One of my favorite second grade lessons to teach was the hands-on science unit on life cycles. While my first graders got to watch caterpillars change into butterflies, in second grade we raised the far less glamorous mealworms. Each child was given a clear plastic cup filled with oat bran and given their own mealworm (or two), which was inevitably named and treated like a pet. Feeding them bits of apple for moisture and nutrition, the worm would grow and molt a few times, and eventually transform into a pupa, ultimately emerging as a small black beetle known as the “darkling beetle”. Like the beautiful butterfly, once this insect has undergone its metamorphosis, it can never go back to what it was. Once changed, forever changed
Now I suppose you might be wondering what ordinary bugs have to do with our observance of Transfiguration Sunday this morning. While Christianity understands the word “transfiguration” to refer to an exalting, glorifying or spiritual change, such as Jesus demonstrated in our passage this morning; it can also be synonymous with the term metamorphosis, which according to the dictionary, means a change of physical form, structure, or substance, or a transformation. This morning we have two stories about these kinds of transformation and change.
Our Old Testament lesson this morning appears at the end of the narrative recounting the story of the Israelites after their long arduous forty-year journey from enslavement in Egypt. Israel finally steps foot on the outskirts of the Promised Land, entering by way of Mt. Sinai. Here at Sinai, God makes a covenant with Israel and gives instructions for life in the new community. These instructions, including the Ten Commandments, teach the Israelites how to respect each other, each other’s property, and the land as well as how the tabernacle is to be set up.
However, while Moses is on the mountaintop communing with God, down in the valley, the covenant is threatened by the Golden Calf incident. God informs Moses of the apostasy and orders him down to the valley immediately, threatening to destroy Israel and begin again with Moses. Moses intercedes for the people, and God relents. Appalled by what he sees when he returns, Moses destroys the tablets.
Next, God commands Moses to take the Israelites and continue the journey to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but, fed up with the people, God resolves not go with them. Disheartened, Moses again intercedes for God to relent and this time, asks for a glimpse of God’s glory. Since anyone, including Moses, could not see the face of God and live, God makes the promise to let Moses see, not God’s glory (which would be his face), but God’s goodness (which is his back). Thus, Moses goes back up to the mountain, receives new tablets, and the covenant between God and Israel is renewed.
Upon returning, Aaron and the people see that Moses has changed. Having been in the presence of God, he now appears before them with his face shining. One commentator remarks that “The shiny face is an indicator of Moses’s relationship to God, of his openness and vulnerability before God and before the community. It is a sign that Moses trusts God and that Israel, in turn, can trust God and Moses as their leader. When Moses encountered God on that mountain, he was transfigured. His face had been indelibly transformed, as had Moses’ relationship with God, and ultimately, the relationship between God and the people of Israel was forever changed as the result of this covenant as they continued their journey as a called and chosen people of God.
Generations later, Moses makes his shining his return, as he joins the prophet Elijah and Jesus in a mountaintop encounter. To set this event in context, Jesus has been teaching, raising the dead and feeding the multitudes. After witnessing all this firsthand, Peter declares Jesus as the Messiah of God, only to have Jesus respond to his profession by foretelling his death and resurrection. Then, several days later, he takes Peter, James and John, his closest friends, and heads up to the mountain with them to pray. As he becomes absorbed in his prayer, the appearance of both his face and clothing change dramatically. As an aside here, Luke frequently centers epiphanies of Jesus’ connection with God in the context of prayer. It is in this moment of communion with God, the brilliant spirit of God glows in and through Jesus and Moses and Elijah, as they gather to speak of Jesus’ coming “exodus”; that is, of his departure to Jerusalem. Representing all of Scripture (Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets respectively), these two are enlisted as pointing to the future passage to glory through the death of God’s anointed one. Like Moses before him, Jesus experiences and reveals God and God’s majesty to his inner circle. Like Moses before him, despite being chosen, he knows that he is not to be granted easy passage. Yet, God’s own faithfulness is borne out in the trustworthiness of Scripture witnessing as it does to the suffering of the Messiah that precedes his glory.
The reactions of disciples in this story are worth noting. It is only in Luke’s story that the three are “heavy with sleep.” There is debate about whether they succumb to it and awaken in time to “see his glory” or whether they remain awake. Regardless, their eyes are open in time to see the whole scene and to do their best to grasp it. Which, apparently, they don’t accomplish fully. Because Peter starts making plans for them all to settle and stay on the mountaintop. It’s what folks did back then. The mountains were covered with small shrines and places to pray. Peter hadn’t even finished his thought when a great cloud overcomes them and fear seizes them and a voice from above overwhelms them, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
And with that, the light is gone. It’s all ordinary again. The glimpse of glory was just that … a glimpse. Or was it? The transfiguration reminds us God is powerfully present not only in the shining, but in the shadow, in the absence and the ordinary, in the mountain of glory and the valley of need. They see the glory that remains. May it be likewise for us.
So, while Jesus was “transfigured” along with Moses and Elijah for that moment, I believe this was a moment where Peter, James and John underwent a kind of metamorphosis or transformation themselves. They had seen the glory of God and would not ever be the same again. This metamorphosis didn’t happen immediately; it would take the coming of the Holy Spirit after the resurrection to complete their transformation into apostles; messengers of the gospel, but in that moment, changed they were indeed.
Another Thought – Peter and James and John would get to see things other disciples don’t. They witness the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter, as well as this transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah. These three are among the one Jesus implores them to watch over him while he prays in Gethsemane. Jesus trusts them to witness his immense power and his most intimate needs. Peter, James, and John are Jesus’ inner circle, those he trusts and will entrust with leadership of the early church.
I don’t know about you, but I believe each of us has had or will experience a transformation or metamorphosis in our encounters with Jesus Christ. I know of those here who have met the Christ or faced the Savior, and whose lives were forever changed because of it. While we likely haven’t had visions of illuminated supernatural beings as did the disciples, at some point, Christ has or will become real in our lives and, like the beetle or butterfly, we will never be the same again.
In the words of writer Melissa Bane Sevier:
The account may sound silly to modern ears, but maybe you’ve at some time or another noticed the shiny face of someone who’s been in God’s presence. When we’ve spent time with God, it can’t help but show.
I’m not just talking about prayer, Bible study, and worship, though time spent in those pursuits can certainly show in your face and demeanor.
You participate in a local building project and can’t help but show some of the pictures on your phone to friends and family. Your enthusiasm is contagious.
You watch the news about Haiti, then walk into work and someone can see that you are troubled. You have a chance to commiserate with a coworker about the senselessness of poverty and trouble in the world.
You help a child or adult learn to read, sit at the bedside of a sick loved one, attend the funeral of a friend who touched your life, observe the beauty of perfect snowflakes falling on a silent winter night. All of these things move you, and that shows on your face and in your actions in such a way that someone else might notice, whether they comment or not.
One of the first bits of astronomy we learn as children is that the moon, bright as it is, does not emit light of its own. Its light is only a reflection of the sun’s brilliance. But in the darkest of nights, we look for the light of the moon. It’s a reminder that the sun, though completely hidden from view, and though on the other side of the world, is just a few hours from coming into view again.
When you’ve spent time with God, you reflect God’s joy, God’s pain, the glow of the search for an answer or the ability to live with the questions, the clarity of God’s presence or the luminous desire for that presence. And, whether you know it or not, someone else will notice. Maybe that person will be moved by the same thing that moved you.
May your face shine today with the reflected light of the presence of God. Amen.