The following sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Southington on February 14, 2021. At the time our worship service was pre-recorded and streamed on Sunday morning.
A Princess, A Makeover, and the Transfiguration
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
Transfiguration. Maybe that word makes you think of Harry Potter and something magical taking place? In the Harry Potter books and movies, Professor McGonagall taught a class on Transfiguration at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The account from the Gospel of Mark does seem kind of magical. But the kind of Transfiguration we are celebrating today is not the magical Harry Potter kind.
I know you don’t come to church each Sunday to learn a new vocabulary word, but I think it is important to ground ourselves in what it really means to be transfigured. Merriam-Webster defines transfigure as, “to give a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance to; transform outwardly and usually for the better.” I think this definition might help us to understand what is taking place during the Transfiguration of Jesus. In the story of the Transfiguration in the Gospels, we read of Jesus who appears in a new way.
Jesus goes up on a mountaintop with three of his disciples: Peter, James, and John. Jesus was transfigured before them. This transfiguration can be seen as a miracle. It is a little different from the healing miracles or the feeding miracles Jesus performs. Instead, in the transfiguration, it almost seems like God performs the miracle for Jesus.
During the miraculous time when Jesus is brilliantly shining with a great light, he is visited by Moses and Elijah. Jesus’ disciples can also see Moses and Elijah with Jesus. Peter, recognizing the significance of what is taking place, tells Jesus that they should make three dwelling places on this mountaintop. Possibly to honor Moses and Elijah or maybe to try to preserve the amazing thing they are witnessing. It is likely that Moses and Elijah appear at Jesus’ transfiguration because they were the voices regularly calling Israel back to who they were meant to be as people of God. Moses and Elijah challenged authorities that were leading astray and meeting directly with God. Jesus also will continue to challenge the authorities and it will ultimately lead to his death on a cross.
The Gospel of Mark tells us that Peter didn’t know what to say and that they were all terrified. The disciples were terrified even BEFORE a cloud overshadowed them and the voice of God calls out, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
The voice of God seems to mark the end the physical act of Transfiguration. The disciples are left standing with Jesus. As they make their way down the mountain, Jesus orders them not to tell anyone about what happened until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Our lectionary assigned reading ends there, but I think it is valuable to look at the next verse. Verse 10 reads, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”
I like how human the disciples are in this story. They are terrified, they say and do the wrong things, they have questions, but Jesus doesn’t get frustrated with them. Peter refers to Jesus as Rabbi, Teacher. A few weeks ago, Karlene asked the congregation in a Holy Surprise to think about the best teacher they ever had. Our Gospel reading today gives another example of Jesus as Great Teacher. Jesus doesn’t lecture the disciples about what is taking place. He recognizes that sometimes we learn best by sight and he gives the disciples time to process all they had seen.
Let’s go back to that definition I shared earlier for transfiguration. As I said before, according to Merriam Webster transfigure is “to give a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance to; transform outwardly and usually for the better.” Some synonyms for transfigure are transform, metamorphose, or make over. There are many different movies and tv shows with makeover scenes. I want to briefly reflect on one particular movie with a famous makeover scene that I think is worth examining because of some of the similar lessons we might draw from the Gospel story.
The 2001 movie, The Princess Diaries stars Anne Hathaway as high schooler Mia Thermopolis and Julie Andrews as Queen Clarisse Renaldi. Mia Thermopolis at the beginning of the movie is an awkward high school girl with glasses and wild curly hair. Although she has a good heart, she is severely lacking in refinement. Queen Clarisse Renaldi is Mia’s grandmother who informs Mia she is actually a princess and heir to a throne in Genovia. Julie Andrews is the perfect actress for this role with her posh British voice and seemingly natural poise and elegance. After the revelation that Mia is a princess, Queen Clarisse Renaldi instructs her granddaughter on etiquette with various lessons and also helps her get a makeover. Mia Thermopolis post-makeover is nearly unrecognizable. Her wild curls are tamed, contacts replace glasses, and other style enhancements transform the awkward teenage girl into someone who really LOOKS like a princess.
Similar to the disciples who are confused and terrified at Jesus’ transfiguration, Mia’s friends are very confused and maybe even a little frightened. What happened to their best friend? When her outside was changed, did her inner character remain the same?
As we see in most movies with a major makeover or transformation story, outside appearances only tell part of the story. What makes Mia a good princess at the end of the movie is not the fact that she looks the part, but her inner goodness, her sense of humor, and her character, which was always there. For the disciples, the transfiguration is a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus. The voice of God reminds them that Jesus is the Beloved Son of God and instructs them to listen to Jesus. The disciples saw the physical transfiguration of Jesus, but they also knew that there was more than meets the eye with Jesus. Jesus was their Teacher, Leader and Friend. And Jesus knows that when the disciples no longer have him physically present with them, they will need to rely on what lies within, their experiences and memories which are stronger than just physical representation.
Transfiguration Sunday is a transition point in our church year. This Wednesday we will begin the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is when we remember our mortality. The idea of remembering our mortality might not sit very well this year. We have all been constantly reminded of our mortality during this pandemic.
During the Transfiguration, the voice from the cloud, the voice of God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” This instruction from God is very fitting for our Lenten series called “Listen” which will begin on Wednesday. Each week during Lent Pastor Ron and I will invite you to Listen for God’s still small voice and listen to your own True Self. Listening through prayer as well as meditation on holy texts is an ancient Lenten practice. We will listen to the Scriptures as they lead us on the journey to the cross.
So before we get into the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we have the opportunity today to celebrate the transfiguration. To remember the glory and majesty of Jesus. Hopefully this mountaintop story can carry us through the valleys of the Lenten season ahead.
When the disciples walked down from the mountaintop after the transfiguration, they were changed. Maybe not physically any different. But they had been changed by what they saw. May the glory of Jesus also be revealed to us and may we be open to the ways God will be at work among us. Amen.