Pastor Joe Skogmo
Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church in Lowry, MN
Transfiguration Sunday – 03.02.2014
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Now, we have fast-forwarded quite a bit since last week. Last week we finished up Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5 of Matthew, and now we’ve fast-forwarded to chapter 17. Briefly, here’s what we missed: Jesus set out towards Galilee and ministered in other regions of northern Palestine. As he wandered around he gained popularity as he taught, healed, exorcised demons, fed thousands, and served.
Now, in chapter 17, after setting out to the Palestinian countryside, after months of this ministry, Jesus makes a fateful geographical turn and sets his course towards the Holy City, Jerusalem. And we, too, are making a turn of sorts this Sunday as Epiphany comes to a close and the season of Lent begins on Wednesday.
All of these turns, our seasonal turn and the fateful geographical turn of our Savior, are framed by the story of the Transfiguration.
The text we just heard (Matthew 17:1-9), the story of the Transfiguration is nothing short of awesome and bizarre. It involves Jesus and his disciples, they go to a mountain top, Jesus’ clothes change colors, Moses and Elijah show up seemingly out of nowhere, Peter subsequently wants to build dwellings, a cloud speaks, declares Jesus as God’s beloved Son, and shouts the order: “Listen to him!” Moses and Elijah disappear, and Jesus ends this wild story by heading back down the mountain, and orders his disciples not to tell anyone what just happened.
…Well…what in the world DID just happen!? This whole sequence sounds like the dreams I have when I’m on Nyquil. And if this seemingly hallucinogenic story leaves you confused, I assure you that you are not alone. One New Testament scholar affirms that “for modern readers, the story of the transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most difficult…”
And I would add that this event is not only a difficult one for modern readers. In Mark’s account of the Transfiguration, it says that the disciples “did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mark 9:6). And here in Matthew, the disciples fall to the ground in fear. Likewise, Peter’s line after witnessing what just happened is awkward and confused. It’s almost as if he said things just to say things. He bumbled out: “Uhh, Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings…for you, Moses, and uhh Elijah” (Matt 17:4). And while he’s fumbling his unsolicited response to the situation, Peter is interrupted by a cloud, of course, and the cloud doesn’t even acknowledge what Peter had to say.
What was Peter trying to say? Well, to be fair to Peter, he was trying to make his own sense of what he was seeing. He saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus—Moses representing the Commandments given at Sinai, and Elijah, one of the earliest prophets of Israel (these are big hitters of Israel’s history) and Peter thinks…We’ve got to commemorate this! Look who’s here! Let’s build something!
Nevertheless, God speaks through a cloud, interrupting the futile human attempt to make sense of the event, and states plainly: “This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him!” (17:5). Almost as if saying, “Chill out. That’s all you need to know.”
For us modern people hearing this complex and wild story, perhaps the same needs to be said to us. “Chill out…don’t be distracted. Just know this: this is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”
We may still want to know how this whole Transfiguration thing works—how did the clothes change colors? How does a cloud speak? WHY did a cloud speak? Why don’t you throw crazy mountain parties like this anymore?… “Chill out. This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.”
There is so much to wonder about with this phenomenal event, but really, this is all pretty basic. The Transfiguration story, as wild as the details and imagery are, the Transfiguration is as basic: it is Jesus’ confirmation day. All the grandeur, all the splendor, the white clothes, the host of titan biblical figures like Moses and Elijah, the mountaintop location…it’s easy to get distracted, like Peter did. But the cloud interprets the story for us—“This is my Son, the Beloved.” Think of it as something like Jesus’ affirmation of baptism (Matt 3), or Jesus’ confirmation day—confirmation of Jesus’ Sonship, confirmation of Jesus’ authority, confirmation of Jesus’ holiness.
But this story isn’t over yet. For what is Jesus being confirmed?
What is important to note is that Jesus came down. Jesus could have stayed at the top of the mountain; he could have taken Peter’s suggestions and set up camp but Jesus came down the mountain, his business still unfinished. He didn’t stay on that mountain and chum it up with Israel’s big hitters and build a little shrine to himself after being confirmed the Son of God, the Beloved. He also didn’t rub it in his disciples’ faces, “I told you so! I’ve been telling you, the Creator of the Universe and I…” Instead he comforted his disciples to “not be afraid,” (17:7), he came back down, and set his course towards Jerusalem.
So, for what was Jesus confirmed? For what was Jesus Transfigured and labeled with the holiest of titles? To come down. To comfort his people. To finish his ministry, onward to Jerusalem for that final, sacred week.
The most basic yet wonderful message of this fateful turn from the Transfiguration is this: Jesus was confirmed in authority and divinity, and the One of authority and divinity comes down.
That is his nature. He comes down from the high mountain of grandeur, safety, and security, down to earth, to a suffering world that needs him. One professor adds, he comes “down into the nitty-gritty details of misunderstanding…[down to and with fumbling, impatient,] disbelieving disciples; down into the religious and political quarrels of the day. Down into the jealousies and rivals both petty and gigantic that color our relationships. Down into the poverty and pain that are part and parcel of our life in this world. Down. Jesus came down.” He came down from that mountain in your story today and he headed towards death and resurrection…and he comes down into our lives and into our communities to be with his people, following us into death, and resurrection, giving us forgiveness, life, empowerment, purpose, strength, and peace.
Here ends Epiphany, from the mount of the Transfiguration, Jesus the Son, the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased, he comes down, down from one mount and he fatefully heads to another mount, the mount of the cross. Amen.
 Douglass A Hare, Matthew, in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 198.
 Walter Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 171.
 David J. Lose, He Came Down, workingpreacher.org (02/12/2012), http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=557.
 (*Paraphrased) Professor Mark Throntveit quoted— Quoted by Rolf Jacobson, Transfiguration Sunday, Sermon Brainwave, Podcast #340, http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=481.