The Transfiguration of Jesus

February 11, 2018


29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. 32 Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.

34 Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, 35 the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (Exodus 34:29-35 ESV)

1 Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 And Elijah said to Elisha, “Please stay here, for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take away your master from over you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please stay here, for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”

6 Then Elijah said to him, “Please stay here, for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” 10 And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” 11 And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.

Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. (2 Kings 2:1-12 ESV)

12 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. 14 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 1 Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 ESV)

2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. 9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:2-9 ESV)

Our readings each Sunday weave together a message that relates to Jesus. Jesus calls us to himself and brings us to the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. All the words have their ‘picture focus’ on Jesus – he is active here – we can imagine him among us whether forgiving, speaking, listening, serving at table as host and, mysteriously, meal, and he is blessing us. The words spoken are performative – doing words – Jesus does things to those who are here – forgive, guide, challenge, listens and replies, feeds, and blesses. The words here are also teaching or contextual – they give meaning to help us see and meet Jesus. These words are particularly the Bible readings that surround the Gospel account for the day and the sermon.

So both the Old Testament and the New Testament Readings point to Jesus – one forward – he is coming – he will be like this but better – and one back – Jesus’ death and resurrection means that our lives in Rome or Corinth or Ephesus or wherever can be lived following him.

Sermons are words that are supposed to bridge the centuries so that they both point to Jesus and offer a window or guidance into discipleship 21st century style.

Today we hear how Jesus is transfigured – Mark’s description is that Jesus’ clothes became intensely bright – brighter than any cleaning products could get them – and the inference is that the brightness is coming from Jesus – the clothes both hide and reveal his brightness, his light, his glory. This is not the usual Jesus we’ve heard about – whom the disciples have seen on the roads and towns and among the crowds. No, this is remote Jesus, up on a mountain Jesus, witnessed by 3 (from 12!) disciples who are told to “keep schtum” until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. The message is confusing – why keep it quiet? – until it dawns on you that this bright shining Jesus pales into insignificance, so to speak, next to the risen Jesus.

We don’t know how the three disciples recognised Moses and Elijah. (Did Moses carry stone tablets and Elijah step from a chariot?) But even if one had to scratch one’s head and try and work out their identities, their stories end on Earth ‘up high’ – Moses on Mount Nebo where he dies and God himself buries him – takes him into heaven. Elijah is last seen in a fiery chariot and whirlwind heading upwards – and his body isn’t found – they did search. So now up on a mountain it is understandable if these two just step back into the world for a moment and talk with Jesus. Both of them – the Law and the Prophets personified – point to Jesus. They’ve come from the heavenly realm but Jesus isn’t glowing from reflected glory from them but rather they are standing in his glory.

What is fascinating is that glory – this shining light, piercing power – which we all think would be wonderful is actually something that is fearful. Moses’ face shone from being in the presence of God – talking with God – and the people feared it so he put on a veil. Elijah’s departure is a dramatic powerful event – even he doesn’t know what will happen and to those around him – note how often Elijah seems to want Elisha to stay away – I think, to protect him somehow. This power of God – even a fraction of it – entices our imaginations but, I think, freaks us out if encountered.

What would happen if all of a sudden I started to glow – to transfigure – and I call the children to the front for a children’s address? Would the children come down? Some may; others, we can imagine, are stumped. To go or not to go that is the question! It is but it isn’t Pastor George. But what about the parents? I reckon no child is moving out of their protection, their reach, until it is safe to do so!

You see glory in this way is power. And that’s what people want – power. Maybe ultimate power, maybe not. Maybe a lot of wealth power, maybe not – but no one wants to be economically powerless. We want power – enough at least for what we say we want. That’s the core ingredient – the core offering – of the demonic – power. But who benefits from power? That is why we are cynical and cautious about people with power – why
we see the corrosiveness of corruption – because power may simply hurt me – especially if I am powerless against it – against you if you have it.

And the question to ask, ‘Is the power safe?’.

Is the question about tabernacles one of putting the three special people into some sort of shielding? Is it about the three disciples becoming the gate keepers to control access? Both would be about power. Maybe making it safer and more controllable for them.

The heart of our rebellion against God is about our becoming gods ourselves – making our own way – doing our own thing – but if God is still going to be around, then it is also about harnessing him and his power for our benefit – using his name in our interests.

In fact that’s what Jesus challenged about the religion, the relationship people had with God – that they used God’s name and ways for their own ends – put them onto others powerfully but absolved themselves of the same. Paul when talking about Jesus and the new covenant, the new relationship, the hope, the new glory that is Jesus compares the people of the old covenant unfavourably and uses the picture of Moses and the veil as a symbol of deliberate stubborn blindness. For Paul this was all about words – and he insisted that he wasn’t twisting the words about Jesus – that he was a faithful transmitter of the words of Jesus, the story of Jesus, the meaning of Jesus, the relationship with Jesus – and this produced light in the darkness – sin revealed and grace bestowed – all the while focusing on Jesus.

The God Moses talked to, the God who used power to transport Elijah, the God who brings life, faith and hope into people’s lives – and people know they didn’t create these themselves but these are gifts from God – this God is powerful. Sovereign. He does what he wants.

And now Jesus is glowing. And the cloud causes more terror it seems to me – when the voice speaks. My point is that this God is not our plaything, our lucky charm, a piece of jewellery but a Being who exists independently of us – whether people believe or not. And this thought can really terrorise us, make us feel like a rat in a maze.

This God isn’t a tame God who can be wrapped around our fingers. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when the children discover that Aslan is a lion Susan comments, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mrs Beaver replies, “That you will dearie, and make no mistake, if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly”. Lucy enquires, “Then he isn’t safe?” “Safe?”, said Mr Beaver, “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”1

Today – as we do every worship service – we meet Jesus – the powerful One. And as we follow him from manger to river, river to wilderness, through teaching, controversies, miracles and mountains, and then single mindedly to the cross, we see how the truly Powerful One uses his power – to love and serve us. Truly that is beyond this world. And we are directed in how we are to follow Jesus – whom we don’t see as we see each other – but who is present still.

The voice identified Jesus as God – the beloved Son – and we all are told clearly, ‘Listen to him’. The word is first made flesh and then his story including the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms and the Apostolic writings are compiled into a library we call the Bible. This living Word is inexhaustible – and speaks to us each day – into our lives – yes, our lives – powerful words that can and do change lives. And so we use water and eat bread and drink wine as he tells to and mysteriously we receive his power and he never abuses us.

Bible References

  • Exodus 34:29 - 35
  • 2 Kings 2:1 - 12
  • 2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:6
  • Mark 9:2 - 9