Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today, Transfiguration Sunday, is the hinge between Epiphany and Lent. It’s the last Sunday of Epiphany, where the focus has been on Jesus being revealed to the world for the world. Transfiguration is also the last Sunday before we enter the season of Lent. Starting this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we will begin this season of prayer and repentance. Together, we intentionally set aside our joy, our celebrations, and our Alleluias. And in their place, our focus is turned in humility to our God. It’s a somber and solemn time that, quite frankly, many of us are uncomfortable with.
I first experienced this in college, when I was involved in helping to plan some Lenten services. We had just broken into smaller groups to talk about our part of the project when one person blurted out, “Yeah, I don’t do Lent. My church says that we already know how the story ends, so why would you go around feeling bad for so long? Besides, it’s just way too ‘Catholic’ to be anything worth doing.” I’ll be honest that I was caught off guard by that statement. I don’t remember exactly how I responded, but I’m sure it wasn’t the best. This person was honestly voicing the concerns she had over this season we’re about to enter. And my guess is, there are a number of us who feel the same way this morning. Maybe Lent isn’t you’ve favorite season. Maybe you’re not looking forward to all those hymns that feel like funeral marches. Maybe you know how the story ends and are uncomfortable with all this intentional melancholy along the way. You’d much rather just skip right to Easter. Forget the pain, forget the sadness, forget the cross, just go right for the heart of the matter. The rest is just details, right? Go for the glory and lose the suffering.
Today’s account of Jesus’ Transfiguration shatters that hope. As much as we’d like to skip over the stuff that we don’t like, it’s an integral part of the picture as a whole. Lose the suffering and you lose the glory. There is no glory apart from suffering.
On that mountain, we get a blast of God’s glory. Jesus and a few of His disciples go up to pray. While there, the appearance of Jesus’ face is changed, and His clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear in glory, as Luke records. The glory-cloud of God shows up, envelopes the entire group of people. And you can’t miss the Father’s voice speaking from that cloud, claiming Jesus as His Son, chosen for a purpose. This literal mountaintop experience mirrors the many events in Moses’ life up the mountain: the Burning Bush on Mount Horeb, receiving the Law on Mount Sinai, and as we heard this morning, passing away and being buried by God on Mount Nebo. It mirrors the mountaintop experiences of Elijah: defeating the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and meeting God after hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb.
But there’s more going on here than a simple display of power. As Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking, their conversation centers around one thing. They were focused on Jesus’ departure, which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. In the midst of this cloud and majesty and awe, these saintly men and the Messiah were talking about pain and suffering and death. They talked about the end of Jesus’ life, about how He would be betrayed into the hands of lawless men, how He would be beaten and mocked and nailed to a tree, how He would die and be buried. In the midst of all this glory, there was suffering and sorrow.
If that weren’t enough, all we would have to do is take the Voice from the Cloud at His Word and “listen to” Jesus. Immediately before this Transfiguration, Luke records these words from Jesus, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. … If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” And shortly after this Transfiguration, Jesus says, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.”
Before, during, and after this brief glimpse of glory, Jesus speaks about His coming death. He speaks of the pain and suffering, the sorrow and shame that are part and parcel of this glory yet to come. There is no glory without suffering.
In many ways, this Transfiguration is a picture of the Christian life. We know how the story ends. We know that Christ will come again, our bodies will be raised, and we will spend eternity with our God in the new heavens and new earth. We know that we will be like God, glorified and bringing Him glory. It’s a picture of great power and splendor and beauty. But we’re not fully there yet. We live in a world of suffering of our own making. Our continuous, constant rebellion against God pits us against the Almighty, all-powerful Creator. He wants only good for us, yet we create evil. He has worked, and is working, to bring about salvation, yet humanity damns itself. We lash out against our spouse, speaking words we don’t really mean and never thought we’d say. We jostle and maneuver and sabotage to get ahead at work and attempt justify our actions with, “Well, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. If I didn’t do it to them, they’d do it to me.” We form mobs in person and online and attack those who are different from us, hurling both insults and stones.
And so, we must enter a season of prayer and repentance. This time of Lent is meant to remind you that your sins condemn Jesus to die. It’s meant to peel back your pride, to tear down your temper, and to destroy your demonic deeds. Lent is supposed to make you feel bad because you should feel bad. Lent is the reality check that you and I need time and time again. It’s a time of self-denial and of joining Jesus in His suffering so that we may join Him in His glory.
It’s part of our lives as Christians. To be sure, it’s not our entire life. We don’t go around feeling sorry for ourselves all the time, beating ourselves up any time we do something wrong here or there. But we do need to remember that we’re not home yet. This broken world is not all that there is. We have not yet been glorified with Christ. The end has not yet come.
Days like today keep us going. We climb the mountain with Jesus and we see the glory that’s coming off in the distance. But we know there’s plenty of grief between here and there. So we catch our breath, sing our alleluias, and follow Jesus back down the mountain into the season of Lent. He’s the same Jesus there as He is here, if only we have eyes to see. May God bless our time of prayer and repentance this Lenten season. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell