Today’s gospel reading reminds me of a story. There were two friends, Dexter and Howard, sitting in a bar drinking and watching the ten o’clock news when a story of a fellow up on the side of a building came on. The man was threatening to jump. Dexter turned to Howard and said, “I’ll bet you $10 he doesn’t jump.” To which Howard said, “Done!” They continued to watch the drama of people trying to talk with the desperate man, but then suddenly, the man stood up on the ledge and jumped!. The two friends stared at the TV screen and then Dexter shook his head and pulled out his wallet and passed a $10 bill to Howard. Howard looked a bit sheepish and said, “I really can’t take the money. You see, I saw this story on the 5 o’clock news today.” Dexter said, “No, here take it. I saw it too. But I didn’t think he would do it again!” For Dexter, the jump was totally unexpected.
Today is the Last Sunday in the Season after the Epiphany. And on this weekend the readings are always of the Transfiguration. There is a reason for this. Epiphany and the season that follows it are readings that show us Christ’s divinity. The readings are about people suddenly seeing him in a different light. The last few weeks we have looked at readings from the Sermon on the Mount. You should be aware that his teachings here were totally new from anything people had ever heard. This new way of behavior Jesus describes is like seeing colors that had never before been seen. And then today three disciples see Jesus transfigured on the mountain. He goes up looking like an ordinary fellow looking like he always did. And then he is transfigured into this powerful being of blazing light! And they see him talking with Moses and Elijah. This transfiguration was totally unexpected.
Transfigurations in our society are big business. People alter their faces and their bodies in order to project themselves more favorably. Hence we have multi-billion dollar industries of make-up, plastic surgeries and clothing. Sometimes people change not just their looks but even their names. Issur Danielovitch Densky did not think his name projected the type of person he thought people would be interested in so he changed his name and became Kirk Douglas. In the same way, Frances Gum changed her name and became Judy Garland. Archibald Leach became the suave Cary Grant. And would you have paid money to see Marion Morrison in the movies? Maybe, but Marion didn’t take that chance, so he became John Wayne. Would you purchase a ticket for a minimum of $264 to see a performance by a girl named Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta? She didn’t think so, and she became Lady Ga Ga. Names can make a difference in how a person is perceived.
In light of those facts it is interesting, is it not, that our Lord did just the opposite. He hid his transfiguration. If he had appeared in his everyday life like he appeared on the mountain, there would have been no doubt that he was the Messiah. There would have been no doubt that he was the Son of God. Can you imagine the effect, the commotion he would have caused with his face glowing like the sun, his clothes glowing white wherever he went? So why didn’t he do this? The whole Jewish nation would have been behind him. In that superstitious age even the Romans and all the others in their empire would have acknowledged him as the Son of God. But Jesus didn’t do that nor he change his name and call himself Emmanuel (which means God with us) instead he kept his name Jesus which was a common enough name in his day. It was the Aramaic version of the name Joshua. So he was known as Joshua son of Joseph. Jesus deliberately chose a subdued presence and persona. So why did he do it? We have these questions because now we see how he really looked; Peter, James and John saw for just a short time how the angels saw him, how the demons saw him; they saw him with his power and glory, authority and majesty. When we see this we wonder why did he go around veiled when he could have been unveiled? He would have blown the socks off of everyone by just showing who he really was, so why didn’t he do it?
We find two answers to this in the Scriptures. The first in Philippians, there we read that Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a servant. He humbled himself and became obedient to even death on a cross. The cross, remember, was used for the execution of the very lowest scum in society. So the first reason we see is that Jesus emptied himself; He chose not to come in his power and authority; he chose to take the form of a servant, and died choosing to obey what the Father told him to do. Secondly in the letter to the Hebrews we are told that since Jesus came like he did, since he was tested and tempted in all the ways we are he is able to sympathize with us and with our weaknesses. He emptied himself of his royal splendor and power so he could be one of us. He emptied himself so he could relate to us and so we would be able to relate to him.
That’s why the people of his day could not get enough of him. They crowded around him and hung on his words, they hung on what he did, and they desired to simply be in his presence. Can you imagine it? They had the opportunity to hang out with God on the earth! They did not know that exactly but when they got close to him they felt God’s presence! Would you be willing to walk some miles for that? Would you be willing to devote hours maybe even days to be in His presence, to listen to him, to watch him? Yeah! I know I would. And if we look at the people who were his disciples we see that He challenged them with his teachings, his deeds, and his very presence. And we see that these men were changed; they were transformed. So ironically, what Jesus did through his un-transfigured life was to set the stage for the transformation of those who would follow him.
The miracle that took place on the mountain of transfiguration is not so much that Jesus was transfigured for a few hours on the mountain, but the miracle we see is his whole life here on earth, from being a baby to being crucified. His entire life among us was un-transfigured; he was veiled. This life he chose was what was so unexpected. There have been many people who through the years have claimed to be divine. In fact, even in the days of Jesus, Augustus Caesar in Rome claimed to be a god. He claimed power through his armies and military victories. As the years have passed, many others have claimed to be gods. They demanded their followers worship and obey them. Yet, there was quite a difference between them and Jesus. Jesus, God in human form, voluntarily emptied himself and became a servant; He became obedient to even death on a cross. It is through the veiled life of Jesus we see something different, we see what is totally unexpected. Through his life we see God’s great love for us. Why did he do it; why did he live like this? Because God so loved the world, because Christ so loved the world. So through His life we see his love but not only that we could see how life should be lived.
And so how do we respond to such love? How do we respond to such a God? His love is what transforms and changes us. We don’t need plastic surgery or name changes. Jesus calls His followers to follow him and be changed. So just like his disciples who followed him and who gave all that they were and all they had and were transformed, let us let Jesus transform our lives. In response to his love for us let us desire to learn more about him through reading and meditating on God’s word. In response to his love let us choose to serve him and to serve those around us. In response to his love let us learn to give back a portion of the money he has given to us. Let us be completely transformed as we give our lives and all that we are and have to follow him just like his disciples did. And just like God used His disciples to change the world; may God use us to change the world around us. Amen