The Appearance of His Face Changed
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And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Skellig is the Irish word for “rock,” and Skellig Michael is a rocky mountain island jutting 700 feet out of the icy waters of the North Atlantic, just off the coast of County Kerry in western Ireland. Five hundred years after the birth of Christ, Celtic monks came to live and worship on this island. They lived in little beehive huts they had constructed out of stone. (These sanctuaries of solitude are weathered but still intact today.) They prayed. They copied the Scriptures and lifted their voices in praise to God, morning, noon, and night. Shrouded in darkness, it became a lighthouse to the world. From places like Skellig Michael, the Gospel was carried forth by Celtic monks and missionaries back to Ireland, Scotland, and into Europe.
Sites like Skellig Michael are called “thin places” by the Irish. Thin places—not because the air is rarified or the land is narrow but because the distance between heaven and earth shrinks, and time and eternity embrace. A thin place is where the veil between this world and the next is lifted for a moment, and it may be possible to get a glimpse of what one’s life is all about—perhaps of what life itself is all about.
1. We have come again to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. With Peter, James, and John we observe that it is a thin place. Here on the mount of Transfiguration the veil between this world and the next is lifted for a moment and we get a glimpse of our Lord’s glory.
As soon as we are told that Jesus took them up a mountain our ears should perk up. Through our exposure to scripture we should know that mountains, in scripture, are the venue of revelation: Mount Sinai, Mount Carmel, Mount Zion, the Mount of Olives, the “hill” of Calvary ”, “The Sermon on the Mount.” “Mountain” always points to God’s self-disclosure and the change within those who are beneficiaries of it. As soon as we hear that Jesus has taken Peter, James and John with him up a mountain, we know that an epiphany (revealing, unveiling) is occurring whose truth and reality will stamp itself indelibly upon these men and upon all, like us, who receive their witness and therein find the same epiphany occurring again.
It was only about a week before this mountain experience that the disciples had answered Jesus’ question, “who do you say I am?” “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter declared. These disciples have walked with Jesus for about two years. They have seen Jesus’ miracles and heard his teaching; they saw him feed five thousand people and then walk on water; they heard in his teaching his love for people and ready forgiveness. Their conviction regarding his identity had grown over time such that were now certain he was God’s messiah. Even so, I would think that this experience of seeing Jesus transfigured would startle them, to say the least. Leave them in a speechless wonder and amazement—who are you, Jesus?
Jesus shines before them with a luminosity they can neither explain nor forget. “The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Jesus is highlighted in such a way as to leave them knowing that he is the effectual presence of God. They are startled yet also satisfied; taken aback yet also contented. Now we may wonder why they kept silent and “in those days told no one of the things they had seen.” (Luke implies that later they did—likely in the days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension). In Mark’s gospel he tells us that Jesus asks them to tell no one yet. Reflect with me a little further on their silence.
I invite you to consider similar experiences on a human level. You might be surprised that I suggest something similar has occurred to you, but bear with me. There must be, there has to be, some situation where the human love that spouse or friend or child or parent has poured over you for years suddenly staggers you. You are startled that anyone should love you that much. As startled as you are, however, you aren’t the slightest bit sceptical or suspicious. You simply take joy in the glow of someone’s love for you. As joyful as it is we don’t readily talk of such experience.
Think about a situation where truth has broken in on you. It broke in on you like a wave breaking on the beach and running up the shore. Before it all receded, and your surprise with it, it soaked into you. “The penny dropped,” to us another metaphor. The fact that the experience was hidden within you; the fact that no one else was aware of what had happened; the fact that the truth that now seized your mind and heart you didn’t have words enough to articulate; none of this diminished in any way your conviction and the difference it made to you from that day.
For the believer there must be some situation in which Jesus Christ ceased to be a problem or a perplexity or the occasion of more questions than answers. He loomed before you as bedrock reality on which you could stand and from which you could gain perspective on the mirages and deceptions that had beset you and kept you off-balance. As startled as you were, however, you weren’t frightened. In fact it brought you peace. Usually we say little about such occasions. Still, we know that something has established itself so deep within us that words will never do justice to it.
In the course of my pastoral work people tell me of such experience. “It was as if someone touched me on the shoulder,” said one man to me. Others hear that voice in their hearts. Some know that gentle breath on the face during prayer. For others it is the vividness of a vision or dream—not sure if they were awake or asleep. In each case we describe such experience in terms of human experience for that is what our language permits—but the reality of his presence is not in doubt.
As we come again to witness the Transfiguration of Jesus through the eyes of Peter, James, and John and see the appearance of his face change we are confronted by their witness that Jesus is the effectual presence of God. As Jesus would say to Philip and the disciples in a few months at the supper before his arrest—“whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
2. Not only are we observing one of those “thin places” in our gospel story but it is also a pivotal event in the progress of the gospel story. Following this story Luke tells us that “he (Jesus) set his face to go to Jerusalem.” As we follow the lectionary readings this transfiguration story is always read on the last Sunday before the beginning of lent. What the church calendar tries to help us do is mark the rhythm of the year seasonally in accord with the life of our Lord. Lent turns us towards Jerusalem as well; throughout Lent we read stores of Jesus on his way there culminating in seven weeks from now with the events of Good Friday and then Easter day.
“The disciples were weighed down with sleep,” Luke tells us. I note with you that this is not the last time Peter, James, and John will fall asleep when Jesus asks them to join him in prayer. Do you, perhaps like me, find that you can doze off when praying? (It is a good thing that you are not relying solely on my praying for any need for which you ask me to pray.) Please note that Jesus never tires in prayer. And He is the one who intercedes for us before the throne of God and his intercession is effectual.
Jesus had been telling his disciples prior to this mountain visit 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.” (Luke 9: 22) For the disciples this didn’t compute and Peter took him aside to express his incredulity as such a claim. So Jesus is not getting very much support from them for what is in store at Jerusalem. Indeed, by their very demeanor and words, they are actually tugging Jesus another direction! Which brings me to this little insight into this story that only Luke gives us.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree that Jesus is seen to be in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Luke alone tells us the subject of this conversation. They “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” While the disciples may have been no help to our Lord on his mission clearly heaven is on board and responding to his prayers our Lord is sustained in the journey with this visit by Moses and Elijah. (A little aside. How do the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah? Name tags? We aren’t told other than to say that in glory, in that kingdom of perpetual light, we will know and be known. I believe this story bears witness that we will know each other in the future only our Lord can imagine for us. Here on the mount we have a tiny glimpse.)
But again to the subject of their conversation. Our English translation could be a little better at this point. The word translated “departure” is the Greek word for “exodus”. “They were speaking of his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” And, as you likely would know, in a conversation with Moses and Elijah and Jesus the word “exodus” is a loaded term. It stands for all that God did for Israel in bringing them from the bondage of slavery into the freedom of the promise land. And that Exodus foreshadows the greater Exodus our Lord would accomplish at Jerusalem in freeing us from the power and penalty of sin to bring us into the glorious kingdom of his love where love will only give way to more love; and of such kingdom there will be no end. What motivates our Lord to go? He can see that place he wishes to bring you and me and any who would cling to him in faith.
Moses is the leader who gives Israel the law; Elijah is the one who establishes the prophetic (preaching) ministry in Israel. Now, with this picture of Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah about the coming exodus in your mind, listen to what Jesus said to his disciples in one of his post-resurrection appearances. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-47) These two texts inform each other so we might know the content of that mountain conversation. Friends, this “exodus” was all for you and me.
3. In 1516 Cardinal Giuilio de Medici commissioned the Renaissance master Raphael to paint the Transfiguration. It was the last of Raphael’s painting; he worked on this painting until his death in 1520. The painting is housed today at the Vatican Pinacoteca (Art Gallery). The painting depicts the turbulence of life that swirls with the other disciples who did not go up the mountain; the turbulence that meets our Lord as he comes down from the mountain. A man desperate to see his son find release from demon possession had brought him to the disciples but to no avail. In the painting two of the figures Raphael paints are pointing up to Jesus.
CS Lewis wrote: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Both Lewis and Raphael point us to the same person.
I want to revisit a subject we have addressed before because of where we stand this morning; because we are witnessing afresh this transfiguration of Jesus; because we see Jesus in the luminosity that is his in that other world. The subject is to discern the difference between what is penultimate and ultimate; between the important matters of life and the One who is essential for life.
Pastor and author Rick Shurtz in his book Freebird: Work Free Live Free insightfully addresses this subject. He writes: “When we look to our work as if it is our means of ultimate satisfaction, we are giving work god-like status. Scripture describes this as a path of increasing sorrow. Why? Because our work will not live up to the expectations we place upon it. The same can be said of any other means for satisfaction better fit for the penultimate list. Marriage and parenting can be tremendously fulfilling but are dangerously disappointing if we expect them to be ultimate. Food and drink are wonderful gifts, but treat them as ultimate and addictions are born. Adventure and thrills make life exciting, but if we put them in the ultimate line, in time the buzz wears off, and we’re left still searching for more.”
At this transfiguration moment Jesus Christ reveals himself to be the only one truly fit of this ultimate category. Our hearts are insatiably hungry and we cannot expect to be satisfied with something small. Let your heart feast upon that which is ultimate; let it love God with everything it has. Anything penultimate will never do.
One final note. Some of you will have had that experience when your child brings this person home to meet you for the first time; this person with whom they wish to make a life. Two of my now daughters-in-law made very similar remarks after meeting me for the first time. Essentially they both said—now I know why he (meaning the son they had fallen in love with) is the way he is. The apple does not fall far from the tree, as the saying goes. (I wisely did not inquire whether this was to be taken as a positive or negative.)
We know the experience of how profoundly we are shaped in life by parents. As adults, let me ask you—who do you want to be that influence that now shapes your life? Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote about the believer’s privilege with respect to this matter. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) I cannot think of anything more glorious that looking to him and being shaped in his image.
And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Amen.