I never enjoyed preaching on Transfiguration Sunday. This is a time when heaven and earth come together in startling ways, and as a preacher I was always at a loss to know how to explain what was happening. Peter was there and he is obviously quite confused. “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" (Mark 9:5 NRSV). The Voice translation says that Peter was “babbling.” Mark even seems to feel that he needs to cover a bit for Peter. “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mark 9:6 NRSV).
Still, every year I would attempt to explain something that is not able to be explained. I understand what being transformed means – but what does it mean to be transfigured? And, what about Jesus’ clothes that “became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them?” (Mark 9:3). There are so many puzzles in this event that it is difficult to know how to approach it. It is a mystery. And – a mystery, by its very nature, cannot be explained.
Really, it should not come as a surprise that we are dealing with a mystery. As followers of Christ, we deal with a number of mysteries. The Holy Trinity is how God appears to us. How can one be three, and three be one? It is a mystery. And, as one of my professors said: “As soon as you try to explain the Trinity, you will be treading on the grounds of heresy. Don’t try it!” Another mystery is Holy Communion. What exactly does happen when we celebrate the sacrament? We can’t adequately explain it. It is a mystery. Our United Methodist study on Holy Communion is entitled “This Holy Mystery.” It is vital to our faith, but we cannot explain everything that happens.
So, when I was assigned to write this Memo, since I was dealing with a mystery, I decided to go back to a basic approach that is often used by Disciple Bible Study. When dealing with a passage of Scripture, there are three questions that are almost always important – 1. What does this Scripture tell us about God? 2. What does this Scripture tell us about humans? 3. What does this Scripture tell us about the relationship between God and humans? I think this is a good approach for dealing with the story of the transfiguration.
What does this Scripture tell us about God? In the Transfiguration, we are probably getting a glimpse of the divine side of Jesus. Jesus is divine. He is in the world, but He is not of this world. These are phrases that we have heard and used – perhaps too often. The Transfiguration is a reminder that we should not take them for granted. Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity. He is God in the flesh. And yet, the Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus did not just leave his divinity behind when he was became human. We should not treat Jesus as just an excellent teacher. Jesus is God. “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30 NRSV).
What does this Scripture tell us about humans? As I have already mentioned, the humans do not come off very well in this passage. Peter babbles and makes strange suggestions. It seems that the other two are struck silent. But, would you or I do any better? As humans, when we become intensely aware that we are in the presence of the Holy One, we are not always at our best. We may be silent. We may be foolish. We may babble as well. At the same time, we should lose track of the honor that is extended to Peter, James, and John. They are given a glimpse of the Divine. It reminds me of the first time I was asked to talk about my call with Board of Ordained Ministry. What I did is talk about how I tested that call because I found it difficult to put into words such a personal experience with God. A very kind examiner took me aside after the interview and suggested that I work on my answer to that question for the next year since it would not be going away. I did get better at responding to it, but it is still an area where I find myself babbling at times.
What does this Scripture tell us about the relationship between God and humans? I believe this is the most important aspect of this passage. While this experience may have been partially to reassure Jesus of God’s continuing love and support, we cannot ignore God’s command: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" (Mark 9:7 NRSV). Jesus came to earth to proclaim the Good News – forgiveness of sins and redemption. By listening to Jesus and following him we are able to grow closer and closer to God. We are able to become more and more the creatures that God intended us to be. We are able to receive God’s love and forgiveness – and we are able to share that love and forgiveness with others.
So, rather than trying to explain the inexplicable this year, I encourage you to celebrate one of the mysteries of our faith. Let us concentrate on the message that the Transfiguration passage brings to us. It is a message of Jesus’ divinity. It is a message of our humanity. And, it is also a message of God’s love and care for us as humans. Those are messages that can and should be preached very often. May God bless your preaching.
Paul I. Burrow is a retired elder of the Iowa Annual Conference and resides in Indianola.