Transfiguration and Transformation

Let me give you an example of transfiguration. In the movie, “My Fair Lady,” Professor Henry Higgins, a linguists, bets his friend, Colonel Pickering, that he can take a little cockney girl from a flower market and present her as a lady at the Ascot races. In the course of the movie, that little cockney girl, Eliza Doolittle is transfigured. Not only does she pass the test of Ascot, but she steals the heart of Henry Higgins in the process. I say that Eliza is transfigured, not transformed, because though Eliza’s speech and appearance are considerably altered, her inner nature is altered not at all. Early in the movie, when Eliza says, “I’m a good girl, I am,” she is speaking the truth. Eliza is a good person in any society, and all the training given her by Henry Higgins has added nothing to her essential nature. When someone is transfigured, they become on the outside what they already are on the inside.

By contrast, when someone is transformed, their essential nature is completely altered. They become something they have never been before.

Let me give you a classic example of transformation. It is from the Greek myth of “Pygmalion,” which is the ultimate inspiration for the movie, “My Fair Lady.” According to the story of Pygmalion, the King of Cyprus carves a statue of a beautiful woman, the most beautiful he has ever seen, and then falls in love with the statue. This story might have ended in tragedy, but the goddess of Love, Aphrodite, takes pity on the king, and brings the statue to life. The statue is transformed.  It ceases to be a thing carved of stone, and becomes a living, breathing person, Galatea, a woman worthy of a kings heart. The statue is transformed. 

In the text before us this morning Jesus is transfigured before his disciples. His garments become white as light, and his face shines like the sun. His outward appearance is altered; but Matthew never hints that the essential nature of Jesus is changed in the least. Even in the days of his flesh, even when his glory was veiled, Jesus is already more than a good man and a great teacher. Jesus is even more than the long awaited Messiah of the Jews. Jesus is already the Son of God who reveals the heart of the Father. As the voice on the mountain declares, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased listen to him!” Jesus is transfigured before his disciples, but he is not transformed because his essential nature does not change.

In this passage it is the disciples who are transformed. They went up the mountain clinging to their traditional Jewish faith. They were champions of the Law and the Prophets. They are ready to honor Jesus, but only alongside Moses and Elijah. However, after they have heard the voice from the cloud, the voice of God, a transformation takes place. They now seen Jesus as he is. They will still honor Moses and Elijah, but they will now read the Law and the Prophets in light of Jesus.  Jesus changes everything!

St. Paul certainly read the Law and the prophets in light of Jesus. In Romans chapters 1 to 11, the apostle demonstrates how God’s revelation in Christ is far superior to all that has come before. He teaches that the Law and the Prophets make us aware of sin and death, but only Jesus Christ can give us victory over sin and death. Only in Christ can we be transformed by the Holy Spirit, first in our minds, then in our lives, then in our bodies themselves.  In Romans 12:1-2 Paul writes:

I appeal to you therefore, (brothers and sisters), by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Paul’s logic is ultimately the same as Matthew’s. Jesus is the one who not only enables to see the will of God, but to do the will of god. It is our minds are renew in him that we defeat sin and death and become the people God would have us to be.  Of course, transformation is not easy.  Things get in the way, for us, as they did for the disciples on the mountain. I would mention three things:

First,  the disciples delayed transformation because they were caught up in their own importance.

Even after the disciples have witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus, their first thoughts continue to be of themselves. Note their words: “Master, it was well that we were here.”  The disciples had been in the presence of the HOLY, and still their first thoughts are of themselves.The gospels teach that the disciples were often caught up in their self importance.  Mark tells how James and John once when to Jesus and said, “Master, when you come into your kingdom, let us sit one at your right hand, and one at your left.” Matthew tells the same story, but he says that it was the mother of James and John who did the asking. The time between the writing of Mark, and the writing of Matthew is not more than two decades, but already the early church has begun to be embarrassed by the behavior of the disciples.

The truth is that all of us are like the disciples. We are primarily concerned for ourselves. We spend most of our time feeding our own ego. What many of us need is “The Water Bucket Cure?”  Perhaps you know it. It was a favorite prescription of the late Jim Vernon. Jim used to hand out cards with the legend of The Water Bucket Cure inscribed on them. It went something like this: 

“If you want to know how important you are in the scheme of things, fill a bucket with water, then ball up your fist, and plunge it into the bucket.  Now remove your fist and see the size of the hole that is left.” 

It has been said that God is not nearly so interested in our ability, as in our availability. If we present our selves before God as a living sacrifice, and allow God to use all that we are as God wills, then God is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask, think or imagine. If we yield only a portion of ourselves to God, God will use that, too, but nearly so successfully; and, often, the first thing lost is the blessing God wants us to have.  Ironically—and this will be no surprise for those of you studying the Enneagram,  it is our ego that often prevents us from receiving all the good that God desires for us.

Second, they disciples defied delayed transformation because they were caught up in tradition and ritual.  

After their vision on the mountain, the disciples wanted to make three booths, one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. This was nothing new.  The disciples were simply following a tradition they already acknowledged. In the 23rd chapter of Leviticus, Moses instructed the people of Israel to make booths on the 15th day of the 7th month of every year, and to dwell in them for seven days.  This was to remind them of how they dwelt in booths when the Lord God brought them up out of the land of Egypt.

Ritual and tradition can be a good thing. I cannot imagine the Moravian Church without the Christmas Candlelight Lovefeast, the readings of Holy Week or the Easter Morning Service. “The LORD is risen!”  “The LORD is risen indeed!” Traditions can be a good thing.  Traditions can also get in the way of God. As Christians we must remember that we live not from the past, but from the future that is coming to us in Jesus Christ.  Alfred Lord Tennyson saw this.  In his poem, “Morte de Arthur,” he puts the following words into the mouth of the dying king:

The old order changeth, giving place to the new;
And God fulfills himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom corrupt the world.

And what about that magnificent hymn by James Russel Lowell:

New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
We must onward still, and upward;
Who would keep abreast of truth.

I like the way Hans Kung put it in his book Truthfulness: The Future of the Church:

He who wills the church to die, to become the graveyard of God; must want her to remain as she is; he wills the church to live, as God’s living congregation, must want her to change, for only in change does she remain as she is, only in renewal is she preserved.

Jesus himself knew that the world is constantly changing, and God’s truth for every generation is shaped by the world in which that generation must live.  That is why Jesus himself spoke to his disciples saying:

“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:12-14  

The church does not live from the past. The church lives from the future that is coming to us in Jesus Christ.

3. There is a final thing that delays the transformation of the disciples. Peter, James, and John were caught up in the experience of the mountaintop, and they did not want to return to the real world.

When the disciples suggested building booths on the mountain, we must assume they intended to live in them, if not for the seven days that Moses commanded, at least for a time.The disciples wanted to linger on the mountain; they wanted to keep Jesus, at least for a while, to themselves. After a profound religious experience, we all want to linger on the mountain, like teenagers at Laurel Ridge, but we cannot. It was William Blake who wrote:

He who binds to himself a joy,
Does its winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies, 
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

If we linger too long on the mountain, God cannot use us as God wants. We must remember that our mountain top experience almost certainly coincides with another’s time in the valley of the shadow. If we remain on the mountain then we can rejoice with those who rejoice, but it is only when we return to the valley that we learn to week with those who weep. It is in the valley that we learn, as did the apostles, that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.

It has been said that there are three solutions to any problem: My will and my way, your will and your way, and God’s will and God’s way. If I insist on my way, and you insist on your way, we may miss God’s way altogether.  It is only when we have been transformed in our thinking and transformed in our acting that we come to understand that my way and you way leads us further and further apart, while God’s way always leads us closer together, and more fully into the life of the world. 

We present our bodies as a living sacrifice, when we give as much as we know of ourselves to as much as we know of God, in the sure knowledge that God will give us further knowledge of Him and further knowledge of ourselves. This is not an act we perform, once for all, it is process that God leads us through, as we seek to follow Jesus, both up and down the mountain.

How about you?  Are you willing to yield even a portion of yourself to God for his purpose?


Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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