Feast of the Transfiguration (2021)
Sermon Text: Mark 9:2-9
February 13, 2021
ON THE SUBLIMITY OF TRANSFIGURATIONS
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Dear brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, have you ever once experienced or perceived something so beautiful, so awe-inspiring, so magnificent and glorious, that it literally terrified you? That it sent an unmistakable fear tingling down your spine, for no rational reason at all other than the sheer intensity of the experience itself? You know, a sort of intensity that doesn’t really asked to be contemplated or questioned, but rather just overpowers the senses and overwhelms reason altogether. Perhaps you once stared up at the heavens on a clear night and—waxing somewhat philosophical—were struck by the absolute immensity and infinity of the universe, and, by cosmic comparison, felt this sense of delightful dread at your own seemingly infinitesimal existence. Or maybe you’ve been out to sea, or amid an endless desert, where the vast beauty is truly breathtaking but also somewhat petrifying? It’s just so massive, so endless, and the experience of it… it more or less shocks the senses. Or maybe, if you’re anything like me, you suffer from a certain megalophobia, a sense of instinctual fear when faced with the enormity of particular things. It’s like… when you’re walking downtown in a city and you can’t quite pull yourself to look up at the skyscrapers for very long. It’s just too much. They’re too tall and you’re too small beneath them. And yea, that might seem like a silly fear, but it is quite real for some.
For instance, there’s this museum back in Memphis, TN called the Pink Palace that my parents used to take me to when I was a kid. I really loved the place and would be overtaken with excitement whenever we went. Yet there was this one specific room that I always dreaded going into. I attempted to avoid it like the plague; yet every trip, without fail, I was forced to walk through it. (My parents were sadists, clearly.) Because, you see, in this room there was this gigantic exhibit of a plesiosaur, a massive underwater dinosaur, you know, the one with the whale looking body but with the tall neck like a brontosaurus, what the imaginative Scotsman supposes the loch ness monster is, right? Anyhow, this thing was just enormous. Especially if your vantage point were that of a seven-year-old boy. I would very nearly have a panic attack every single time we walked past it. It was just far too much for me. It overwhelmed me and I couldn’t explain it. Yet… I didn’t hate it or anything. Not at all. I thought it was beautiful and amazing. I recognized its splendor. But it still scared the crap out of me. I sincerely wanted to stare at it, to take in its beauty and enormity – for even in glimpses, through the slits in the hands covering my boyish face, I could still sense how phenomenal it was. Yet I could rarely look for long. I didn’t have the guts. I had to look down or look away or keep my face covered. It is hard to explain, I suppose. But perhaps you’ve all had a similar experience at one point and can relate. You see, some things are so beautiful that it almost hurts to see them. The glory of it all is almost painful and downright petrifying.
The German Romantics, a ragtag gang of 18th and 19th century Lutheran philosophers, theologians, and artists, called this sort of beauty “the sublime.” Now we hear that word sometimes with respect to a good meal or a lovely armoire or a William Morris textile or something of the sort – “oh wow, that’s just sublime.” But really, the word, the concept, it has a much stronger connotation, though most don’t fully grasp its usual hyperbolic use. It doesn’t refer to just anything beautiful or pleasant. On the contrary, it refers to something so beautiful, so pleasant, so intense and immeasurable, that it completely overpowers us. It leaves us with a sense that, whatever this is, whatever this sublime experience is, it is so much greater than we are. So much mightier and more glorious. But… friends… where am I going? What does all this have to do with our lessons today? What does this vicar’s reminiscing about adolescent fears of plesiosaurs and ruminations about German Romantic aesthetics have to do with the Gospel?
Well, today we are celebrating the feast of the Transfiguration. This feast day is the bridge, as it were, between the liturgical season of Epiphany, that season focusing on the manifestation to the world of God in man through Christ Jesus, and the season of Lent, that penitential season of preparation for and reflection on the Passion of our Lord, which begins this week with Ash Wednesday. And brothers and sisters, this feast day, it is one of the most glorious in our entire liturgical calendar. For it is on this day that we remember in holy celebration the Transfiguration of our Lord, when the revelation of God’s coming into the world was made most manifest. You see, when our Lord was transfigured on that mountaintop, as we heard in our Gospel reading earlier, the infinite and eternal truly broke into this finite, material world of ours in an unprecedented way. Or rather, the breaking through of heaven into earth, the intersection of these two disparate realities, it occurred in Christ’s very birth – but in His transfiguration, it was made perfectly clear, and, in a most glorious fashion, the lustrous sublimity of God incarnate was revealed to a handful of blessed disciples.
Yet, dear faithful, we hear in our Gospel lesson that Peter, James, and John, those disciples who witnessed our Lord’s transfiguration, we hear that they were, above all, frightened. Despite the wonder of the radiant light which whitened Christ’s clothes, brighter than any bleach could whiten, as our text says, and despite the joy of seeing their Master conversing with Moses and Elijah, the very representatives of the Law and the Prophets which they held so dear, despite how remarkable this all was, ultimately, the disciples were scared. The experience overwhelmed them. And it sent a shiver down their spines. And then, when a cloud appeared, covering Moses and Elijah, and brought with it the voice of God declaring: “This is my Son, Whom I love. Listen to Him.” – ostensibly, this only further terrified the disciples. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, we moreover hear that when this all occurred, the disciples then fell facedown into the dirt, thoroughly terror-stricken. They could not pull themselves to stare this experience in the face. That is, not until our Lord Himself implored them to stand up and comforted them, saying “do not be afraid”; it was only through His assurance that they were able to look up and gaze upon the sublime. And friends, when they did, all they saw was Jesus. Moses and Elijah were gone. The cloud was gone. The voice ceased. All that remained was our Lord, standing before them, as God incarnate, having been transfigured, and now prepared to descend the mountain and enter Jerusalem, where His brutal fate awaited Him.
In good Lutheran fashion, we must ask: what does this mean? The sublimity of Christ’s transfiguration overwhelmed the disciples; but then, through Christ’s comfort and assurance, they were able to look upon it. And when they did, they saw only Him. What are we to make of this? Well, friends, our lectionary really lends a hand this week. For St. Paul tells us exactly what this all means. But first, recall that in our Old Testament reading, we heard about Moses, who, upon descending Mount Sinai with the Law inscribed in stone, brought with him some of the glory he experienced while in God’s presence. It shone from his face, a radiant light, one so radiant that Aaron and all the Israelites were fearful to even come close to the luminescent Law-giver. The remnant of God’s glory shining from Moses’ face frightened them. In response to this terror, Moses put a veil over his face while with the Israelites, so that they could stand to look upon him and also so that they would not have to bear witness to the glory fading from his face over time. And so, whenever he came back down from the mountain and from the presence of Yahweh to give the Law to the people, he would veil himself, so that God’s people could manage to bear both the glory and its fading away.
But now, turning to our epistle lesson, St. Paul explains this glory and its greater manifestation in Christ Jesus. See, Moses, being merely a man who happened to be blessed to enter into God’s presence and receive the Law, the glory which shone from his face, it faded over time. The glory of God indeed reflected onto the Israelites from Moses’ face, but only temporarily. It was always passing away – fading out. And even then, prior to Christ’s incarnation, the glory which reflected from Moses’ face, even this temporary, fading glory, even it was too much for the Israelites to handle. They could not stand to look upon it, because it petrified them. Thus did Moses have to veil his face. However, St. Paul tells us that, in Christ, this very veil, once necessary to dull the glory of God for the sake of the weakness of men, it is forever lifted. And this is precisely because, in Christ, in God incarnate, in His enfleshed being, His glory, it never fades. It is not a reflection of the glory of God, but it is that very glory itself, in its purest incarnate form – God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, as the Nicene Creed states. And furthermore, in Christ, man is given the courage and wherewithal to gaze upon that glory without fear. And that is because those who have faith in Christ are indeed themselves being transfigured, just like our Lord, but rather from the inglorious state of a sinner to the truly glorious state of sanctification; and so much so that the justified man can therefore bear to behold God incarnate, in all His glory and might, and even in this life, even as a creature still under the weight of the Fall, even this side of heaven, as simultaneously both sinner and saint, as Luther so eloquently put it.
St. Paul writes: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” We are being transformed, sanctified, and are given the courage to see God’s glory directly. But how? And what does Paul mean when he speaks of different degrees of glory? Well, friends, the glory which the Israelites saw, that glory was represented in the Law, and embodied by the Lawgiver, Moses, from whose face the glory was reflected. For remember, Moses brought back with him from the mountain both that glory along with the two tablets of the old covenant – the Law itself. Yet there are two crucial things to note here: first of all, this former glory, it only terrified men. And dear faithful, it still does. The Law still terrifies us. Because we know that we can never keep it. No matter what, we always fall into sin again and again and cannot help but wallow in our own depravity. We are miserable sinners through and through, and so, the glory of the Law of God, it only destroys us. It tears us down and leaves us dead in our trespasses. On our own, we cannot withstand it, because we are but fallen creatures. Yet to be sure, God’s Law, it is itself beautiful and sublime and perfect. It is not the problem, we are. Because, for us, in our fallen state, it is only pain and petrification. However, fortunately, the glory of this Law, it was superseded, in time, by another glory – a more radiant glory – that of the Gospel and of our Lord Himself. And no, Christ did not negate the Law or get rid of the Law and its glory, for that Law remains perfect on its own, but rather, through His sinless life and His full atonement, He fulfilled the Law on our behalf; and in His fulfillment of it, He superseded the Law for our sake. By dying on the Cross for our sins, Christ supplanted the glory of a divine but condemnatory Law with the glory of mercy and forgiveness through Him. And so, from our vantage point, from the vantage point of redeemed sinners, this latter glory is, in fact, all the more radiant.
And as broken sinners, forgiven and saved by Christ Jesus, we are all, every one of us, being sanctified toward the image of our Lord. We are being made like our Savior, through the faith in Him given us by the Holy Spirit and through the works worked in us by that very same Spirit. And thus, we, too, are being transfigured. Slowly but surely. And through this transfiguration, through our Gospel liberty, we, too, may begin to reflect the radiant glory of Christ, Who is God in the flesh. And in our transfiguration, as His One Body, the Church, with us many members, coruscating the Light of Christ in every possible direction, in our transfiguration, we are given the complete courage and the means and sufficient wherewithal to behold the glory of God face to face. We are no longer terrified. We are no longer frightened by the sublimity of God’s glory. For it no longer destroys us. It no longer leaves us dead. Because Christ paid the price for our failure before the Law and the glory thereof; because of this, we are now quickened and indeed strengthened to stare the glory of God right in the face. And that face, the very same face the disciples saw once they looked back up from their prostration in the dirt, that face is only the face of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is all there is to behold. As He is the glory of God for us.
Yet, friends, that glory, it was far from free. We know this. When the disciples looked up at Christ standing alone, there was only one way to go from there. And that way was down. Down the mountainside and into Jerusalem. For the glory shared with us by Christ could only be won by His crucifixion and by a painful and humiliating sacrifice. Because of our sinfulness, this sacrifice was wholly necessary, to atone for our failures. And so, all glory, it comes only through the necessity of the Cross. And just as we are being transfigured into the likeness of Christ, to reflect the glory of God out into the world, so must we, too, descend the mountain with Him. We must follow our Lord into Jerusalem and to the foot of the Cross. We must gaze upon the horror and atrocity of a crucified God and witness the wreckage left by our sin, as well as the immeasurable love which overcame it all. And indeed, we, too, must each bear our own crosses, in time. As the very strength to behold the radiant glory of God, to be certain, it only ever comes through the suffering of discipleship and sanctification. And dear flock, that is what the coming season of Lent is really all about…
We know that when God made man, He made him in His own image and likeness. And that image, it was woefully tarnished by Adam’s sin. Terribly so. Yet, through Christ, through the Second Adam, the Final Adam, that image is being restored. And that image, we now see, is of Christ Himself, and the reflection of His glory in each and every one of us. And in that reflection, there exists, too, the burden of our own crosses – those crosses we bear for Christ’s sake. Suffering, sorrow, loss, depression, persecution, tragedy, doubt – these are a but a few of the many crosses we must bear in this life, as the Church Militant. And they are heavy… so very heavy. Nevertheless, our God, He has given us all the means of bearing them, for He has given us the fullness of His grace. And that grace, it comes to us through Word and Sacrament. Our Lord gives us everything we need to withstand the world, the Devil, and our own sinful flesh, along with the burden of all our many crosses. And we find that wherewithal in His Holy and Precious Word, in His comforting, consoling, and encouraging Scripture. And through the remembrance of our Baptism and the salvation it secured, and through the continual forgiveness granted us in confession and Holy Absolution, and perhaps most tangibly, His grace comes to us and strengthens us by the glory of His Son’s own Flesh and Blood in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Through these, we not only catch a glimpse of the glory of God, of His grace made manifest in the material world, of heaven breaking into earth once more to restore creation, but we are furthermore strengthened by them to bear the weight of our own individual transfigurations, through discipleship and sanctification. God is truly making us glorious once again. In fact, He is making us like His very own Son. And He does so by the power of the Holy Spirit and through His bounteous Means of Grace.
You and I, we were obviously not there on that mountaintop. We did not see our Lord’s transfiguration firsthand. Regardless though, we experience it every day, in various other ways. We hear it in the Holy Scriptures, we see it in Holy Baptism, we feel it in Holy Absolution, and we even taste it in Holy Communion. And moreover, we witness it in one another. When we see Christ in our neighbor, in our fellow believer, we see both the sinner and the saint and the transfiguration between the two. We see how the image of God, once tarnished, is now being restored. And we see it in ourselves, too – however slowly and subtly. We see it everywhere. The glory of our Lord’s transfigured being shines in everyday life, in the remarkable as well as in the seemingly mundane. And in our Lord, resting in Him and in His assurance, we have no need to ever fear. There is nothing to terrify us any longer. The sublime is now hidden in every single blade of grass, as the whole of creation waits in groaning for the full restoration of all things. We have no need to cover our faces and peek through the slits of our hands. We have no need to lay prostrate on the ground out of fear of being overcome. Because Christ has already overcome everything for us. And through Him, through the glory of His face, all things become not merely bearable, but they moreover become beautiful. Even suffering itself, it becomes more than bearable – in its necessity, it becomes even a joy, as St. James tells us. For through it, through every cross, we are only being further transfigured and brought closer to our crucified Lord Himself. Should it be through hell and back, no matter, through everything, we are only being made more glorious in Him.
You know, when I was around a seventeen or so, I went back to the Pink Palace, on my own. I spent an entire afternoon exploring that museum. And much to my nervous surprise, that exhibit from my childhood, the plesiosaur, sure enough, he was still there. All those years later, he was still there. And so, I mustered the courage to enter that room which had once so horrified me. I was the only person there that day. And there alone, I looked that beautiful-yet-monstrous beast right in the face. I stood there and refused to turn away. And to tell you the truth, it was just as amazing and remarkable as I’d always assumed it was. And while I still had the vestiges of fear coursing through my body, I was no longer overcome by it. Because I’d grown up. I’d changed. I’d been transformed, transfigured even. I was no longer a boy, but a young man. And I could stare this sublime creature in the face, without turning away. And for whatever cliché reason, that was an important day for me. There’s something to be said for facing that kind of overwhelming beauty, no matter how painful or petrifying. But I never could have done so had I not myself been changed. Were I still a boy, I hardly could have stood down that fear.
And maybe, so it is for us. We have been changed – and are still being changed. And in our own transfigurations, in our own lives, through Christ and His reflection in us, we are made able to confront our own fears, sorrows, losses, doubts, even demons. We are able to bear our own crosses. And the glory on the other side of those crosses is something unmistakably sublime, friends. And considering all that, considering how phenomenal it is to be brought through suffering to the other side, just imagine how much more sublime it will be on the other side of this mortal life itself, on the other side of all sorrow, in heaven and in the new creation, when the glory of God will be manifest everywhere and for all time, and when all pain and sadness will be forever put to rest. Imagine how glorious that day will be. When our Lord returns, or when we each, ourselves, take our own rest from this world. Imagine that transfiguration to come, on the other side of all this struggle – when the Lent of this very life gives way to the Easter of the resurrection to come. Imagine how sublime it will be. Just imagine.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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