A neighbour of ours three doors down periodically changes her photo on Facebook. For a long time it was a snap of her with the rock singer Jon Bon Jovi. Then it became a picture of her with the Hollywood actor Johnny Depp. Michelle looks very happy and relaxed with them. They look pretty happy with her. It does rather help the matter that Michelle is quite glamorous!
Me, I’m not so sure I’d look as cool and laid back with a famous person as she does. Not that I’m terribly interested in handsome male rock stars or actors; I just have to fend off Debbie’s regular ribbing because I once commented how pretty one of the teachers at our children’s school is!
However, as I said, I don’t think I’d be as relaxed as Michelle. I think if I met a hero, or a famous beautiful woman, I think I would be a blubbering mess. How journalists keep their cool to interview well-known people, I don’t know.
All of which makes me rather like Peter at the Mount of Transfiguration. When he offers to make three dwellings – one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah – Luke comments that he didn’t know what he was saying (verse 33). He’s overwhelmed, and he says something stupid. He’d like to preserve the moment or turn it into something he knows and can cope with – the three dwelling places he proposes are reminiscent of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.
But he’s missed the significance of the event as a result of his blubbering, and needs correction. That takes him into the terrifying experience in the cloud, where he hears the frightening, correcting voice of God: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (Verse 35) Don’t get blubbery about Moses and Elijah: listen to Jesus!
And I want to take that as an entry point into thinking about the Transfiguration today. It’s a traditional reading for the last Sunday before Lent, and I want us to look at how it shows Jesus as being superior to Moses and Elijah.
Firstly, Jesus’ superiority to Moses. So you book your dream holiday. You pay the deposit. You renew your passports. A couple of months before going, you pay the balance. A week before the off, you return to the travel agent to pick up your tickets and your currency. A day or two beforehand, you pack your luggage. Everything is ready for your departure.
And the Transfiguration is about a departure – especially in the connection with Moses. When Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, we read
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Verse 31)
His departure. Why the Moses connection? Because there’s an Old Testament book called ‘Departure’. It’s just that we know it by its Greek name: Exodus. The story of Moses leading God’s people to freedom from Egypt. When Luke writes about Jesus’ departure here, it is in the Greek his exodos. Moses’ departure was a liberation, Jesus’ forthcoming ‘departure’ from Jerusalem will be a liberation, too. But because Jesus is superior to Moses, his liberation will be superior, too.
If it’s Jesus’ departure from Jerusalem, then clearly we’re talking about his death, resurrection and ascension. That departure brings liberation. Jesus has been pointing the way to his future suffering and has said that disciples need to take up their crosses and follow him. Now we begin to understand that what is coming is a freedom event. The Cross will bring freedom. Jesus’ departure in his death is not a tragic event, as I once heard a Methodist church steward call it in the vestry before a Good Friday service. It is sacrificial love for the blessing of the world. Yes, it is agony and injustice. But it is also true heroism.
Now if this is the case, then we have to see the Transfiguration as more than we have often interpreted it. We know that the disciples come back down from the mountain to the challenges of everyday life. Hence we say that you can’t live on ‘mountain-top experiences’ all the time, you have to get on with ordinary living again. But if the Transfiguration points to Jesus’ departure at the Cross, it isn’t about coming down from a ‘high’ to face the mundane and the routine again. Rather, it’s about Jesus being strengthened to face his coming trial.
So if Jesus is being strengthened to face the trial of the Cross here, perhaps this event is similar to one or two others in the Gospels. It might be like the powerful spiritual experience he had at his baptism with the Holy Spirit coming down on him like a dove and – again – a voice from heaven affirming him, immediately before the Spirit leads him to the wilderness to fast and conquer temptation. It might be like the way he was mysteriously strengthened in the Garden of Gethsemane as he wrestled with his forthcoming betrayal and suffering. No wonder we read this on the last Sunday before Lent.
Isn’t it wonderful, then, that Jesus needed to be strengthened before he faced trials, including the greatest of all? And if that’s the case, then perhaps we might interpret our own ‘mountain-top experiences’ differently. They may not simply be a boost before we get back to the grind; they may be God’s way of equipping us for whatever difficulties are coming our way, particularly those where we end up in a painful place because of our faith. Perhaps God has a blessing for us in Christ that will give us the fortitude to face our trials, or perhaps we can look back at problematic times in our lives and see that before then God prepared us with a blessing. He may have given us our own mini-transfigurations. Not in the sense of exalting who we are – he only does that for Jesus – but in empowering and encouraging us.
Secondly, Jesus’ superiority to Elijah. How does Elijah connect with Jesus’ departure? The Moses connection is quite easy to see when you think of the word ‘exodus’, but it’s less easy to see why Elijah should be hanging out with Jesus now, and the particular way in which Jesus is superior to him.
However, there is a link between Jesus’ departure at Jerusalem and Elijah, and it goes like this. For Jews, Elijah was the great prophet of the end-time deliverance. He was the one who was expected to appear before God’s Messiah. You may recall there was a hoo-hah in the Gospels as to whether John the Baptist was Elijah come back from the dead to precede the Messiah. All this means that Elijah was the figure of hope. He signified to Jewish minds that God would make all things right, just and whole in his kingdom. Hence the theme of hope.
That may well have been why Peter almost thoughtlessly suggested the building of three booths, like the Feast of Tabernacles, as I said, because that festival was also known as the Feast of Ingathering, and looked forward to the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth. Peter’s mistake was just to see Jesus as an equal with Moses and Elijah.
But the voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (verse 35), because Jesus is superior even to Elijah. So we must infer that Jesus brings a superior hope at his departure.
I suggest we find that in his resurrection and ascension. Jesus will be raised physically from the dead. His body will be restored to him in a new way. Jesus’ resurrection body is the beginning of God’s new creation. God will make all things new, and he begins with his own Son. Elijah might be a sign or symbol of hope, but Jesus is more than that: his own resurrection body embodies our hope, even guarantees our hope of a new heaven and a new earth.
So death may and will come, but it doesn’t get the last laugh. God does. We wait in heaven, in what looks from earth like the sleep of death, but one day the Great Surprise will happen when God raises us from the dead and renews his creation. Elijah can teach us much, but only the Son of God can teach us all this. The Christian who dies trusting in Christ does so in peace, because Jesus fills her with hope in ways no-one else can.
And then there’s the ascension, Jesus’ final bodily departure from Jerusalem, reminiscent of the way Elijah left this world yet – again – superior to it. He ascends to the Father’s right hand, where he will reign until everything has been put under his feet. This is the part of hope that sustains us until God makes all things new, when the new Jerusalem descends and all creation is renewed.
The Christian’s chief occupational hazards are depression and discouragement.
But the Ascension reminds us that Jesus is reigning, even while rebellion takes place against his rule. Battles may be won or lost, but in the final analysis Christ is on the throne. To say that Christ is not reigning because there is still sin in the world would be like saying there cannot be a government in power because crime is still being committed.
In conclusion, then, Jesus at the Transfiguration offers us awesome hope. The liberation of the Cross, the hope in the Resurrection of God’s new creation and the assurance of his reign through the Ascension. Moses and Elijah may have been good, but Jesus outranks them everywhere.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘Any study of Christ must begin in silence.’ No wonder we read that
When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Verse 36)
Sometimes I’m all for the response to a sermon being in words and deeds after the service. Today, maybe like Peter, James and John, our best response might just be awed silence at the majesty of Christ.