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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Transfiguration 02/23/2020

Three weeks ago, Jesus went up on a mountain to deliver what we call the Sermon on the Mount. In our gospel readings he was there for three Sundays, but today he climbs a different mountain where he is transfigured in the presence of three of his disciples and two great figures from the past, Moses the law giver and Elijah the prophet. In Matthew’s telling of it, the Transfiguration account continues his Jesus/Moses connection that started with the birth and infancy narrative, now with Moses actually present with Jesus on the mountain and also in what happened there, in how Jesus’ face and garments became dazzling white similar to how, after being in the presence of the Lord, the face of Moses shined when he came down from the mountain.

In the Lutheran church the Transfiguration is always the last Sunday of the Epiphany season. When the green hymnal came out in the early 70s it was moved from August 6th, the day it’s observed in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions I assume because a major theme of the Epiphany season has to do with the identity of Jesus being revealed and that’s what the Transfiguration is about. In previous weeks there have been hints that Jesus was more than another teacher and prophet, especially in the story of his baptism, always the first Sunday of the Epiphany season, but in the Transfiguration his divine identity becomes dazzlingly clear.

I have to confess though that early in my time as a pastor I struggled with the Transfiguration or to put it another way, I just didn’t like it; it was just too weird, too hard to preach on. I was wanting to make rational, intellectual, Lutheran sense of it and someone’s face shining like the sun and his garments suddenly becoming dazzlingly bright doesn’t fit into all that. Visitors from the past like Moses and Elijah who are there and then suddenly disappear doesn’t fit into all that either and neither does a voice coming out of a cloud, so I didn’t like it; there were even a couple of years I made a point of being gone on Transfiguration Sunday so I didn’t have to deal with it, it bothered me that much.

I’m better with it now, better with the Transfiguration, mostly because as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten weirder, or maybe a better way to put it is that I have become more open to weirdness, or better yet, I’ve come to be more open to the wonder and mystery of it all, to understand that not everything can be explained by logic and reason and the use of our senses, but that doesn’t mean that those things are any less real or true than those things that can be explained by logic and reason and the use of our senses. It’s a different kind of reality and truth though, and to perceive it requires a different kind of vision.

You know that there are lots of stories about Jesus healing the blind, all the gospels include them. Well, in my increasing weirdness I think the story of the Transfiguration is another eyesight to the blind story and I found support for this notion in the early tradition of the church, so it’s not just me. This more imaginative way of thinking about the Bible has been around for a long time, it just got overshadowed by other ways of thinking but maybe it’s coming back.

Anyway, I found a discourse written by St. Gregory of Palamas who was the Archbishop of Thessalonica back in the 1300’s. What he suggested some 700 years ago was that the Transfiguration was as much about Peter, James and John as it was about Jesus. What Peter, James and John witnessed and experienced on the mountain was not available to them through normal sensory channels. Instead, by the work of the Holy Spirit there was a transformation of their senses so that they became aware of the divine light of Jesus, light that had always been there but which they had been blind to. Having their vision transformed though, for a brief moment they were able to see that light and divine presence. In a deeper way, their eyes had been opened so that a different vision of reality was available to them, a different vision of Jesus was available to them. Eyes that had been blind could now see.

What you could say is that in the moment, Peter, James and John were able to see with eyes of faith. Those three fishermen who were closer to Jesus than anyone, were healed of blindness that caused them to only see and understand Jesus according to normal ways of looking at things, ways that could be easily explained. Before going up on that mountain with Jesus they hadn’t been able to understand anything about him apart from what was known through their senses; they were only aware of Jesus’ human nature. But now they could see the light of Jesus’ divine nature; another dimension was open to them. They were enlightened by the power of the Holy Spirit and open to the mystery. Jesus hadn’t changed, but their vision of him had.

In my reading and studying of the Bible, I become more and more convinced that certain people, people like those who wrote the Old Testament stories along with the prophets, the apostles, the evangelists and early fathers of the church, certain people who, guided by the Holy Spirit, were blessed with vision that enabled them to see beyond the surface of things and thus perceive things that most people couldn’t. In their time and place, many of them were considered weird but they provide a vision into a different dimension, they provide a glimpse of the divine.

Most of us don’t have that kind of vision; I certainly don’t pretend to. But when I say I’ve gotten weirder over the years what I mean is that I’m more open to the idea that some people have had such vision and…as we are open to the wonder and mystery of it, the rest of us are invited to see with their eyes.

I don’t know what Peter, James and John saw that day but something happened that caused them to see Jesus differently. Maybe they didn’t talk about it until after Jesus was raised from the dead because he told them not to, but then, they began to figure it out and they talked about what they had experienced. Hearing their stories as they were passed on, evangelists like Matthew, Mark and Luke had their eyes opened so that in their writings they were able to describe the different reality of Jesus and to imaginatively convey the meaning of what had happened, that meaning including the truth that in Jesus the fullness of God was present, the fullness of the Lord, the God of Moses and Elijah.

In what they experienced, the divine nature of Jesus was revealed to Peter, James and John. In the immediate presence of the divine, they reacted as any of us would; they were overcome with fear. We might think we’d like to be privy to such an encounter but I think we’d wind up on the ground with the disciples, cowering in fear. But then, with Peter, James and John cowering in fear, overwhelmed by the presence of the divine nature of Jesus, in the way that Matthew tells it, Jesus then reaches out and touches them and says, “Do not be afraid.”

Jesus touched them; it seems like such a little thing and Matthew is the only one who includes this detail, but think about the power of touch. If a child is afraid, what do you do? You don’t just say, “Don’t be afraid;” you hold them; you touch them. Into this awe inspiring and fear inspiring revelation of Jesus’ divine nature, Matthew inserts this very human act of touching. The early church settled on the doctrine of the two natures, that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, and in this account, Matthew describes Jesus as possessing those two natures about as well as it is described anywhere in the gospels. Out of his divine majesty, Jesus came and touched them and said, “Do not be afraid.”

We do need both natures. We need to know about Jesus’ awe-inspiring divine nature because if he was only human, if he was only a teacher and prophet, as much as we could learn from him, he couldn’t save us, he couldn’t restore our broken relationship with God. But we also need to know that in his humanity he comes among us to reach out and touch us and to say, “Do not be afraid.” In the story of the Transfiguration, it’s all there.

It is a strange story, weird as I said; but I hope you can join me in my increasing weirdness and see that it’s the story we need, the reality we need, the vision we need, not just here at the end of the Epiphany season, but always.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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