Now, how many of you, as you hear these words again, think of things going on in our time—news headlines or recent protests, Facebook or Twitter posts, popular sitcoms or movies, Senate committee hearings or Supreme Court decisions? How many of us honestly admit that even we too have these same disruptive loves, desires, and passions? After all, such things well up and bubble forth from our fallen, sinful hearts. It certainly adds new depth of meaning to the Bible’s words being “the prophetic word” and “a lamp shining in a dark place,” doesn’t it? And, as our Epistle reading exhorts us, we “will do well to pay attention.”
Enter Jesus and His glorious transfiguration in our Gospel reading. To set this brilliant scene in its proper light, let’s back up into Matthew chapter 16. Jesus quizzes His twelve disciples on who He, the Son of Man, is. Some were saying John the Baptist, others, Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or some other prophet. Jesus turns the question on the Twelve. Peter boldly answers: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). “Well done, Peter,” Jesus responds. This confession of faith does not come from flesh and blood, but from God Himself. Jesus promises to build His Church on this very confession. And not even the gates of Hell can prevail against Jesus’ Church as she confesses Him. Then Jesus talks about going to Jerusalem, about suffering many things, about being killed, and about rising on the third day. But Peter cannot stomach that! He tries to save Jesus from Himself. Then Jesus rebukes Peter for setting his mind on the things of man rather than the things of God. Then Jesus speaks of followers following Him by denying self, taking up a cross, and losing life. The dark shadow of the cross suddenly looms large.
Fast forward six days. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain, probably Mt. Tabor. Crucial things in God’s saving plan often take place on mountains. Then it happens. Jesus’ appearance suddenly transforms in a bright, radiant, glorious metamorphosis—His face radiating like the sun, His clothing as white as pure light. This was no Hollywood spotlight beaming onto Him; this was pure light coming from Him. He is the source of this light. After all, He is the light of the world, and whoever follows Him will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (cf. John 8:12). Not only that, but in the Kingdom to Come, that eternal city which God will give to His faithful people “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
The Greek word for “He was transfigured” is the word from which we get “metamorphosis.” When you look up “metamorphosis” in Merriam-Webster, you get these meanings: first, a “change of physical form, structure, or substance by supernatural means,” and second, “a striking alteration in appearance, character, or circumstances.” That’s most certainly true for Jesus on the mountaintop. The real question is, why? Why does Jesus show this change of His physical form? Why this striking alteration in His appearance?
Remember, Peter had just made that glorious, brilliant confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Remember, Peter had just rebuked His Savior for merely speaking of suffering and going to a cross. Remember, Jesus had just spoken of self-denial, taking up crosses, and losing one's life as hallmarks of following Him. And remember, just like Peter, we do not like to hear such things either. Even less do we like to experience them, that is, suffer them.
What’s even more radical is that Jesus Himself would actually show the way. He Himself would come down from that glorious mountain of metamorphosis. He would once again hide His glorious appearance. He Himself would walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He would suffer in the garden. He would be arrested. He would be falsely tried and unjustly convicted. He would carry His own cross to Golgotha. He would feel the heavy nails piercing His wrists and feet. He would experience the lifting of the cross into its place in the stone. He would feel the weight of His body against His hands pulling out from the horizontal beam. He would willingly give up His last breath. In fact, all of this is what Jesus and Moses and Elijah were discussing, even in the midst of the glorious metamorphosis. Luke’s account says they “spoke of His departure” (Lk. 9:31)—literally, His “exodus,” His work of leading His people out of slavery, not from Egypt, but from sin, death, and devil, from all the self-centered things that Paul says will come—and do come—in these last days.
Knowing all this lay ahead of Him, our Lord Jesus wanted to give just a glimpse of His glory. Why? In order to sustain and strengthen His world-weary disciples—not only Peter, James, and John, but us too. You see, as glorious as His mountaintop metamorphosis was, Jesus’ real glory is revealed most brilliantly in the shadows of His suffering and the darkness of His death. In His transfiguration, Jesus reveals His true “exodus.” He leads God’s people—you and me included—through the gates of death into His eternal life. Now that’s a genuine metamorphosis!
And so the voice from heaven—God the Father—proclaims the same thing we heard at Jesus’ Baptism: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” But now the Father adds a crucial, life-giving command: “Listen to Him.” You see, Jesus alone has the words of eternal life. So God the Father tell us to listen to His beloved Son alone. Moses and Elijah also direct us to the Savior. As Moses once said, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). Not the decaying world, lunging headlong into deep, dark death. Not the sin-tainted voices in our own heads and hearts that lead us to be “ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control” or even “swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”
Rather, “Listen to Him.” Listen to this Jesus who transfigures Himself so that He can transfigure you. His metamorphosis is no shallow show or trivial rebranding. His metamorphosis is meant to sustain and strengthen you, because this is what He works in you and me, both now and into eternity.
This Greek word for “metamorphosis” also gets used of Christians—even in this life, in this fallen world. Hear this exhortation from St. Paul in Romans 12: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed—metamorphosed—by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (v. 2). When you listen to your Savior Jesus, the Word of life, you hear His words of life and forgiveness and salvation. And you are transformed—metamorphosed. Because of Jesus and His glorious cross, you get to have a striking alteration in your character and circumstances. The times of difficulty need not perplex you or depress you. Instead of being a lover of self, you become a lover of God in Christ. You become a lover of your neighbor too.
Also, hear this proclamation from St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed—are being metamorphosed—into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (v. 18). New life in Christ; new character; new circumstances. Whatever your vocations—male or female; mother, father, or child; in the family, in the workplace, or in the Church—you now live as God’s glorious child. However mundane your work, however hectic your home life, you are being transformed into the image of Christ, now and into eternity.
How can you be sure of this, even in these times of difficulty? Ponder what we are about to do yet again, here, this morning, around this altar. Here, even today, Jesus is still transformed. He was transformed—metamorphosed—from humility into glory. Now He comes transformed in the bread and wine of His holy meal. And not only that, but there’s still another transfiguration yet to come. Our God will take our bodies and transform them into bodies just like the body of Jesus. Today, again, in the Sacrament our God begins to transform our bodies to be like the glorious body of His Son Jesus Christ. “And in the twinkling of an eye we shall be changed. The final chapter of the transfiguration has not been written. When it is written, we will be a part of it: a final metamorphosis; a final transformation; a final transfiguration; a final resurrection” (Scaer, In Christ). Amen.