Epiphany on Steroids
You know what the it means when you say something is "on steroids." Merriam-Webster even has an official definition. "Very large or impressive * His new device looked like a wheelchair on steroids." In sound it's the Shepherd tone' which seems to get forever higher and intenser. In light, very appropriate for our text, it's the rheostat going from dim to full on. The Transfiguration is Epiphany on steroids.
"God in Man made manifest" indeed. The word "transfigured" here is metamorpho from which we get metamorphosis. Something of the fabulous change being described here you might see if you remember Kafka's book The Metamorphosis. There a travelling salesman awakes to find himself a large insect. The point is the Transfiguration is not a mere change in appearance. There's another Greek word for that. This is a change in structure, but unlike Kafka's metamorphosis, Jesus isn't going from a human to a roach but a roach' to God incarnate. So much was Jesus' body morphed that His clothes became "dazzling white". Matthew reports, "His face shone like the sun."
The Transfiguration hymn we sung describes this with memorable phrases like "Thy glory fills the night." Think how much more spectacular a light show is in the dead of night. It goes on to sing, "Thy face and garments, like the sun, shine with unborrowed light." Two other phrases to keep in mind are "And our redemption see" as well as "We see Thy kingdom come."
But this is Epiphany on steroids, and poetry is not enough we've got to go to the realm of fantasy, of science fiction, of The Twilight Zone." When God in man is made manifest it's the frog who is a king and finally is shown to be one. This is the character whose body explodes with rays of light that do him no harm but blind onlookers. This is man transformed to another realm but staying in this one. This is heaven on earth but in a Man.
This is Epiphany on steroids and tis it really good to be here? All 3 Gospel accounts have Peter saying the exact same words: "good it is us here to be." Actually, the hymn might catch what Peter says better than the translations which all with the exception of a handful translate "good". Others say wonderful' or well'. The hymn says it's good to be here but adds "Thy beauty to behold." The Greek word can be translated beautiful.' And it's a particular kind of beauty. There is a Greek word which describes something as beautiful because it's elegant (asteios) or beautiful because it's in season; it's ripe (horaios). Our word describes something as beautiful because it's well-proportioned. This is back to what I said above. The Transfiguration didn't make Jesus a monstrosity but a beauty.
But it's important to remember whether Peter says "'tis good or beautiful to be here", Scripture says literally, "He did not know at all what he might answer." And what's wrong with his response is not the part about it being beautiful to be here. No, it's what follows. Peter responds to Epiphany on steroids, seeing the fullness of what it means for God in Man to be manifest by saying, "Let us put up 3 shelters - literally sacred tents - one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
There are two things wrong here. Peter places Jesus on par with two Old Testament heroes. God indeed worked through Moses and Elijah, but they were not God in flesh and blood. A sacred tent, the word for the tabernacle in the Old Testament, is the right place for Yahweh in flesh and blood. He dwelled in a cloud above the mercy seat enthroned on Cherubim. Moses and Elijah were sinful men who needed redeeming, saving, sanctifying. They aren't to be worshipped or enshrined.
The second thing wrong is that Peter makes Epiphany on steroids all about "us". It's good for us' to be here. Let us' put up 3 shrines. Really? When by faith you see Holy Baptism is the God-Man, Jesus coming to cover your sinfulness with His holiness, do you think about what you should do? How about when you see by faith the Absolution taking your sins off you by Jesus' Words or you bow before this altar because faith sees His Body and Blood on earth again? When these miraculous things happen, is your first thought about what you can do, we can do, we should do?
Well, since the Means of Grace are where the redemption Jesus won for you in 30 A.D. is applied to you in 2018, what you do in response, i.e. sanctification, is not totally out of order. However, remember Scripture says Peter has no idea how to respond to Epiphany on steroids and tells you why. You might have missed this because the insert doesn't translate the word because' or for' at all. The text says Peter is at such a loss for words "because they were terrified." KJV translates this sore afraid' but the Greek is different than with the shepherds in Luke 2. Here it's the word fear phobos with the preposition ek and means "frightened out of one's wits."
Are we? Ecclesiastes 5 tells us to guard our conduct and words in the House of God because He is in heaven and we are on earth. How much more so when God in Man is manifested on earth? Unbelief doesn't see Him present in Water, Words, Bread or Wine. We do. We kneel at confession because we know we come into His presence as sinful men. We stand at the Gospel reading because Jesus speaks again on earth. We bow when we confess the incarnation in the creed, and we kneel when we receive His bodily presence orally in Communion. All of these liturgical gestures can be left out without sinning as long as the truth is confessed that God appears again on earth in the Divine Service. What liturgical gestures do is use your body to remind your head what a terrible comforting truth it is for God to come to sinners, to give Himself to sinners in their time and space.
Transfiguration is Epiphany on steroids, and the conclusion of this spectacular revelation of heaven on earth, of beholding the beauty of God in the flesh of Jesus, of seeing our redemption is less talk; more listening. All 3 Gospels have this same Greek phrase. "You must be hearing of Him." The construction means you must be constantly hearing Him.
Listen to Jesus not to reason; listen to Jesus not to your opinion or that of others; listen to Jesus not to your own condemning conscience. Reason can't tell you anything about Epiphany except that it can't happen. All the fulness of the Godhead can't dwell bodily in a Man because the finite is not capable of the infinite. You can't put 20 pounds of flour in a 5-pound sack, reason says. Opinions, whether yours or others, about what you think Epiphany on steroids means, don't matter. What matters is what Jesus says He is doing in our flesh and blood. And the God-Man says, He was born of women to be born under the law to redeem those under the Law. He says, "I was born to take God's laws on My shoulders and fulfill them perfectly in place of all humanity." Jesus says, "I took on human flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary to put out God's fiery wrath against not only your sins but the sins of the whole world."
You must constantly listen to Jesus not that of your guilty conscience. "Should a guilty conscience seize me since my Baptism did release me in a dear forgiving flood sprinkling me with Jesus blood?" That's what we sing in a Lutheran hymn. 1 John says that God is greater than your heart. Even though your heart might condemn you, it's Jesus' words that carry the day. He says, "I forgive you," and you are forgiven. He says, "I free you from your guilt" and you are free.
All the above is true, but it's not all that Jesus' says at Transfiguration. He also says, "Bury the alleluias till Easter." That's what the last verse of the text says, "As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead." I was first exposed to this practice 30 years ago when guest preaching at a Lenten service in a Hmong congregation in Detroit. I discovered it by almost tripping over the "coffin." It's supposed to go not in the corner like I place it but in the middle of chancel. I haven't put it there because when we first started Burying the Alleluias, the congregation was mostly elderly, and I didn't want anyone tripping. But's supposed to be right before your eyes all through Lent and something you have to walk around while going back and forth to the Body and Blood of Christ.
In Epiphany on steroids it is as we sing "We hail Thy body glorified and our redemption see." And before we taste the death that Jesus will swallow in our place on Good Friday, we see God's Kingdom coming. The whole season of Epiphany is a foretaste of Easter. Easter itself is Transfiguration on steroids because it culminates with the Ascension where the Man Jesus takes His seat as a man on the cosmic throne of heaven and earth to rule all. This is the end result of God taking on flesh and blood, living under the laws that condemn us, and paying in our place for our countless sins. Easter/Ascension is the end of death, suffering, grief and ashes, and the beginning of eternal alleluias. But even when we get to Easter and Ascension, we will still be celebrating them here faced with the reality that from dust we are and to dust we shall return. Our Alleluia is a verbal expression of what we believe we have but don't yet see.
We bury the alleluias till Easter because it's fitting not only to celebrate what we're saved for but to remember what we've been saved from and why we need saving. We can't just smell the roses Jesus won; we need to remember the thorns He bore to save us. It is said that Transfiguration was originated by St. Gregory as a substitute for a pagan feast of Aphrodite called "The Flaming of the Rose." I doubt that, but I do think at the Transfiguration "'Christ opened His glory like a rose'" (Feast Day Cookbook, 103).
Smell a rose too much and you'll get nauseated. My mother never wanted roses because at her father's funeral when she was 30 her mother had heaps of roses on the casket ever-after they nauseated her. We bury our "roses" in this casket, to be reminded of our need to be redeemed so that on Easter the smell of lilies might bring forth alleluias on steroids from our redeemed, restored, forgiven lips. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Transfiguration of our Lord (20180211); Mark 9:2-9