The actual plot of today’s Gospel is quite simple. Jesus takes Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain where, suddenly, his clothes begin to shine, “becom(ing) dazzling white.” Elijah and Moses immediately appear - in the flesh - and have a conversation with Jesus, at which point, Peter (of course Peter!) in his bewildered terror, decides that this might be the perfect moment to erect three monuments to memorialize the occasion. A dense cloud then descends upon them, and God’s voice speaks from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” With that, the prophets, the cloud and the voice disappear, leaving the three Disciples with Jesus alone. And what does Jesus do? He tells them not to tell anyone of this … until He has risen from the dead!
Simple, clear plot, yes … but bizarre and unnerving in the extreme! And since I have a real soft spot for ever-clumsy Peter, I just have to begin by saying … I commiserate with Peter, here! This is some event, not only to experience … but to keep quiet about (!) … until Jesus has (excuse me!) risen from the dead??
How on earth could James, John and especially plodding Peter take in Jesus’ Transfiguration? What would it have been for you or me to witness such a thing? Perhaps the Transfiguration didn’t actually occur, right? Perhaps it was simply a group hallucination… the result of some “religious delirium.”
Yet, since all three of the Synoptic Gospels record this strange incident, each with its own slight variations … this is clearly not only an important, well corroborated event, but the minor Gospel distinctions actually serve to confirm the Transfiguration’s reality.
Yes, the Transfiguration was an actual event, in actual human history. But explaining it? Well… even 21 centuries later, scholars continue to explore new implications and allusions in Christ’s Transfiguration.
So, let’s start with the truly strange – and terrifying - first: Jesus begins to glow in the presence of his three friends. Though the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke go even further to say that Jesus’ face – his very being - changes and shines like the sun, here, in Mark, Jesus’ garments shine dazzling white. He is wrapped in God’s encircling presence. The human they know as Jesus is here encircled with transfigured Glory. Divinity enfolded Jesus in confirmation that this One is God’s beloved Son… God with them as a Man.
No wonder the disciples were overwhelmed!
Then, two ancient prophets arrive … in the flesh! But why Moses and Elijah in particular? The list of inferences is long and layered with allusion. Both Moses and Elijah had, in their own time, experienced God’s presence on a mountaintop. They had each seen the Glory and heard the voice of God.
Moses, during the Exodus, brought three men with him to the top of Mt. Sinai. God also spoke from a cloud on that peak where Moses received the 10 Commandments: The Law. When Moses descended Mt. Sinai, his face also glowed (as one reflecting – not emanating - the glory of God.)
Moses presence at today’s event serves as a reminder of the Law… but also of the Exodus when God delivered His people (through Moses) from physical bondage and slavery in Egypt. We know Jesus will soon enough bring spiritual freedom through his death and resurrection.
Elijah brings a different OT association for he was the boldest of Israel’s prophets. No OT character spoke more clearly, or took more risks for his faith than did Elijah. The three disciples would have, like every good Jew, esteemed Elijah as God’s most exemplary, faithful Prophet. It would take Christ’s Ascension for these disciples to remember that Elijah too was ascended before watching eyes directly into heaven.
Both Moses and Elijah had, in their time, received authority – God’s authority – as representatives of the Law (in Moses’ case) and the Prophets (with Elijah.) Under the Old Covenant, these two men were the earthly ambassadors of YHWH’s authoritative, guiding Hand over Israel. During the Old Covenant, they represented the fullness of God’s intimate relationship with His people.
And so, before the eyes of Peter, James and John (and now our eyes) we see The Law and the Prophets …supplanted – not by a new Law, or by another prophet… reflecting God’s magnificence - but by the One who is God’s magnificence. Peter, James and John were present in that spectacular moment …when the complete replaced the partial, when the Law and the prophets (which had pointed toward the Messiah) were superseded, in glowing actuality, by THE eternal Messiah, Jesus Christ.
As the final confirmation that this is indeed a moment of Divine presence, an overshadowing, engulfing cloud appears, just as it had to lead Moses and the Israelites through the desert during the Exodus, and as it had at Jesus’ Baptism. Out of that cloud, at Jesus’ Transfiguration, God again speaks, repeating His words from Christ’s Baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved” with the additional imperative … to the Disciples (and now to us): “Listen to Him!”
God’s blessing, endorsement, empowerment and authority saturate this event. Christ’s Transfiguration pops with Divine spectacle and grandeur, even as it unites (and fulfills) prophesies from of Old, with remembered historical events across thousands of years … all woven together here before their eyes. The significance of this event - for Jesus’ divine ministry – but also for His human heart, I imagine - is incomprehensible. Its declaration to Christ’s followers (both then and now) is history-encompassing, and immeasurably profound.
Even so, what are we to learn from the Transfiguration today? What actual difference does this story make today? My prayer for us this morning is that what happened to Peter, James and John would happen for us – for you and me. Not that I expect a holy cloud to roll in thorough those doors, but what I do expect – what I do know – is that the Lord Jesus Christ who displayed Himself so miraculously, so specifically to those disciples – is the same Christ we worship today. God is limitless, and Jesus’ Transfiguration shows us what we too can prayerfully expect from our God. Ours is a God of infinite, unfathomable, eternal power. If we do not believe that – especially with this sweeping event - we are wasting our time, and we are blind to the torch of Hope and Possibilities God wants us to receive – as new day Elijahs - and carry in our hearts – our behavior - beyond those doors. We too are receivers of God’s Gifts and Calling!
The Transfiguration challenges – it stretches – human reality; it requires that we move beyond what is explicable (spiritually manageable!) to us. It forces each of us to ask ourselves (even as we prayerfully ask the Lord): are we limiting God’s Call and empowerment over our lives? What if you or I don’t expect enough – or believe too little?
The point of it all – and perhaps all we can say – is that the Transfiguration proclaims – in broad, brilliant, cosmic strokes, that our God is a God of wonder and miracles, and hope and provision … always, everywhere, and forever! His majesty and mystery stretch above and beyond whatever we (in our limited human capacities) call reality.
It is fitting that this is our Gospel reading on this last Sunday of Epiphany. The season of God’s “fireworks” ends with the ignited Christ, whose light will now lead us, starting this Ash Wednesday, into the perhaps darkened wilderness of Lent. It is with God’s power and Grace that we enter Lent’s self-reflection … from the mountain-top wonder of His visible, unfiltered Glory. As believers in Christ, we too have received His light for our Lenten path. You too can anticipate that God will accomplish something wondrous on your journey – all to His Glory.
Today, Christ’s shows us that we can Hope extravagantly; we can trust irrationally; we can live eternally – because we can Believe completely. Your God Lives; Our God Reigns; and through the transfigured Christ, He wants to shine into even the darkest corners of your fear – and transform even that into His shining Glory.
Beloved, as we leave this mountaintop to enter Lent, I pray we each accept God’s irrational Reality: God so loved the world that He came into the world to save and shape you. Listen to Him – in every area of your life - and be transformed by the Transfigured Christ.
Thanks be to God! Amen.