February 26, 2017

Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24:12-18
Matthew 17:1-9

2 Peter 1:16-21


One thing that I like browsing on the internet, on my days-off of course not when I’m working (wink wink), are pictures of celebrities before and after they wear make up. It’s always fun to see the transformation that make up does on their faces. It is also quite comforting because it makes me realise that no one is perfect. Even the most beautiful and good-looking celebrities look like normal people without make up.

Friends, celebrities are in the business of appearance. If you are in entertainment business, it is your job to always look nice on camera or papers. And to achieve this, celebrities would spend thousands if not million of dollars to maintain their appearance and stay competitive in the market.

But, make-up is not the only tool at their disposal. I dare to say that most celebrities, especially female celebrities, must have done plastic surgery. Internet is abuzz with pictures of celebrities before and after they are famous. And you can see how many have undergone plastic surgery to make their nose/jaw sharper or their skin tighter. How else can you explain a sixty year old with the skin of a thirty year old?

But, this is not only a Western phenomenon. In South Korea, many people, again especially women, are so obsessed with bigger eyes that they undergo eyelid surgery to make them bigger. Somehow, in South Korea, people with bigger eyes are considered to be more attractive so people take risk and spend much money to make that transformation.

Fortunately, the transfiguration that we talk today is not about the transformation of one’s physical appearance. In our reading today from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ appearance did change on the mountain. His face suddenly shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. Jesus became like Moses whose skin was shining after he talked with God on Mount Sinai.[1]

But, the Greek word used in our reading to describe the transfiguration has a deeper meaning then just the transformation of one’s appearance. The Greek word that is translated as transfigure is the verb metamorphoo. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the same word is used to describe a change not of someone’s outward appearance, but of his/her inner world. Metamorphoo is used to describe the change deep within a person’s life.[2] For example, the Apostle Paul used the same word in his letter to the Romans when he asked the Romans to be transformed by the renewing of their mind (Romans 12:2).

So, Jesus’ transfiguration is not only about the transformation of his physical appearance. It means something more than that; it means the transfiguration of life.

Now, I actually prefer the word revelation than transfiguration. Today is the Transfiguration Sunday and it is the end of the season of epiphany in the church calendar year. Epiphany comes from the Greek word, epiphainein, which means to reveal.

Indeed, Jesus didn’t suddenly become divine on the mountain. Jesus wasn’t anointed as the Son of God on the mountain. The transfiguration that the disciples witnessed was a revelation of who Jesus is. It was a reaffirmation of Jesus’s status as the beloved Son of God.

Indeed, God’s words on the mountain were the same with God’s words during Jesus baptism on the river Jordan at the beginning of his ministry[3]. But, there was something more. This time, the proclamation of Jesus as the Beloved was followed by a commandment to listen to him. The transformation of Jesus’ appearance was not an end in itself. The purpose was the call to listen and follow him.

The ‘ecstatic’ experience that Peter, James, and John had was not meant to last forever. Soon, they would face reality once again. Soon, they would all be in Jerusalem where Jesus was arrested, trialed, beaten, and crucified. Soon, they would understand the gravity of the call to listen to and follow him. Soon, they would have to choose between their personal safety and comfort, and the hard road of discipleship.

So, the purpose of Jesus’ transfiguration was to give birth to the transformation of his disciples, especially the three who were there on the mountain with him. By the time the Gospels were written, Peter, James, and John were prominent figures in the young church. Peter was a leader among the disciples while John is believed to be Jesus’ beloved disciple in John’s Gospel. As such, he became a model for closeness in relationship with Jesus. James, on the other hand, had a prominent position amongst Jesus’ inner circle. He always appears early on the lists of disciples in the New Testament.[4]

Before they became these prominent leaders, however, they were reluctant followers of Jesus. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter rebuked Jesus for talking about his suffering in Jerusalem.[5]

So, how come these three were transformed from reluctant followers to the pillars of the church? Our reading from the second letter of Peter gives us the clue. The letter has often been thought to have been written by Peter and it attributes the transformation in his life to his experience on the mountain with Jesus. There and then his life was transformed. The same can be said of James and John.

Indeed, true transfiguration is no the transformation of one’s physical appearance, but the transformation of one’s life.

In the popular novel by J.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Lady Éowyn is the royal niece of the King of Rohan. She longs to fight in battles, but, because of she is a woman, she is not allowed to join the army.

During the battle of Pelenor fields, which is a decisive battle that decides the fate of the world, Éowyn disguises herself as a man and rides with the cavalry of Rohan to the battlefield. In the movie adaptation of the novel, she is portrayed as being really anxious on the brink of the battle. She has no experience in battle thus she is very frightened.

This changes, however, after she hears the rally of the King who is leading the advance. The King tries to lift the moral of his men by shouting, “Death!” three times, apparently to encourage his men to embrace death as they prepare for the charge. By the time the King shouts, “Death!” for the third time, Éowyn joins the rest of the cavalry in a loud cry for battle. There and then, she has turned her fear into courage to fight for her loved ones.

Lady Éowyn is played by a less-known Australian actress, Miranda Otto and she plays this transition from fear to courage beautifully in the movie through the change on her facial expression. That scene is indeed one of my most favorite scenes in the movie.

Jesus’ words on the mountain must also have the same effect on Peter, John, and James. They were trembling in fear when clouds covered the mountain and they heard God’s voice. It was the same fear that engulfed the people of Israel when they witnessed the presence of God in the clouds that covered Mount Sinai.[6]

But, Jesus said to them, “Get up and don’t be afraid.” These were the same words that were spoken to other reluctant leaders in the Bible before. There and then, something happened in the life of those three disciples. It may not have been immediately obvious, but what they experienced then became the foundation of their calling in the future.

So, friends, true transfiguration is not the transformation of one’s physical appearance, but the transformation of one’s heart. True transfiguration happens when we are able to put aside our fear, our greed, our ambition, and listen to and embrace God’s call in our life. True transfiguration happens when we follow Jesus not only to the top of mountains, but to the deepest and darkest valleys.

Jesus words for Peter, James, and John are also his words for us today: “Get up, don’t be afraid, be transformed, and follow me!”


Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Exodus 34:29

[2] Seasons of the SpiritTM SeasonsFUSION - Advent.Christmas.Epiphany 2016-2017 (February 26, 2017), p. 190

[3] Matthew 3:13-17

[4] Seasons of the SpiritTM SeasonsFUSION - Advent.Christmas.Epiphany 2016-2017 (February 26, 2017), p. 190

[5] See Matthew 16:21-26

[6] Exodus 19:16