A SERMON FOR THE LAST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY, 2018
We hear this story of how Jesus became transfigured by dazzling light every year on this Sunday right before the beginning of Lent. That means it’s grown familiar for us. And, as often happens with familiar things, we no longer notice how unusual it is. Well, to be sure, shining with a dazzling light is pretty unusual. But there are other things to notice as well, things you don’t find elsewhere in the Bible.
For one, who else in the Bible lights up like this? The only example would be Moses, whose face glowed with light after all the time he spent with God on Mt. Sinai. It gave the Israelites a proper fright, and he had to wear a veil before they’d get close enough to listen to him. (Exodus 34)
And where else in the Bible do departed saints volunteer to make conversation with the living? The closest thing (though definitely not voluntary) would be the story about the witch of Endor: King Saul forced her on threat of death to call up the shade of Samuel from Sheol. Samuel was not at all happy about it. And, far from giving Saul the comfort Saul was looking for, he just tells him he’s doomed. He actually seems to take a certain vengeful pleasure in delivering that message. (1 Samuel 28).
But the thing that interests me particularly this morning is that the Transfiguration is so different from the other key events in Jesus’ story. In all the rest, Jesus is essentially alone. At his baptism, nobody but John recognizes what’s going on. At his temptation, he’s on his own. In Gethsemane, the disciples are all asleep. At his trial, the only people around are enemies. At the crucifixion, a few supporters are present, but unable to help. And the resurrection has no witnesses but the guards—and they seem to have fainted. This event is different. The story of the Transfiguration has a bigger cast—Jesus plus five saints. And with two of them, he’s in intimate conversation.
What do you suppose they were talking about? Mark, whose account we read this morning, doesn’t tell us, but Luke gives us a hint. He says “they were talking with him about his departure which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.” (Lk 9:31) His “departure in Jerusalem”—it must certainly mean his death. Now, Jesus has already told his disciples to expect this; but they refused to believe it. Peter even protested that it couldn’t possibly happen. (Mk. 8:31-33) Maybe Moses and Elijah were the only people who could possibly have anything to say to Jesus on this particular occasion. It’s often said that the two were there to represent the Law and the Prophets—in other words the deep, scriptural background of Jesus’ ministry. True enough, but there’s more to it than that.
Think for a bit about these two old men. Moses we know. He started off in a persecuted minority and became an adopted child of the persecuting majority. He couldn’t live with that tension and one day when he saw a guard beating an Israelite slave, he killed him.Then he had to run for his life. When God confronted him years later in the burning bush and told him to go back to Egypt and lead the people out, he knew it was a crazy project. He’d been there! Still, he did it and it worked. But he spent the next forty years problem-solving for a big crowd of people wandering around in the wilderness—while also serving as God’s messenger to give them a new identity, a new law, a new religion. The people sometimes agreed to it all but, according the Biblical account, mostly they complained and occasionally they rebelled. Moses got precious little thanks for all his work. And then, at the end of his life, he didn’t even get to enter the Promised Land. He died in sight of it, in Moab, and was buried there—in a grave whose location was promptly forgotten (Deut. 34:6).
Elijah, too, had a difficult time of it. He was a passionate advocate of the God of Israel, and he spent his life fighting the king’s efforts to blend the religion of Israel, with its focus on justice, into the fertility cults of Israel’s neighbors—all for the sake of enhancing royal power. Elijah had such a rough time of it that, at one point, he complained that he was the only faithful person left. God promptly disabused him of that rather egotistical notion, but it tells you what he was going through. And, perhaps because of his immense frustration, he wholeheartedly embraced violence as a way of forcing people to be faithful: he slaughtered the priests of Baal and brought a devastating drought down on the whole country—a drought that sent thousands of Israelites as well as Gentiles to death by starvation. St. Romanos, in the sixth century, speculated that God sent the fiery chariot for Elijah because, in his zeal for God, Elijah had forgotten that God actually loves human beings, even in our imperfection. The only way to save the people who were left was to yank Elijah off the stage.
So Elijah and Moses had both known struggle, opposition, disappointment, the futility of violence, the difficulty of getting their message across, the willingness of people to trade their principles for what looked like an easier path. Moses died in Exile; Elijah was translated to the heavens by fiery chariot. But both knew about struggle and suffering, and each had had to leave a lot of unfinished business behind him.
Jesus, at the moment of the Transfiguration, is about to turn toward Jerusalem—in full awareness of what lies ahead. And I can’t imagine any two people better suited to talk with him about it. His disciples are busy arguing about which of them will get to be prime minister in Jesus’ new kingdom. They’re listening to him, but they’re not getting much of it. And they’re the ones he will leave to carry on his work.
We know that he’s afraid of what is to come. He never says it to to his followers, but it comes out in the words he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane—a prayer that they, of course, slept through. But the fear is there. And so he turns to the two people who have been through some of this already, the two who can reassure him that a work that feels unfinished isn’t necessarily altogether lost, the two who can tell him that it is worthwhile to go on with his mission no matter how daunting the challenges.
After Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, angels came to minister to him (Mark1:13). But there are some things that no angel could tell him. No angel could tell him what it was like to live with human uncertainties, with the incomprehension and wavering of human followers, with the difficulty of seeing beyond the next step, the next moment. He needed a couple of wise old folk—wise because of long experience, wise because of their own sufferings and failures.
But, of course, they’re not the only ones present, are they? Jesus could have had a conversation with Moses and Elijah without bringing Peter and James and John along (though I guess there’s no way we would ever have heard about it). But here they are, and they must have a role to play, too. What is it?
I suppose they’re there partly because they needed to be overwhelmed again by God’s beauty and power and get a renewed sense of their own puniness in comparison. They played that role pretty well. But they didn’t like it at all. Peter’s instinctive response was to try to take charge. If things like this were going to happen, well, somebody needed see to that they were properly noted, commemorated, categorized, institutionalized, and generally taken care of. So I guess they were also there so that they could make some mistakes on behalf of the rest of us.
And I suppose they were also there to be reminded of how much they didn’t understand. Afterwards, as they head back down the mountain, Jesus goes back to talking about his death and resurrection again. And, once again, they can’t figure out what he’s getting at. So, if Moses and Elijah are there to help, Peter and James and John are there to make mistakes and to misunderstand. They’re there to confirm that our inexperience and foolishness have a place here, too.
And, finally, there is yet a further dimension to all this of immediate importance to us. We have, in the Transfiguration, a picture of the church—helpful at any time but perhaps particularly as we step into Lent. Jesus stands in the center, the Word who brings Good News, gleaming with the beauty of God’s inexhaustible love for humankind. Gathered as church, we hear him in the scriptures and sing the good news in hymns and respond in prayer. The old wise folk, who have seen it all, survived disappointment and suffering and still have hope—they can stand alongside Jesus in communion and understanding. The three newbies, the disciples, cower down below, shielding their eyes, still trying to figure out what this is all about.
It reminds us that understanding life and God isn’t a solitary business; we need one another for it. At one moment you may find yourself flailing away with the neophyte disciples. At another, you may discover you are one of the wise elders who can draw hope out of your own experience to sustain someone else. There’s something of Moses and Elijah in each one of us—and something of Peter, James, and John. And the three callow disciples, remember, will grow into the next generation of Moseses and Elijahs.
And whether we find ourselves nodding our heads and thinking, “Oh yes, I’ve been there; it can be very difficult,” or whether we just feel confused and uncertain, the light of God keeps on shining on all of us just as it did on the Mountain of Transfiguration. And we all have parts to play and, together, we can all increase in understanding and in love.