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Transfiguration & Transformation
By Dr. Thomas D. Walker
02/19/12
FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE
DR. THOMAS D. WALKER
FEBRUARY 19, 2012

Transfiguration and Transformation
Exodus 34:29-35
Mark 9:2-9


Today is Transfiguration Sunday, three days before Ash Wednesday. The Transfiguration of our Lord is always the suggested subject for the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent.

You heard the readings from Scripture. Exodus tells us that Moses has just descended from the top of Mount Sinai where he had been with God for forty days and nights. As a result of being in the presence of God, the glory of God caused his countenance to be radiant and the people "were afraid to come near him."

In the reading from Mark's gospel, Jesus took Peter, James and John, and led them up a high mountain where he was transfigured before them, and, says Mark, "his clothes became dazzling white…." Mark gives the unmistakable impression that Jesus, in company with Elijah and Moses, assumed a non-earthly appearance. Again, God's presence was manifested in radiant glory.

Obviously, this is no run-of-the-mill story even for the first century. What then does one say about transfiguration in the twenty-first century? Let me begin by telling you what a very special person said about it in the nineteenth century.

Many years ago, a Russian archbishop was crossing the Black Sea on a voyage that took several days. He was given the ship's finest available quarters. As he walked on the deck one evening, he noticed several pilgrims in animated conversation. When the pilgrims saw him, they took off their caps, did obeisance and ceased their conversation.

"Do not let me bother you, friends," said the archbishop. "I just want to join in listening to what our little brother is saying."

"The little fisherman was telling us about the old men," said one of the pilgrims.

"What of them?" asked the archbishop. "What were you pointing to just now?"

"To the little island showing faintly over there," replied a small man who was obviously the fisherman. "On that island live some old men who are truly servants of God."

The archbishop became intensely interested and asked the fisherman to tell him more.

And the fisherman told him of an experience when he had previously fished in this particular area. A sudden storm had come without warning and forced him to put in at this very island. After spending a frightening, uncomfortable night, he looked around the island and came upon a small mud hut beside which a very old man was sitting, and out of which two others emerged. They were most hospitable. They gave the fisherman food, dried his clothes, treated him with great kindness and helped him repair his boat.

"And what did they say to you," asked the archbishop.

"Very little. Most of what they did was done in silence. They seldom spoke even to one another. But they understood one another perfectly."

The ship was now drawing closer to the island. The archbishop was so enthralled with the story that he asked the captain if he could pay a visit to the old men on the island.

A small boat was prepared and the archbishop, the fisherman and four crewmen headed for the island. When they reached the shore, the archbishop, in his splendid finery, stepped out. The old men made obeisance to him, and he blessed them in return.

"I have heard," said the archbishop, "that you three holy men are living a devout life here and praying to the Christ for the sins of mankind; wherefore, I – also an unworthy servant of Christ – am here by the mercy of God that I might visit you and, if possible, instruct you in some of the teachings of the church."

The old men smiled and bowed their heads in respectful gratitude.

"Tell me," the archbishop continued, "how do you pray and how do you serve God?"

The old men sighed and looked embarrassed. One finally responded, "O servant of God, we know not how to serve God. We seek only to serve one another and to pray."

"In what form, then, do you pray?" asked the archbishop. And the eldest replied: "We pray thus: 'Ye are three, and we are three. Have ye mercy upon us and the world.'"

So the archbishop began to teach them the Lord's Prayer. All morning and all afternoon he labored with them. Finally, he was satisfied and returned to the ship. And as the voyage continued, the little island disappeared from view.

Later in the evening when the passengers had retired, the archbishop moved to the bow of the ship where he sat alone deep in thought. He continued to gaze in the direction of the vanished island and think of the three old men. He remembered how pleased they had been to learn the Lord's Prayer and he thanked God for the privilege of imparting knowledge to those who were ignorant concerning matters of faith.

As he sat alone with his thoughts, gazing in the direction where the island had disappeared, he noticed a movement over the waters. Suddenly, it began to glow in the light of the moon. Whatever it is, it is moving rapidly and will quickly overtake us, he thought. Suddenly the helmsman cried, "God of heaven! There are three old men running across the water as upon dry land!"

The ship's company heard him and rushed on deck. Everyone could see the old men as they came up to the bow of the ship, hand-in-hand. They were radiant. With one voice they said to the archbishop, "O servant of God, we have forgotten already the prayer you taught us. None of it can we recall. Wilt thou teach us again?"

The archbishop crossed himself, bowed low to the old men and said, "I have learned, O ancient men of God: It is not for me to teach you. Your prayer is most profitable unto God. I beseech you to pray for me and all us sinners."

For a moment, they stood motionless – then turned and went back across the sea. And until morning a light could be seen glowing in the direction they had departed.

Some of you will surely recognize this narrative as an unworthy abridgment of a wonderful story written by Leo Tolstoy close to the end of his life. It is obviously inspired by the transfiguration narratives of the synoptic gospels. Tolstoy was a Christian mystic who had an ongoing quarrel with what he considered the rigidity and callousness of the Russian Orthodox Church. In this story, the three old men were transfigured. God was so present in their lives that their countenances became radiant. In the scriptures, God's glory is often manifested in radiant light. Tolstoy undoubtedly tells of God's glory in these unassuming servants to strengthen the faith of his readers. But most significantly, the transfiguration of the three old men transformed the archbishop. Instead of continuing as an imperious official of the church who imparted instruction and doctrine, the archbishop became another pilgrim who learned about the nature and love of God from these humble old men.

So in Tolstoy's narrative, the old men were transfigured; the archbishop was transformed.

The words of Jesus come to mind, "Whoever is greatest among (us) is a servant. And whoever would be first among (us) must be the willing slave of all."

Back for a moment to Mark's treatment of Jesus' transfiguration. Several things should be noted. First, this miracle of transfiguration was not enacted by Jesus. It was a miracle from God the Father that happened to Jesus. It was a gift from God to Jesus and the disciples. Second, the presence of Moses and Elijah demonstrates that the ministry of Jesus was far more than a "fly-by-night" rabbi who flashes brilliantly across the scene only to fade forever. Moses and Elijah represent the "Law and the Prophets." Their presence in this story places Jesus in the very center of Old Testament activity. It tells the disciples (and us) that Jesus has been a vital part of the plan and activity of God from the beginning of all beginnings.

In all three synoptic gospels, the purpose of this narrative of our Lord's transfiguration is the same: First, it is to validate all that has been said by Jesus and his disciples about his divinity; second, it is to encourage the disciples and to strengthen them in the face of oncoming suffering; and third, it is to provide the disciples a preview of Jesus' glory in his coming resurrection.

There is much more that could be/should be said about the Transfiguration of our Lord. Others, I am sure, have said it admirably in the past and will do so again in the coming years.

But this, I think, is an important take-away from the transfiguration narrative. The true identity of Jesus Christ was confirmed! He is indeed the divine Son of God, the Messiah for whom the world waited. Remember the voice from the cloud: "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him." Listen to him! This narrative states forthrightly that Jesus is the voice of God "par excellence." In Jesus, as in no other, God was revealed and God spoke. If we want to know what God is like, Mark is saying, we should look at Jesus Christ, we should listen to Jesus Christ. Jesus is the highest representative of God before humankind; he is the highest representative of humanity before God. Jesus' divinity and humanity are magnificently displayed on the Mount of Transfiguration.

So, in Mark's narrative, Jesus was transfigured by God the Father. The disciples were transformed by the glory of Christ.

In my better days, I believe that streams of radiant light from that first century transfiguration can find their way into our lives when we need them most. I believe that was accomplished in Tolstoy's wonderful story of "the three old men."

In the world in which you and I live, we may never see firsthand as did Peter, James, and John, the glory of God fully revealed in Jesus Christ. That transfiguration experience stands alone. It is incomparable. But that's all-right. That's as it should be. You and I have our own mountain, our own story, our own moment when God turns that which is unbearably painful into something meaningful; when God turns the joyful into something absolutely miraculous; when God transfigures the ordinary into an unmistakable revelation of God's great love for us.

God's revelation to us may or may not be a mystical encounter such as the archbishop's. God's revelation may come through an ordinary event of life. But that ordinary event is transfigured into something extraordinary. And in this transfigured event will be the inexplicable glory of Almighty God – radiant before our eyes – enough to bow us down in awe and thanksgiving. And the memory of that event as well as the anticipation of such events to come will strengthen our faith and sustain our hope until we see that the Kingdom of God has come with power and glory.
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