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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Transfiguration 2/14

The story of the Transfiguration brings to an end the first part of the church year that began at the end of November with the start of Advent.  Thinking about it that way, Christmas, the Incarnation of our Lord, and the Transfiguration of our Lord provide brackets or bookends marking the beginning and the end of the Christmas cycle.  Obviously in practice Christmas gets a lot more play as a major religious and cultural festival and because of that pretty much everyone knows at least some of the story, some of what Christmas is all about.  

The Transfiguration is another important festival day, not quite at the same level as Christmas, but it’s important, and regular church goers are probably somewhat familiar with the story as it is heard every year but that’s probably about it.  It’s not one that popular culture has adopted in part because it’s just a little too strange what with Jesus up on the mountain with three of his disciples when suddenly his appearance changes, his clothes become dazzling white, in some of the accounts his face shines like the sun, Moses and Elijah show up and talk to Jesus and the disciples are understandably confused and afraid, there’s a cloud and a voice that echoes the voice at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” 

It really is a marvelous story and it’s all very visual and very descriptive so you can picture it in your mind; but even for those who love the wonder and mystery of the Christmas story, who are OK with things like miracles and angelic messengers, even for those who can easily embrace the death to life miracle of Easter, the mystery of the Transfiguration is a bit much. 

Yet this event, this story encompasses and highlights much of what is accepted as core Christian belief.  It is appropriate that this story is heard every year as the last word of the Epiphany season because it’s pretty clear that the writers of the gospels believed that this story is a key to understanding who Jesus is as in the light of the Transfiguration, the divine nature of Jesus is revealed.

That revelation is important.  You probably know that one of the core doctrines regarding Jesus is that he is fully human and fully divine, the doctrine of the two natures it is called.  It’s what the early church came up with as they tried to understand Jesus and it’s a good doctrine even if it is pretty hard to wrap our minds around.  It’s easier to picture Jesus as human some of the time and divine some of the time, and that was one of the options that was discussed in the early church councils; but for theological reasons they settled on fully human and fully divine at the same time even though logic and reason make it hard to comprehend.   

Christmas and Transfiguration as bookends to the first part of the church year are festivals and stories that get at the divine/human nature of Jesus.  You could say that Christmas focuses on the human side of Jesus as the divine takes on flesh.  The Transfiguration then points in the divine direction as the glory of God is revealed in the human Jesus as his appearance changes on the mountain. 

Again though, what gets confusing about this is that while Jesus’ appearance changes, we say that his essence remains the same, again that essence being that while appearing human beginning in the manger in Bethlehem he is still fully divine, while appearing divine as he does on the mountain of Transfiguration he is still fully human all of which can make us fully confused.  Because of that I don’t want to belabor this; ultimately, for most of us this doctrine of the two natures becomes something that we accept as an article of faith, the whys and the wherefores of it we leave for theologians to speculate upon and they do.  “But what concern is that to you and to me?” as Jesus said to his mother when the wine at the wedding ran out.  Let me see if I can get at that without further confusing you.

Up on the mountain of Transfiguration, Peter, James and John got a glimpse of God’s glory in Jesus.  The Jesus they saw up there was not their teacher and their friend; he was other, wholly other and you can spell wholly w-h-o-l-l-y or h-o-l-y and it doesn’t really matter because Jesus was both.  This vision on the mountain though, highlights Jesus’ divine nature.  But what do you do in the presence of the divine, in the presence of one who is wholly other?  Not much.  You might worship, you might get down on your knees and worship.  You might say, “Get away from me I’m a sinful man,” like Peter did last week, you might say something silly, not knowing what you said, like Peter did this week.  This side of Jesus though, this divine side, does not easily invite relationship.  Instead it demands fear and trembling.

When we think about God, we need that fear and trembling, that awe especially when faith gets a little too cozy and comfortable, when faith gets a little too demanding from our side, when a lot of our faith is about getting something from God.  I think Christian’s can have a tendency to lean toward cozy and comfortable and take the awe out of God.  I read though, that when you ask Jews to identify the one word that first comes to mind when they think about God, the word that is most frequently referenced is “holy.”  That’s the refrain that’s repeated in today’s psalm.  “God is the holy one.”    When you ask Christians the same question, the most frequent answer is “love,” God is love.  It’s not a right and wrong thing; they’re both good answers, but you see the difference.  You see why we’re not so comfortable with the Jesus of Transfiguration, the fully divine, holy Jesus.  That Jesus is not very approachable.

We do need that wholly other dimension of Jesus, that wholly other dimension of God, like we glimpse in the Transfiguration.  But we need relationship with God too.  And what’s interesting is that the God of the Bible also seems to need relationship or at least to want relationship.  The relationship is a two way street and somehow, at least some of the people of Israel in the Old Testament knew that.  They understood their God to be holy and wholly other yet they dared to approach this seemingly unapproachable God and I find that remarkable. 

The psalms are the best example of this revealing as they do a dialogue with God that includes praise and petition to be sure, what we normally think of as prayer, but also lament and demand and question, approaching God almost as equals…and God is OK with it!  In some Old Testament dialogues God does play the “because I’m God and you’re not” card, but even then there is an answer.  From God’s side there is a desire for relationship.       

          For us as Christians, God’s desire for relationship is most dramatically played out in the first bookend to this season, the Incarnation, as God becomes flesh in Jesus.  In Jesus, the unapproachable God becomes clearly approachable, fully approachable and I have to think that that was part of God’s plan in becoming human.  If there was any doubt about God’s desire for relationship, God’s willingness to be approached, it was removed in the fully human Jesus and we need that dimension of Jesus too.

          We don’t have to understand the complicated, metaphysical, Christological theology that went into the formulation of the doctrine of two natures.  What we have to understand is that this doctrine describes the Jesus that we need.  We need the fully human Jesus, but when the relationship gets too casual and cozy, we need the fully divine Jesus as revealed in the Transfiguration.  But when our image of God seems too distant, too wholly other, when awe becomes fear and nothing else, we need the fully human Jesus revealed in the manger and on the cross because we need to know the relationship that’s possible; we need to know the God who cares enough to die for us. 

          That’s where we go from here starting on Wednesday.  We come down from the mountain and head toward the valley of Lent moving toward the cross with the fully human, fully divine Jesus, the Jesus that we need.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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