“The Transfiguration: The Bridge between Epiphany and Lent” (Mark 9:2-9)
Today is the Festival of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, remembering that day when our Lord Jesus Christ was transfigured, that is, his appearance was changed, up on a mountain. This was a key event in our Lord’s life, and it marked a turning point, a pivot point, in his ministry. So, likewise, does this festival mark a turning point, a pivot point, in the church year calendar. Transfiguration comes at the end of the Epiphany season, just a few days before the beginning of Lent. The church year mirrors the gospel narrative.
And so today, what I want to say to you is that this Feast of the Transfiguration serves as “The Bridge between Epiphany and Lent,” and perfectly so. You will see how the placement of the Transfiguration event in the context of the gospel narrative, as its pivot point–and therefore also the placement of this Transfiguration festival, in the context of the church year, as the bridge between Epiphany and Lent–how all of this works for you, to strengthen your faith in the Christ who is transfigured.
First, though, let’s start with the event itself, what happens, what’s going on here. Jesus has been at his ministry for some time now, and he takes three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, up a high mountain. Suddenly, Jesus’ appearance changes; that is what “transfiguration” means. Jesus starts gleaming, glowing, gloriously bright. His clothes become brilliant, radiant, gloriously white–as white “as no one on earth could bleach them,” our text says. Indeed, this is no mere earthly glory that Jesus is manifesting. This is heavenly glory, the light of divine majesty and purity shining forth.
Next, there appears, with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Why Moses and Elijah? These are two figures from Israel’s past, and God brings them back for this special occasion. Moses and Elijah, the two most outstanding prophets from Israel’s history. Moses, from the section of the Hebrew Scriptures called the Law. Elijah, from the section called the Prophets. As Paul says in Romans, “The Law and the Prophets bear witness to the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” And here are Moses, from the Law, and Elijah, from the Prophets, bearing witness to God’s righteousness in Christ by appearing at the Transfiguration.
Moses and Elijah–each of them had had a mountaintop experience in which they caught a glimpse of God’s glory. Now Peter, James, and John are having that same type of mountaintop experience, as Jesus is transfigured before them. It is an epiphany, a brilliant manifestation of Christ’s glory as the holy Son of God.
And that’s what happens next, a further attestation to Jesus as God’s Son. A cloud envelops them, the cloud of God’s glory, and a voice comes from the cloud: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” God the Father is bearing witness to his Son. Peter, James, and John are to know, beyond a doubt, that their teacher is none other than the very Son of God: “This is my beloved Son.” They are to know that his words, Jesus’ words, are words to listen to and take to heart: “Listen to him.” And they are to know that Jesus is greater than Moses and Elijah, that he is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s history–that Jesus is the one Moses and Elijah were pointing ahead to. Because when Peter, James, and John open their eyes and lift up their eyes, they no longer see Moses and Elijah, they see Jesus only. As Hebrews says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”
So that is the Transfiguration event itself. Now how does it fit into the context of the gospel narrative and thus into the context of the church year? And how does that benefit us?
The Transfiguration fits into the gospel narrative like this. In the first part of the gospels, Jesus is manifesting his glory as the Son of God. After his baptism, Jesus begins his public ministry by going about preaching, teaching, and healing. He calls people to repentance, saying that the kingdom of heaven is now at hand. The kingdom has arrived, because he, Jesus Christ, has arrived on the scene. Jesus teaches and unfolds the true meaning of God’s law, its intent and its extent, that we cannot hide from the law’s accusing finger, and that all of us need a righteousness better than anything we can muster on our own. His words are words of wisdom, and they are words of divine authority. His words have authority to heal the sick, to cast out demons, and to calm storms. Jesus calls men to be his disciples, saying “Come, follow me.” All of this remarkable, singular ministry points to Jesus being the very Son of God come in the flesh, come to do the will of the one who sent him.
And so this early Galilean ministry of Jesus is what we have been tracking through this Epiphany season of the church year. Beginning with the Baptism of Our Lord on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we have been following Jesus through this season, hearing his preaching and his teaching, witnessing his signs and wonders, the healings and the exorcisms, these manifestations of his divine wisdom and authority. We know who Jesus is. He is the very Son of God. And the Epiphany season of the church year has made this quite clear.
Notice how this whole season has been bracketed. At the beginning of the Epiphany season, at the Baptism of Our Lord, the liturgical color was white, and in the Gospel reading we heard the voice of the heavenly Father say, of Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Now at the conclusion of the Epiphany season, at the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the liturgical color once again is white, and once again we hear the Father’s voice, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Perfect. A perfect inclusio, a brilliant bracketing at the start and the end of the Epiphany season. No question who this Jesus is. He is God’s beloved Son.
And that is what is so significant, then, for what follows in the church year and in the gospel narrative. For from this point on, Jesus is going to Jerusalem. He is going to Jerusalem, not to take up a throne there in the city of the kings, but rather to take up a cross, in the city that kills the prophets. And that is the shift now that takes place in the church year and in the gospels. Lent begins on Wednesday, a season in which the skies will darken, even as the days lengthen. Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem, there to suffer and to die.
Why is he going there? He’s going there to suffer and die for you. For your sins, the holy Son of God will take up that cross. He will die on that cross for you and for me. For all the sinners of the world, and that means all of us, everybody. This is God’s mercy in action, Jesus dying on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the world. For Jesus sheds his holy blood to obtain forgiveness for you, to wash away your sins, the stain of guilt that would accuse you and condemn you as the sinner you are. But Jesus paid the price for all of that.
You see, that’s the point. That’s why Transfiguration works so well as the bridge between Epiphany and Lent, and why the Transfiguration works so well as the pivot point in the narrative of the gospels. In the first part, in the early chapters of the gospels and in the weeks of the Epiphany season, we see Jesus showing forth his glory as the Son of God. Transfiguration, then, serves as the culmination, the climax, of Jesus manifesting his glory and his identity as the Son of God.
But at the same time, Transfiguration works as our bridge into the Lenten season. Now we know who it is who will be going to the cross for us. “Listen to him,” the Father says, “listen when this Jesus tells you about how he needs to go up to Jerusalem, to be rejected and to be handed over, to suffer and to be killed at the hands of sinful men.” Yes, listen to him! This is necessary, this is essential to God’s plan to redeem sinful mankind. And there is no Plan B.
And this glory that Jesus displays at his Transfiguration–this is the glory that God’s own Son had in the beginning with the Father. And it is the same glory he will return to, once he has completed the saving mission for which he came. The Father will raise up his beloved Son on the day of resurrection. The Son will return then to his Father on the day of his ascension.
And guess what, beloved? No, don’t guess; know this for certain: You will share in Christ’s resurrection. You too will be with Christ in heaven, to share in eternal life with him. For you are baptized. You believe in Christ. You are trusting in him for your salvation. Jesus only. Nothing else. Nobody else. Jesus only, God’s own Son, his beloved Son. Jesus only, the only Savior for sinners, dying on the cross and rising from the dead.
Today is Transfiguration, and we get all that on this day. Yes, today is Transfiguration, the perfect bridge between Epiphany and Lent.