Have you ever watched an illusionist perform? I enjoy watching an really good illusionist (like David Copperfield, Chris Angel, or David Blaine). I enjoy them more than most any musician or actor. When you go to see a musician or and actor perform you may be impressed by her talent by his ability to move you, but in the end you go there knowing what is going to happen. There is no real surprise. The musician will sing – and sing well – otherwise, why go? The actor will act – no surprise there. But with the illusionist, what you expect is the confounding of your expectations. The good illusionist is there to surprise you, and yes you know it is an illusion and you may spend hours afterword trying to figure out how he did it (at least I do), but that is the fun of an illusionist. They confound your perceptions. Now my favorite type of illusion is known as the Metamorphosis (the change of form). I’m sure you’ve all seen it. A pretty girl is secured and everyone can see she is going no where, then in an instant, before your very eyes the girl is transformed into a different girl, or maybe into a tiger, or even into the illusionist himself. Now we all know its fake. We all know that it is an illusion. We all know that if we can just change our perspective, we would see the trick for what it is. But it is fun nonetheless.
Now this is the way many people think about what is happening here in our Gospel text – this great transfiguration. In fact, in the Greek, the actual word we translate as transfiguration is metamorphosis. Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James and his brother John and right before there very eyes Jesus is metamorphosed from the appearance of an ordinary man to a man of light. “His face shown like the sun, and His clothes became white at like.” Even more than this, Moses and Elijah – two of the three greatest men of the Old Testament (one God’s bringer of the law and the other His greatest prophet) – appear and begin to speak with Jesus. And yes, Peter, James and John are impressed. I mean they knew that Jesus was special, but wow! Jesus is truly what Peter declared Him to be just six day earlier when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But what what did that mean to them? Not what we think today. When Peter spoke of Jesus as the Christ, he was speaking of him as the anointed king and deliverer of God’s chosen people. When Peter spoke of Jesus as the Son of the living God, he was thinking of the title of a heavenly anointed king. Like Peter would have read of the anointed king in Psalm 2, “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” When Peter spoke of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, he was referring to David, the anointed king and deliverer of God’s chosen people; the third of the three greatest men of the Old Testament. We know this, because just after proclaiming Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Peter rebukes Jesus when He speaks of His death (and you don’t rebuke God). But Jesus calls him on it when He turns on Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men. And when Jesus is metamorphosed before there very eyes, yes Peter and the others are impressed. But it doesn’t change anything. Yes, Jesus shone like a man of light and yes Moses and Elijah appear and speak with Him, but that impressive appearance only confirms their opinion of Jesus. Yes He is special, in fact He is one of the three greatest men of God in the Old Testament. There they stand, all three of them speaking together, the great law-bringer, the great prophet, and the great king, but in truth that is all they see. For what does Peter say? “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Three equal tents to honor three equally great men of God. So, yes Jesus metamorphosed before their eyes, but that change was only a change of appearance it did not change their understanding of just who Jesus was. In their eyes, He was still Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God; the anointed king and deliverer of God’s chosen people.
But did you know that there were actually two transfigurations that happened that day on the mountain, and not just one. You see, Metamorphosis can have two completely different connotations. One, is the transformation that is visible to the eye. This is the metamorphosis that they saw, but that kind of transformation is only external and not substantive. It changes not how we understand, but only what we see – like the trick of the illusionist – we see the change, but we only see it, our understanding remains the same. But there is a completely different connotation to metamorphosis and that is the transformation that is invisible to the eye. This is not a change of sight, but of true perception and understanding. And this second transfiguration also occurs on that mountain, but it doesn’t happen when before their very eyes, Jesus is metamorphosed into a man of light. No. It happens when, as Peter was speaking, “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.’” They were impressed by Jesus’ transfiguration of appearance; His metamorphosis of sight, but they were only impressed, there understanding had not changed. But at the speaking of Word of God, “they fell on their faces and were terrified.” Think about that, Jesus metamorphosed before their very eyes, but they were not afraid; Moses and Elijah appear out of nowhere, but they were not afraid. But the power of the Word of God flattened them in terror. For the power was not in the outward appearance, the power was in the Word and that Word worked the true transfiguration. The power of that Word transformed there understanding of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God; the anointed king and deliverer of God’s chosen people, into Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate, the Savior of the world by His own sovereign choice. The power that transfigured their hearts was not found in the outward appearance, but in the Word.
And the same is true for us today. We have been likewise transformed, but not by any outward appearance of a congregation; not by great cathedrals or beautiful sanctuaries; and not by the work and teaching of pastors or scholars. We have been likewise transformed, but not by water or bread or wine, for these, all of these are simply outward signs and appearances. There is no power to transfigure us in any of these things. The power is in the Word of God alone. It is the Word that transfigures the congregation into the Body of Christ. It is the Word delivered in the sanctuary that makes this the house of God. It is the Word proclaimed that makes your pastor, your shepherd. It is the Word that drowns the old sinful Adam in the waters of Baptism. And when you come to the table this morning, it is the Word that makes the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ truly present in the bread and the wine. The power that overcomes the principalities and powers of this world, that overcomes the very power of sin and death itself is not found in any outward appearance or working, but in the faith given to us in that very Word of God made flesh that suffered and died on the cross. The power that transfigures us from dead flesh to everlasting life is the power of that same Word of God risen from the dead on the third day. The power is in the Word.