This is Transfiguration Sunday, when Jesus is mysteriously and divinely altered in appearance. His clothes become dazzling, his face shines with unearthly light, and God clearly identifies him as his Son to Peter, James and John. Like every other dramatic event in scripture, I think the transfiguration has important messages for us beyond confirming Jesus' identity. If we are to become like Jesus, then we too will be transfigured.
Long ago, I was a young man trying to make my way in the world, I was in a post-graduate Psychology program. My interest was learning about how people think, what they value and how they come to believe the things they believe in. Unfortunately, Psychology in the 1950's was trying to become a hard STEM science like chemistry and biology, so our Psych professors abandoned the big, soft questions and turned to researching brain physiology. I should start dissecting rat brains. That was a long way from what I was interested in, so I went to work for a big food company down in White Plains. I soon found myself in charge of the Post Cereal business. The business was tired and needed new children's cereal products. I remembered that as a kid myself I liked to play being something other than myself - a cowboy, a hero - anything but me. In those days, the Flintstones, Fred and Barney and Wilma provided a light-hearted insight into the mysterious world of adulthood. The Flintstones cartoon characters are prehistoric adults expressing children's emotions. They seemed to tap something fundamental, a child’s glimpse of the adult world. And they tested well. So, I licensed the characters from Hanna-Barbera, and we designed a Cereal for The Flintstones. Fifty years later, Cocoa Pebbles and Fruity Pebbles cereals are still going. Somehow we tapped into something fundamental.
When I went off on my own to create a business, I remembered that. Most kid's clothing in the early 1970's was boring, so I looked to the world of mythology and archetypes to make something interesting. Myths and mythology usually tie to human aspiration, whether good or not so good. I think our creator hard-wired us with the need to explore what we are destined to become, something beyond us today, something which will be revealed in the future. I believe God intends for us to become something beyond ourselves, invisible to us today. After all, in 1 Corinthians Paul tells us, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him. But God has revealed them to us by his Spirit." Change is ahead for us; it’s part of our God-given human nature.
Many species experience metamorphosis. Metamorphosis literally means the process of transformation from an immature form to a different adult form. A single creature goes through a radical change in form. The physical changes we go through from childhood to adolescence to adulthood are actually forms of metamorphoses. But some species go further. After early life in a chrysalis of some form, some insects experience a rebirth as gloriously transformed creatures. Creeping caterpillars and moth larvae become transcendently beautiful butterflies. Do they set out some strategic plan on how to spin their cocoon? No, nobody teaches them. This radical change is hard-wired into them.
Oh, back to kids. Kids love superheroes. They always have. Kids have always dreamed about being something bigger, better and different. And there's nothing new in the superhero archetype. Today’s movie superhero is just a contemporary expression of ancient mythological archetypes. The ancients had Hercules, Diana, Mercury, Mars, Hermes, Jupiter, Athena, and Achilles. We have the Marvel and DC Comics characters. And they all have a meek alter ego. Clark Kent is a weak-eyed, mild-mannered nerd, but underneath, he is really Superman from another planet. Billy Batson says Shazam! and he’s Captain Marvel. Diana Prince becomes Wonder Woman. Bruce Wayne is revealed as Batman. Peter Parker is transformed into Spiderman. All changes of form. Each of these superheroes is something seemingly vulnerable and defenseless on the surface, but their true identity is hidden underneath. With a change of clothing, in the twinkling of an eye, the transcendent being at their core is revealed.
So, I tapped into that hard-wired need for transformation, I designed children's underwear tops and bottoms to be Superhero uniforms. Underoos let kids express what they know they can become. When Billy's third grade teacher tells him to sit up straight, he can be obedient, secure in the knowledge that underneath, in his Underoos, he is Batman. I sold the brand, the licenses and designs to Fruit of the Loom, which knows how to distribute underwear.. Underoos are still popular - they now sell more adult sized Underoos than kid sizes, which says something about the direction our culture seems to be taking.
Kids naturally know they are something more than they appear. And they like to rehearse it. We humans seem to be hardwired to prepare for this metamorphic experience. As Christians we are told that we are to be transformed in our heart mind, body and soul. A spiritual metamorphosis to become like our older brother Jesus. Radical change, not comfortable settling. Fortunate adults develop and mature in how they understand this. Because this Christian metamorphosis is largely interior, contemporary Western culture often discourages us. Too often we are told that radical change is real only if it’s provable scientifically. Back to dissecting rat brains. By definition, faith is not subject to scientific testing.
That day on the Judean mountaintop, Jesus' transfiguration in the sight of Peter, James and John announced something new. When Jesus tells us we, too, are invited to become sons and daughters of The Father, he is announcing something indescribable by science, but a radical change. He also tells us,. " Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Children have flexible and fluid minds and imaging capability. Jesus calls us to open up our own flexible imaginations to prepare and practice for our transformation.
The prophets, like children, acted out their messages. Instead of only using words, the prophets "played out" the message. Jeremiah smashed jars and buried a loincloth to demonstrate corruption. Jonah went overboard and into the fish before resurrection on a beach. Elijah brought divine fire to consume the water-soaked sacrifices. Isaiah went naked. The prophets did use words, but they did more. They fired the imagination with physical action. Ezekiel dug through the wall, destroyed a clay city, burned his beard, lay on his side for a year and baked bread over manure. Yes, the prophets announced the need and call for radical change, but, as with children, the dramatic actions communicated with a lot more impact.
That day on the mountaintop, Peter, James and John got a look at who Jesus really was. They were bowled over by what they saw and heard. Jesus was transfigured. Radically different. Jesus already was the Son of God. And what Jesus is, we are promised, we shall be. For us humans, that is the goal of our metamorphosis. Our destiny as Christians. And when we are revealed as the sons and daughters of God, it will happen in the twinkling of an eye.
In the light of Jesus transfiguration, Jesus' demonstrating, acting out for us who he is and what we are called to be, let's re-think Paul's teaching about what we will become. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul teaches about our metamorphosis. Listen again;
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.... So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body... Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Here's where we often get stuck! We think the idea of heaven and being immortal is nice, but we would prefer it happen here in this world without too much trouble and change. Peter symbolizes this by saying, “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's first instinct was to offer to build little houses for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. That's often our first instinct as well. We fear change. We want things to stay as they are, only be better. If there's going to be any change, make it a safe change, an easy change. We want to be healed, fixed, richer, have better circumstances here in this world. "Here, God," we say, "let me build you a house in this world. Come live with us here, stay with us and be like us. Don't change us."
Peter is not alone. King David made the first serious attempt to build the God of the universe a little house to live in. To paraphrase David, "Look at my house made of cedar. It doesn't seem right for God to live in a tent. I think I'll build God a nice house, too."
But God said to David, "Thanks, but no thanks." David shelved his plan.
'This human instinct to invite God to live here alongside us is very old. Our pagan ancestors made gods out of wood or stone modeled on ourselves, made in our own image. They made their gods projections of themselves, only made powerful - like Superman. It's taken us a long time to shake off this idolatrous view of God. The real God, the one who made us, our Creator is in process of changing us, making us in his image. He awaits our metamorphosis into his sons and daughters.
Abraham was the first to get the message of change. God set Abraham off on a journey into, "Who knows where?" The message: “Abram, this is your God. Get out of town. I’ll tell you where you're going once you get started.” Radical change. Abram set out on faith, and people of faith have been on the move ever since.
Moses understood God wanted to travel on the journey with the people. God specified details of the mobile home the Ark would travel in on the journey. God wants us to know that we are on a journey, one with a sure destination. He travels with us constantly on our difficult trip - through this world, on our way to the end of our journey, the metamorphosis He has planned for us.
Jesus told us we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. We know that we arent there yet on our own. But deep inside us is planted that divine seed that will be revealed when we too are transfigured. In “On Stories“ written in 1966, C S Lewis reflected on how myth can reveal the significance of things thatt are hidden by the veil of familiarity. “The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat (becomes) more savoury for having been dipped in a story.”
Our scriptures today remind us that God has hardwired us for metamorphosis, that we who love and follow Jesus can, like children, rehearse and prepare for our transformation into something we cannot imagine on our own. Listen to Jesus, change and become like little children - like little children in their Superman and Wonder Woman Underoos, comforted by the sure knowledge that underneath you are something unimaginably, dazzlingly wonderful. And someday, in the twinkling of an eye, what you really are will be revealed.