Today’s gospel lesson sounds like a scene from Stranger Things or perhaps a Harry Potter movie. There is very little in this story we can relate to as modern believers. Jesus is on a hike in the mountains with three of his buddies: Peter, James and John. According to the gospels, this is his inner circle of disciples; his most trusted and valued companions. He led them to Israel’s equivalent of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the region. There strange things began to happen.
The NRSV says that Jesus was “transfigured” which is a word we don’t use in everyday conversation. Other translations render this as “transformed” or “changed” but this doesn’t adequately describe the experience. It is an extraordinary occasion. Therefore, an extraordinary word is warranted. And so, Jesus is transfigured, much to the surprise of Peter, James, and John. We can visualize their eyes popping wide open, their jaws dropping in disbelief, and, perhaps, a little shaking in their sandals as they witnessed the sight of Jesus’ metamorphosis.
Mark tries his best to describe the experience, saying that Jesus’ “clothes became dazzling white,” Not by the power of Oxy-Clean or some new-fangled cleaning product, but by the power of the light that was emanating from the inside out. Matthew and Luke don’t do any better in describing the experience. Matthew adds that Jesus face “shone like the sun.” Luke says “the appearance of his face changed.” Something happens to Jesus in the transfiguration story that defies description. But there is actually a Biblical precedent for this kind of transformation.
Exodus contains the story of Moses who goes up on a similar mountaintop to receive the Ten Commandments. As he descends, the writer of Exodus says that “The skin of Moses’ face shone because he had been talking with God.” And everyone was “afraid to come near him.” [Ex 34:29,30]
This story is talking about a transfer of power, a transfer of Holy Spirit, high-octane, fuel that defies description. We see a glimpse of this transfer of power in our first lesson as well, where the prophet Elijah essentially duplicates the parting of the Red Sea on a smaller scale. He and Elisha stand at the edge of Jordan river. Elijah takes his cloak, rolls it up, and hits the water with it. Cue the special effects! Cue light shining everywhere and heavenly choirs singing in the background. The waters part and Elijah and Elisha walk on dry land to the other side.
What the writer is trying to tell his readers is the Elijah was the “new Moses” who would lead the Israelites forward. As the story continues, it is clear that Elisha is his successor. But instead of radiating lights, we get chariots of fire and whirlwinds which tell us that the transfer of Spirit power had occurred and Elisha was now the “new Moses” who would lead the Israelites forward.
Then we come to our gospel lesson and we can see this the same kind of statement is being made about Jesus. To make this abundantly clear, both Moses and Elijah make a guest appearance in the story. This tells the reader that a transfer of power is about to happen. Mark is trying to tell us that Jesus is the “new Moses,” the “new Elijah.” He is the light who would shine for God’s people and lead them to the “new” Promised Land.
Taking in this indescribable sight, Peter makes the understatement of all time “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” The New Living Translation covers for Peter beautifully by telling us “He said this because he didn’t really know what else to say, for they were all terrified.” So I guess we have to cut Peter a little bit of lack!
Then, Peter gets what he thinks is a brilliant idea and says “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The Hebrew used here really means “tabernacle” which, in the Old Testament was a portable worship center. Therefore, Peter is suggesting that they capture the moment. He’s asking Jesus for permission to build a shrine, a memorial, where people could gather in the future, to commemorate this event with the hope that a little bit of the holy glow would rub off on them as well.
The interesting thing to notice, however, is that this idea is completely ignored by Jesus as a cloud overshadows everyone. This cloud should not be thought of as dark and stormy. It is a reference to the pillar of cloud by day from the Exodus story that led the Israelites toward the Promise Land. It is a light-radiant cloud which is sometimes referred to in the Old Testament as the “glory” of God. It is a small portion of God’s powerful presence because it was believed that if we viewed God at 100% strength we couldn’t handle it and would be vaporized on the spot. Therefore God always sent a diminished portion of God’s presence to the people such as the hem of God’s robe, God’s face, or a pillar of light-radiant cloud.
From this blinding light the voice of God was heard, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Then, just as quickly as this awe-inspiring scene began, it ended. The three stunned disciples were alone with Jesus as they headed back down the mountain, whispering among themselves, wondering what this experience meant.
Well, here we are several thousand years later. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration still seems like an other-worldly event we can barely wrap our brains around. In fact, I was looking for contemporary art images of the transfiguration of Jesus and I couldn’t find any. It appears it’s difficult to translate this experience in a way that modern believers can easily understand. However, as we’ve unpacked the details of this story a simple message begins to emerge.
God has filled many messengers throughout history with Holy Spirit, high octane fuel. Their faces glowed with the radiance of God and the wisdom of God. They led God’s people faithfully on the journey. The Israelites of old experienced this light-radiance through Moses who led them from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. They experienced this same light through the prophets Elijah and Elisha, among others, who took them on the next step of the journey. When Jesus arrived on the scene, this light-radiance was experienced in the one who would lead humanity on a new journey to a new Promised Land.
However, the presence of the Holy was not contained in a temple or tabernacle, it was now contained in the person of Jesus. That’s the point of why Peter’s request to build three shrines as memorials was ignored. God’s light or glory would no longer be contained in a worship space. It would be contained fully in the person of Jesus whom John magnificently described as follows: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
God’s glory, God’s very presence, dwelt fully in the person of Jesus. And as we read further in the New Testament, this same glory is meant to shine through us. St. Paul writes in Romans: “I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as living sacrifices holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship.” In other words, we are now the chosen vessels where God’s glory continues to shine.
This is further underscored by the verses that follow Paul’s initial declaration: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed” (meaning transfigured. It’s the same Greek word that’s used in the Transfiguration story) “Be transfigured by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God what is good and acceptable and perfect” [Rom 12:1-2]
Paul states it another way in 2 Corinthians, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” [2 Cor 4:7] We are given these imperfect clay vessels so that God’s light shines brilliantly through us. Do you hear what I’m saying? We were created to shine from the inside out. The light of Christ should burn so brightly in our lives that people should see it on our faces, in our words and through our actions.
The transfiguration story may, at first glance, seem strange and other-worldly but it has everything to do with us now as modern believers. The simple truth the Bible is trying to tell us is that Jesus is the Light of the World and his light now shines brightly through us. It’s what we were created to do, not only on Sunday morning, but out in the world where it really counts.
There is so much darkness in our world these days. I know you can feel it. There are so many things that cause us to worry and be afraid. But we know the light who shines in the midst of this darkness. He is still shining in our lives and in our world. Let’s do whatever we can this week to give others an experience of light-radiance, of the love, hope and healing of Jesus. AMEN
Copyright ©2018 David Eck