Today’s Gospel passage is Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. It’s an especially appropriate reading for the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent because it is the point in the Jesus narrative where he turns his face toward Jerusalem and begins his journey toward the cross. On Ash Wednesday, we will also set our hearts and minds upon this journey and there are 3 things I want to look at from this passage to help us prepare. The first is the point of this passage in the context of Luke, the second is the message of the text, and the third is what it means for us.
The first thing to note is the theme of the passage. It centers on the issue of identity. Prior to this passage we have Herod who hears about Jesus and wants to know who exactly this man is. Then immediately before the passage, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” Then Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is and Peter proclaims that he is the Christ, the Messiah of God. But although he gets the right answer, he and the disciples are still a long way from being able to grasp what that means. They aren’t ready to accept that being the Messiah means suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. They aren’t prepared yet to count the cost for the coming glory of God’s kingdom.
So fast forward eight days later, as they continue to wrestle with who Jesus is, and he takes Peter, John and James up the mountain to pray, where he is then transfigured as a “dramatic confirmation of Peter’s confession and a foretaste of the glory to be experienced when God’s kingdom is fully present.” Jesus’ face is changed and his clothes become dazzling white. The passage of course is meant to remind us of the Exodus passage we heard today where Moses’ face shone so brightly after meeting with God that his brother Aaron and the rest of the Israelites were afraid to come near him. The difference here though is that Jesus was not merely experiencing divine glory, he was actually the source of it: a very important part of his identity.
Another part of his identity is confirmed by who Jesus is seen talking to: Moses and Elijah. These two men were commonly interpreted as embodying The Law and The Prophets of the Old Testament. By conversing with them about his departure that would be accomplished at Jerusalem, Jesus is showing his disciples that he is the ultimate fulfillment of the Scriptures.
Then lastly, in case the visuals were not enough, there is the voice of God, confirming that Jesus is not only the Beloved, which was announced at his baptism, but is also God’s Son, God’s Chosen One.
This passage is gloriously dramatic in order to proclaim who Jesus is and to make sure that his disciples get it. Now why is it so important to have a grasp on Jesus’ identity? Why is the voice of God heard confirming that Jesus is his Chosen One? It’s because knowing who Jesus is requires a response. God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” God isn’t presenting an ideological concept about son-ship. He is declaring an imperative—listen to him, follow him, obey him; and of course, these words are not just for the disciples but are for us as well.
I want to propose to you that this is the perfect time to reflect on who Jesus is and what it means to listen and follow him, not only because of the beginning of Lent but also because like the Israelites, you have been on a journey. You’ve had many transitions over the last few years and now you are beginning one more. So how will we together follow God’s imperative? There is no one answer but we are given some good clues from today’s readings.
Psalm 99 says we are to proclaim his greatness and to worship our Lord God, the Holy One. The transfiguration itself occurs in the context of prayer—Jesus goes up to the mountain to pray, so let’s pray. God has given us Bibles that we may know God’s story and consequently our own. He has given us each other that we may continue the work of Jesus, which is to love each other; and God has given us the Holy Spirit as the driving force behind all these things as the “power and presence of God in real time.”
Will you covenant with me to do these things—worship, pray, study, love and listen? If we do these things together, I believe something will happen. I believe we will look like different people because our faces will also shine. I believe that we will become like the mirrors mentioned in second Corinthians that reflect the glory of the Lord and we will be transformed from glory to glory. You know, what we gaze upon—that is, focus on, give our time and energy and attention to—will shape us. I think that’s why we prayed in the Collect for the Day, for God to grant us the ability to behold by faith the light of Jesus’ countenance, his face, because that is how we are strengthened to bear our cross and how we are changed into his likeness.
The impact of knowing and following Jesus is meant to be seen. We show his mark on Ash Wednesday when the smudge on our foreheads proclaims our mortality and repentance and acknowledges God’s gracious gift of everlasting life. My prayer is that we would become a people of shining faces and that the light of God’s love would be an indelible mark upon us all for everyone to see.