesus. Three disciples have gone with Jesus up the mountain for some time away. While they are there, they suddenly see Jesus – his face shining the sun, his clothes dazzling. Moses and Elijah appear talking to him, a sign of his special place. And then, the story goes, they hear the voice of God, announcing: “This is Son, my Beloved, with him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” In that moment, the disciples are humbled, they fall to their knees, but Jesus asks them to stand. Don’t tell anyone, he says. But of course it is too late: they have seen Jesus now in a new light. In that moment, he is not just a man they are following, a special leader with unusual healing powers. He has been named by God. The timing of the transfiguration is important: only a short time later, the disciples and Jesus will make the Palm Sunday march into Jerusalem, toward the darkest of road.
Why tell the story now? It is not just a way to remind the followers of the gospel that Jesus is the Son of God, like placing a billboard of lights above his head. It is a recognition that the way he has been conducting his ministry – and the path down which he will soon go – is the right way, and the worthy one. Other people might want to announce that endorsement, in the same way that politicians jockey for the kudos of other famous names to win voters over to them. But based on that example, we can understand immediately why Jesus is so quick to tell the disciples not to say anything – to “tell no one.” Jesus does not want his message to be lost in the rush of celebrity, by people seeking him out, not for what they might accomplish in the name of the gospel, but for currying favour for what Jesus’ divine connections might do for them. All through the gospel, we have example of Jesus telling the disciples to keep the miracles and healings quiet, to not boast about them, to people who had not seen it. Jesus understood that belief was much more powerful when it originated inside a person, rather than from outside pressure to join the popular club.
So that is the first lesson we learn about the transfiguration: it is for each one of us to uncover for ourselves. Yes, we can read the story now, and here about the events on the mountain – and it is a truly powerful tale. But how we view and see the transfiguration of Christ – how he appears to us as the Son of God, as the incarnation of that voice on the mountaintop – is not for us to be told. It is for us to seek, and perhaps keep seeking our entire lives. The transfiguration is not one moment of light – one instance of realization dawning upon us. Every time we see something, or someone in “a new light” we have experienced a form of transfiguration.
For that is another lesson of this day: even when you think you know someone, even when you think you have learned enough, there is always more to find. The disciples were the closest friends Jesus had, they spend every day together, they travelled beside each other. And yet in that moment, the disciples were in awe of the Jesus that had been revealed to them. To often, I think, we set the stories we tell about ourselves and each other in stone, we decide this is how it is, and it will always be so. But many times in my life, I have met people who I thought were one way, and as I came to know them, I realized I had been completely wrong. Sometimes, it was someone I had discounted who stood by me when others didn’t. Or someone I thought was arrogant, who was really just shy. In each case, those people were transfigured for me – they shone brighter to me.
We had perhaps the most literal example of an earthly transfiguration in the last two weeks. The athlete, who often working for years without recognition, is placed on a podium in front of the world, and given a medal – transfigured from being just another skier, or just another bobsledder, to an Olympic champion. That’s heady stuff, as it must have been even for Jesus. But in the end, what we learn from how Jesus reacted, is that it is not the moment of transfiguration that matters – the instant in which you are declared a winner, or named a star – it is what happens next. Jesus, as we know, came down from the mountain – despite the entreaties of the disciples to stay there – and carried on, just as he had planned before. I remember reading last week about one of our Canadian Olympians trying to sell her silver medal on Kijiji for one-million dollars. I am not sure what happened, but some people felt it was wrong for her to do so. Shouldn’t she want that emblem that proved her transfiguration, that backed up who she was? I wasn’t so sure. Maybe she just needed the money, perhaps she was being practical – amateur athletes work a long time to get by on little. But certainly at some level, she understood that she didn’t need a circle hanging on a ribbon in a frame – nice as it is – to decide who she was, and who she would be next. That is why Jesus didn’t need to have the title: Son of God – stamped on his business card. He believed in what he was doing and the lessons he was imparting. Jesus wanted his deeds to be his best evidence.
So ultimately, that is our lesson too: that what we do, and how we act, is our transfiguring moment. God has already shone the light upon us, and given each one of us ringing endorsement. The question now is how will we respond? Amen