Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9
In 2013 I had surgery on my knee, and as a result I had to use crutches for a full month after the surgery. During that time at the church there were multiple instances when someone a few years older than me would refer to me as “Hopalong Cassidy.” More than one person said this on more than one occasion, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I looked it up to learn it was a very popular character from a series of Western movies, but I am guessing several of you already knew that. We have a tendency to make pop culture references to real life events and a lot of these are contextual. Hopalong Cassidy for instance was before my time. I mention this because when I read this morning’s scripture the pop-culture reference that instantly comes to me is one that is probably after most of your time. In the 1990’s there was a lot of Japanese influence on video games and cartoons. One of the effects of this influence was the concept of “the final form”. The cartoon Dragonball Z is most infamous for this as it seemed the heroes and villains could always increase their power level and assume a new form. Pokemon also has this concept as the various Pokemon can evolve from one form to another. This concept is in a TON of video games. It is really common for the end boss of a video game to assume a new form after being defeated, so that it has to be defeated again. Often when a final form is assumed, there is always a lot of very dramatic and flashy animation to accompany the act, and so when I read this morning’s scripture I cannot help but think about the image of Jesus assuming his final form during the transfiguration. It is kind of a silly and flippant notion, but I do think it has some validity. Throughout Church history, Christians have struggled with understanding who Jesus is. He is a historical person who we can read about, but Jesus is also the Word of God through which all things have been made. That is a lot for us to grasp, wrap our heads around, and come to terms with. As a result, it is possible to deal with Jesus in a form we are comfortable with. Instead of seeking to know Jesus for who Jesus is, we craft a savior who fits our needs. By considering some of the forms of Jesus that are prevalent, we can see why we need Jesus in his final form.
In 2014, noted scholar Dr. Reza Aslan, made a bit of a splash and caused some controversy with his book: Zealot the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I have not read this book, but by most accounts it is a well-researched, well-organized, and well written work. The controversy stemmed from the fact that some took issue with the fact that Aslan is a Muslim and they found it disingenuous for him to write about Jesus. However, making that argument leaves out the fact that Jesus is a figure of some significance in the Quran. It also ignores the fact that his book is not a religious work, but a scholarly one. It focuses completely on the notion of the historical Jesus. The historical Jesus is a vain scholarly quest to isolate Jesus as a first century Jewish man. The notion of the historical Jesus is one that seeks to define Jesus only by his historical and cultural context. In essence the historical Jesus uses all of the tools that scholars have to completely define the humanity of Jesus. Reza Aslan is the most recent scholar to rise to prominence by focusing on the historical Jesus, but he is not the first. In the 1980’s and 1990s a group of scholars created the “Jesus Seminar.” They created their own version of the gospels that they believed contained the scriptures that represented only the historical Jesus. Many of the scripture that contained more fantastical and supernatural elements, like this morning’s telling of the transfiguration, did not make the cut of the Jesus seminar. For them the historical Jesus was a man who greatly changed the course of history but little else.
It does have to be acknowledged that Jesus was a man who lived in first century Israel under Roman rule. The context of the land, the political climate, and the cultural mores are significant aspects to study in order to more fully understanding the gospels. The fatal flaw with the quest for the historical Jesus is that it emphasizes the humanity of Jesus but completely loses the divinity of Jesus. It is Jesus without the Christ. Jesus was a man who occupied a certain place in history, but Jesus is also much more than that. The historical Jesus is a form of Jesus, but it is incomplete. It is not the final form.
The historical Jesus is the form of Jesus most encountered in academic or non-church settings, but there is another common form of Jesus present in our culture that is also not the final form. This form of Jesus is humorously brought to light by Will Farrell when he plays his character Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights. Towards the beginning of this movie there is a scene where Ricky Bobby leads a prayer with his family, and he stars it by saying, “Dear Tiny infant Jesus.” Throughout his prayer he elaborates on this, “Dear Tiny Jesus, with your golden fleece diapers” and he ask for a blessing of “baby Jesus powers”. In the scene his wife interrupts his prayer to point out Jesus did not stay a baby, but grew up. To this Ricky Bobby responds, “I like Christmas Jesus the best.”
While very few people address prayers to “tiny infant Jesus”, there are a lot of people based on how they express their faith like Christmas Jesus the best. A Christmas Jesus is an inoffensive Jesus, it is one that does not convict us, challenge us, or call us to repent for the kingdom of heaven is near. This is why a baby Jesus characterizes the concept so well. A Christmas Jesus is a form of Jesus that is one that is all about giving us stuff to make us happy. It is a savior that exist solely for our personal pleasure. A faith that follows this kind of Jesus is one that emphasizes blessings of serving others, it emphasizes financial wealth over sacrificial love, and it emphasizes success over forgiveness. Christmas Jesus is a heretical view of the Christ that keeps the supernatural power of Jesus but removes everything else.
It is in this morning’s scripture that we get a glimpse of Jesus’ final form. This scriptures takes place six days after Peter declared that Jesus is the messiah, son of the living God. Jesus takes his three closest disciples Peter, James, and John up Mount Hermon. This is the highest mountain in the region of Galilee, and the top is often capped with snow. It is isolated, away from everyone else, that Jesus gives a glimpse of his final form. He transforms before the eyes of his disciples, into something they can only perceive as bright and light. The glory of Jesus is revealed. Jesus meets with Moses, the keeper of the covenant that makes God the God of the Israelites and the Israelites the people of God. Jesus is revealed as the fulfillment of the covenant. It is through him that all people can become God’s people. While transfigured Jesus meets with Elijah as well. The prophet Malachi declares that Elijah will come before the day of the Lord. It is on the mountain while transfigured that Jesus confirms and reveals what Peter declared, he is the Son of the Living God. God the Father even declares this “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
This morning’s scripture is all about Jesus being revealed in his full glory and majesty. It is enough to be so overwhelming that it drives the disciples facedown to the ground in awe and terror. Jesus in full glory revealed mode was too much for Peter, James, and John to handle. Perhaps this is why lesser forms of Jesus like the historical Jesus and the Christmas Jesus have so many adherents. A smaller, less magnificent Jesus is easier for us to handle. It is easier for us to keep Jesus in a nicely contained box in our lives, instead of being overwhelmed by his goodness, his glory, and his grace. When we make Jesus a lesser form, then we can still be in control of our lives. This morning’s scripture confronts us with the fact that Jesus is bigger than we can handle. Jesus in his final form is more glorious, righteous, and good than we can begin to fathom. That is why in our lives Jesus needs to be Lord not us.
In this morning’s scripture we only get a small glimpse of Jesus final form, and it is mostly focused on a physical transformation. However, if we look throughout the scriptures there are glimpses of Jesus’ final form everywhere. When we consider the whole of scripture we get an image of Jesus that is much greater and more awesome than a historical man. We get a picture that is more worthy of worship, devotion, and our lives than a sugary but hollow deity that only wants to make us happy. When we look at the whole of scripture we get a good image of Jesus’ final form. He is the prince of peace. He is the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. He is the light of the world. He is the Christ, the messiah, and the son of the one true God. He is the author and perfecter of our faith. He is the head of the one true church. He is the lamb of God, the canceler of sins, and the one who paid our debt. He is the savior who was and is and is yet to come. He sits at the right hand of the Father in all honor, glory, and power forever and ever. Amen.
That is the form of Jesus that was revealed on the mountain at the transfiguration. That is the form of Jesus that scripture points us to. However, much like the disciples we only glimpse the full glory of Jesus. Paul wrote about this in Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 13:12 he wrote, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully even as I am fully known.” We only now glimpse the glory and majesty of Jesus, but one day when he either calls us home or comes back then we will see and we know Jesus in his final form. For those who worship and follow Jesus as Lord and Savior, what a wonderful day that will be.
This morning’s scripture reminds us that in order to be faithful disciples we cannot put Jesus in a box or accept an easier to handle form of him. This scripture reminds that Jesus is more than just a man and he is more than just a divine gift giver. This scripture reminds us that he is glorious. May we remember that. Hebrews 12:1-2 reminds us that we should “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus the author and perfect of our faith.” May we do just that. May we fix our eyes on Jesus, so that all that we think, all that we say, and all that we do better reflects him to the world. May we live with our eyes fixed on Jesus so that when the King comes, transfigured in all of his glory, we may bow down to worship him and here him say “Well done, Good and faithful servant.”