Matthew 17:1-9

Those Whom God Transfigures

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Matthew 17:1-9

Those Whom God Transfigures

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
In case you’ve blinked, this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  That makes this Sunday the last Sunday of Epiphany.

Liturgically, it’s the Sunday on which we celebrate the transfiguration of Jesus.  That’s because, if you follow the progression of Jesus’ life and ministry, it’s the transfiguration that marks the pivotal point in the story.  Up to this moment Jesus had gone about the business of healing the sick, raising the dead and teaching others about the Kingdom of God in the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee.  But after the transfiguration, “he intently set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51)

What I’d like to explore in the sermon this morning is the relationship between transfiguration and disfiguration.  Here’s my thesis: Those whom God transfigures are often – if not always – disfigured in the process.  Just go back and watch Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of Christ – if you can bear to sit through it – to get an idea of what Jesus went through on his way to the cross.

The way I see it, Jesus is a paradigm for what we can expect when we walk in his footsteps – not that we’ll be flogged and nailed to a cross – but that we’ll be changed over time, as he lives in our hearts, and as we bear the scars of discipleship to prove it.

We’ll get to that in just a moment but first, did you know that there is a transfiguration story in the Old Testament?  It’s found in the 34th chapter of Exodus.

Moses and the children of Israel were camped at the base of Mount Sinai.  Moses went up on the mountain and met with God, and God gave him the Ten Commandments.  He stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, and when he came down something about Moses was noticeably different.  His appearance had changed.  Scripture says:

“When Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses,
behold, the skin of his face shone.” (Exodus 34:30)

Moses’ appearance was so frightening to the people that he put a veil over his face to hide his disfigurement.

Scholars tell us that the word used here to describe Moses literally means “horned.”  In other words, “They were afraid to come near him (because) his skin was horned.”  The only other time this word is used is in Psalm 69, where we read, “It will please Yahweh better than an ox, or a bull that has horns and hoofs.”  (Psalms 69:31)

The story of Moses’ transfiguration led Michelangelo to create a statue of Moses with little horns protruding from the top of his head.  Kathy and I saw it in a church in Rome near the coliseum.  If you go to the First Presbyterian Church in Wichita Falls, Texas, you’ll find a bronze statue of the Horned Moses in the courtyard, similar to the statue by Michelangelo.

Other Bible scholars soften the reading of the text by suggesting that the people saw horns of light streaming from Moses’ face. Whatever the precise meaning of the word, there’s no doubt but that, when Moses came down from the mountain after talking with God, he was not the same. His appearance was visibly altered.  His face may have radiated with an aura or glow, or it may have been covered with horns, but he did not look the same as before.  It frightened the people so much that they had to look the other way.

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If you read through the Old Testament, you’ll find that Moses was not the only one to be disfigured.  In theBook of Genesis, there’s the story of Jacob and how he wrestled all night with an angel of the Lord.  He refused to let go until the angel blessed him. So, what happened?  Scripture says the angel gave him a blessing, then touched the hollow of his thigh, and his thigh was put out of joint, so that, from that day on, Jacob walked with a limp. (Genesis 32:24-26)

Later on there’s the story of Job.  Job had it all.  He was healthy, wealthy and wise.  Then, in the blink of an eye, tragedy struck.  He lost his family and everything he owned; and, to add insult to injury, his body was covered with sores.  Only his faith survived.  Dressed in sackcloth and covered with ashes, Job professed,

“Naked I came out of my mother’s womb,
and naked shall I return there.
Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away.
Blessed be the name of Yahweh.” (Job 1:21)

In the end, Job’s fortunes were restored two-fold, but safe to say, he was never the same.

In the New Testament we have the story of Paul.  Paul was on his way to Damascus when he came face-to-face with the living Christ.  He saw a blinding light and fell to the ground in terror.  A voice sounded, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  He cried out, “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:4-5)

Luke says that, when Paul got up from the ground, he was blind.  He had to be led into town by his friends.  For three days, he sat in darkness refusing to eat or drink.  Then something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. (Acts 9:8-18)

But read further: He was never the same.  The Damascus Road experience turned his life around.  From that day on, he went from being the church’s most dreaded adversary to being its chief spokesman.

More to the point of the sermon today, Paul suffered some sort of physical impediment for the rest of his life.  He called it his “thorn in the flesh.” (2 Corinthians 12:7)  And, though we don’t know the exact nature of his handicap, many believe it was related to his blinding light experience.

The list goes on, but you get the point: Those whom God transfigures are often disfigured in the process.  The realities we experience in our faith journey shape us and mold us into the people God would have us to be.

Years ago I had a minister friend named Wilfred Bailey.  Wil used to talk about the two faces each person has – the face you’re born with, and the face that evolves over time, as a result of life-shaping experiences.  Compare the face of a child with that of a mature adult.  Not only will you find the obvious signs of aging, but the marks of maturity: The experiences of pain and loss and suffering become embedded in our very appearance.

Clyde Fant was a Baptist minister in Richardson for many years.  He tells the story of going to a preacher’s conference in which he was seated next to a couple of older ministers.  He said these old geezers had gone through just about every experience you could imagine.  They’d been in the trenches for years, visiting the sick, comforting the dying, counseling with those who’d lost hope.  Clyde said he was listening in as they swapped old war stories when a young minister, fresh out of seminary, bounced in with a Bible in his hand and a silly grin on his face. One of the older men turned to the other and said, “No scars.”

In his book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen says that only as we experience the reality of pain and suffering and get in touch with our own inner sense of aloneness are we able to be a source of healing for others.

Perhaps this is the key to understanding the transfiguration of Jesus: Whatever hopes Jesus may have had about ushering in the Kingdom of God were quickly challenged by the resistance of the Jewish leaders and the cold, harsh realities of human sinfulness.  Only as he was willing to confront the evils of this world and take upon himself the weight of our sinful nature could he fulfill God’s will for his life and reconcile the world to God.

Years ago, we had an all-church cleanup day.  Among other things, we cleaned out the Sacristy next to the Chancel.  It’d gotten cluttered with all sorts of Christmas decorations, carpet remnants and miscellaneous junk.  Among the trash and treasure we found two portraits of Jesus:

• One, depicting Jesus in the Temple speaking to the Rabbis when he was about twelve years old.  His face is young and innocent, his eyes full of the idealism of youth.

• The other depicting Jesus, as he might have appeared in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The colors were dark; the mood, somber.  In this portrait, Jesus’ face is drawn; his eyes, downcast, as if contemplating the coming reality of his own passion and death.

Contrasting the two portraits, it’s clear: A transformation has occurred … and behind the transformation, all of the experiences along the way: the joy of seeing people come to new life, the despair of seeing others hold on to their old way of life, and the frustration of constantly having to defend himself before the Jewish leaders.

Those whom God transfigures are often – if not always – disfigured in the process.  Just ask anyone who’s gone through a painful divorce, experienced the death of a child, suffered the loss of a job, or a limb, or a lifelong dream.

Those who’ve experienced the painful realities of life bear the marks to prove it.  The Good News is if you’re willing to accept your disappointments and losses and entrust them to God, in time you’ll come to reflect the image of Christ.

A minister friend told me about a man who showed up at his study one day.  He described him as a large stocky man who sold heavy equipment for a living.  He jokingly said, “The first thing that came to mind when I saw him was a bulldozer.”  He invited the man to have a seat and he asked, “So, what’s on your mind?”

The man started to tell him about his son – a senior in high school – but broke down and sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes.  My friend patted him on the shoulder and let him pour out his grief.  Turns out, his son had committed suicide about a month earlier.

The two talked weekly over the course of the next several months.  Slowly, the father worked through the range of his thoughts and feelings about his son’s death – at times, being so distraught he could hardly talk about it; at other times, being so angry he wanted to destroy something; and, at other times, feeling guilty and blaming himself for not being able to do something to prevent it.

Finally, he reached the point where he wanted to share his story with others.  He said he hoped he could save a life by talking with teenagers about the reality of teen suicide; plus, he wanted to help other parents who’d been down the same road as he.  He put the word out and was invited to speak at a church, then a civic club, then another and another.  There’s no telling how many miles he drove or how many people’s lives he touched in the process.

Beyond his story stood the man – once a gruff, burly sort of guy ready to level a mountain; now, a warm, sensitive and compassionate father, willing to counsel a distressed teenager or comfort a grieving mother or father.  In the course of his grief, he was transformed.

Those who’ve experienced the painful realities of life bear the marks to prove it.  Pain takes its toll on us and humbles us and causes us to lose our naïveté.  But it need not cause us to lose our hope.  For, in faith, it’s the painful reality of life that helps us empathize with others and brings us closer to the throne of God’s grace and love.

In her book, The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams tells about a little stuffed rabbit who lived on a shelf in a child’s nursery, who wanted more than anything else in all the world to be real.  The other toys in the nursery, especially the mechanical toys, snubbed him and made fun of him because he was stuffed with sawdust.  But the Skin Horse was different, and he was willing to listen to the Velveteen Rabbit and help him understand what it meant to be real.  The Skin Horse was wise, for he had lived longer in the nursery than all the rest.  He was so old that his shiny brown coat was bald in patches, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out for the children to use to string bead necklaces.

One day the Velveteen Rabbit asked the Skin Horse, “What is REAL? … Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”  The skin horse said, “Real isn’t how you are made, it’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.  “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.  “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”  The skin horse said, “It doesn’t happen all at once. You become.  It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit.  And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.  But the Skin Horse only smiled.  “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said.  “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again.  It lasts for always.”

And so it does, for life is a one-way journey with many surprises and disappointments along the way.  Once you taste its reality, you can never go back, for the experiences of life lead to fresh new encounters with the living Christ.

Like Moses – like Jesus – no one meets God face-to-face and walks away the same.  Those whom God transfigures are often disfigured in the process.  We’re changed from the person we once were to the person God would have us to become.

No one ever said it would be easy.  And so, in closing, my prayer is simply this: God, grant us the courage to accept triumph and tragedy, victory and defeat, in faith; at every step praising you from whom all blessings flow.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty.  Used by permission.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.