Saturday, 12 March 2011


A sermon on Luke 9: 28-36 (the Transfiguration)

Here is a sermon I gave some time ago. I was reminded of it by some discussion at Lesley’s blog And I note that the quote on the right hand side of her blog, at the moment, is a quote from Michael Wilson which I quote at the end!

When I read it again I found that it finishes with this quote and a prayer that I pinched from a book by Donald Eadie called Grain in Winter which everyone should read. I have just spent a weekend away organised by CHRISM (Christians in Secular Ministry) which was led by Donald Eadie.

Thanks so much for that weekend, Donald. I hope you like this sermon.

‘My theme today is transformation. I want to explore this theme by looking at Luke’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus and what it tells us about the reality of transformation. But in the process I want to suggest that transformation cannot just be understood by looking just at the transfiguration but needs also be understood in the light of the crucifixion. But I also want to suggest that the transfiguration and crucifixion are intimately connected: to say that transformation is both glorious and painful.

First a bit about transformation in general and how the theme today connects up with the theme of last week’s sermon. Karl Marx said that the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however is to change it. And Jesus came not only to help us understand the world but to change it. The gospel is good news – not only because it helps us make sense of things but because it changes everything. It is transformative.

Last week Steve – you may remember - talked about Jesus’ manifesto. And this was partly at least because we are in the run up to a General Election. Now after an election no-one remembers the manifesto of the party who ends up in opposition. It’s only the manifesto of the party who gains power that is important. Moreover this manifesto is only worth anything in as much at it acted upon. The words of a manifesto by themselves are in effect meaningless. Only when the words become actions do they really mean anything.

Steve told us that Jesus set out his manifesto at the beginning of his ministry in a synagogue in Nazareth. You’ll remember that he opened the scroll of the Book of Isaiah and read out the passage that we know as Chapter 61 He read out the words of the prophet and then told his listeners that they applied to him. He, in effect, said that he was the one that the prophet said would come to preach good news to the poor, the release of captives and recovery of the sight to the blind. But, the prophet had foretold not just an excellent preacher, but one who would ‘set at liberty those who are oppressed’. In other words not just someone would preach comforting words to the oppressed but someone who would actually to do something about their oppression. Someone who would liberate them. Someone who would transform them. Jesus said he was that person.

Now I have always felt a bit uncomfortable with this manifesto. Yes I know that Jesus went on, not only to preach recovery of sight to the blind, but actually to heal blind people. Here he definitely put words into actions. There are as you’ll recent lots of recorded incidences where Jesus responds to people who are sick or disabled – including several blind people - and he heals them. But what about the poor and the captives. Were any captives released during Jesus’ ministry and where any poor people actually relieved of their poverty? It is tempting here I think to assume Jesus was speaking of spiritual poverty and captivity, spiritual oppression but I want to suggest otherwise, partly because of the story of the transfiguration.

So turning now to that story. It’s set in the middle of Jesus’ ministry at a point where he has begun to warn his disciples that he has to go to Jerusalem to be crucified.

The transfiguration is a story of transformation. But if you think about it the Gospel is full of stories of transformation. This is clearly because transformation is such a big theme in the Gospel. And it’s not just the lives of the sick and disabled Jesus transforms: it’s the lives of virtually everyone he meets. His disciples end up having their lives turned upside down by following him. Even the lives of those who try to ignore him or oppose him end up being transformed: just think of what happens to Judas.

But in the story of the transfiguration it is not Jesus who is doing the transforming; it’s Jesus who is seemingly transformed. But how can this be? Surely if Jesus was God then how can he be transformed? Most people think of God as unchangeable. Surely all that is happening here on the mountain is that people – well three disciples – Peter, James and John, and two others from Israel’s history – Moses and Elijah – get to see Jesus for who he really is? Well this is part of the story but not the whole story.

I want to maintain that what happened on that mountain is a real story of transformation not just of revelation or indeed transfiguration – if by transfiguration all we mean is a change of appearance and not of anything substantial. And I think this firstly because the events on the mountain have a physical reality, there is a real mountain with real people as observers. There is a real change in the appearance of Jesus and a real voice from heaven which are seen and heard by the observers.

But important as the story of the transfiguration is, by itself it really changes nothing. OK Peter, James and John and perhaps Jesus himself have a wonderful spiritual experience but they have to come down off the mountain and indeed – according to Luke – are immediately confronted by a really tricky problem with an epileptic child that the other disciples who hadn’t gone up the mountain could not deal with. The transfiguration only makes sense in the context of the crucifixion and there are deep connections between the two.

Of course the story of the transfigurations has lots of connections and resonances with other stories. It is not accidental that Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain that day. Both Moses and Elijah went up a mountain during their time on earth. This was in both cases Mount Sinai and there they spoke with God. And as we heard in today’s OT reading from Exodus: when Moses came down from Mount Sinai his face shone – just as Jesus’ face shone when he was transfigured. Elijah and Moses are the two most important characters in the OT and so the story reinforces the connection between Jesus’ ministry and both the Jewish Law (represented by Moses) and the prophecies of the OT (represented by Elijah)

The story of the transfiguration not only resonates with OT stories of Moses and Elijah but also with what happened at Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist Luke tells us that a voice comes from heaven which said ‘Thou art my beloved son with thee I am well pleased’. The transfiguration is the only other occasion – according to Luke - where a voice comes from heaven, speaks directly to Jesus, and can be heard by the onlookers. This time the voice says, ‘This is my son, my chosen, listen to him’. On both occasions the voice affirms that Jesus is God’s son, i.e. is not just the chosen one that had been foretold by the prophets but one who has a unique relationship with God.

But the deepest connections are between the story of the transfiguration and that of the crucifixion – and I mean crucifixion not resurrection – even though the transfiguration seems a bit like a resurrection appearance. It is Matthew who draws out the parallels between the transfiguration and crucifixion most explicitly but they can also be seen in Luke and Mark. Matthew has the centurion at the foot of the cross saying ‘Truly this was the Son of God’ just like the voice from heaven at the transfiguration. Matthew also has three female disciples at the foot of the cross –Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee just as there are three male disciples at the transfiguration – Peter, James and John.

Then there’s the falling sleep business. In Luke’s account of the transfiguration the disciples fall asleep on the mountain, just as they do in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus goes to pray just before his crucifixion: It’s as if they are similarly overwhelmed by the significance and seriousness of the occasion. To such an extent that they fall asleep?

But as well as similarities there are dramatic contrasts between the transfiguration and the crucifixion but even these dramatic contrasts have shared features.

Here are five of these dramatic contrasts.

Firstly Jesus takes his friends with him, up a mountain for his transfiguration. For his crucifixion Jesus is taken by strangers to a hill having been abandoned by his friends.

Secondly at the crucifixion Jesus’ clothes are stripped off and squabbled over: at the transfiguration Jesus’ clothes are turned shiny white.

Thirdly the transfiguration is full of light – the light comes not just from Jesus’ clothes but also from his face. His face shone like the sun - according to Matthew - and even the cloud out of which the voice from heaven cam was ‘bright’. The crucifixion on the hand was full of darkness. Luke tells us that at the actual point of Jesus’ death ‘there was darkness over the whole land’ and the sun’s light failed.

Fourthly at the transfiguration there are two saints standing beside Jesus: at the crucifixion hang two robbers.

Finally Luke tells us that Jesus was glorified at the transfiguration and that the disciples woke to see his glory. But Jesus is also glorified – in a different – even opposite way -at his crucifixion as John in particular makes clear.

It is if we are looking at two pictures of the same thing with similar outlines but contrasting even opposite colours. If one scene were sketched on a transparency and placed over the other many of its lines would disappear. What is the significance of this?

Well the two scenes represent the extremes of human experience. One speaks of nakedness and mockery, suffering and loneliness, torture and death. The other speaks of glorious celebration, companionship, of life in all its fullness. So Jesus at his transfiguration and crucifixion embodies the whole spectrum of human possibility in one person. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he has always been so attractive and inspiring. He shows forth in his own person both the extreme depths of pain and anguish we can know – and, what we all long for. transformation to a life of, glorious amazing beauty, true companionship with others and complete intimacy with God. Jesus it the great illustration of both pain and hope. At his transfiguration he is humanity transformed and humanity glorified. But he can only transform humanity through his crucifixion as demonstrated by his subsequent resurrection.

This all has two consequences for how we view how we ourselves might be transformed.

First it means that our transformation is a real possibility. Just as Jesus was transfigured so we too can be transformed and in a way which makes a real difference to our lives. The physical reality of the transfiguration means that Jesus’ manifesto is not just words only but a promise of actual change. It means that Jesus’ manifesto is not just a spiritual manifesto – important as the spiritual life is - but a political manifesto where the good news is not just relief from spiritual oppression and spiritual poverty but actual physical oppression and actual physical poverty. It is clear that this manifesto has yet to be realised in its entirety but the reality of the transfiguration demonstrates the possibility.

Secondly seeing the transfiguration in the light of the crucifixion means, I am afraid, that transformation without pain is impossible. Actually we all know this to some degree already. The whole of life is in one sense a process of transformation where we undergo frequent changes – hopefully for the better – but change is always – to some extent at least – painful. John Williams spoke to us – earlier in this sermon series on Luke – about how some of the difficulties in his life and the lives of his family have been transformational, how God had miraculously used these things for good.

In the crucifixion we have both the example par excellence of how good can come out of suffering but also the promise that good will come out of suffering. The crucifixion and resurrection change everything. Here finally are some words from the author Michael Willson: ‘The cross is not a rescue like the Exodus from an evil situation but salvation in and through a evil situation, first confronting it, then bearing it, then transforming it. It is as if evil is the raw material out of which new life is forged. The news of the gospel is not moral perfection nor sinlessness, it is forgiveness.’ Through forgiveness and love evil is reversed and can be changed into good. ‘Jesus is less interested in the causes of evil but in its transformation’.

Before we sing our response song let us pray. I’ve adapted these prayers from the prayers at the end of the chapter on Transformation from this book: Grain in Winter by Donald Eadie – which also contains the quote from Michael Wilson.

Jesus show us your glory – as you did to your disciples at your transfiguration.

But also show us your cross. Jesus, in your crucifixion we catch a glimpse of the terrible travail at the heart of all life, but also that evil is reversible, evil can be changed into good, principalities and powers can be transformed though forgiveness and love.

Help us to see the deeply rooted evil in the created order has not only to be named but transformed.

Lead us into those paths that will lead to the transforming of nations, communities and ourselves.

Jesus, we stumble in the dark, you are the light of our darkness, transform us.


  1. lol.. do you know how to put links in with Blogger?

  2. No. I know you told me once but I've forgotten. Remind me.

  3. In this case just highlight the text that you want to send the reader through to the link, eg Lesley's Blog and then press 'link' and a box will come up where you put the URL in..