May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.
From the hymns and the Gospel reading of this morning, you might think that today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. If you were Lutheran or Presbyterian, you would be right. But for all Anglicans, Catholics and most Orthodox persons, the Feast of the Transfiguration is actually on August 6; yet it always is observed additionally on the last Sunday of Epiphany, which is always the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. The double observance of the Transfiguration is one of the ways that the Church emphasizes its importance in the life of the Incarnate God-Man, Jesus Christ.
All three of the Synoptic Gospel writers include the Transfiguration in their accounts. Surprisingly, it is John who omits it. Why is that? After all, he alone among the Gospel writers was actually a first-hand witness to the Transfiguration. Perhaps he was aware that it had been included in the 3 Gospels that had been written much earlier. It certainly was not that John had less regard for its great theological significance. In fact for John, it was absolutely central to everything else that he either included or omitted in his Gospel. There is a sense in which John’s Gospel is one extended testimony to the Transfiguration of Jesus. His whole prologue breathes the message of the Transfiguration: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only One from the Father, full of grace and truth.” And this: “No one has seen God at any time. The only God, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” This is not just John teaching theology; this is John recalling his own experiences with Jesus, the Mount of Transfiguration very much included.
It was on the Mount of Transfiguration that John, along with Peter and James, heard the voice from heaven saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him.” It is noteworthy that only John records words spoken from heaven on another occasion, when near the end of His public ministry, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Then He prays, “Father, glorify Your Name,” and a voice from heaven responds, “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” This experience, combined with the Transfiguration, had to have been indelible highlights of John’s time with Jesus, incomparable moments in John’s treasure trove of memories, twice to have heard the very voice of God giving testimony to His Son.
But we need to look more closely at just what it is that Luke along with Matthew and Mark actually record about this utterly unique event. First of all, all three Gospels connect the Transfiguration with Peter’s Confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Matthew records the response of Jesus to Peter: “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father Who is in heaven.” Little did Peter know that he was about to hear the very voice of God affirming his own testimony to the Sonship of Jesus.
Only Luke tells us that it was the intention of Jesus to withdraw from the crowds with Peter, James and John in order to pray; and, as we know also happened when Jesus went off to pray in the garden of Gethsemane, all three of His companions promptly fell asleep. But when they awakened, the sight was one that no other humans were ever privileged to see. There were Moses and Elijah, immediately recognizable, and only Luke lets us know the topic of their conversation: they were discussing with Jesus His impending departure of that He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
I think we tend to gloss over these incredibly important words: it was not that Jesus was being informed of something that was about to be done to Him, it was that He was disclosing what He was about to accomplish. Here a bit of Greek is enlightening, as Luke tells us that Jesus was discussing His “exodus,” calling to mind the Passover Festival and the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt through the blood of the Passover lambs. Now Jesus is prepared to go to Jerusalem for His own exodus and the deliverance of His people on a far grander scale. Assuming, as must certainly have been the case, that Peter overheard these words, his response is no surprise at all. “Not realizing what he was saying,” he said in essence, “Let’s make something more lasting out of this moment before we have to face what comes next.”
Passover is not the only Jewish festival that lies just beneath the surface of the Transfiguration. All three gospels make a specific chronological connection between Peter’s confession and the Transfiguration, with a strong suggestion that it occurred during the Feast of Tabernacles or Tents, known as Sukkoth. This explains why Peter proposed making three tents for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. It is what one does at Sukkoth: you make tents or “booths.” And remember that John, who also was present, refers in his gospel to Jesus’ having “tented” among us: “The Word became flesh and dwelt,” literally “tabernacled,” “among us, and we beheld His glory.” This dramatic manifestation of His glory led Peter to believe that the very One Whom he had just acknowledged as the Christ, the Messiah, had indeed appeared to usher in the Messianic age. Even though the Feast of Sukkoth had primary reference to the time of harvest and to the wilderness wanderings, it also was thought by the Jews to have a significant Messianic undercurrent.
In other words, Peter does not come off nearly as badly in this passage as we sometimes are led to think! His thoughts and desires are firmly rooted in Jewish tradition, they are altogether appropriate to the moment, and they may even reflect an acute understanding the conversation he was blessed to overhear. Jesus was indeed soon to accomplish His exodus at Jerusalem. Tents are only temporary dwellings, but Jesus was exiting in order to prepare rooms for us in the Father’s permanent house, where Jesus said that the Father and He would make Their abiding place with those who love Him and keep His commandments (John 14:1, 23).
And there is yet another indication that connections with the Jewish festivals underlie this event. No sooner had Peter spoken his words than “a cloud formed and began to overshadow them, and they were afraid.” Here we are on a mountain, where the face and clothing of Jesus became gleaming white (think “light from light, true God from true God”). Then a cloud of glory comes to hover over everything, and out of that cloud comes the very voice of God saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”
“Listen to Him!” He is indeed “the Word (that) was made flesh and dwelt among us.” This is the Word that the disciples were to hear, and it is this Word that we are to hear. You may recall the time early on in the ministry of Jesus when John tells us that many disciples left Jesus. When Jesus asks the remaining 12, “Do you also wish to leave,” it is Peter who responds, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life!” (John 6:66-68). “Listen to Him!”
The cloud brings to mind the experience of the Israelites after the Exodus, when Moses himself goes up a mountain, also with three companions, speaks with God, his face becomes blindingly bright, and a cloud appears, perhaps the same cloud that leads the Israelites by day on their journey to the Promised Land, a cloud that hovers over the shekinah glory of God dwelling with men in the “tent of meeting”. No doubt this is why our lectionary has taken us through that whole story in recent days, including the lengthy account in Numbers 9 about the Israelites only moving on whenever the cloud lifted.
Pope Benedict, in his quite extraordinary 3-volume work titled “Jesus of Nazareth,” points out that there are three elements common to all the Jewish feasts: first an acknowledgment of God’s creation, then a remembrance of God’s redemptive history, and finally a message of hope in the promises of God’s salvation. Here, in the account of the Transfiguration, all 3 elements are present: creation, through the mountain itself, with all of its obvious symbolism; history, through the recollection of the Feast of Tabernacles, remembering when the Israelites lived in tents while passing through the dessert; and hope, through the anticipation of what Jesus was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Perhaps even more was meant to be foreshadowed by Jesus’ gleaming white garments, representing our hope for all that is yet to come in the heavenly kingdom where all the redeemed are clothed in white. Just as the Passover, the Exodus and the passage through the Red Sea ultimately led to the glories of the Promised Land, so the “exodus” of Jesus, our Passover Lamb, leads us to the glories of eternity with Him.
We cannot end without mentioning the significance of these two visitors who joined Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Moses, of course, represents the Law as well as representing God’s deliverance from Egypt. Elijah represents the prophets, as his experiences were among the most dramatic of those of all the prophets. Both Moses and Elijah more or less disappeared from this earth: Moses once more ascending to a mountain top from which he was allowed to view the Promised Land before being buried by God Himself, and Elijah being whisked off to heaven in a fiery chariot. As an aside, we can take considerable consolation from the fact that both were able to appear in a bodily and recognizable form, one of several assurances in Scripture that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (II Cor. 5:8).
Of course the Jews expected that Elijah would return before the coming of Messiah; and it is not surprising that in Mark’s account, the disciples on the descent from the mountain ask Jesus about this. He informs them that “Elijah” indeed has come already, which the Church always has understood as a clear reference to John the Baptist. The presence of Moses and Elijah also may foreshadow what happened on the road to Emmaus when the resurrected Christ spoke to two of His disciples. Luke writes that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” It is on this very basis, our Lord’s own witness, that we are able to read the OT Scriptures with a view to what they tell us about Jesus.
I have often said how much I would love to have been present with Jesus in the Upper Room, when He gave the disciples His final words of instruction and allowed them to witness His fellowship with the Father in prayer. But it would have been an even more awe-inspiring experience to have been present on the Mount of Transfiguration, to experience first-hand all that Peter, James and John saw and that Matthew, Mark and Luke recorded in their Gospels. Recalling this experience some years later while writing his second epistle, here is what Peter wrote to his readers:
“We did not follow cleverly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory saying, ‘This is My Son, My Beloved, with Whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this voice from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain” (II Peter 1:16-18).
Pope Benedict wrote:
“On the mountain the three of them see the glory of God’s Kingdom shining out of Jesus. On the mountain they are overshadowed by God’s holy cloud. On the mountain – in the conversation of the transfigured Jesus with the Law and the Prophets – they realize that the true Feast of Tabernacles has come. On the mountain they learn that Jesus Himself is the living Torah, the complete Word of God. On the mountain they see the ‘power’ (dynamis) of the Kingdom that is coming in Christ.”
No, we were not so fortunate as to have been there and to have experienced those sacred moments. But we have an understanding of absolutely everything that the experience itself represented. We marvel at its testimony to the deity and the mission of Christ. We rest in the assurance that He Himself knew what He was accomplishing here. We learn from the symbolism of this incomparable event that everything in the Law and the Prophets and in the liturgical remembrances of the Israelites was fulfilled in Jesus. We are reminded that not only was this a historical reality that led up to and beyond the events in Jerusalem, but that it is the firm foundation of our belief in all that is yet to come. We may lack some of the details; but we have full assurance that all things will yet be well, and that whatever comes to us in the interim, we may rest confidently in the completed work of Jesus the Messiah on our behalf. “Listen to Him!”
To Him be all glory and praise, both now and forever. Amen.