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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
For over 500 years, the Festival of Jesus’ Transfiguration has been tied to war. Not necessarily to today’s date, February 27th, which is a moveable feast. Rather, it is linked to its more historic, commemoration date of August 6th. In 1457, Pope Callixtus III established that day for the Feast of the Transfiguration, in honor of the victory of the Hungarian forces at the Battle of Belgrade which temporarily stopped the advance of the Ottoman Empire into Europe. Regrettably, nearly 500 years later, it was also the same day chosen by the US for the dropping of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima.
Today we stand as witnesses on this Transfiguration Sunday to yet another tragic war. Some may be hoping that the small army of Ukraine, like the Hungarian army of old, will courageously stop the Russian forces from pouring across its border into Western Europe. There are others who are simply hoping that the light of Jesus’ transfiguration can be remembered and celebrated more brilliantly than the blinding light over Japan that ended World War II. No doubt, we are all struggling, especially our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, to find a message of hope in the midst of all this unexplainable violence and war.
The story of the Jesus’ transfiguration is one of the most puzzling narratives in the Bible. We are told that eight days after Jesus spoke to his disciples about his death and resurrection, he went with Peter, James and John and James up the mountain to pray. While he was praying, and while the three disciples were struggling to stay awake, Jesus was suddenly met by company. Moses and Elijah were there with him, and the whole appearance of Jesus changed into dazzling brilliance. As the disciples looked on in amazement, Jesus, Moses and Elijah discussed together what was about to unfold in Jerusalem. Peter wanted desperately to hang on to this holy moment and build a shrine to the three. Then, a thick cloud engulfed the mountain and the voice of God spoke out of the cloud, with a near rebuke, “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him!” When the cloud lifted, Jesus and Peter and James and John were the only ones left. They descended the mountain in silence. But the three disciples remembered that one fleeting moment, when Jesus was dazzling.
These were the same three disciples, Peter, James and John, who would see Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane; they would see him arrested, beaten and left to die as well. They would see the worst happen to him, but in that moment of his transfiguration, Jesus was offering them a glimpse of his very best. He was unveiling for them what the resurrection would look like. He was revealing what eternal life and God’s glory looked like- and not even his impending death could rob him of that dignity and nobility.
Of course, Peter, James and John, didn’t get the whole story right. They were awe struck by the wonder of it all. Poor Peter stood gazing at the three figures convinced that Elijah and Moses were equal players to Jesus, worthy of his worship and praise. It happens all the time in this world. We make minor players into major players, or worse yet we make all things equally unimportant. In those moments, Jesus quickly loses his central role in our lives and is sidelined by good intentions. That is when the transfiguration becomes nothing more than a curious event in the life of Christ.
Peter, James and John, however, were given a gift that that every believer must learn to treasure. On that mountaintop, God gave the disciples a glimpse of how the terrible tragedy of Jesus’ death could be transformed and transfigured into something glorious and beautiful in his hands.
That is the good news which God does not want you to lose sight of in the dazzling wonder of the heaven’s brightest stars nor in the painful images of the retreat of refugees fleeing battle or huddling in shelters beneath the surface of the earth Regardless of what the future brings to Ukraine, regardless of how awful this war may unfold, God encourages us to be of good courage and to follow Jesus, “This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.”
That’s why we’re here in church this morning. We gather week after week, to listen to Jesus, to hear his words of hope, so that we will never be discouraged. We gather together in prayer and at his holy table, so that we can be of good courage, follow him and share his promises with others.
But my friends, God also wants more from us than our attentive ears. God wants us to walk in solidarity with our neighbors, those among us, and those around the world. Of course, solidarity can be defined, generally, as unity within a group sharing similar values and interests, but from a religious perspective, solidarity is the embodiment of Jesus’ very teaching. Solidarity is the unconditional commitment to support others in times of suffering and disaster- even if we do not see eye to eye. It is a conviction founded in Scripture. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” As men and women, who dare to follow Jesus and call him our savior, it is our Christian responsibility to walk in solidarity with those who are suffering.
One of the characteristics of this solidarity to speak out on behalf of those who are being silenced. It is to take the role as a part of the body of Christ seriously, and not simply for granted. There may be a cost to such solidarity, to be sure, as a nation, as a community, and as individuals. Where one part of the body suffers, the entire body suffers. One part of the body cannot be frivolous, and unencumbered, when the other is in chains and in prison. Christian solidarity is risky business. So beware of such a commitment, and such God’s command from the cloud to, “Listen to him.”
But dear friends, be aware as well that to listen and follow Jesus is also to run the risk of being changed and transfigured- until one day you may share the likeness of Christ. And what a glorious transfiguration that will be. This is what you are ultimately be called to be.
The disciples, Peter, James and John would encounter the world’s discouragement and frustration. again and again, but they would not forget the encouragement they received at Jesus’ transfiguration. Peter spoke of the mystery in the epistle, he penned shortly before his death. Peter’s martyrdom in Rome is traditionally dated during the persecution of the Christians that followed Nero’s fire in the summer of A.D. 64. The blame for that fire was shifted onto the Christians of the city, along with their obvious leader, Peter, the chief of the apostles. Peter was arrested and evidently wrote this letter while waiting to die. He was greatly discouraged, but he did not lose hope in preparing for his own departure, and so he dared to write, “We ourselves heard this voice come heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” In the darkest hours of life, Jesus’ transfiguration continued to be Peter’s dazzling light of hope.
For 500 years, the Festival of the Transfiguration has been linked to war. Why, you may ask. I believe it is because Jesus’ transfiguration offers us brilliant light of hope in the darkest hours. That is the encouragement we need as we walk in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. It reveals the foreshadowing of the resurrection yet to come. It offers the assurance that the risen Jesus is walking in solidarity beside us even now. And because of that, God is saying to you that no matter what suffering is yours, no matter what sacrifice you’re called to make, and no matter what cross you carry, your loving Father has a plan for you, and that same God will transfigure your dying into a glorious rising. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.