Transfiguration C Exodus 34:29-35 Luke 9:28-43
In the Gospel text for today Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray. Not only might this be interesting to those of us who live in the midst of such beautiful mountains but there are also many interesting things that happen on the tops of mountains in the bible! One of the interesting ones we heard reference to in the Old Testament lesson is when Moses goes up on the mountain to talk with God. It is on the top of that mountain that he receives the Ten Commandments; God’s gift of the law to his people. In the section from Exodus we heard read today, he comes down from his most recent visit with God and his face is shining and shining so much that it makes people uncomfortable in the presence of something so unusual. Moses must cover his face with a veil to hide its shimmer.
Elijah, a great prophet, perhaps THE great prophet, has an experience up on the mountain as well. This is the prophet that is to come again to announce the coming of the Messiah. At a very difficult time in his ministry, when all the world seems to have turned against him and his prophetic words from God, when the mighty Queen Jezebel has set her sights on his destruction, he runs to the mountain to hide, to find God, to just get away. And God does not disappoint. First there comes a powerful wind that splits rocks, but God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. And then fire, but again, God is not in the fire. And then, lastly, there is the stillness. Silence. There is God. Elijah, like Moses, experiences God on the mountain top and, for him, it is in that quiet stillness.
And today we hear that Jesus goes on top of a mountain to pray and he takes with him Peter, James and John. We can already tell from this first line that something is going to happen because whenever we hear a repeated theme in scripture we can tell it’s going to be significant. Someone going to the top of a mountain means God is about to do something important. And, once again, God does not disappoint.
While Jesus is praying his face changes and his clothes become a dazzling white. The writers of Matthew and Mark use the word transfiguration to describe this scene and even though Luke does not use this word, it certainly appears that a transfiguration is indeed what is happening. Then suddenly, it seems the four of them are not the only ones on the mountain. Moses and Elijah appear. Moses and Elijah, those guys from the Old Testament we just talked about who had their own mountain top experiences with God, those guys who have long since been gone from this earth. Moses, the one whom God used to give his laws to the people and who had a special relationship with God, and Elijah, perhaps the most significant of the prophets and the only one who was take up to heaven in a chariot of fire at the end of his life. Peter, James and John see the three talking together. Talking about what’s going to happen next.
In some ways, it would be like George Washington, the hero of the American Revolution, our first president and founding father, and Abraham Lincoln, the re-unifier of our country during and after the Civil War and one who sought to bring healing to a divided and damaged nation, having a conversation with any great contemporary leader. Moses’ presence on this mountain symbolizes all of God’s Law. Elijah’s presence there symbolizes all the prophets. And last, but most certainly not least is Jesus, the Son of God and the embodiment of the Gospel. All three of these people present together in this amazing moment show a significant connection between Jesus, God’s Law, and all the prophets.
Now, this next place in the scripture is one of those places where the English language is kind of like that veil over Moses face. In an attempt to make things easier to live with, or perhaps easier to read and understand, something very important may be obscured or difficult to see. Our text says that Moses and Elijah are talking about Jesus’ departure and what he is about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Well, sounds to me like they are talking about a trip of sorts, right? Vacation maybe? Actually, if we were to try to fit that into what we know, here and now in this current time, about the life of Jesus, it sounds more like his ascension into heaven. That would be his departure from the earth well after his resurrection. But if we were to look at the original scripture, what the text literally says is that Moses and Elijah are talking with Jesus not about some sort of trip but about his Exodus.
It is no coincidence that these two great heroes from the Old Testament are talking about Exodus with Jesus. It is not his ascension into heaven or even his resurrection they are discussing so much as his Exodus. In the Old Testament, the Exodus was when the people of God, who had been enslaved in Egypt, left that slavery and headed for the promised land. The Israelites cried out to God to save them from all they were suffering in Egypt and God heard their cries. He sent Moses to speak on his behalf and ask Pharaoh to let the people go so that they could worship him. After much back and forth struggle and several plagues, the people leave that land of slavery chased by Pharaoh’s soldiers. As they seem trapped against a great body of water, Moses, with God’s help, parts the waters so that they may all walk across on dry land. They have left the land of slavery, traveled through the parted waters, will travel through the desert as they head for the promised land. This is the great Exodus of God’s people.
So Moses and Elijah are talking with Jesus about his trip through wilderness, leading the people out of bondage, away from the enemy and into the promised land. Jesus’ Exodus through his death on the cross. That is what he is going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Lead the people—that’s all his followers there and then and all of us here and now, too—out of our bondage to sin, away from evil and into the promised land. All through his cross. Jesus has just recently begun talking about this with his disciples. A week or so before this scene, he had said to them that he was going to have to undergo great suffering, be killed and then raised. Though they never fully understood what he was talking about.
As Moses and Elijah start to leave, Peter, as only Peter can do, jumps up and says to Jesus ‘oh Master it is soo good for us to be here! Let’s just stay! We’ll make tents up here for you all!’ He did not realize what he was asking for. But who could blame him? Would you or I not do exactly the same thing? Don’t we all want to skip over the struggle of Lent and get straight to Easter?
In Peter’s mind, here was the glory of all things that really mattered in the world. Who really wants to hear or even think about the waters of the Red Sea? Who wants to think about the treacherous journey through those waters, with the enemy hot on the trail? Who wants to think about this man Jesus, their friend, going through abandonment, violent torture, vicious and cruel death on a cross? To Peter’s eyes, they had already arrived on the other side of that journey! All he really saw was Jesus in his full glory as he would be after he was resurrected from the dead. He did not realize that what he had witnessed that day was both the foreshadowing of what was to come in the resurrection and the confirmation of the difficult road Jesus was to take to get us all there.
But God brings Peter to silence as he says to them ‘this is my son, my chosen one, listen to him.’ Be quiet for a moment Peter and listen. Wise advice for us all when we, in our enthusiasm, want to skip the journey to get to the destination. Perhaps God knows the journey matters, even when it is hard, and there is no other way to get to the real promised land. And now, Jesus stands alone before the three disciples. And they are all silent. Silent like that stillness Elijah experienced on top of the mountain when he met God.
The next day, when they come down from the mountain, Jesus is immediately called upon to cast out a demon from a child. Yes, there will come a time when there will be no more suffering, no more evil to defeat, but for now, there is work for Jesus to do.
Only a little further down in Luke’s Gospel we read these very weighty words “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Seems like just the other day we heard the words of the angels to the shepherds “Do not be afraid, for we bring you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” But now, as the one who was the inspiration of such heavenly songs and celebration sets his face toward Jerusalem, toward his own suffering and death, as we, three days from now, will bear ashen crosses on our foreheads, setting them toward Jesus’ cross, we may have mixed emotions. It feels fearful to end the seasons of Advent anticipation, Christmas joy and Epiphany celebration, so abruptly and knowing what lies ahead in this story. Perhaps that is why we celebrate Transfiguration just before Lent begins. We get a glimpse of the Promised Land, so we can remember why we journey. We see, for just a moment, through Peter and the other disciples’ eyes, a window into the fully arrived kingdom of heaven so we can know why Jesus must go to Jerusalem, must climb up the hill of the skull, must be nailed to the wooden beams, must be lifted up high in the darkest of hours to die in humiliation.
As with any mysterious event in scripture like the Transfiguration, there are many, many things to be learned and experienced from it. Perhaps one thing we can take away today is this: as we make our way through Lent, just as with any difficult time we struggle through, we may know in our hearts, in our very being, that the promised land lies ahead. We know the end of the story. We know Jesus will, indeed, rise from the grave early in the morning on the first day of the week. In fact, this knowledge is a great gift! But it does not mean that the journey does not need to happen. We do not get to fast-forward past the crucifixion. This knowledge, the knowledge that Jesus suffers on the cross and we do not, that Jesus defeats evil, sin and death and frees us from our slavery to them all, that Jesus lives again and with him we do as well, is the light that journeys in us through dark days of any kind.
As we take our first step on the road with Jesus to his cross this week, as we live in the time that lies between the Gloria of Christmas and Epiphany and the Hallelujah of Easter morning, let us hold this image of the Transfiguration in our hearts and minds. Though it is not a place we can go to live, like Peter wished to do, it is a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus who lives in us.