Sunday 23 February 2020
And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. He was transfigured. It’s not a word that we use very often: transfigure. Pretty much only when we’re talking about this particular event in Jesus’s life. It comes to us from Old French and from latin, and it means, to transform into something more beautiful or elevated. In other words, we get our definition of this word from the Biblical event. So that doesn’t help us very much in understanding what it means.
But the word from the original Greek might actually be more familiar: μετεμορφώθη, metamorphosis. It’s a compound word in Greek. Meta: to change. Morph: form or shape or substance. Metamorph: to change form or shape or substance.
In science, we use the word metamorphosis to describe a transformation that takes place in insects and amphibians. Metamorphosis: the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages. Like a tadpole transforming into a frog or a caterpillar transforming into a chrysalis and then transforming into a butterfly. It’s a process of maturing, but the end result, the adult form, is wholly unlike the form that came before. The tadpole goes from breathing water with gills to breathing air with lungs. The caterpillar goes from crawling around eating leaves to flying through the sky eating nectar from flowers.
Another definition for metamorphosis is “a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means.” Similar to what we saw with the insects and amphibians, one thing changes into something completely different. And yet it still remains the same being. It is still the same creature, still the same person, even though the new form may not be recognizable at all from the first.
So Jesus, a first-century Palestinian Jew in his early thirties, a traveling preacher, a healer, a rabbi. He goes up on the mountain with a few of his followers, away from everyone else, and he is transfigured, he is metamorphosed. He is transformed before their eyes from one form, to something completely different. Matthew tells us that Jesus’s face shone like the sun, and that his robe was as white as pure light. In other words, his appearance was completely indescribable. He was unlike anything they had ever seen before.
You might recognize this description of Jesus. It’s similar to the way Jesus is described in the first chapter of Revelation. “I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed in a long robe. His head and his hair were white as wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire… and his face was like the sun shining at full force.”
Peter and James and John, up on that mountain, get to see on earth what even the very select few only get to see in a heavenly vision. They see Jesus Christ in his glory, the heavenly Christ, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Jesus that stands beyond the cross, beyond the grave, having conquered the powers of both sin and death. They see as the earthly Jesus is transformed into the cosmic Christ, full of grace, and power, and truth. Something that looks completely different, almost unrecognizable, and yet is still the same being, is still the same person.
Now that is what I call a mountaintop experience. It’s definitely one of the most magical moments in the Bible, and it’s probably where we get the very term, mountaintop experience. These three disciples are witness to an amazing revelation of the glory and majesty of God. They get to experience God’s power and beauty firsthand, directly, with their own eyes.
Not many people get to have an experience like that. Moses does on Mount Sinai. Elijah does on Mount Horeb. And Peter, James, and John do on this unnamed mountain. But these days, those kinds of mystical experiences are few and far between. Not many people alive today can claim to have had such a vivid experience of the living Christ.
And yet, there are those times, aren’t there. There are those mountaintop experiences. Those times when the veil that separates the earthly realm from the divine realm seems particularly thin. There are those times when our hearts feel absolutely assured of the love and presence of God.
For many Christians, the moment of conversion, that time when they first accept Jesus into their hearts, is a mountaintop experience. They feel, almost physically, the presence of Christ in their lives in a way that is indescribably real.
Many people have mountaintop experiences when they are out in nature. Seeing the awesome beauty of the Gorge, watching the whitewater power of the Hood or White Salmon rivers, experiencing, the mossy explosion of life in the forest, looking up at the striking presence of Mt. Hood or Mt. Adams, or even seeing the view from those impressive mountaintops. These types of experiences somehow remind us of the awesomeness, the absolute enormity of God, and the profound complexity of God’s creation. And we can find ourselves truly resting in God’s presence, fully aware of the nearness of God.
And many encounter the real presence of God in the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, when by the power of the Holy Spirit, simple bread and ordinary wine and grape juice are transformed, metamorphosed, into the Body and Blood of Christ for us. It can be a profoundly mystical experience, receiving this blessed sacrament, and encountering Christ, in the flesh, as it were.
Mountaintop experiences, no matter what form they take, can be absolutely mind-blowing and earth-shaking. But what happens when the experience is over? What do we do when it’s time to come down from the mountain? Is it over? Are we left with nothing but a memory of what we had seen, heard, or tasted of God’s presence? Is it just something to look fondly back on when we are feeling down?
No. Because a mountaintop experience is not just about viewing some manifestation of God, it isn’t just about experiencing God’s presence. No, a mountaintop experience is about allowing the real presence of God to transform you. It’s about allowing the experience of God to metamorphose you. Because it will. Your experience of the living Christ can and will transform you. It might change the form or nature of you into a completely new one. It might transform your immature form into an adult form, in two or more distinct phases, just like the butterfly.
You see, the transfiguration of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus. It continues. It moves beyond that event on a Palestinian hilltop to transfigure us, to transfigure you and me. It takes our incomplete form, and it transforms us, it metamorphoses us into something new, something that might be almost unrecognizable from our former selves, but is still the same being, still the same person. Made new, washed clean, sanctified, and reformed into the image we were created with, the very image of God.