The Transfiguration of Our Lord
6 August 2014
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
2 Peter 1:13-21
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I don’t know where you were one year ago tonight, but I was right here preaching on this same Gospel text. Let me just say at the outset that there is more than one way up, and down, the mount of Transfiguration; and this evening, we’ll take one that is a little less well-traveled.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are in general agreement about what this episode means in the larger story of Jesus. Essentially, it is a way of providing confirmation for the disciples, at least three of them, that, after Jesus has shocked them by speaking of his suffering and death, he is still, after all, God’s Son. It is an event that authenticates Jesus. But as Luke shapes this story, the concept of a “mountain top” experience needs to be redefined and there is another crucial point that we need to grasp.
The feeding of the 5000 turns the attentive reader in the direction of the early Hebrews’ experience of God from Egypt to Mount Sinai and their own primal questioning of God’s identity. In each case, for the Hebrews just freed from slavery in Egypt and for the disciples coming to terms with Jesus, the question, “who is this?,” could only be answered in a most terrifying way. When God descended upon Mount Sinai in a thick cloud, with fire and smoke and thunder, and a blaring trumpet-like sound, driving all sensible thoughts from their minds, the people trembled. They said to Moses, “You speak to us, we will listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we will die.” So, Moses went up the mountain to meet with God in the smoke and clouds, and down he came again to the people, his face radiating with the glory of heaven; and the people were afraid to come near him. This fear was the same sort of fear that accompanied angelic visitations. It is what Freud called das unheimliche, the uncanny, fear of that which is alien, unfamiliar. This is not at all the fear one might feel when confronted with a human enemy or ordinary danger; this is the fear that makes the flesh crawl, when you realize you are no longer in Kansas, when the thin curtain separating our normal reality is drawn back and Reality with a capital R seeps in, if only for a second.
Centuries later and the disciples of Jesus are faced with something similar, though it is slower in playing out. What they have taken to be a man anointed by God, yes, Messiah even, but still a man who experiences all the things that they do—who hungers and thirsts, eats and drinks, grows weary, and all the rest—this normal man is slowly drawing back that same thin curtain, and revealing a divine reality with a shocking core that they cannot fit into their symbolic world. They resist it with vehemence; they stumble over it in unbelief; and they feel fear. You and I have lived too long with our theology of Jesus as the good shepherd and savior to feel fully the force of the jolt that the disciples received as Jesus began to unpack for them the meaning of Messiah.
And it is perhaps, then for us, as well as for this Gospel’s first readers, that Luke added two unique brushstrokes to his portrait of Jesus. I say it is “for us,” because these two items are part of Luke’s narration and careful editing of his sources.
Let’s start with the actual event, which, allowing for some additional characters, is very much a retelling of Moses’ mountaintop encounters with God. Jesus once again has gone to the mountain to pray. As he prays, and the three disciples he’s taken with him fight off sleep, there is a rare occurrence of the manifestation of God’s glory in a way that is visible to human beings. They see it in Jesus’ face, as their ancestors saw it in Moses’ face; they see it in Jesus’ clothing, and they see it, almost as a light shining through a hidden door that has opened between heaven and earth, through which Moses and Elijah step. This is an exceptional scene, for far more typically in the biblical narrative God’s glory, God’s real, divine countenance, was hidden from human beings. When God mingled with people, such as Abraham or Jacob, he did so in the form of human beings, travelers, and messengers, a mysterious figure jumping out of the dark to wrestle Jacob to the ground. In fact God told Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live.” But here on the mount of transfiguration, for a moment, heaven flashes through like lightening and the face of God Incarnate is clearly seen. But in that face flushed with divine glory there are also lines of care, concern, sadness for the people he came to rescue.
Moses and Elijah also appear in glory, this is rather inexplicable, but it is not their appearance so much as what they appeared to do that attracts attention. Luke alone of all who told this story describes the subject Moses and Elijah discussed with Jesus. “They spoke of his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” In the original language of Luke, the word for this is “Exodus”—a term far too loaded with meaning to suffer as bland a translation as “departure.” This single term opens a door to multiple meanings. “Exodus” is literally a departure and figuratively becomes a euphemism for death. But as Luke describes the event with allusions to Moses’ own mountaintop encounters with God—the cloud, the thundering divine voice, lightening flashes of glory, and so on—the word “Exodus,” conjures up visions and evokes memories of “the exodus of the sons of Israel from the land of Egypt.” Jesus’ Exodus would replay the story told around Moses: deliverance from slavery for God’s people at the price of God’s first born son. But this great cost, hinted at in Luke’s clever addition to the narrative, becomes still clearer as the effect of a second brushstroke is considered.
As Moses and Elijah begin to withdraw from Jesus, and a stupefied Peter suggests making three booths so the party could continue, a cloud descends upon them, as it did on Mount Sinai long ago, and God’s voice boomed out of the threatening cloud answering the question of identity: “This is my Son, my Chosen.” This whole thing might seem to be a replaying of Jesus’ baptismal confirmation, and it seems just that in Matthew and Mark. But Luke’s brushstroke here adds a dreadful stain to the portrait (on the order of Hans Holbein’s, The Ambassadors). To say of this Son, “My chosen,” is to pronounce his death sentence. This takes us not in the direction of Jesus’ baptism, but rather to the Servant Songs of Isaiah that culminate in the obscene depiction of the chosen Suffering Servant.
The added command—“listen to him”—harks back to Exodus yet again: As Moses prepared for his own departure, he told the people: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren – to him you must listen.” But that last brushstroke has done its damage: even Transfiguration glory must take account of the death of God’s Son.
As I said, there is more to this mountaintop appearance than the wonderment that might have been experienced by three men given a rare view of the divine. They may have felt such wonder, but when God descended in cloud, wonder became fear. And when it was over, as Matthew tells it, Jesus came over to the disciples, touched them, comforted them, and told them, “Do not be afraid.” A close brush with the divine; an experience of Reality with a capital R.
Luke has lifted the shade to show us something more in this Transfiguration than Jesus’ authentication. I would say it this way: If the transfiguration was designed to allow a glimpse of Jesus’ divine glory—and I think it was, and I think the story is meant to be read in that way—it is glory, divine presence, that is somehow able to embrace, and yet not be diminished by, the uncertainty, the pain, suffering and death that are natural to life as we know it. It is in the midst of this uncertainty of life that Jesus was transfigured, and as sublime and otherworldly as it was, the event authenticated not just Jesus as the Son of God, but also the human life he lived. In his authentication, we, wherever we are in our life with God, are also authenticated.
© 2014 Philip H. Towner