Festival of the Transfiguration – Series B
The Feast of Transfiguration brings the season of Epiphany to a close, and in doing so serves as something of a mirror image of how we began this whole thing. Once again, a voice from heaven declares Jesus to be the Son of God, the beloved. But how much water is under the bridge for us? At his baptism, we were introduced to him, now we have seen him heal the sick, raise the dead, gather the lost, cast out the demons, and love the unlovable ones. (I am including all the Gospel accounts between Mark 1 and Mark 9 which records this event – not just the accounts we have heard in church.)
Today we see him garbed in light, as he is even now, a brilliant figure whose glory is hard for Peter and the rest to behold. The light is part of this message, an important part. The holiness of God, the purity and beauty of God are difficult for the fallen human mind to comprehend, even impossible. We avert our eyes as the disciples fall to the ground before it. But it is not impossible for human eyes to see. Moses and Elijah are also there, they have human eyes, they have the same optic nerve and vision structures that we have. God would that we too behold the glory of his Son who reveals himself to this world. As John says, on the last day we will see him as he is, because we will be like him. (I John 3:1-3).
There is a challenge in the preaching of Transfiguration. It is a picture of what we cannot bear to see. It is a little like watching all the miserable Lord of the Rings movies recently produced. He does such a good job of portraying the evil in the films, but the portrayal of good is a disaster, Elrond’s fortress at Rivendell looks like a gingerbread house. I do not think the director Jackson is a bad director, but it is really hard to give good any real traction when you are preaching or describing it because we have so few models and experiences with it. Evil is easy and our minds seem to gravitate that way anyway. The Orcs are always easier to portray.
Thus, I find that preaching this Sunday is a little difficult. It is a depiction of something good. I can preach about Peter and the crew groveling on the ground; that makes sense to me. I can preach about the message of Elijah and Moses as the Law and Prophets, but when it comes to looking at Jesus this day and preaching Christ the Transfigured One, it is tough. He seems to blind me. Even the gospel writers have a tough time describing him except to say that he looks like something. There is not a good metaphor for this. This is not Jesus the forgiver, or Jesus the redeemer, or Jesus the adoptive parent, or Jesus the rescuer. This is Jesus the really bright light I cannot bear to see. Not much traction in that as a sermon for me either. It is a very good thing that Jesus looks like this, but the struggle is that I probably will not really be able to get my mind around that until the end of time, if then. I am glad that he will look like this on the last day, but how do I proclaim this bright guy to my folks in the trenches today?
Someone, I cannot remember who, suggested that since John’s Gospel does not have an account of the transfiguration, his Apocalypse (Revelation) serves the same revealing function in his literature. Does that help us understand this account today? Not sure if it does, but worth thinking about it. 2
Is the revelation of Jesus in the Transfiguration simply and best understood as the firm identification of the guy who would carry a cross up Golgatha’s slope? Do we see him like this now simply so that we will know who it is who dies on Calvary on Good Friday? We developed a sermon around that theme in the past which I have retained for today’s notes.
In the past we have wondered: Why the Transfiguration? It seems like they went up, saw him, and went down. What did this actually do? I have included a few verses on either side of Mark’s account of this event which may help us address this question. Was it a confirmation for the disciples of who Jesus is? The event also falls in the middle of Jesus’ predictions of his own crucifixion and death. It must be tied there. Does this event in Mark 9 tell the reader/hearer that the man who ascends Calvary’s hill is able to conquer death?
In the Gospel according to Mark, the Transfiguration falls exactly in the middle of the book. For ancient authors, who often measured their scroll before they set pen to paper and deliberately shaped their documents to have climaxes right in the middle. Has Mark put this in the middle because it is carrying a heavy load of meaning for this book? Is this the tent pole in the middle of the great tent of the Gospel that holds up the whole thing? It would seem so. Is the Transfiguration really the climax of the ministry of Christ? Does it reveal him most clearly, it is saying what the whole ministry has been screaming to us about his identity? After this text in Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus seems to be on a straight line trip to Jerusalem, focused on what is to come.
Is this a demonstration of Jesus’ continuity with the OT? He has not come to abolish the Law but fulfill it (Matt 5:20-22). Is this a statement to first century Christians and to us in the 21st century that this Jesus is the fulfillment of the whole OT? Does Paul spend his three years in Arabia before he ever preaches simply rethinking his entire Old Testament so he can get his head around the idea that Jesus is the one that Elijah and Moses were talking about? Does this prompt him to find Jesus behind every stone in the OT? (See I Corinthians 10:1-5)
Are we overanalyzing this? Is the real point that we are given to see Jesus here as he really is and we could simply stand in awe of that reality? Is this the Jesus who comes to church today? Is this the Jesus who comes down into our valley? Do you suppose John and James and Peter ever were able to look at him the same way after this event? How should we view him after this?
Collect of the Day
O God, in the glorious transfiguration of Your beloved Son You confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the testimony of Moses and Elijah. In the voice that came from the bright cloud You wonderfully foreshowed our adoption by grace. Mercifully make us co-heirs with the King in His glory and bring us to the fullness of our inheritance in heaven; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
God confirms the mysteries of the faith. Mystery, remember, has less to do with Agatha Christie novels than it does with profundity. A theological mystery is the act of God which defies our 3
comprehension, which we could contemplate for a thousand years and still not fully understand. That is not to say that there is nothing to understand in this, there is much to understand, but the understanding mind will never run out of something new to learn here.
What are the mysteries revealed and confirmed here? One of them surely must be resurrection and eternal life. At the point when Jesus met them on this mountain, Moses has been out of the scene for over a millennium and Elijah for over 800 years. These guys are seriously old, but I would guess they are not some sort of life support machinery. They are hearty, hale, and filled with life, in fact more life than they had when they were contending with grumbling Israelites and the prophets of Baal.
A second mystery that gets revealed here is the incarnation mystery. Moses and Elisha, when they were prophets in ages past were in fact serving this Jesus. This Jesus who was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth is also the Ancient of Days, who spoke through prophets in the OT and who led the people of Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. I think this is what John means when he calls Jesus the “Word” in the first chapter of his Gospel. The OT regularly says the “Word of the Lord came to…” Was it really Jesus who came to Joel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others? It seems pretty clear that Moses and Elijah are coming to serve Jesus, not the other way around. Jesus is not like Peter in this, recognizing the founder and prophet of his faith, and bowing before them. They are here to serve Jesus.
A third mystery of the faith which gets treatment in the Transfiguration is the very act of salvation itself. The Law of Moses makes its terrible demands, the prophetic witness of Elijah points its accusing finger at our failures, but both of them come to this perfect man, this brilliant man who has kept Moses’ law, against whom the prophecies of Elijah can speak no word of censure. He is the Savior of the World, the savior Moses or Elijah for all their obedience and all their success could not achieve. The one who has faith in this Jesus is on a very important par with Moses and Elijah; he too is saved by this Jesus.
The voice from the cloud foreshadows our own adoption as sons in the rite of Baptism. We want God to mercifully make us co-heirs with his son and bring us to our heavenly inheritance. This is actually pretty bold. We see Jesus as he is and we say “I want some of that!” Peter falls down, Moses and Elijah reverently speak, we say, “I’ll have some too.”
At first this might seem like it is disconnected from the revelation of the mysteries, but in fact they are the same thing. The mystery is that we are in fact heirs of heaven, the Salvation which God has wrought, the immortal from the mortal, the stooping down to take up the humanity which has fallen so low, is all the mechanism which makes us the co-heirs with Christ, higher than any angel.
In prior years we wondered why Moses and Elijah showed up here. Several ideas came to mind. 4
1. Was Mark dealing with a group of folks who thought that the Jesus movement was simply an alternative to Judaism? By having Moses and Elijah show up to talk to Jesus was he asserting that these two movements really were one, with Jesus as the culmination of Judaism?
2. Was Mark dealing with people who were trying to downplay the OT? Sort of an early form of Marcionism? In this reconstruction there might have been voices which were saying that to know Jesus it was important to be rid of the OT influences.
3. Was Mark dealing with fearful people who needed encouragement? Did Moses and Elijah remind the reader/hearer that Jesus had rescued people in the past through Moses and confronted idolaters on Mt. Carmel through Elijah?
4. Was Mark trying to say that Jesus was more than all the others?
5. Was this a positive statement – this is the fulfillment of the kingdom. Jesus is bringing about the things that Moses and Elijah talked about. Paul will suggest that if we want to read Moses, we really need Jesus, or we will have a veil over our eyes too.
6. Is Jesus being portrayed as the fulfillment of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah)?
II Kings 2:1-12
Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 And Elijah said to Elisha, “Please stay here, for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take away your master from over you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”
4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please stay here, for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”
6 Then Elijah said to him, “Please stay here, for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground. 5
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” 10 And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” 11 And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.
Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 13 And he took up the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 Then he took the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” And when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
This is a great story. I once got to visit Prince of Peace in Carrolton, Texas. The congregation has built their church in an old auto mall that went bust. So the church is in the old show room and it has this glass elevator that runs up the back of the worship space to education and administration space on the second and third floor. I think you could do a really good sermon or at least a children’s sermon on the ascension of Elijah with that. Have everyone turn around and see an Elijah actor descending into their midst. Too much for a bunch of assembled Lutherans? Probably.
Elijah has been preaching up a storm for the past several chapters of Kings. He has raised the dead, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and now he ascends into heaven. Jesus will do all these things but Jesus will do them better. Of course, also like Jesus, Elijah has also managed to tick off the local authorities, in his case king Ahab, several times and Queen Jezebel has threatened to chop his head off too. It has been a full career, something any preacher ought to be proud of. Now it has come to an end.
Elisha, his chosen protégé follows him. Three times Elijah tells him to leave him, but Elisha refuses to obey his mentor. The place names here are important. The first one is Gilgal the place where Joshua set up a ring of memorial stones to mark the place at which the people of Israel first entered the land. Then they head to Bethel where Jacob had the dream of the angels ascending and descending on the ladder which reached to heaven. Then, after that they go to Jericho, the scene of Israel’s first great victory in the conquest. All of these sites are laden with historical significance for the reader. It would be for us a little like going from Gettysburg to Valley Forge to Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence was written.
At each place the company of the prophets comes out and tells Elisha what he already knows but he silences them. This group is an enigma to us. We don’t know who they are or why they exist. 6
Are they a monastic type community? Are they prophets in training, a group of seminary students? Are they followers of the prophets? Or something else? We don’t really know.
Then Elijah, just in case you haven’t gotten the point he strikes the water with his cloak and parts the waters, it is Moses at the Red Sea and Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan redone. The same God who worked through Moses and who heard Jacob’s prayers at Bethel, that God, is working through this servant Elijah.
Elisha perseveres, he does not leave even when the master tells him to depart. There is a whole sermon waiting to be preached in that strange exchange. Why does Elijah keep asking him to leave and why does Elisha continually disobey that master’s command? The master finally asks him what he wants, and he wants a double measure of his Spirit, the portion that belongs to the eldest son. It is a difficult thing, but if he sees Elijah taken from him then it will be. While they are walking along, a chariot of fire separates them and a whirlwind sucks Elijah up into heaven. Elisha tears his clothes, the traditional sign of mourning in Jewish culture and the prophet is gone. Elijah’s cloak, however, flutters to the ground and Elisha picks it up. In older translations this garment was often called a “mantle” which has given rise to several idiomatic sayings in English about wearing someone’s mantle.
Of course, this is transfiguration and the whole point of this is that Elijah is not dead. He has been taken to heaven so that he might come again and converse with Jesus on that mountain top. This is why it is Moses and Elijah there, two Old Testament greats whose grave cannot be found. Moses is a little more problematic in this. It does say he died, but it also says that only God knows where he is buried, so is that a way to say that he was taken up to heaven? It could be. In any event, it seems that David would not do. His grave, as Peter notes in the Pentecost sermon, is still with us. Even Abraham and the patriarchs won’t do because their graves are found in Hebron. You can go see them today if you want and are willing to dodge the bullets and bombs of that tortured land.
Elijah is a foretaste of Christ and the emblem of the prophetic ministry of God’s Spirit in the Old Testament, an office which Jesus perfects.
or Exodus 34:29-35
27 And the LORD said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. 7
32 Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
34 Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, 35 the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
People in the presence of God are transfigured or changed. Moses’ encounter with God changed his appearance, interestingly, like Jesus he glowed, at least his face did. Paul is still talking about it centuries later in our reading from II Corinthians. When Jesus is revealed on the mountain even his clothes shines. What is the message for us today? Are we also transfigured by the presence of Christ? Does our face somehow shine or glow? Herb Hoefer used to say that he could pick out a Christian in India – the Christian had hope and it showed up in the way he carried himself, the way he approached life. There is a Country Western group with a song that asks, “Does it say Christian on my face?”
Does the Transfiguration give us a chance through the eyes of these witnesses a peek behind the veil of Christ’s humanity to see the reality which, even reflected, was too much for Moses’ people to bear those many years ago. He glows in the face because he encountered God in those conversations. Would we all glow in the presence of Christ too? Does the Transfiguration actually give us just a peek at what Moses saw there? What will we see for an eternity in heaven where there is no sun or moon for Jesus is the Light of the World? We will see what Moses sees in this text.
This story gives us a picture of Moses coming down the hill after he sees God. He also, like Jesus in the Gospel account today, glows. His face must be veiled before the people can bear it. Jesus will shine with this light tonight, but not the reflected light which adorned Moses’ face, the light of transfiguration belongs to Jesus.
Moses will become then a symbol of the Old Covenant. His face must be veiled. The New Testament will suggest that this is the great contrast between the two. Jesus is unveiled, no more do we need to have the light shielded lest our eyes be burned by it.
The challenge for the preacher seems to me to be that we often feel much more like Moses folks, Jesus seems veiled to us and we wish that we could stand on that mountain peak. But Jesus is certain, the greater light is not to be found there, it is found in the valley below where he will cast out a demon and on a hill to which he sets his face, a hill called Golgatha.
We see the light today, in the proclamation of kingdom come and in a sacrament in which we can take in God himself in this bread and wine, this body and blood. And yet we pine for more, a more which will be revealed on the last day and the day in which we are welcomed into heaven, a place where there is no need for sun or moon because the Lamb of God is there to give it light. 8
There is nothing wrong with the pining for the more, as long as it does not come at the expense of the now. Right now the Jesus of the plain, the Jesus who comes down the hill to heal and help, that Jesus is right here, for us. If we look ahead only to the future glory of Jesus, we are really missing the point of this text.
The Mighty One, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. 2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.
3 Our God comes; he does not keep silence; before him is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest. 4 He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: 5 “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” 6 The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge! Selah
7 “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. 8 Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. 9 I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. 10 For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. 11 I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. 13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? 14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, 15 and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” 9
The psalm begs us to read a little further. The problem actually starts in the next verses after our reading, at the point where God starts to judge his people. He is not angry about their sacrifices and burnt offerings, he is angry because their hearts are far from him. He does not need their offerings, but he desires them. Micah will echo almost exactly these words in chapter 6 of his book of oracles as he rails against a people who offer all sorts of sacrifices but their hearts are far from him. Of course Malachi will turn that on its head again as he talks about sacrifices being an indicator of the position of the heart.
II Corinthians 3:12-13 (14-18); 4:1-6
7 Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.
12 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. 14 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
1Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Some time ago I read N. T. Wright on the New Perspective on Paul. It is entitled “Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision.” In the second half the book he goes off the deep end a little on this and I cannot recommend it, but the first half is interesting. Therein he suggests that an accurate 10
reading of Paul will pay much more attention to the action of the Holy Spirit as Paul talks about him in these verses.
Paul seems to be suggesting that Jesus is the key to unlocking the truth of the OT. You cannot read Moses without Jesus. He is the key to understanding the Torah. Does Jesus make sense of the prophetic witness as well (Elijah)? Do we likewise need Jesus to unlock the whole OT? Is there a sermon in that? On the way to Emmaus the Lord opens their minds to understand Moses and the Prophets (Luke 24.)
Does verse six perhaps make the transfiguration super important? We are given to see the face of Jesus and that is the goal to which we are heading. Without this revelation would we be without the compass point which directs our faith?
Pastorally speaking – sometimes people have a question about what their loved ones will look like in heaven. Will the infant who died be an infant? Will the body ravaged by cancer bear those scars? This text might be a really nice to answer some of those questions. We are transformed to be like Jesus.
One of the things N. T. Wright brought up in his aforementioned book and which really resonated with me was what Paul says in the opening verses of chapter 4. The cunning ways we openly state the truth and commend ourselves to the sight of God would seem to suggest that we dare not turn around and go onto those blogs and say the things that we say under a pseudonym. If we don’t have the guts to put our name on it, we ought really to shut up.
Re-reading this text I thought it very interesting that Paul suggests that our hope makes us bold and our ministry means we do not lose heart. Is the real goal of Transfiguration to buck us up for the task that lies ahead? Did the vision of Jesus glowing on that hill, talking with Moses and Elijah give the disciples courage for the valley that lay before them? Did it give Jesus courage for the task that lay before him? Does the transfiguration work best when it gives us hope and courage, boldness and a sense of purpose and ministry?
Paul brings the Moses text and the Gospel together today. It would seem the sermon is to be found in the last verses here. The God who gave light to shine in the darkness has also shone in our hearts to give light to the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We have seen him. We know his voice, his light shines in our lives. We might at time have had our vision so adjusted to the light that we can forget that the light is on, but a moment of darkness really makes us appreciate it.
Paul takes strength from this reality. The veil has been lifted so he does not lose heart. He renounces disgraceful and underhanded ways. He does not practice cunning or tamper with God’s word to make it sound like it says what he wants it to say. But he preaches the truth and it commends him to the conscience of everyone. Yes, there are some who don’t get it, their minds are veiled, and they in their unbelief cannot see the image of God which is Christ. Jesus is Lord, Paul is the servant. 11
Paul is being transformed, one step at a time. He knows where he is going, because he has seen where he has been and he knows the one who is working this transformation. I wonder if the preacher today also has a difficult job in helping people see the same sort of transformation which so energized Paul. We feel stuck in the same rut, told by our strong doctrine of original sin that we are incapable, but not really liking where we are.
Is the good news of Transfiguration really the good news that one day we will be there with him, shining like the stars?
And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 12 And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”
What do you do with this text? How do you get your head around this thing to preach it? One runs a risk of trivializing this. Does one take a transformer toy to do the children’s lesson? I used to have a toy which was a caterpillar but when one turned it inside out it became a butterfly. We want to be careful. The Jesus who walked down the hill with them was the same Jesus they saw in glory and the same Jesus who had trudged up that hill with them. It is not a difference in the person but in the thing which Peter perceived.
Is the good news the glimpse we get of Jesus as he really is? Do we, in faith, see this same thing when our loved one walks away from an auto accident unscathed or when they come through surgery or some similar trauma well?
This story is important. It occupies the exact middle of Mark’s Gospel account. That is not an accident. Because writing materials were so precious in the ancient world, an author would chart out his work very carefully, going so far as to note divisions in the scroll, especially the 12
midpoint, as a way of making sure that he would have room for all his material. What this means is that these works were often the product of significant structural formation. The opening, the closing, and the middle elements within these works were planned out quite carefully and present an important clue to what the author had in mind. We should perk up our ears when we realize that we have something at the middle of an ancient book.
But what will we do with this? The Transfiguration seems like a mystical experience for these three men, how can we really share it? We can read their account of it, but how can we know what it was like to stand on that mountain and see those men, to feel the earth tremble at that voice and to shield our eyes from that brilliance. We cannot, it seems, accomplish this, but could they either? If we cannot share their experience, what does it mean for us? How do we access it? What message do we take from it?
The three disciples see Jesus transfigured, his appearance changed. He speaks with Elijah and Moses, the emblematic characters of the Law/Torah and the Prophets. Overwhelmed, Peter seems like a babbling fool here. He wants to stay, he is ready to build the retirement center and be the janitor and groundskeeper while Jesus, Moses, and Elijah stay inside. But in truth, he did not know what he was saying. Fear does that to a person. And so God simply takes over at that point. A great cloud overshadows them and from the cloud a voice, the voice of God with the same message which we heard at the Baptism, but with an addition, the admonition to listen to him. The voice falls silent and the disciples pull their faces from the sod only to find that it is just Jesus before them, the Jesus they have come to know. No more Elijah is there, no more Moses, the voice and cloud have left, only the really important one is still there, the Savior of the world. But he is no longer clothed in light apparently; at least Mark doesn’t talk about it. They come down the mountain and Jesus commands them not to talk about it, at least not yet. When the Son of Man is raised from the dead, then they can talk about it, and that is how you know the story, because they did talk about it.
Why does the story go on from here? It seems to me like this thing should have ended right here. But of course it does not. It goes on to a cross.
It should also be noted that the Transfiguration falls right in the middle of three instances in which Jesus predicts his own death. He is clearly pointing his disciples and the readers to the crucifixion and resurrection event of Holy Week. They don’t get it. Does Mark assume that we are also befuddled by this or does he assume that we are somehow, perhaps through hindsight, better able to discern what Jesus means? Does the Holy Spirit allow us to hear and see what Peter saw differently because we have been given a faith or insight which they were still lacking?
This story has always been a tough nut for me to crack. Here are a few routes I have taken in the past
1. Transfiguration as the ultimate revelation to us of Jesus. We have had a few glimpses in the past several weeks of the incarnate God, but today, through the eyes of Peter, James, and John we get
to see him as he really is. Do we get to see what Moses saw when his face glowed?
2. Jesus is the Light of the world – his clothing is radiant with the divine light. The Epiphany season ends with this greatest of revelations of the nature of Christ’s true being and when you see him as he really is, Light is the best way to describe it. Look at how John describes heaven – no need for a sun or moon, it has Jesus.
3. Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah, – this year lets us pick one or the other depending on which OT lesson you chose or you can do them both. Jesus is the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament. Or you can proclaim Jesus’ superiority to even these greatest of OT characters.
4. Transfiguration as the bridge event between the Incarnation event of Christmas/Epiphany and the Salvation event of the Paschal seasons of Lent/Easter. This day stands at a juncture, a bridge between these two seasons, one foot in either of them. This is the Jesus of Bethlehem who descends from this hill to set his face for Jerusalem.
5. Oddly enough, one can also preach Jesus the ordinary on this day. The revelation Christ’s glory is true, but it is the ordinary Jesus who comforts the disciples in their terror. The voice and the cloud, the heavenly visitors and the things which have caused them fear have gone away, hidden from sight, all there is to see is Jesus who bids them stand up and come down the mountain with him into the valley below.
6. The addition from the Baptismal voice. At the Baptism of Jesus the voice from heaven said that Jesus was God’s beloved Son in whom he was well pleased. Today, the voice adds the admonition “Listen to Him.” Of course the old sinner in me immediately leaps to the conclusion that God said that because I have not been, which is probably true. But this might be another thing. It might be the good news that the Word of Jesus has the power to save, it might be that this is the medicine this sick world really needs, the words that he has to say. Listen, says God to us, the God who wants to save us, listen to this guy, this Jesus. His word brings life
7. The Baptismal and Adoption theme from the collect. God is foreshadowing what he will say to us in our own baptism when he claims me as his child. Does he tell the world, “Listen to him?” should he?
8. The Epistle lesson suggests perhaps that that Transfiguration gives us boldness and courage/heart. Paul speaks of what this means for him, does it mean this for us too? His life is transformed, so is ours.
9. Worship at its best. Peter, James, and John are given to see and worship. They may not get it terribly right in this story, but our audiences often need to hear that there is a sense of awe which is due to God. Our casual indifference to the presence of God is problematic. This text calls us to revere the Lord of Life – who summons great figures from the distant past who are still alive in him. Don’t take him lightly.
More? There are probably a dozen sermons in this one, I hope so, I have a career of preaching 14
in front me yet and I don’t want to run out as this thing shows up annually!
1. Like Peter, I feel the terror of the presence of God. I am a sinful man of unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips, I am undone! Only Moses and Elijah can stand in that presence, who am I to think that I can?
2. My fear makes me babble too. I am really something of an idiot before power, seduced by it. I would hold onto the glorious moment of Jesus revelation, when the salvation is to be found on another hill. I would turn to the glory and in so doing forgo the cross.
3. God sometimes seems to push me away. Like Elisha following the prophet, he seems to say, “stay here while I go on.” Does he do this to see if I am really committed? Does he do this for my safety? Does he do this to see if I will obey? I don’t know? How can I sort this all out?
4. So many questions – God’s deeds often leave me with far more questions than answers and I don’t know what to make of this. I do not like all these questions, I want some answers. What happened with Elijah? Why is he there on that mountain with Jesus? How did Peter know who they were? Did they wear nametags? He answers the questions I don’t think to ask and leaves me hanging on the rest of them.
1. Isaiah will be transformed by a burning coal from the fire which burns before God’s throne. Moses was a stuttering excuse maker and Elijah seems to have been bi-polar, yet both are made into the prophets and leaders without equal until Jesus comes. Peter is transformed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. I am transformed by the same Spirit who has been poured out in my Baptism. By the power of God and his love at work in Jesus and Spirit, I can indeed stand on that day, just as much as Moses and Elijah could.
2. God does not reveal himself like he does here very often, and then only to remind us of who he is. Most of the time we have the gentle, kind, and loving face of Jesus, stooping down to lift us from our fear and lead us, cajoling and urging, toward that cross where he dies and which we pick up in deliberate imitation of him. That is a very good thing. In my weakness, I need and get the very Jesus who has come to me.
3. God does not play games with us, but he also gives us the sweet word that not so much of what is really important actually hangs on whether we get it right. The biggest issues were resolved in the passion of our Savior and his resurrection on Easter. His warm embrace is genuine and the junk we sort through in life is just that, junk. The bulk of it will be carried off to the rubbish heap on the last day, but through the junk the precious gems from God’s mouth flow. What happens
with this marital counseling or that budget crisis at church is not really the important thing. What is really important is that in the middle of this the forgiveness of Jesus, the love of God for sinners, the Spirit’s fire is imparted and communicated.
4. Yes, lots of questions, but a few answers to the biggest of questions. I know the end of the story, it looks a lot like Jesus on this mountain top, filled with glory, conversing with his servants, the whole scene aglow with divine light. I get to be part of that picture too. that is the promise of Baptism and Supper and Word. I am there with Peter, James, and John, and when this whole thing is done, I won’t be sticking my nose in the dust, but I will stand like they stood, citizen of heaven, rightfully there. Do the rest of these things really matter?
1. Since we have such a hope, we are very bold. (Epistle – that the transfiguration of Jesus would embolden our witness.)
Paul starts off this reading with a very interesting connection between hope and boldness. That connection drives this sermon. The hope is found on the mountain of transfiguration. Paul writes of the true liberty which is ours – namely to see the unveiled Christ. For we are transformed, step by step, into his glory.
Think of this as a compass, pointing us in the direction we are heading. The slaves who fled along the underground railroad would feel for the moss which grew on the north side of the trees as they made their way along in the darkness. It was hope for them and emboldened them to walk dark paths. We have seen the glory of the one and only in these readings today, a glimpse, tempered by words and time, to be sure. Our eyes, like the disciples, are not yet ready for full and unmediated glory, but that is where we are going. As John says in I John 3:1-3, we will see him as he really is, for we will be like him.
That vision today gives us boldness to walk this darkness today. That boldness frees us to a life which reflects the light and the life of Christ. Consider the second paragraph when you are developing this part of the sermon. Paul says that he does not engage in treacherous, underhanded sorts of behaviors. He does not need to. His security is vouchsafed. He knows how this story ends, it ends in Christ’s glory so now, the light that has been poured into his heart can shine forth, no matter the consequences. We know that this meant eventually the martyrdom of Paul. It may mean suffering for us too, but what of that. We have hope, we are bold.
The preacher will want to think about what forces or pressures on the lives of his parishioners are causing them to darken their witness and conform to the treacherous ways of the world. There are many who speak against this hope, urging us to trust in the false security of large bank accounts, health, or any number of other things. What are the temptations your people face? Challenge them. Be bold. You know where you are going, to a hill much higher than the one Peter, James, and John ascended. You are walking up heaven’s hill. The terrors of poverty, shame, or sickness are small. 16
2. As He Really Is (Gospel – That the Holy Spirit would open the heart and mind of the hearer to perceive Jesus as he really is – full of the glory which he shares with us.)
This sermon would address a misbelief about Jesus, a misbelief which often renders Christianity pallid and listless. We are happy to talk about the Jesus who walked the shores of Galilee long ago. We have him at a safe and historical distance. This Jesus loves children so I think that is a good idea too. He cares for the helpless, that is something I approve of as well, and we teach Sunday school, minister to shut-ins, and do other safely good things.
But these and many other similar things are done for a Jesus who is distant, once one earth, but now safely up in heaven where we hope he will stay until the last day, preferably long after I am gone to heaven.
There is something wrong with this picture. It is just not how the Bible talks about Jesus nor does it reflect what seems to have driven Paul and others of those first generations of Christians. They were on fire in their Christianity and quite often doing dangerous, even subversive things in the name of this Jesus.
Jesus is not limited to time. In this Gospel lesson He speaks to men who have not graced the planet earth for centuries, over a millennium in the case of Moses. We cannot imagine that he is safely walking the dusting streets of Jerusalem long ago or sitting on a celestial throne listening to angels singing heavenly top 40 hits. Perhaps the better thing to say is that he is doing those things at the same time, if time means anything to him at all. But we also have to admit that this glorious Jesus, this glow-in-the-dark Jesus is also right here. He promised as much in Matthew 18 when he said that wherever two or three gather in my name I am there. It is this glorious Jesus who defies our understanding that keeps that promise.
Paul and his first generation Christian friends seem to have operated with this living, glorious presence of Christ who looked a lot more like the Jesus aglow on the mountain top than the itinerant preacher of the Gospels. It was this Jesus who knocked Paul off his high horse on the way to Damascus and it is this Jesus who inspired those Christians to stare down emperors and governors and kings, sometimes executioners too.
This text carries with it a latent and embedded promise. The Jesus who overwhelmed Peter and reduced him to babbling inanities is standing right here. That fills our lives with a dangerous and exciting tension. We really don’t know what that Jesus will do. He has promised in our baptism that he loves us and will always work for our good, watching over our comings and goings for all time (Psalm 121). But he never promised to do things our way or in a way which we deem safe. This moved Paul to jump on ships and take to the highways of the ancient Roman Empire to spread this gospel. It has moved other Christians throughout history to do amazing things as well. Some have founded hospitals, others have started schools. Some time ago that Jesus prompted folks to found this congregation. They did not look to reasonable and prudent criteria for those sorts of decisions. They looked to this present Christ who is keeping his promise to us 17
today. Glorious and without our earthbound limitations, for he is both God and Man, he has come today to hear your prayers and songs.
What is he going to do? What does he intend to do with you?
3. “He’s Got What it Takes” (Gospel – That the hearer believe that the Jesus who has gone to a cross to die for my sins is the creator and Lord of all, whose death on Good Friday is the sacrifice which works this whole world’s salvation.)
This sermon really works on Transfiguration as the bridge event between the Incarnation event of Christmas/Epiphany and the Salvation event of the Paschal seasons of Lent/Easter. When we get to Good Friday, Jesus won’t look like much. This sermon asks us to keep in mind that once this same peasant Jesus stood on this hill and glowed as he spoke with ancient prophets. Peter, James, and John couldn’t handle it. A few months ago we gathered right here to celebrate this Jesus’ birth. You remember the shepherds and wise men, the star and the angels proclaiming his birth. We and they gathered on that cold December evening because this birth was like no other this world had ever seen.
This was God coming into this world, this was God in the flesh. Today we see this same Jesus just before he sets his face toward Jerusalem and, lest we forget, we get one more glimpse of that heavenly glory that belongs to him. God wants you to know and see today, this Jesus of Nazareth, he is really God. Moses and Elijah were his servants long ago, he led Moses out of Egypt, he answered Elijah’s prayer and sent down fire on the sacrifice in his struggle with the prophets of Baal. The Jesus of Bethlehem descends from this hill to set his face for Jerusalem is the same Lord of the OT.
On Wednesday of this week we will gather for the beginning of our penitential season. We will start the long Lenten journey to the cross of Good Friday and the joy of Easter. When you are heading into a dark place like lent, it is good to have a flashlight in your hand. This day gives us a glowing Jesus to keep us well lit for that journey. What we are given to know from this mountain peak today is that the one with whom we walk to Jerusalem is God’s beloved Son, whose words are life to us and whose death is our salvation. Yes, it is the valley of the shadow of death, yes it is a time of penitence and sorrow, but it is penitence that ends in the cross where this Jesus, this Son of God, dies for the sins of the world. No one else offers us any hope for that journey, no one else can pay that price or bear that burden, but this Jesus can, he is God’s Son, he is beloved, and his words are life itself. And thus, this day bridges these two seasons. A bridge takes us from one place to another. Bridge over troubled waters, that’s the old song we used to listen to. “When your weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.” “I’m on your side, when times get rough and friends just can’t be found like bridge over troubled water I will lay me down.” Christ, transfigured before our eyes this morning, has what it takes to bring us to that other side, where every tear is dried, where heavenly joy is ours, where we shine 18
with him like stars, where the conversation with Moses and Elijah and all the heavenly host never ends.
4. They no longer saw anyone with them, only Jesus (Gospel – That the hearer rejoice in the gift of Christ who calms their fears, bears their burdens, comforts them in their sorrows, gives them boldness and heart, and lovingly attends them in all their days.)
We yearn for the glory of God, the magnificent presence of God which changes everything. We like power, we think we can use power, we imagine that God in his power would be a good thing. That is until it actually happens. Raw, pure God is not something I am ready for and neither are you. God straight up makes your hair stand on end and like Peter makes you fall flat on your face, and we are prone to babbling. God in his holiness does not tolerate sin. The magnificent and terrorizing Christ is found today hiding his rightful glory, reaching out his calloused carpenters hands, with his gentle smile and voice, coming to his friends who are paralyzed with fear. “Let’s go guys,” he says. “I will go with you into this valley.”
It is interesting that Moses and Elijah had been down in those valleys of life. They don’t go down with the disciples. Jesus does. The glorious cloud is no longer seen, the very glory of the Lord which led Moses and those Israelites is withdrawn, it is hidden from their sight. Not because it is not real, but because it doesn’t really help. Jesus does. It is this simple Jesus, this normal Jesus, this real Jesus who comes in word and sacrament who they needed and who we need today.
Transfiguration will let us stand on this mountain and see both Christmas and Easter from this vantage. It is a heady place to be, but the real joy for us is that Jesus does not stay on this hill, but walks down in his humility to the valley where we live our lives. We are heading into Lent, a particularly dark valley which focuses on our need for salvation. The Savior will walk through the valley of the shadow of death with us. This Jesus has hidden this glory for us today, not from us but for us. He hides his glory but not his love, which comes with us in every step we take. He is not after our terror, but our friendship and our love. And so he walks down the hill, sets his face for that cross and the death he will die there for the sins of the whole world. The real revelation of God, as Paul sees it in the Epistle, is in the face of Christ, the face which looked up into Mary’s face from that manger, the face which the disciples saw when they finally looked up from the sod on this mountain, the face which contorted in anguish in the garden and agony on the cross, and the same face which looked into your eyes in your baptism, the same face we see in every Christian who has ever loved us with his love, who has forgiven us in his name, who has comforted us with his embrace.
Our human nature expects God to be the source of fireworks and a great show. But if God revealed his glory and power and might, would anyone of us actually pay attention to his love? Would anyone pay attention to the cross and the humility of his ministry, death, and resurrection? We would have our eyes glued on the glory and the love which really saves us would be forgotten. And we would perish. So God has hidden the cloud and the rest. Jesus comes to us in his ordinariness because that is exactly what we need, we must have. 19
The characters we read about in the bible are just people.
This sermon speaks a word of Law to our expectations, but a word of sweet Gospel to us when those expectations are not met. Our old sinner foolishly longs for God’s power, but the broken man really needs his gentle love. It is not exciting, on one hand, to kneel at a rail, receive a sacrament, hear a sermon, embrace and love a fellow Christian. It is just so normal, so mundane. But that is the very point. Christ comes to us that way for our sake. The faith which needs the irrefutable miracle is no faith at all, but a cheapjack knowledge, grasping for some proof. Faith trusts a promise and an electric thrill might run up the arm and shoulder of the Christian who holds the body of Christ in his hand.
The world looks at it and “humpfs” in disbelief. The Christian consumes that wafer and takes God himself inside for strength and peace and love and forgiveness. With Paul we are emboldened by this, given ministry which does not lose heart, but takes great courage.
The world looks at our fellowship and sees only the reasons to ridicule and scorn. But when my fellow Christian forgives me, loves me, helps me, teaches me, feeds me, I find those deep gentle eyes fixing my gaze in the eyes of that fellow Christian. I find his gentle touch in that embrace. He fed the multitudes and still does. He healed the broken of body and soul and still does. He forgave the sinner and comforted the grieving and he still does.
They no longer see anyone with them, just Jesus. But that was certainly enough.