Note: I preached a version of this sermon on February 10, 2013 (Transfiguration) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Does anyone else like to hang on to their clothes a little bit too long? Does anyone else, like me, find it hard to give up on that stained shirt, that raggedy pair of pants, that ugly old coat?
A while back I found some pictures of my first year of college out in California. Here’s me during my first winter, when I was on the farm team:
My job was to clear these stables of their manure and then help make it into compost. Every day, I spent my afternoons doing this. I either ran the tractor with the manure spreader, operated the front-loader that filled up the spreader with compost ingredients, or aimed the hose that kept it all moist. I did most of this work in a green work coat that got more and more battered and ugly as the winter went on.
Believe it or not, this was a great job. Out there in the desert with 25 other boys, I wasn’t all that worried about my hygiene. But when I went home for winter break, I made sure to clean up real nice. But I forgot to wash the coat. When my dad picked me up at the airport, I thought he was going to make me track down the people in my row of the airplane and apologize to them for the smell I subjected them to. I was so accustomed to it by then that I didn’t even notice.
Last year, before we moved, I finally threw that old green coat away (it had been well washed by then). But if you tend to hang on to clothes too long, like I do, you probably see things a little like that every time you open the closet. The jeans with the threadbare knees, where you’ve bent down to play with your kids or to clean the floor. The dress shirts frayed at the cuffs after countless hours of work. The garments marked with blood, or sweat; mud, food, coffee. It’s funny how the stuff of our lives just seeps into our clothes and lingers like a bad memory.
That’s why, whenever I read the story of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain, I can’t really get by the first few lines. Yes, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus; yes, the cloud that hides the divine glory in the Old Testament surrounds Jesus and his closest disciples, yes, the voice from heaven names Jesus as the chosen one, to whom we should listen. But listen to this: “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
Here’s the thing: I can’t make my clothes dazzling white, and I have some things no one in Jesus’ time had: I have a washing machine, I have laundry detergent, I have–this is very important–more than one or two outfits to wear.
And beyond that: I have air conditioning in summer, which Jesus did not have. I don’t have to travel absolutely everywhere by foot or by animal.
And still more: I have soap. I have running water. I have the chance to bathe daily.
Jesus, James, John, and Peter had none of these things. Jesus’s clothes were dirty. Dirtier than we can well imagine. Jesus’ clothes were smelly. Smellier than we can well imagine.
These were the clothes in which he had walked the highways and byways of Galilee. These were the clothes he was wearing when people with every disease came to him. They were clothes stained with the wine and oil of meals with tax collectors and sinners. They were clothes stained with spots of his own blood, drawn by the hard roads he walked. They were scuffed and dulled by walking through the grain fields on the sabbath. They had touched the widow’s son as Jesus raised him from the dead. They had been stained by the tears of the woman who washed his feet.
All of a sudden, Jesus appears to his closest disciples as someone very different. In a blaze of glory they see him sheathed in white. He’s no longer the radical healer and teacher who wears the dirt of his land and his people. He becomes a glimpse into the glory of God. He takes his place alongside the great voices of history–Moses, representing God’s Law, and Elijah, representing the calling of the prophets. He is named once more by the heavenly voice. He is revealed in this moment in a special way–in a way he has never been revealed before and will not be revealed again until he rises from the dead.
Now I am going to guess that for many of us, this is how we expect Jesus to look. This guy with the white robes and the nicely waved hair is the true Son of God. And I will go a bit further and guess that for many of us, becoming Christ-like means becoming more like this: less stained, less spotty, less stinky and grimy. More pure, more white, more clean.
This, I imagine, is why the disciples try to pitch tents for these great men and stay on the mountain with them. Here we’re with God. Down there, we’re with God and a lot of other stuff. Here we see with our eyes. Down there, we walk by our faith.
But here’s the thing: the moment passes. In fact, it passes very quickly, so quickly that the sleepy disciples could confuse it with a dream. Before you know it, they are back down on the road. A sick boy needs to be healed. And they are off to Jerusalem, where bad things will happen. Life will get messy again, and Jesus and his friends will jump right back into the middle of it.
The truth is that Jesus embraces the stains on his clothes. He embraces the dirt. He embraces the smell. He embraces these things because he embraces us. The transfiguration on the mountaintop is a moment of awe and wonder. It is the sort of moment that must have puzzled and comforted Peter, James, and John through all the years that followed. But it was a moment that existed for the sake of the whole journey.
In his beautiful second letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that we in the church behold God in the words of the Old Testament in a special way because we know Christ. He writes that we see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror. And so all of us are changed by this experience. In fact, we are being changed into the image of God “from one degree of glory to another.” But the thing about our God is that his glory is very peculiar.
On Wednesday we’re going to sing the old song “Just As I Am,” and one of the verses goes like this ”Just as I am, and waiting not / To rid myself of one dark blot / to thee whose blood can cleanse each spot / O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”
It’s a verse about sin and forgiveness, of course, but don’t let it confuse you. Jesus was a very spotty savior. He was a scuffed and stained savior. And if we are going to be changed into his image from glory to glory, we will have to embrace our spots and our stains. We will have to let ourselves get dirty. That’s what this blazing glory does in the world. He puts on the jeans that get torn by the exposed nail at the Habitat site. He puts on the button-down shirt that is dull with too many washings, because the family can’t afford a new one. He puts on the apron that carries the memories of meal after meal in the church basement. He puts on the scrubs that get marked with the blood of a new mother.
Don’t be afraid of your spots and your stains. Don’t fear them. They are God’s garment.