Does anyone else remember the Transformers TV show? Or perhaps the apparently never-ending series of action movies by the same name? They are about alien robots who come to earth and befriend humans while defending humanity from the evil Decepticons. They often hide in plain sight by being able to transform into vehicles, and there was always a dramatic transformation moment on every episode. Optimus Prime, for instance, was a tractor trailer, and Bumblebee was a yellow sports car.
Now, I know–this isn’t transformation Sunday, it’s transfiguration Sunday. I know. But the two words are almost interchangeable, and also: have you ever heard anyone use ‘transfigure’ in a sentence? I’m pretty sure the only people I know who use the word are fellow pastors and Harry Potter enthusiasts. But we talk about transformation all the time: besides the TV show about robots, which I admit doesn’t often come up in casual conversation, we talk about the transformations around us, whether it’s a caterpillar turning into a butterfly or the changes that people make in their own lives. Whereas I have never once in my life looked at how the seasons change and thought, “Wow, what a transfiguration!”
Well, what is a transfiguration? If we look at our reading, we see that one day, when Jesus is up on a mountaintop with a few of His disciples, suddenly everything changes: His face is shining, his clothes are dazzlingly white, but more than that, it seems there were more changes that the disciples couldn’t describe later: notice that the text says that Jesus was transfigured, and His clothes and face changed. Something about Jesus changes here, in a huge way.
And while Jesus has changed, a few things happen. The first is that the disciples see two other people with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and the three of them are talking. Peter offers to build all three of them shelters. And then God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The disciples fall to the ground and when they look up, it seems everything is back to normal: Jesus is alone. It seems He looks normal again, too, because then they head off the mountain.
I keep saying that Jesus changed up on the mountain, or didn’t look normal, but that’s not quite right. In fact, this is a moment kind of like that transformation moment in every Transformers episode–when Jesus is up on the mountain and is transfigured, it’s not that suddenly Jesus is a different person. It’s that, like when the tractor trailer is revealed to be a robot, we see more truly who Jesus is. We see that Jesus is more than He appears to be. We see a deeper truth about Jesus than we do when Jesus is just walking around, talking with His disciples, teaching the crowds and healing the sick. There is more to Jesus than just these very human moments; in the Transfiguration, we see that Jesus is also God.
Matthew shows us this truth with what happens on the mountain. Going up on a mountain is something that people do throughout the Old Testament to meet God: Moses especially went up Mount Sinai often to speak with God. It was while he was up on the mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments as well as the rest of the Law. Up on a mountain was an important place to hear from God, then.
And hear from God they do: God speaks, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This echoes what God says at Jesus’ baptism. This is God claiming Jesus, telling the disciples who Jesus is. And I wonder, too, if this was a moment of encouragement for Jesus: I love you, Son. You’re doing great; keep going. Sort of the equivalent of a stop at your parents’ house for a home-cooked meal and a hug.
Notice, too, that Jesus’ face glows before God appears in the glowing cloud. That is, Jesus, too, has God’s light in a special way. And when the disciples fall down, Jesus tells them, “Do not be afraid,” and this is a phrase traditionally spoken by God or God’s angels who are speaking for God. Jesus is God.
The Transfiguration reveals to us, just as it did to the original disciples, that Jesus is more than a man. He’s more than just a guy who wandered around, saying strange but beautiful things and healing the sick. Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Jesus is God.
And as we approach the season of Lent, this is an important reminder. Jesus is God. It reminds us why we come to church and pray and do all of the other things we do as we follow God. It reminds us of why we journey into Lent, with its repentance and prayer, and look forward to Easter and the resurrection.
As we journey into Lent, then, may we see God around us in vivid, unexpected ways. May we remember who God is, and see the truth when God reveals it to us. And may we continue to follow our God.