“transˈfigyәr / verb”

Matthew 17:1-9 (The Message)
South Presbyterian Church – March 16 2014
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift


As it says in your bulletin, the word “transfigure” means to transform into something more beautiful or elevated as in the statement:  “The world is made luminous and is transfigured.”

Its synonyms include: transform, transmute, change, alter, metamorphos. I like metamorphos, myself … or the noun form that we are more used to hearing, metamorphosis.


a prefix that can mean something beyond the original but at a more abstract level, like metaphilosophy or metalinguistics.


Which is Greek for “shape,” and in this context can mean “the sequence or manner of development or change in an organism or any of its parts.” Think about shape-shifters and morphing.


The Greek suffix that turns a noun into a verb:  hypnos, osmos. It an infinitive by putting the word “to” in front of it.[i]

So for us today, metamorphos means to make or to BE something beyond the original shape or organism. To be transformed into it … to be transfigured.

            It’s a word we don’t use that much, Transfigured, but it’s a dandy because it tells us so much. Again, “trans—“ meaning “across,” “beyond,” “through,” or “changing thoroughly”  in combination with other elements as in the trans-Siberian highway.  And “figure” meaning the form or shape off something as it is determined by outlines or its exterior surfaces. [ii]


        We night not THINK of it this way, but today’s passage in Matthew is really an ACTION tale. It’s easy to see in some of the Old Testament readings, for instance those about the wars and battles, that they’re action tales, but THIS one is perhaps one of the greatest actions of all because it brings about a thorough change from what something used to be. And in THIS case the “thorough change” is of Jesus … and, to a lesser degree, of those who experienced Jesus in this way: Peter, James, and John.

        Now, I could wax eloquent about our similarities with Jesus. I could lead us through a conversation about how WE are changed when we make our faith, our spirituality a high priority in our lives. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to put forward that each ONE of us is changed when we experience pure love or pure light as Peter, James, and John did that day on the mountain.

        OR I could preach (as many have) about the desire of those men to build tabernacles … tents … for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. We could delve into the why and wherefore of Matthew bringing up those two other guys. It’s kind of interesting, as an aside … he was writing for a Jewish audience, remember, so he used to the two guys who were the greatest names in Jewish history and in essence told all of his audience that Jesus was on a par with them.  GREAT WRITING, wasn’t it?


        But we’re not going there.

        What strikes ME about this in terms of us and our faith community right now is the PROCESS of how this transformation … this metamorphosis … this TRANSFIGURATION takes place.

        Jesus and the guys go up a HIGH MOUNTAIN.

Now, this wasn’t just Jesus stepping away with some of his disciples (or by himself) as he often did. THIS was going up a HIGH MOUNTAIN. It wasn’t just “stepping away” from the others as he was wont to do. This was more of a TREK … something OUT of the ordinary … they might even have packed lunch.


        So this was INTENTIONAL. It was an intentional event.

        Then Matthew tells us that Jesus’ appearance was changed “from the inside out.” When I think of something changing from the inside out, I picture microwaving a baked potato. If you cook it in the oven, it’s changed from the outside, IN. But when it’s microwaved, it’s from the inside, OUT and you don’t really see the change until it’s all DONE.

          The disciples never SAW this change happening until it was DONE … until the change had reached the outside world through Jesus’ appearance and then they saw that “Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light” EVERYTHING about Jesus had changed. This was no longer the man they knew … it was no longer the man they had been traveling with for a couple of years … it was no longer the teacher they had hiked up the MOUNTAIN with.

            Change was FROM THE INSIDE, OUT and, as far as we can tell, NONE OF THEM SAW IT COMING. For all intents and purposes, they did not go UP that mountain thinking this was going to happen. So in a way, it caught them OFF GUARD.

            So what do they want to DO? 

            They want to stay right there. Not just because they wanted the event to go on forever, I think. Some scholars assert that’s what it is when they want to build three tents, one of Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. But I don’t read it that way.  (Maybe because that’s not what I would want to stay for.) J   I would want to stay there so we could TALK … DE-BRIEF … figure out WHAT THE HECK JUST HAPPENED HERE????

            I would want to MAKES SENSE OUT OF MY WORLD, wouldn’t you? We see or experience something unusual and we all try to figure out what just happened … like with the missing Malaysian Airways plane. What the heck happened? Or a local thing occurs … people FLOCK to the site in order to talk with each other and try to wrap their minds around it. I think THAT’s what these guys (Peter, James, and John) were scrambling for.

            But instead … while they’re trying to get a PROCESS together to figure out what’s going on, something even MORE bizarre and heavenly (literally) takes place: this CLOUD appears. Not just any old cloud, but a “light-RADIANT cloud” and it doesn’t just form NEAR them, it ENVELOPES them. So there they are …  these three men, standing in a cloud of radiant light and what do they do???? Probably what MOST of us would do  (except for the one or two of us who would be looking at it, trying to touch it and saying, “Huh … what is this stuff??? Isn’t this COOL?”  J) … no, seriously. They hear this VOICE … and then they fall flat on their  faces.

            Ok … at that point, I probably would, too. It’s no longer just “cool” it has become “out there,” kind of “other worldly” – which is JUST EXACTLY WHAT GOD IS!  Hello!  GOD is other-worldly … and they were in the presence of GOD.

            And what does God SAY to them?????

            “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.” Only God probably said it in HEBREW because that’s the language they spoke. Or maybe  Aramaic … but NOT Greek (the language Matthew wrote it in) and DEFINITELY not English. (I love how we Christians tend to think that things have to be in English … King JAMES English in order to be the word of God. HA!)

            So back to this process.

            They hear God’s voice. They fall flat on their FACES … why not on their BACKS? Because it’s God. They were covering their eyes … maybe they were bowing to God … maybe they were covering their HEADS because they didn’t know what else was going to happen. Doesn’t matter. They’re flat on the ground.

            And while they’re lying on the ground … FLATTENED by what was happening to them … SCARED to DEATH, I would think … Jesus COMES to them. And he TOUCHES them and says, those famous words that are found a bazillion times in the Bible:  “Fear not.”  “Don’t be afraid.”

            Then after that, they get up and they go on their way. We don’t know how LONG it took them to get up … we don’t know if they took a couple of hours to recover. We just know that they did.

They come down the mountain … they REJOIN the rest of the world and Jesus tells them not to tell anybody what happened until WHEN?  Until AFTER he has risen from the dead.


            This is a GREAT story.

It’s also found in Mark 9, and Luke 9, though it doesn’t appear in John’s gospel at all.

But this PROCESS that the Disciples went through … I think it has meaning for us today at South Church. Just to recap the main parts of the action:

  1. There was an Intentional Setting Apart from the rest of the world. Then …
  2. There was a Change that none of them saw coming
  3. It happened From the Inside, out.  And then they wanted to …
  4. Stick around and Figure it Out.  THEY thought it was over. At the point of seeing the Light pouring out of Jesus, the Disciples were happy to call it a day. That was AMAZING.  They wanted to Stay, talk, and figure it out.  J They wanted to PROCESS it.
  5. But God wasn’t finished with them yet. Then they Hear God’s Voice and they’re filled with awe, wonder, FEAR … and
  6. Jesus comes to TOUCH them and tell them not to be afraid. And
  7. When they look up, trusting Jesus, everything looks perfectly NORMAL … the same as it did before this happened and so they Rejoin the World.

Now I dare say … Jesus was not the ONLY person transformed, changed, metamorphosed that day. How could anyone experience that and NOT be changed?


            So let me ask YOU: 

What’s the message for South Church from this reading today?

What is God telling US about what WE are going through right now?


  1. 1.     We are being changed …
  2. 2.     we have been INTENTIONAL …
  3. 3.     the ways we are changing? Nobody saw them coming …
  4. 4.     we’re being changed from the inside, out …
  5. 5.     we can’t really understand it and we want to sit around and figure it out because we’d feel more comfortable with it if we could … but God envelopes us in the Light …
  6. 6.     sometimes we get scared and all we can do is fall flat on our faces in fear …
  7. 7.     but Jesus comes to us and TOUCHES us and says, “Fear NOT,” …
  8. 8.     so we open our eyes and everything LOOKS the same, but we know that WE will never be the same again …
  9. 9.     and we walk back into the world … where some people might think we look different, but others won’t see anything  out of the ordinary at all.
  10. 10.                         Still, WE know, as the Disciples knew … that NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME.


            The love of Christ … the BELIEF in new life … it changes EVERYTHING.

            Walking with this guy … Jesus … J ….  Whatever you call him. It CHANGES us from the inside, out.

            WE become transfigured.

            WE become (what did the definitions say?) something beyond the original … WE become “changed thoroughly.” But as with the words “transfigure” and “metamorphos,”  they are ACTION VERBS. This is NOT something that is done TO us without our input … without our INTENTION. WE have to be willing to go up that Mountain and make a trek with Christ.

        And that’s what Lent is all about. Setting aside the time for the trek.

        It helps when we do it TOGETHER.

        I was having some hard days this week … it’s the grief work about my niece and my sister both dying 12 days apart in 1995. Have I dealt with it before? SURE. Lots of times.  But it’s on a different level now. And for whatever reason, it’s surfaced again for me. Grief will do that, won’t it? All of a sudden years later it will come back into our lives.  I know it happens with some of you because you invite me into it with you … which is why I’m sharing mine with you like this.


        But the thing that is significant is that one of my close friends said to me on Friday when I was feeling down and sad and grief-stricken again over the loss … “Gosh, Deb … sounds to me like the best Lenten Journey you’ve ever been on!” J  What a way to REFRAME it.

        Our Lenten Journeys are about this process of being TRANSFIGURED and TRANSFORMED … CHANGED from the inside, out. And when we think we’ve experienced it all … BLAM! Something else happens. 

And then when we think we can’t get up and go on anymore …. Jesus COMES to us … and he TOUCHES us and says, “It’s okay …  It’s okay, Deb … It’s okay Sandy … It’s okay  Sonya … and Mary Lee … It’s okay Gordon … and Jane.  It’s okay, Summer.”   “Don’t be AFRAID of it. I’m right HERE.” And THAT allows us … it EMPOWERS us to get back up and complete the experience.


        Jesus comes to us and he touches us and he says, “It’s okay, South Church … Fear Not! And we get up and we follow him back into the world. But we KNOW that we are changed, and that NOTHING will ever be the same again.


        THAT’s what today is all about…     Thank God … and THANK GOD!  Amen.




[i] All word etymology information taken from dictionary.reference.com  online.

[ii] Ibid.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s