Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. --Matthew 16:24-17:8 (CEB)
Transfiguration. Our story today feels kind of magical, doesn’t it? This story of Jesus transfigured on a mountaintop and talking to Moses and Elijah.
Anyone here a Harry Potter fan? If so, you know all about transfiguration. It was a mandatory subject required for all freshmen students at Hogwart's. Transfiguration in the Harry Potter series was a branch of magic that focuses on changing the form or appearance of something by altering its molecular structure. In other words, it was not just about changing one small part of something into something else, but about changing the entire essence of a thing or a being into something completely different. Transfiguration in Harry Potter was regarded as very hard work and more scientific than any other form of magic because the practicing witch or wizard had to get it exactly right for the Transfiguration to be successful. To be a successful witch or wizard required that one had to master the magical art of transfiguration.
Now, I’m not saying that the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop was a magic trick. Perhaps it seemed magical. But, for Peter and James and John, the change in Jesus’ appearance and, particularly, the voice from heaven that declared Jesus to be the Son of God - well, it was terrifying. So much so that they fell on their faces and were filled with fear. The end of this mountaintop experience was not at all as glorious as its beginning.
But, wasn’t that really the point Jesus was trying to make to them in the words he spoke before they went onto the mountaintop. About what it really meant to be a follower of Christ? That, while there may be mountaintop experiences, we are really called to be down in the valley. In the heart of things. Where it sometimes can be hard.
“If any want to follow me, they must say “no” to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. We don’t really understand what it meant to “take up one’s cross.” In Jesus’ time and later among the believers to whom Matthew was writing, to “take up one’s cross” meant literally to pick up and carry the cross one was about to be crucified upon. Crucifixion in this time was not a one-off with Jesus’ death on the cross. Thousands and thousands of people were crucified, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. For being enemies of the state, especially rebelling slaves and revolutionaries. Crucifixion was a very real possibility for Jesus and his followers and for Matthew’s community, too.
This mountaintop experience, at least for Jesus, revealed fully his divine nature. But, it was a precursor to another mountain top experience where Jesus would take up his cross and be crucified upon it.
For the disciples, though, their transfiguration was more like oobleck.
Oobleck. Ever heard of oobleck? Ever made oobleck? It’s a type of material that is named after a Dr. Seuss story, Bartholomew and the Oobleck. I figured if I tapped into Harry Potter, I’d also touch on a story that older generations might know. This book tells the story of Bartholomew Cubbins, a page in the Kingdom of Didd. Bartholomew’s boss, King Derwin, is described as being temperamental at the weather because he wants something new. So he sends Bartholomew to get the magicians of the kingdom to make a new kind of weather, known as oobleck.
They do. And it’s a mess. Because although oobleck is a liquid that falls from the sky, when it hits the earth it solidifies into a gelatinous and adhesive mess. It gums everything up. The royal trumpeter (Jon, maybe you’ll appreciate this) tries to sound the alarm, but oobleck gets into the trumpet and he gets his hand stuck in his trumpet when he tries to remove it. And on and on. Eventually, Bartholomew reprimands the king for making such a foolish wish and tells him to apologize. Although reluctant at first, finally, the king says two simple words. I’m sorry. And the oobleck storm stops and the sun comes out to melt away all the green slime.
Oobleck, named after this Dr. Seuss' story, is a real substance that pours like liquid. But, if pressure is applied, it is transfigured. Transformed. It becomes a solid. It’s kind of like Peter and James and John. And you and I.
If we think this journey of discipleship is about us, then we fail to understand what it means to be Jesus’ followers. To follow Jesus requires us to lose our lives. To be willing to take up our cross. To give up the very essence of being human. To be formed and shaped under pressure so that we, like oobleck, become transfigured. Solidified. And find new life as followers of Christ.
This week we begin the season of Lent. May this be an opportunity for you to become more solid. May this be a time of transformation and transfiguration for you and me. As we, together, lean into the disciplines of Lent. And as we are shaped and formed more deeply in our discipleship.
So that we might follow Jesus to the second mountaintop, to his cross. And together look forward to that third mountaintop experience. And life together.
In the very presence of God. Amen.
Preached on Sunday, February 19, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, and Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Readings: Matthew 16:24-17:8; Psalm 41:7-10