Transfiguration: Just An Old-Fashioned Love Song

Truly Madly DeeplyThe mythical stories of Jesus’ transfiguration remind me of old-fashioned love songs. You know the kind of songs that were playing on the radio when you first met, and when you hear them, you are instantly taken back to the days when you first fell in love.  My wife Carol and I we have a love song and whenever our song comes on the radio, well, I swoon. “Truly, Madly, Deeply” by a group called Savage Garden; it doesn’t matter where or when, but if “Truly, Madly, Deeply” begins to play, well we are transported back to those early days. The words of the chorus are particularly appropriate for Transfiguration: “I wanna stand with you on a mountain, I wanna bathe with you in the sea.” Now I won’t go on because the lyrics of this particular love song are embarrassing. But I wanna talk to you about love songs and more particularly about standing on a mountain. How many of you have been to a mountaintop? I’ve been to the mountaintop! It’s so beautiful up there on top of the mountain. You can see forever up there. You can breathe deeply and feel the very Spirit of God breathing in you. It all makes sense up there on the mountaintop! It is so beautiful that you just never want to leave. There is nothing quite like being on top of the world.

I still remember some of my first mountaintop experiences in church. I didn’t begin to attend church until I was fifteen. So, it took me a while to get to the top of the mountain but I can still remember exactly what it felt like. Those trips up to the top of the mountain, the way I felt up there in the clouds, well it’s those mountaintop experiences that kept me coming to the church. It’s the Jesus that I met all those years ago that made me stay. The Jesus that I met all those years ago was simply amazing. I fell in love with Jesus and that love took me to great heights.  The church I attended back then, was a lot like this place. The congregation was small and they loved to sing and they could certainly sing! All our trips up to the mountaintop began with a song. Singing those songs together lifted us up to the mountain and opened us up in ways that let us see Jesus. “And we walked with him and we talked with him, and he told us we were his own and the joy we shared as we tarried there, none other has ever known.” When that congregation sang they could take me to places I’d never dreamed. I knew that there in the midst of all that singing that, “Just as I am without one plea,” “God’s Amazing Grace would save a wretch like me,” and I learned from all that singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and grief to bear,” as each Sunday we washed ourselves “in the blood of the Lamb.”

I didn’t know it then, because I was in the fresh flush of my love affair with Jesus, but those old songs, those old songs molded and shaped me in the faith. I don’t remember the words of the sermons I heard, but I can remember each and every word of those old hymns that we sang. Today, I must confess that as a preacher it saddens me to say it, but it is most certainly true, that people don’t go home humming the sermon. No, no matter how eloquent the preacher, the people will always go home humming they hymns and not the sermon. Those mountaintop experiences that I remember from my early days in the church, each and every single one of those mountaintop experiences were punctuated by hymns. Those old hymns molded and shaped me in the faith. Those old hymns taught me the faith of the generations that went before me, they nurtured my developing faith, and in so very many ways they came to define my faith.

But there’s one hymn in particular that is synonymous with my understanding of the faith back in those days. This particular hymn couldn’t be found in the old Lutheran hymnbook…back then it was the old Red Book…but this hymn couldn’t be found there. This old favorite was only to be found on some faded mimeographed sheets of paper, where it had been lovingly typed. But most of the members of the congregation didn’t need the sheets of paper, because they knew this moldy, oldie by heart. It was in their bones and they sang it in defiance of the pastor who even back then, insisted that there was something not quite right about the theology in this particular hymn. Now I know that many of you didn’t grow up in the Lutheran church, so perhaps you won’t know this particular moldy oldie, but I know that there are probably more than a few of you who can probably still sing it from memory. But you can rest easy. I’m not going to sing it. But I’d like you to have the words of this old hymn in your heads as we try to travel up to the mountaintop because this hymn, like no other exemplifies what I believed back in the day. This hymn molded and shaped my love affair with Jesus. Like any love song, just the sound of the opening bars can take me back to the person I was back in the day, when I first began hanging out up on the top of mountains: 

                        On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,

                        The emblem of suff’ring and shame;

                        And I love that old cross where the dearest and best

                        For a world of lost sinners was slain. 

          So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,                       

                        Till my trophies at last I lay down;

                        I will cling to the old rugged cross,

                        And exchange it some day for a crown.


                       Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,

                       Has a wondrous attraction for me;

                       For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above

                       To bear it to dark Calvary.


                        In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,

                        A wondrous beauty I see,

                        For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,

                        To pardon and sanctify me.


                        To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;

                        Its shame and reproach gladly bear;

                        Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,

                        Where His glory forever I’ll share.


Refrain:           So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,

                        Till my trophies at last I lay down;

                        I will cling to the old rugged cross,

                        And exchange it some day for a crown.

There you have it, a snapshot of my teenage theology. An old faded picture of the Jesus that I fell in love with; simpler, time, to be sure. A time when God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. But all the trips down memory lane, all nostalgia in the world can’t get me back there to those mountaintops that I used to love to hang out upon. I just can’t go back there. I know there is no heaven, up there in the sky. I’ve been up there. I’ve flown above the clouds. I know there’s no old bearded man up there in the sky, just waiting for me to say the right prayer so that he can grant my wishes. On a good day, I know that I am fearfully and wonderfully made and not some loathsome sinner. I’ve seen more than enough of life to know that I don’t want to worship any kind of god who demands a blood sacrifice. I’ve been around and seen enough of this old world to know that if there’s ever going to be any peace on earth, then I’ve got to roll up my sleeves and do the hard work of establishing justice in this world of ours. I’ve dabbled just long enough in the sciences to know that this world of ours is amazing and the place where I fell in love with Jesus, well its just not there anymore. The physicists, the anthropologists, the historians, and even the theologians, have torn down all the old familiar places where we used to walk together hand in hand.

I know that Jesus’ trip up to the top of the mountain is a myth. I know that Jesus first followers told the story of Jesus’ transfiguration the way they told it so that people who’d never even met their beloved Jesus would know exactly who Jesus was. The transfiguration of Jesus includes all the elements of a perfect love story. Jesus and his best buddies travel up to the top of a mountain, just like ever other hero of the day, travelled up to the top of a mountain, and when he got there, they had such a great time, it was amazing. The more they walked and talked together the more they knew that there was something incredibly special about Jesus. Jesus was the one they’d been waiting for all their lives, Jesus was the one who could lead them, and just like the leaders of old, just like Moses and Elijah before him, Jesus had what it takes to move them out of the hell they found themselves in. Why it was as if the very spirit of God, shone through Jesus. Just like every sacred story they’d ever heard before, when someone was really in touch with the Divine, why they positively glowed. If you want to know what God looks like in the flesh, well look no further than Jesus. It was amazing, so amazing that they didn’t want to travel back down to earth. Let’s pitch a tent and just stay here.

The myth of Jesus transfiguration is what they call an archetype.  It has all the makings of archetypal mythology. It was designed to tell us something important about the character of our God. If you want to know what divinity looks like in human form, look at Jesus and you will see God. The myth of Jesus’ transfiguration sets us up for the trip back down from the mountain. Up there on the mountaintop, Jesus is transfigured.

Earlier this week I read a definition of transfiguration that said a transfiguration is where something or someone experiences metamorphosis. It went on to say that metamorphosis is what happens when someone or something changes from an immature form to an adult form. Changing from an immature form to an adult form. Sounds like a trip back down to earth to me. What love affair can survive if the lovers are not prepared for their love to change from an immature form to an adult form? What theology can survive if those who cling to it are not prepared to let go so that the theology can grow into an adult form? Believers, lovers, theologians, worshippers, followers, humans, we cannot live and move and have our being, unless we are prepared to grow from immaturity to maturity.

The story of the transfiguration is the story of Jesus’ followers trying to figure out exactly who and what Jesus is. If we want to know who and what Jesus is, we too must be prepared to be transfigured; we too must be prepared to have our faith change from an immature form to an adult form. Like all true myths the myth of transfiguration is not something that is over and done with one telling of the story. Like all true myth the transfiguration must be told over and over again, and experienced over and over again, just as our faith must metamorphosize  over and over again. For as we grow, and learn and experience life, we must be prepared to change. Change is at the heart of who we are as human beings, change is life just as surely as life is change. Even though it sounds appealing to stay up there on the mountaintop with Jesus, frozen in time, just the way he was when we first met, there is so much more to the Christ experience than that old rugged cross can ever express. The more we learn about life, the more we learn about creation, the cosmos, and what it means to be human, the more we can learn about the One who, is was and ever more shall be the Source of all that is, was or ever has been. If we really want to know, to experience the Holy One we call God, we can begin by looking to Jesus, because in Jesus we can see the glory of God in the flesh. In Jesus we can see the face of God shinning brightly. This is the Christ experience, looking to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth where we can see what it means to let the LOVE of God, live and breathe and have it’s being through us. Irenaeus said it way back in the third century; “God became human, so that humans could become God.” In Jesus we can see divinity, so that we too can become divine. For it is in Jesus we can see what it means to be more fully human; to be more fully the image of the divine.

These are exciting times. Our knowledge is exploding and we are learning so much about  creation, the cosmos and what it means to be human and that knowledge is informing our faith. We are beginning to redefine what it means to be more fully human, and we are seeing Divinity in a whole knew light. Historians and theologians are teaching us more than our ancestors ever knew about the life and teachings of Jesus; so much so that the ways in which we are able to experience Christ are opening up and we are experiencing the faith in ways that equip us to be Christs to one another in ways that promise all sorts of new mountaintops. So, we will need new love songs, to tell of our beloved. New travelling songs for those mountain trails. New hymns to inspire courage in us for the trip back down to earth. New anthems to inspire the work of being LOVE in the world. And yes from time to time, we’ll hear those old love songs, and they’ll take us back to the days when we first fell in love, and we’ll sing them with the intensity of lovers, lovers who’ve been together through good times and bad times, lovers who trust one another to be there. Lovers who believe in LOVE and know that no matter how much things change, our LOVE will remain. So, do not be afraid. Transfiguration, metamorphosis, changing is nothing to be feared. For in LOVE all will be well.

You can listen to this sermon here The congregation breathed life into this sermon by singing the Old Rugged Cross a cappella from memory.  It seems that this love song is very much a part of their repertoire as well! 

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  1. Pingback: Transfiguration Sermons | pastordawn

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