It’s the last Sunday before Lent – a milestone moment in the Church Year. The end of the season which started at Christmas and went through the Epiphany. At one end we have the birth of Jesus, where the Son of God took on human form and resided with us mortals on earth. And at the other end, here we are at the Transfiguration, where the earthly Jesus, the Chosen One, dazzles in the company of two mortals who are now residents of heaven. We hear a voice from a cloud say: “This is my Son, the Beloved.”
And if our Lectionary reading had gone just a few verses further into Matthew 17, then we would have met a second beloved son. A son beloved by his dad and who suffered with convulsions. A dad at the end of his tether. It’s a shame our reading stopped short, since I think that bit at the end is critical if we’re to understand the Transfiguration.
A thin place
A few verses before our passage, Peter declared Jesus as being the Messiah and Jesus talks about his death and the high cost of following him. We’re at the point where his ministry in Galilee is coming to an end and he’s about to start the final leg taking him to Jerusalem and death on a cross.
And in what follows, a divine person here on earth meets with those humans from heaven. We’re on a mountain, in a thin place, where the natural and the supernatural are all mixed up. Where the thickness of the veil between this world and the next amounts to nothing.
Matthew misses it but in Luke we’re told that the disciples are sleeping, and that Jesus is praying. As he prays, he’s transfigured or transformed, he dazzles. His face shines like the sun. The now awake disciples see the bright and shiny Jesus talking to two men: Moses and Elijah.
Moses and Elijah are normally taken to represent the law and the prophets, which Jesus came to fulfil. Again, Luke gives us more detail and tells us that they’re here to talk about Jesus’ departure. The Greek word that he chooses for departure is ‘exodus’… and like in the OT it’s signalling a new redemption and liberation for the people of God. But this time it’s as a result of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.
Or maybe Moses and Elijah are chosen because they too had mountain top encounters with God. Moses has his own moments of being dazzling after he meets God. But his is a reflected glory. The glory of God from outside rather than inside.
Or were they chosen for another reason? Elijah was taken up into heaven rather than dying. And whilst in Deuteronomy Moses dies, in other Hebrew Scriptures, and according to the historian Josephus, he was thought to have been taken up into heaven too, just like Elijah.
Or is it because both Moses and Elijah are mentioned in the last few verses of Malachi, the last book of our Old Testament? Both men are there wrapped up in the day of judgement and renewal, the coming of the Messianic age.
Who would you choose?
Whatever the reason, the meeting of the three gives meaning to both past and future. For Moses he finally enters the Promised Land! I wonder who you would choose to come back and give you instruction if you had a choice? What voice from the past would you pick to give direction for your future?
And Moses and Elijah disappear into a cloud, the shekinah. This is the cloud of divine glory that we read of, again, in Exodus. The disciples were in their too. God’s voice says who Jesus is and that the disciples are to listen. This time the voice comes from a cloud, rather than from heaven as it was at Jesus’s baptism. It’s a close-to, imminent presence. And this time the voice was for the disciples, not Jesus. They are terrified – and they are to listen. Years later, Peter remembers it and shares the experience in the letter that was our NT reading today. Perhaps the image of Jesus that day got him through the dark days to follow.
Glow of glory
But before the cloud appears, we have Peter’s suggestion about building the three tents or dwellings. And he’s often ribbed for that but perhaps it isn’t so strange. If he interprets Moses, Elijah and Jesus together as the coming of the messianic age then Peter wasn’t to know that this glow of glory was just a passing moment. Jesus’ talk beforehand of impending suffering and death was something Peter didn’t want to hear – and maybe this now meant it had all gone away and they could live in wonderful peace together. And, with all that’s happening in the world today, which of us wouldn’t want the same?
And while Peter is still speaking, the cloud appears. The disciples are told to listen. Perhaps they were to listen to those words of Jesus’ about his imminent suffering and death? Or maybe it was to listen to all his teachings – teachings about love for God and for our fellow human beings?
Things that scare us
The disciples are overshadowed by the cloud, and they are terrified. But it’s in that very shadow that they hear and encounter God. I wonder if that’s true of us, too? Is it in those things that scare us, that we’re frightened of, that we meet God?
The cloud goes, Moses and Elijah go. Jesus remains. And they are alone. In silence.
At the Transfiguration, we have a glimpse of the future glory of Christ on Easter. But to get to Easter Sunday we have to first go through Lent, then Good Friday and Easter Saturday.
Back to the people
And this is where the story of the father with the unwell son comes in. The Transfiguration is important, in itself, because it tells us that Jesus is the Chosen One. And that we’re to listen. But the transformation isn’t just for its own sake, important as it is.
No, in our Gospel it directs Jesus back to the people who need him, even though the disciples wanted the moment to last longer. And when we meet for worship, sometimes it’s so good that we want to stay for longer too. But we meet so that we can later go out “to love and serve the Lord”.
This passage about the Transfiguration needs the bit that follows next. Jesus no longer dazzles. He’s back in his dusty robes when we meet the second beloved son. There was one at the top of the mountain – and now there’s one at the bottom. And another loving father – who wants his broken child to be noticed, to be listened to.
Not transfigured enough
The disciples aren’t transfigured enough to handle it themselves. And Jesus perhaps shows his frustration that they still don’t get it, when he’s so close to leaving them. But that’s directed at us too. If we truly got it, if we truly understood who Jesus was, and the message that he has to offer, then would we not spend more time ‘out there’ loving and serving the Lord?
The hungry, the abandoned, the homeless, the immigrant, the victims of natural disasters and man-made ones – all these are spoken of in our Scriptures. And, in a way, they are all like that boy, that beloved son. And we, who seem to have missed the transfiguration of Jesus and our own transformation are looking at these people not quite knowing what to do – and instead asking Jesus if we can stay a little longer in our dwelling, our tabernacle, because we think it is good for us to be here.
Our time here together is vital. A time to worship and glorify God. To build ourselves up. But it’s also to equip us to get out there and, when the time is right, to help others in any way that we can and shed light for those around us. To be a little light that shines, that dazzles.
I want to leave you with this poem by Jan Richardson.
Dazzling – A Blessing for Transfiguration Sunday
Believe me, I know
how tempting it is
to remain inside this blessing,
to linger where everything
We could build walls
around this blessing,
put a roof over it.
We could bring in
a table, chairs,
have the most amazing meals.
We could make a home.
We could stay.
But this blessing
is built for leaving.
is made for coming down
wants to be in motion,
to travel with you
as you return
to level ground.
It will seem strange
how quiet this blessing becomes
when it returns to earth.
It’s not shy
It is not afraid
It simply knows
how to bide its time,
to watch and wait,
to discern and pray
until the moment comes
when it will reveal
everything it knows,
when it will shine forth
with all it has seen,
when it will dazzle
with the unforgettable light
you have carried
all this way.
‘He dazzles’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St John with St Mark, on February 19th, 2023. It was based on Matthew 17:1-9.
- A version of this sermon was first delivered by Ian at Christ Church Walmersley in 2022.
- The wonderful blessing from Jan Richardson can be found at https://paintedprayerbook.com/2013/02/03/transfiguration-sunday-dazzling/
- Evans, C.F. (1990). Saint Luke. TPI.