Fully human and fully God: Transfiguration Sunday lectionary preview

January 23, 2023 by Greg Allen-Pickett

Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Transfiguration Sunday: February 19, 2023

Matthew 17:1-9

In the 2018 Super Bowl, Tide laundry detergent had what was arguably the most brilliant advertising campaign of any company that year. Actor David Harbour shows up in what appear to be various archetypical commercials imitating a car ad, a beer ad, a perfume ad, an insurance company ad, a soft drink ad, a jewelry ad, and more. After the first few fake ads he stars in, he points out that in every ad on TV, no one ever has any stains on their clothes. At the end of the commercial, he poses the question, “Does this make every Super Bowl ad a Tide ad?” After watching this ad campaign, I jokingly asked myself if the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is a Tide ad, when we read that “his clothes became dazzling white.”

Part of the brilliance of this ad campaign is the way that it pokes fun at the advertising industry itself, which manufactures a reality where everything is perfect, including every actor wearing clean and stain-free clothes, often dazzling white. But that does not represent real life; life is messy.

The gospel account of the transfiguration, which appears in all three synoptic gospels, presents a narrative of four men who have just walked up the side of a mountain. It is surmised by biblical scholars that it was Mount Hermon for two reasons: Mount Hermon is the highest mountain in the area and the transfiguration took place on “a high mountain” according this account in Matthew, and it is located near Caesarea Philippi where the events just prior to the transfiguration reportedly took place. After a hike up to the top of this mountain, which rises to 9,232 feet, I would guess that Jesus and his disciples are dusty, dirty, and sweaty.

That is life; life is messy. Hiking up the side of a mountain is messy. Jesus came to earth and lived our messy lives with us, experiencing the fullness of humanity. All through the gospel witness, we see Jesus’ humanity on display. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus repeatedly speaks to crowds and performs miraculous healings and then retreats to the wilderness. I think that introverts can relate to this very human need to retreat to a quiet place after a hard day’s work around lots of people. In the gospel of John, when Jesus learns of the death of his friend Lazarus, he weeps. He cries at the death of his friend which shows his human side and also demonstrates that life can be messy, even for the Son of God.

All throughout the gospels, we read about Jesus eating meals with his disciples, because of the human need to eat. Is it possible that Jesus may have spilled on himself while he was eating? Perhaps his tunic wasn’t always perfectly clean like the clothes in the Tide ads, because life is messy, and Jesus lived life with us. When Jesus went up the side of the mountain in this story, he brought his three best friends with him, Peter, James, and John. Perhaps he didn’t want to be alone and was experiencing a very human need for companionship.

Then the story shifts and we read, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” That’s the moment in this story when we turn from understanding Jesus’ humanity to understanding Jesus’ divinity. We proclaim this paradox that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, and the gospel stories often demonstrate both sides of Jesus. The transfiguration story starts with Jesus’ humanity, trudging up the side of a dusty mountain with his friends. And then Jesus’ divinity is on display in this act of the transfiguration. Jesus’ garments become dazzling white and he appears there with Moses and Elijah. And the voice from the clouds says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is an echo from the story of Jesus’ baptism when similar disembodied words are spoken about Jesus.

Some bible translations read “this is my son who I love” or “this is my dearly loved son.” These words serve as a reminder of the love that God has for God’s children. God declares this love at Jesus’ baptism, and again at this moment. That incredible love of God expressed in these words extends from Jesus to each of us, who are also God’s dearly loved children.

Even in this messy world we live in, we are recipients of God’s love. Even if our clothes aren’t as clean as a Tide ad, or as dazzling white as Jesus during the transfiguration, God loves each one of us. God’s love is not dependent on our ability to look or act like perfectly the media and advertising industry would suggest. God’s love comes to us lavishly and unconditionally. We don’t have to present the flawless images we see on TV. God loves each of us right where we are, in the middle of our messy lives in this messy world.

We are called to respond to God’s love for us with gratitude and generosity. We are called to respond to the loving miracle of Jesus being both fully human and fully divine by giving the very best of our time, talent and treasure. Peter models this for us beautifully in this passage. As soon as he his struck by the act of transfiguration and the divinity of Jesus in that moment, he responds, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter is willing to commit himself, his energy, and his resources to honoring God through this offer to build the dwellings. Like Peter, when we experience God’s love and realize the incredible gift of Jesus being fully human and fully divine, we are called to do the same.

The transfiguration story comes up every year in the Revised Common Lectionary. It provides the preacher an opportunity to reflect on the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the love of God, and our call to respond. We don’t have to present perfectly clean clothes right out of a Tide ad, or perfect lives to be a recipient of God’s love and to respond to that love with gratitude and generosity.

Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett is Pastor and Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Nebraska. He is a native of Flagstaff, Arizona, where he was an active member of Federated Community Church. Greg is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and he also holds a Master of Divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Greg has worked in small, medium, and large churches and also worked at the PC(USA) denominational offices in Louisville as the general manager of Presbyterian World Mission.