I was recently looking through some old photos and thinking about the changes that come with life’s events. Most particularly I was looking through photos of my wife’s early life in ballet. Of course that was just one part her life, but it was a fairly substantial part. From the outside looking in, it is amazing to see the changes that have resulted in the astonishing woman that I now call my wife.
As she and I look back over our own children’s lives it gives us great joy to see how they have grown and changed. Of course it is easiest to see the changes we all go through in our younger years. You might even argue that entire economic systems revolve around masking physical changes as life goes on.
No matter what we do, change is a constant, metabolic reality that we experience every day. We may not like it, but for the most part we live with it. We take our pictures. We share our stories, and we get on with it. The kind of change that we don’t like is the kind that is forced upon us – the kind of change that is out of our control.
Even in a political system that gives us voice and vote, we can still feel like things are being forced upon us when we do not agree with the way things go. That can make us want to cling to the past more firmly and hold it up like a shining example of what life should be about. Truly, there is a certain wisdom in bringing the best of the past into the future. As the African Proverb tells us, “The future depends upon the past.” Yet we must also remember Isaiah’s cry, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.”
Isaiah wasn’t calling for some weird spiritual amnesia or a denial of the past. He was warning us against worshiping it. That’s important, because today we have received two strangely mystic stories along with an exclusive claim about believers and non-believers. These stories are important to our heritage and to our beliefs, but when you examine them critically they seem a bit – well, odd.
Let’s look at the transfiguration of Jesus. He goes up the mountain with Peter, James, and John. Mountains and high places were holy spaces to the ancient Israelites and to many others in Mesopotamia. It was closer to the dome of heaven – which many thought was an actual, solid barrier between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of the Earth. Suddenly Jesus becomes dazzling white – his clothes, his face, and his skin seem to emanate light!
And if that wasn’t weird enough, he is joined by Moses and Elijah. I’ve always wondered how they knew who these guys were. It doesn’t really matter. Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets, and Jesus was speaking with them as an equal because he was seen as the fulfillment of the law and of all prophecy. Jesus was God’s self-revelation for all people, for all time, forever!
Maybe that’s why I find the glowing, radio-active Jesus easier to swallow than the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Even more than that, I find it fascinating that this story is so important to the Christian faith that it gets lifted up in one form or another every year. And every year I struggle with the difference between transformation and transfiguration. Jesus is not transformed, he is transfigured. What does that even mean?
Well, essentially it’s a difference between an internal or an external change. Braces, for example, transform your mouth, but a smile can “transfigure” your face. A smile tells us what you are feeling, just as laughter reveals your joy. The interesting thing to me about all of this is that the Greek word in the original text, “metamorpho,” can be translated either way. In fact the word transfigure didn’t even exist before around the 14th century!
Here’s why this matters. Language changes over time, and that’s a good thing. It changes to more accurately reflect our experiences. This word, “transfigure,” became important to this story because there was so much change happening in the world. Culture and art, science and math, and the very concept of the earth and the stars were changing, and there was a deep need to know that God – the God revealed through Jesus – was still reliable.
I think we can identify with that. I was recently reading a series called “The Long Earth” that describes a new reality that becomes opened up when humanity discovers a way to step into alternate versions of the earth in new dimensions. A new balance between chaos and order has to be found, and in the midst of it, there are children that communicate on a higher plain that seems to involve new speech patterns and the ability to process information at a higher rate. That all sounds like science fiction until you have to ask an 11 year old how to do something on your smart phone!
Suddenly it occurred to me that we are living in a time of great change that involves a shift in our cosmology. We are constantly exploring new realities that are virtual and real, and cultures are clashing on every shore. We are faced with new debates over religion and faith and ethics that are reshaping our very society and our global community. In the midst of all of that we probably want to know that Jesus is unchanged and unchangeable, too!
Before we go too far down that path, there might be something that could help us if we consider the possibility of the transformation of Jesus. For a little over a thousand years the church used the Greek or Latin form of the word for transform to describe what Jesus did on the mountain. It wasn’t that he changed in substance and became “Super Jesus.” It was that he became something else in the eyes of the disciples.
From this point on, Jesus was no longer the Rabi who taught about God. Jesus now began to demonstrate that he was the one like Elijah who spoke for God, and he was the one like Moses whose actions were the actions of God! And this is Jesus – he was the embodiment of the words that spoke creation into being, and he was the one whose actions demonstrated the power of God’s love over sin and death.
That is why Paul told the Corinthians to remember that it wasn’t about them. We don’t proclaim ourselves. We don’t assume that we are God’s favorites or expect ourselves to be the ones who save others. We point out the fact that Jesus offers transformation. Jesus offers us the experience of God’s active presence. Think about that. Because of Jesus we can become aware of the God that made all of this stuff, who is with us in every way, the one who loves us and holds us when we don’t even know we are being held!
Just thinking about that, just recognizing that there is a God, that this God is not you, and that your existence is more bound in God’s love for you than your belief in God might even cause you to be transfigured – even if only by your smile. It might even cause you to be transformed.
At least, I pray that it will be so with me, and with you, and to God be the glory – now and always. Amen.