10 Ways to Preach the Transfiguration Sermon

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Preaching the Transfiguration Sermon is indeed a high calling! (Get it?)

Though the Feast of the Transfiguration is August 6th in the lectionary, we read the story at the end of Epiphany, on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. The Transfiguration serves both as a dramatic epiphany of Jesus’s identity and a fitting preparation for the transition to Lent.

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Fun fact: If you rummage around the old prayer books, you will find the term for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and probably be unable to pronounce it. It is a tongue twister: Quinquagesima. Listen to it pronounced here.

1. A Continental Divide

In each synoptic Gospel, the Transfiguration happens in the middle of Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9). Both literally and literally, the story is a high point. Jesus goes to the top of a mountain, is transfigured, then travels downhill, and continues traveling to Jerusalem and his death. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem begins shortly after the Transfiguration. From this point in the Gospel, the direction and movement of Jesus change from the lush, green rolling hills of Galilee to the hardscape of Jerusalem.

The Transfiguration is a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Remember, he did not come to preach, teach, or perform miracles. We know that; he has said as much. It is never more clearly seen that in his coming off the mountain: his purpose in coming into the world was to die, and to do that, he must go to Jerusalem.

2. Shining Bright

Each of the accounts speaks of a change in Jesus’s appearance, but Matthew uniquely says that his “face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). If we take seriously the simile of the sun, that’s a pretty bright shining!

Mark describes the radiance of Jesus through his clothes, but it is as if he can’t find the right words. “His clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). I can almost hear Peter tell Mark how white it was. “Really, Mark, his clothes became white, dazzling white, like, super-white!”

3. Resurrection Body

Could the moment on the mountain be a glimpse of what is coming for those who believe? I think Jesus is standing in his glory, the way we will all be in glory in the future.

Remember, the Corinthians asked Paul what happens when we die; with what kind of body are we raised? (1 Corinthians 15:35). We glimpse it here on the mountain. The body is filled with radiant power and light. It is strong and durable. The body is capable of conversation and meaningful dialogue. While the body of Jesus is recognizable to Peter and company—and to Moses and Elijah—there is something far more energizing to it. It seems like it is sheer power and glory. And that is our hope: in our eternal and spiritual life, our bodies will be like that of Jesus in a transfigured state.

4. Sneak Peek

If it is true that the Transfiguration is a prefiguring of Christ’s resurrection body, and ours, this is incredible news. Perhaps it is worth it to double down on this idea and talk about the glory to come—the glory that will come to Christ and the glory that will come to us. It would be exciting for people to get a sense of the glory that will be ours. Paul encouraged the Corinthians in this way. He wrote, “that we ‘are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor 3:18)

This is an incredible fact about faith: we will be glorified! The righteous get new bodies, new glorified bodies, to enter heaven. God’s future in mind for us should give everyone a lifelong sense of euphoria. It did for Paul. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Thus, the three disciples on the mountain were seeing their own future; they were getting a sneak peek at the great glory that would be the Lord’s and their own. Enter C.S. Lewis. I don’t know that it would be fair to preach about the Transfiguration without reading The Weight of Glory in its entirety. Maybe even quoting it here and there: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

5. The Exodus

The Gospel of Luke tells the same story as Matthew and Mark but adds one incredible fact. Moses and Elijah are conversing with Jesus in all three accounts, but we know what they are discussing in Luke’s account. The three men are talking about Jesus’ “departure,” which Luke uses a very weighty word to describe (Luke 9:31). The Greek word for “departure” is “exodus.”

Moses knows a thing or two about an exodus. And Elijah knows a thing or two about being taken up. Oh, to be a fly on the wall and listen to the representatives of the Law and the Prophets compare and contrast their own ‘departure.’ It is powerful to note that Jesus is the new Moses leading a new Exodus, and Jesus will be the new Elijah being lifted into the heavens.

There is some question about what Moses and Elijah are doing there. Why them? It is easy to jump the “Law and Prophets” meme and leave it at that. Consider also the possibility that Moses represents the Prophets (Acts 3:18-22) and Elijah represents the Last Days (Malachi 4:5-6).

Intermission: Don’t Go There

No list of preaching points would be complete without mentioning what NOT to preach. I do not think it is fair, accurate, or orthodox to suggest that the experience of Jesus on the mountain (a mountaintop moment) is something that we should expect for ourselves. We cannot achieve a mystical encounter with God in the same way. We cannot hear God speak to us as Peter did. We should not expect Moses or Elijah to converse with us. Peter witnessed these things, but he didn’t participate in them.

Moreover, we should separate ourselves from Jesus at this point. He is the Lord; we are not. He could walk on water. We cannot. He was tempted in every way as we are, yet was without sin. But we are not tested, tried, or treated in everything as he was. To make the point, perhaps it is enough to say that the mountaintop moments in our lives are similar to Peter’s, not Jesus’.

6. Memorializing the Faith

Peter has a strange reaction to this mystical event. He wants to stay put, set up a shrine for the moment, install the three biblical figures in semi-permanent homes, and stay on the mountaintop. Peter was overwhelmed by the experience of seeing Jesus’ glory and the presence of Moses and Elijah, two of the most significant figures in Jewish history. He was trying to create a permanent site to commemorate this moment and preserve the transfiguration experience. In a sense, he wanted to capture the essence of what he had witnessed and keep it that way forever.

In other words, Peter is trying too hard, as he has a penchant for doing. He is the “Hey, I have a better idea!” kind of follower of Christ who mirrors our own tendencies to bring our good ideas to the Lord. Peter needs to remember, as do we, that Jesus is in complete control and that the Lord’s purpose is not to find comfort and safety but to meet the Cross head-on.

7. Foolish Moments

Remember that Peter, James, and John were afraid of what they saw on the mountain, particularly after Moses and Elijah showed up. “For they were afraid, and he did not know what to say.” (Mark 9:6). I think this is important because we tend to believe everything should bring comfort, be easy to understand, and have no mystery. But here, on the mountain, the disciples are mystified, as it were. They don’t know what is happening. God has a meetup that raises more questions than gives comfortable answers. How did Moses get there? What is that about? Are these specters from the dead? But Elijah never died? Or did he? Why is there a cloud that covers them?

Are we comfortable with mystery? With not knowing everything? Is faith always about finding answers, or is it also about learning to trust God even with the unknowns? And there are other known unknowns, as it were, that we have no business knowing or expressing our conjectures about. (Like the Second Coming. We are not supposed to know anything about it other than “Christ will come again.”)

8. God Talk

There are only two instances in the gospels when God speaks directly—if you had a recorder, you would have been able to capture the audio. The first time occurred at the baptism of the Lord. The second and last time God speaks is on the “holy mountain,” as Peter calls it. In the story of the Transfiguration, God audibly says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mark 9:7). What does this mean?

It is a minor point to make, but I think we have to tell our people that God is NOT as vocal as some say. People say that God spoke to them or God told them to do this, say that, go here, or urge this. I don’t think so. I understand the sentiment, and we all want God to communicate with us. But this story is a chance to help people not feel terrible when God doesn’t telegraph everything he wants to say to us in an audible voice. It is good to help people see that the language of God is not words but his Word, the Church, prayer, and dreams. But only rarely could we hear his voice.

9. Peter Remembers

But Peter did remember the voice of God! He references this “Majestic Glory” in his second letter, where he recalls being “with Jesus on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:17-18).

What’s fascinating is that Peter says this word from God is “fully confirmed” in scripture (2 Peter 1:19). For scripture is not written by man’s authority, but rather “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

So if we want to hear the word of God, like Peter on the mountain of Transfiguration, we need only open our Bibles!

10. What happens next?

There is a dramatic difference between the holy moment at the top of the mountain and the ugly, terrifying encounter with the young boy at the bottom. It is an amazing contrast, and I think we are intended to see it for what it is. For Jesus to accomplish his purpose, he has to go through the sewers of our own life.

At the bottom of the mountain is one of the most pathetic scenes in the Bible. A young boy caught in the vice of Satan through no fault of his own. The boy can’t speak, and he foams at the mouth. He grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. He rolls in and out of the fire! A spirit seizes him and cries out. In the ESV, the boy’s father tells Jesus that the spirit “shatters him and will hardly leave him.” (Luke 9:39). Is there a more ugly moment in the Bible?

And to make matters worse, the disciples are totally ineffective. They cannot do anything to bring comfort, healing, peace, and safety. They are helpless.

A sermon that stayed at the top of the mountain, as Peter wanted, would be unrealistic. People don’t live on the mountain. They live in the valley where the boy lives, where pain and suffering are a daily reminder that unclean spirits are not just an ancient worry. For Jesus to defeat them, he must come down the high mountain, travel in our valleys, and then climb the last mountain. Calvary.

Published on

February 14, 2023

Author

David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

View more from David Roseberry

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