2. All powerful Lord
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Let us pray. Prepare our hearts, O God, to accept your Word. Silence in us any voices but your own so that we may hear your Word and also do it; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I can’t remember exactly when it was I first heard a sermon preached based on this text; what I can remember is that there has always been one question that bubbled to the top of my efforts to understand the story. What happened to Jesus on that mountain? This story is known as the Transfiguration. That word means a change in form or appearance. It is not a word used in our text. Luke simply says this: And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Today then is one of those days that the best this preacher can do is point to the details of the story as Luke tells them all the while attempting to stand aside so that the meaning of this incredible event can shine through in all its glory.
Luke tells us that Jesus took Peter, James and John and went up on the mountain to pray. I wonder if Luke simply assumed that every one of his readers would know which mountain this was. He calls it the mountain, but does not actually name it. The traditional site is Mount Tabor, 18 km west of the Sea of Galilee. The Church of The Transfiguration is on that mountain. At only 575 metres it is not the tallest of Israel’s mountains.
That distinction goes to Mount Hermon at 2800 metres. Because it is the highest location in the area it has been suggested as the location of our story. However some scholars think the vital thing for us to notice is simply that this transformation of Jesus happens on a mountain. In the Bible mountains are places for significant events.
Then, as if to make sure we don’t miss that point, we are told that the two greatest figures of the Jewish faith join Jesus and speak with him. Moses, the servant God chose to bring his people out of Egypt. The one he revealed the covenant through, the one he told his name. The OT even goes so far as to say that God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Now, once again Moses is seen in the presence of the glory of God.
The other, of course, is Elijah. The greatest prophet, the one who never died, but was taken by God up into heaven. Elijah was the one that the Jews of Jesus’ time, and many now, believed must come again before the Messiah would. Even today in Jewish households around the world there is a place set at the Passover table for Elijah.
Moses and Elijah, the two greatest figures in the OT from a Jewish perspective, and yet they defer to Jesus. They come to stand and talk in the presence of God incarnate, revealed in his full glory, the bringer of the old covenant meeting with the bringer of the new, the herald of the coming of God’s chosen one meeting him there on the mountain.
There can be no doubt in our minds that Peter, James and John had no idea what to make of what they saw. I don’t think this is official but Peter must be the patron saint of all those who cannot help but say something when they really ought to say nothing. Peter suggests that they ought to throw up three shelters or tents, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Luke wants to make sure we are clear that this is at very least a misunderstanding. He tells us Peter did not know what he was saying.
Except perhaps Peter thinks he is following in the footsteps of Israel’s most beloved King, David, who, you will remember, decided it was not just right for him to have a palace made of wood while God was still being looked for in a tent. Nathan the prophet is so convinced this is a good idea he tells David to start lining up the contractors before checking to see what God wants. From that day to this people of significant faith have tried and are trying to strike that balance between having a place where worship can be at home as opposed to preserving with a structure what can only be a spiritual experience.
All of us can understand why most people of faith would want to preserve such occasions. We don’t get to the mountain all that often. There is also a kind of security that we believe can be found at the peak. W. H. Auden, the 20th century British writer said this. “Christ did not enchant men; He demanded that they believe in Him: except on one occasion, the Transfiguration. For a brief while, Peter, James, and John were permitted to see Him in His glory. For that brief while, they had no need of faith. The vision vanished, and the memory of it did not prevent them from all forsaking Him when He was arrested, or Peter from denying that he had ever known Him.”
Which is why, of course, we are told that after Peter, James and John came down with Jesus from the mountain they said nothing about this even until after the resurrection. They saw the full glory of their Lord, the glory of Almighty God. Who can deal with that?
Luke is kind to us, though. He gives a delightful hint as to what is going on. Take a look at verse 31 of our text. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. “Departure” is technically an accurate translation but the original word is ἔξοδον, the root of which is the same word used to describe that pivotal event in Jewish history, the exodus of God’s people from the slavery of Egypt to taking possession of the Promised Land.
Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Let’s try to put this in context. Just as Matthew and Mark do, Luke places the Transfiguration right on the heels of Peter’s great declaration of faith that Jesus is God’s Messiah. If you have your Bible open you can see that at verse 18 of chapter 9. Then Jesus predicts that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).
Matthew and Mark include in their telling of this story that Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes the Lord for speaking of his suffering and death. Jesus turns the rebuke back on Peter while he casts his gaze on all the disciples. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33). Let’s follow then the chronology: Peter has this God-inspired insight into the identity of Jesus; Jesus teaches about what it must mean if he is to carry out the will and purposes of God which obviously is in direct conflict with what the disciples think should be happening; Jesus invites Peter, James and John to witness the most incredible heaven-sent affirmation one could imagine—“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Here is why God the Father pronounces this benediction on God the Son. Let me ask you a question: who was responsible for that great act of redemption when God’s people were rescued from Egypt? The only answer is God. This is what Moses says to those former slaves as the chariots of Pharaoh drew near. “The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to keep still” (Exodus 14:14).
Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. What is it that happened on that hill outside the Holy City, the place called Golgotha? Just like Pharaoh thought that he had God’s people right where he wanted them, pinned up against the waters of the Red Sea, just so Satan thought that he had defeated love and life and grace and forgiveness, that God had come to the end of what he could do. And instead it was a great act of salvation, of rescuing you and I from slavery to sin and death.
Four weeks from this coming Wednesday we are going to host what I hope will be a wonderful part of our Holy Week experience; we will welcome the Rev. George Sedaca for a presentation of The Messiah in the Passover. One of the things emphasized in that ancient ritual is that the Passover is something that happened for every Jew. Every one of God’s people is called to believe that his or her freedom was gained through God’s victory.
Jesus accomplished his exodus at Golgotha. We celebrate around this table that his death was for you, for you, for you, for you, for me. This is no accident, this is the will of God being fulfilled. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”