Today is a milestone moment in the Church Year. It’s the Sunday before Lent. The end of the season which started at Christmas and went through the Epiphany. It’s first book-ended with Jesus’ incarnation at his birth, 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, shares the company of two men who are now residents of heaven. And then we meet a second beloved son.
Because our Lectionary gives us a choice. We could have gone short with our Gospel reading and finished with the silence of the disciples after they witness the Transfiguration – and you’d have got home a few minutes earlier. Instead, we went long, with that awkward bit at the end about the healing of the lad with convulsions. More of that later but I think that bit at the end is critical if we’re to understand the Transfiguration.
A thin place
Now our passage follows a week or so after Peter declared Jesus as being the Messiah and Jesus talks about his death and the high cost of following him. These are the ‘sayings’ referred to in our opening verse and it puts into context what will follow. 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 in what follows, a divine person on earth meets with 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.
Jesus is praying and, not for the last time, the disciples are sleeping. And as he prays, he’s transfigured or transformed, his face and clothes become dazzling. This isn’t a reflected glory, like Moses. This is inherent. From inside, not outside. And the disciples wake in time to see a bright and shiny Jesus talking to two men: Moses and Elijah.
Moses and Elijah
Moses and Elijah are normally taken to represent the law and the prophets, which Jesus came to fulfil. They’re here to talk about Jesus’ departure. The word chosen in Greek here for departure is ‘exodus’… a new redemption or liberation for us, as a result of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.
Maybe Moses and Elijah are chosen because both had mountain top encounters with God. Moses had his own moments of being dazzling after he encountered God. We heard of one such instance in our OT reading this morning, as Moses comes down the mountain after receiving the 10 Commandments. And you might also remember that God spoke to Moses not just from a cloud on a mountain but within a tent or tabernacle, at the doors of which the pillar of cloud stood (Exodus 33:7+).
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 in the historian Josephus, he is thought to have been taken up to 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 OT? Both men are there wrapped up in the day of judgement and renewal, the coming of the Messianic age.
Past and future
Whatever the reason, the meeting of the three gives meaning to both past and future. For Moses he finally gets to the Promised Land!
I wonder who you would choose to come back and give you instruction? 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 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.
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 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 Ukraine now, who doesn’t want that? Who doesn’t want peace?
And before Peter could be answered, the cloud appears. And the disciples are told to listen. Perhaps they were to listen to Jesus’ words 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?
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.
People who need him
And this is where the second part of our story comes in. The Transfiguration is important, in itself, because it tells us that Jesus is the Chosen One. And that we’re to listen. And we could have stopped there. 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 it to go on too, to stay for longer. 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. And here we meet a 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.
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, as we say at the end of many of our services?
The hungry, the abandoned, the homeless, the immigrant – all these are spoken of in our Scriptures. And, in a way, they are all like that boy, that beloved son. And we, who for the most part 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 equips us to get out there and, when the time is right, to shed light for those around us. To dazzle. Just like the people of Poland and Germany right now opening their homes to people from the Ukraine.
If we don’t, then we ourselves will never truly experience what transfiguration means. And those around us will never be “astounded at the greatness of God”.
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.
But it is 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. Amen
‘The Transfiguration’ was delivered by Ian Banks at Christ Church Walmersley, on Sunday 27th February 2022. It was based on Luke 9: 28-43a and Exodus 34:29-end.
- Another wonderful blessing from Jan Richardson, which can be found at https://paintedprayerbook.com/2013/02/03/transfiguration-sunday-dazzling/
- Evans, C.F. (1990). Saint Luke. TPI.