February 27, 2022
Exodus 34: 29-30
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.
Luke 9: 28-36
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Today’s sermon is titled, On Transfiguration.
About a year and a half ago, a product designer in New York city named Berk Ilhan developed a new high-tech mirror. At first glance, the mirror does not look like a mirror at all; it’s opaque, like frosted glass. You have to unlock the mirror and there is only to do that, you have to smile. You can frown at this mirror all day long and not be able to see yourself, but with one smile, the frosted glass changes in an instant to a crystal clear image of your smiling face. When I turned 50, a friend sent me a card that included 5 essential rituals for over 50; the first one on the list was always smile when you look in the mirror; I can’t say I consistently follow this advice, but I know that smiling transforms us like nothing else.
The physical act of smiling requires at least 17 different muscles and the engagement of these muscles triggers the release of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin in the brain. Neuroscientist J. Winston identified that when we see a smiling face, whether our own in a mirror, or somonelse’s, it stimulates the orbitofrontal cortex in our brains, which interprets that smile as a reward. Perhaps this is also why when we see someone smiling, we are very likely to smile ourselves, in symbiotic empathy; it is a response we learn in the first three months of our lives as infants.
All week I have been thinking about the forces that change us most visibly, so naturally, smiling was one of them. Crying is another; anger and surprise also come to mind. The story we are offered in the scriptures today is all about visible changes. The story is known as the Transfiguration, with a capital T. Transfiguration is defined as “a change in form or appearance.” This event, chronicled in three of the four gospels, is one of the most important events in the second testament in large part because it establishes a critical and binding link between Judaism and Christianity and it offers us insight, even 2000 years after the fact, into why Jesus’s teachings are essential, still.
As we spend time with the Transfiguration today, let’s keep in mind that we are offered this story just before the beginning of Lententide this coming Wednesday. Lententide, or Lent for short, is the 40 day approaching Easter when we are invited to tend to our spiritual health by taking time to reflect on how and where we are in our lives and then make an effort to change direction if need be. Traditionally, people have found meaning in giving up something for Lent as a way to meditate on the sacrifice that Jesus was called to make. There are many ways to prepare ourselves to more fully appreciate the events of Jesus’s life offered to us through the scriptures and one way is to contemplate the mystery of the Transfiguration. In this one event, Jesus was prepared for what would be the greatest trial of his life.
In the weeks since Christmas, we have studied some of the major events in Jesus’s life including his baptism, his first miracle, his first reading in the temple, subsequent miracles of healing, and teaching the multitudes that gathered around him wherever he went. He has been sorely challenged by the religious leaders of his day, the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and his identity has been questioned at every turn. Some say he is the long-awaited Messiah, some say he comes from the devil because the evil spirits obey him, and Jesus has already informed his disciples that he will soon suffer greatly and then leave this earth. The disciples are bewildered and heartbroken, understandably, for Jesus is their beloved teacher that so recently found them; the disciples have given up everything to follow him and now he says he must leave them?
I imagine Jesus knows the disciples need some reassurance; perhaps Jesus needs some reassurance, too. He invites three disciples to come with him to the mountain and it is in that high place that Peter, James and John bear witness to the transfiguration of Jesus. “His face changed and his clothes became a dazzling white.” The disciples would have a frame of reference for such a change, for they had grown up with the story of Moses and how his face was so full of light after receiving the ten commandments that Moses had to wear a veil to hide his brilliance. Appearing in this vision are the most beloved Hebrew prophets and they are speaking with Jesus about “his coming departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.”
The appearance of Moses and Elijah at this critical moment is profoundly important because it reveals in radiant glory the connection of all the work of the former Hebrew prophets to the work and ministry of Jesus. For over a thousand years, prophets had been guiding the Hebrew people to turn their minds to one God, to Yahweh, and to live in covenant with trust in God. The appearance of the prophets offered levity and legitimacy to the work of Jesus. Jesus was the bearer of the prophets’ message to “love God with all your soul, with all your heart and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is often credited as the original author of these teachings, but these are first testament teachings from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. These teachings formed the foundation of Jesus’s ministry and forever forged the sacred connection of our Judeo-Christian tradition.
So the appearance of Moses and Elijah are extremely significant, as is the cloud which, all through many writings of the first testament, represents the presence of God. If there is any mistake about it, the disciples hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” Listen to him, for he bears the message of the former prophets; listen to him, for he is my Son; he is my Chosen.
And we, my Friends, are his. We are all seekers of the Way of Love; why else would we be here? And here in this mystical story we are reminded that the very source of the love in which we strive to live is really the only thing capable of transfiguring us, from the inside out. But it will not happen unless we allow it, unless we invite it, unless we give ourselves over to the Way of Love.
It takes great faith to live in love because living in love is not a passive experience. It takes work. It requires letting go of all we think we know, and it requires holding on to one thing above all others. Living in love means we are intolerant of war and aggression as means to an end. Living in love requires us to be ever-vigilant about the balances of power at play in our families, our communities, our nation, and on the world stage, lest we become bullies ourselves. Living in love demands the responsible use of our freedom to bring liberty and justice for all people. Living in love takes work and that work changes us, transfigures us.
In closing and as we enter intentionally into this season of Lententide, we are invited to make space and time to consider our lives, our spirits. How are we? Where are we struggling? Where are we thriving? What changes do we need? What changes do we desire? We are reminded through the Transfiguration that if we allow the love that is God to work in and through us, we will experience changes within that will manifest in our outer form. We, too, shall be transfigured, if we allow. We will become advocates for peace and justice. And we will smile with the radiance of the Holy Spirit of God. So may it be. Amen.
Dearest Beloved, we come again to this quiet place, where the concerns that press most heavily upon us can rise to the very surface of our awareness. With the illumination of Your Holy Light, help us to see more clearly what we need to hold onto, what we need to work through, and what we need to let go of. Remind us, when we question, that Your presence is alive within us, preceding before us, inspiring us in the moment, and supporting us when we falter. We ask blessings on those who are without, those who are in pain, those who are frightened and especially those who find themselves caught in war. When we are in need of guidance and reassurance, turn our minds to remember the power of prayer, especially this prayer that Jesus gave to us so long ago… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the book of Thessalonians, chapter 5:
“May the God of Peace sanctify you completely, and may your spirit and soul and body be sound.”