Transformed – 2016/02/26

Psalm 99 678OT
Exodus 24:12-18 87OT
Matthew 17:1-9


     Who doesn’t love Optimus Prime? He’s just the greatest, isn’t he? And I’m sure no one loves Megatron, because he’s just awful. Your mileage may vary on Bumblebee, or Jazz, or Starscream.
     Okay, show of hands – who has no idea what I’m talking about?
     So, if you don’t know, I’m talking about the hottest toys of the 1980s – the Transformers. Yes, the starred in a run of very successful comic books, and yes they starred in a very popular Saturday morning cartoon show, and yes, they’re still starring in a very popular movie franchise, with four movies in the franchise so far and a fifth one coming this summer. But it all started with a line of toys. Nowadays, I think most people expect that the toys would come after the story’s been told, but that’s not how it was for the Transformers.
     So… how did they become so popular that they continue to be in the public imagination and on the minds of millions of people the world over more than 30 years after they debuted as toys? It’s simple: they’re cool. For those of you who don’t know, Transformers were the remarkably simple idea of cars that transformed into robots. You could move the toys back and forth between one state and the other – and they were awesome.
     But what was so cool about them? Well, I think it was just, for kids, the idea of imagination. I mean, cars kind of look like they have eyes, and here was a toy saying, “Yeah… and what if they were eyes?!” Kids imaginations run wild when something that seems ordinary turns out to be wonderful. But the truth is, it’s not just kids who feel that way – it’s adults, too. That’s why adults continue to pay to see magic shows. We like to imagine and be amazed.
     So we have to see the Transfiguration with a little bit of wonder. No, it’s not a passage about Jesus turning into a car or a cool robot. Instead, it’s about a transformation in Jesus, and one that we can see occurring both in his life, and our own.
     To recap, Jesus takes three disciples – Peter, James, and John – up the mountain with him. While he is up there, his clothes are transformed into the whitest white. And then, right next to him, Moses and Elijah appear. Peter offers to build dwelling places for all three (Jesus, Moses, and Elijah). But before Jesus can answer, a voice booms from heaven, echoing the famous words spoken at Jesus’ baptism – “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased,” and then there’s a “Listen to him,” thrown in at the end.
     There’s a little tag after that, but I want to focus on what I’ve recapped so far – this miraculous bit involving Jesus’ change of clothes and the arrival of these two great figures in Judaism.
     First, we have the clothes change. This is a time when I think our popular artistic depictions of Jesus do us a disservice. Most of the time, Jesus is depicted wearing white. But remember, Jesus was walking all day on dirt roads wherever he went. Many of the places he walked were desert. There’s no such thing as white clothes in that environment. Yet here, at the top of the mountain, Jesus clothes are miraculously changed.
     But perhaps of more interest are Jesus’ companions on the top of the mountain. After Jesus is transfigured but before we hear God speak, Jesus is joined at the mountaintop by Moses and Elijah. Now, those two great prophets of Judaism don’t get as much time in our sermons as they should, but they are integral to the Old Testament, and would’ve been the two most revered people to Jesus and his followers – at least until Jesus came along, that is. But this moment for the disciples would’ve been seeing the two greatest people they knew of legitimizing Jesus.
     In case you’re not terribly familiar with them, Moses was the person who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and was given the Ten Commandments by God. He was the first great leader of the Jewish people after their slavery. And although he was directionally challenged (well, I assume he was, since it took him forty years to travel a few hundred miles from Egypt to Israel), he was (and is) a figure of the most importance in the Jewish faith. And keep in mind, Jesus wouldn’t’ve considered himself a Christian, and either would his disciples – they were Jews. They didn’t have a New Testament, and there was no such thing as the Church. They just were Jews who happened to follow Jesus. Anyway, besides the Ten Commandments, Moses is probably most famous for almost leading the people into the Promised Land – but alas, he died on the mountaintop overlooking the land, and would never have the chance to enter it himself in his lifetime.
     But before we lose track of where we’re headed, we should talk about Elijah, too. Elijah was a prophet from the time of Kings. After King David and King Solomon, when what we know of as Israel today was split into two separate kingdoms (Israel in the north with Samaria as its capital and Judah in the south with its capital in Jerusalem). Elijah was a prophet in Israel, the northern kingdom. He performed many signs and miracles, and was a steadfast believer in God in a time when idol worship seemed to have become more popular as Israel was infiltrated by neighboring people who brought their religions. Elijah was most famous for being taken straight to heaven without even having to die, when his time came.
     And that leads me to the heart of my message this morning. This text, the Transfiguration, leads us to an important turning point in the life of Jesus. This is the point at which we turn from Jesus ministry to the long, slow march to his death on the cross and eventual Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
     As I thought about this text this week, I was struck by a few things. Jesus is, in many ways, the culmination of the work started by Moses and Elijah. This has been noticed many times by scholars, pointing out that Moses represents the Law and Elijah the Prophets, and that Jesus is the culmination of both. But I think it goes deeper yet.
     Moses and Elijah have perhaps the two most interesting deaths in the Old Testament. Moses’ death comes at a time of near fulfillment – he has led the people to the land God promised them, but he never gets to enter. He dies just short of the goal, in a very human way. Elijah, on the other hand, never dies a death at all. He is taken up to heaven in a complete act of divine love. There is a sense to me in which I see the human frailty of Moses’ death and the divine love of Elijah’s avoidance of death, and I see that this combination of the human and divine is met perfectly in Jesus.
     As we head into Lent next Sunday, we will enter a series looking at the texts leading up to (and including) Jesus’ Crucifixion in church. We will be looking at the circumstances that lead to Jesus’ death, and the events surrounding it. These are important things to know, to set ourselves up for what is to come. This text, in which we remember these men with rare, incredible deaths, set us up for the most significant death of all – Jesus’ death. And while we see divine favor in Elijah’s death by the avoidance of it, we’re reminded that Jesus was also a human who died a natural death, just like the rest of us, and like Moses. But like Elijah, Jesus is also able to enter Paradise – he just has more work to do first!
     We are reminded of both Jesus’ humanity and divinity in this moment. Jesus is not somehow beyond human – he still dies, as all of us do. He doesn’t avoid that fate, as Elijah did. Elijah was not divine, but avoided the fate of mortals through God’s grace. But God’s grace, in Jesus case, reminds us that God shares in our lives, whether joyful or painful.
     If Jesus, like Elijah, avoided the pain of a human end, perhaps it would more clearly mark him as divine. But, at the same time, it would allow us to forget Jesus’ humanity. Instead, we remember that Christ died a human death, like Moses. But his Resurrection, which will also come in clothing undefiled, is presaged here by Elijah’s presence. We’re reminded that Jesus is at once one of us, and also God incarnate.
     There is one other point, though, that I think it’s important to think of. When Moses ascends a mountain to speak with God, he receives the Ten Commandments. Now, Moses had a right-hand man named Joshua, yet Moses ascends alone. Elijah, when he ascends up to heaven, does so in sight of his right-hand man, Elisha. Both of them have someone at their sides, yet have to ascend alone.
     Jesus, in this passage, though, brings disciples up the mountain with him. To me, this is a reminder of the difference between Jesus and the rest of us. While his human death was in many ways ordinary, we are reminded by this simple act of sharing that Jesus was unlike us. We can’t, any of us, save humanity. We can’t save humanity in this lifetime, and we can’t save humanity in the hereafter. We can’t bring anyone else up the mountain. Only God is able to bring people into that divine presence; only God saves.
     Yet, at this moment, Jesus does bring people with him. Yes, his death was human – but his life was also divine. We see that Jesus is able to bring people with. Jesus, as God on earth, is able to save us. We’re not responsible even for saving ourselves, because it’s Jesus’ job to do that. We are merely being taken along on his incredible journey.
     And while we’re on it, Jesus doesn’t ask us to build some special place for him. Instead, he asks that we worship and share his story. That’s what he tells Peter, James, and John, and that’s what we’re tasked with doing, too.
     The Transfiguration is, in many ways, an awfully boring story. So, Jesus gets some white clothes, right? But we see when we look at the text that it’s much deeper than that. It’s a tale about our relationship to God, and our relationships to one another. Jesus doesn’t only bring only one person up the mountain with him – he brings more. That’s because we’re all invited into his Kingdom.
     Let us remember that we, too, can be transfigured. We will not be transfigured as Jesus was, with spiffy, new, white outfits. Instead, our hearts and minds can be made over to be more loving to God, and more loving to our neighbors. So go forth from this place praying for your own transformation, for the transformation of the world, and for the love, grace, and peace of Jesus Christ, our Savior who invites us up the mountain. Amen.