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The Transfiguration

Readings: Exodus 34:29–35, 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2 & Luke 9:28–36

Today we commemorate the feast day of the Transfiguration of Jesus; the event which revealed the true identity of Jesus, and which also revealed the glory of God. The gospel story shares a close parallel with the transformation that Moses underwent on Mount Sinai, when he came down from the mountain with the two stone tablets, on which were inscribed the commandments from God for the people of Israel.

The transformation of Moses though did not represent a fundamental change in Moses himself; he did not become Godlike in any way. The emphasis of the story is that his appearance was a reflection of God’s glory. ‘Humankind is a reflection of God, but never an equal.’ ‘Moses was the one through whom God’s glory shone, and he is the one through whom God’s word came forth.’ And this story of Moses, points the way forward to Jesus.

The story of the Transfiguration in Luke’s Gospel follows on from the story of Jesus asking the disciples who they thought he was. Peter of course responded that Jesus was the Messiah. 

As we know, Jesus then told his disciples that he was to undergo great suffering; be killed; and on the third day rise again. He told them that if any of them still wanted to follow him, they needed to prepare themselves for the hardship that would accompany that choice. It would not be an easy life for them; but if they could endure it, then the reward would be great, for they would see the Son of Man coming in all his glory and the glory of God the Father. They would see, the kingdom of God.

The Transfiguration is confirmation of that proclamation. And while the event certainly describes an experience of Jesus, its emphasis is more on helping the disciples of Jesus to come to terms with the difficulty of the message they have received. Jesus may be the Messiah, but following this Messiah will, for the present, mean a life of struggle and trouble.

As is often the case with Luke’s Gospel, this experience begins while Jesus is praying. Peter, together with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are with Jesus, and they witness the appearance of his face change. They also observe the transformation of his clothes which, we are told, became dazzling white. This feature is regularly associated with the glory of God in the stories of the Bible, and especially those of the Old Testament.

Moses and Elijah, two significant figures of the Old Testament, also appear with Jesus in similar glory. Their appearance in this scene is neither accidental nor coincidental. There was an expectation in the tradition of the Old Testament, that both these figures would return to the world when the time came for God to fulfil his promises relating to the new age. 

In the case of Moses, we find in Deuteronomy 18:18 that God says to Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” And Elijah’s return is foretold in the book of Malachi: “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.” (Mal. 4:4–5) Their presence at this event, completes the picture of messianic glory.

Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah were speaking of Jesus’ departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. The Greek word which has been translated in the passage as “departure” is exodus, which of course we know as the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The allusion here is to the impending death of Jesus in Jerusalem, which will result in the liberation of humankind from slavery to sin.

But we know that the disciples of Jesus still struggle to understand the true identity of Jesus, and this is perhaps best demonstrated by Peter when he suggests to Jesus that they make three dwellings: one for Jesus, and one each for Moses and Elijah. In doing so, Peter is failing to see the distinction between Jesus and the other two figures. He is putting them on the same level as Jesus. 

What follows next in the story makes that misunderstanding clear. Because we hear that as Peter is saying this, a cloud came overhead, and from the cloud a voice was heard to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The voice of God proclaims the true identity and status of Jesus–“My Son, my Chosen”–and exhorts the disciples to listen to him, which up to this point they have clearly failed to do.

The apostle Paul uses the incident of the transformation of Moses on Mount Sinai, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, (2 Cor. 3:7–18) to teach, among other things, that all disciples of Jesus reflect God’s glory. Paul uses the image of Moses and the veil from the Exodus story to suggest that the Jews, who were listening to the reading from the Old Testament in the synagogue on every Sabbath day, had a veil upon their eyes that kept them from seeing the real meaning of Scripture. If they truly understood the Scriptures, then they should have known that Jesus was the fulfilment of Scripture, but of course most of them didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah. 

Perhaps we sometimes might fail to see the true meaning of Scripture because our own eyes are veiled. They might be veiled by our own prejudice or wishful thinking. At times we can go to Scripture to find support for our own views. We have seen examples of this in recent years with the debates in the church in relation to the issues of women in ordained ministry and same sex marriage. 

We can also be guilty of seeing what we want to see: choosing those passages in Scripture that we agree with or are comfortable with, but choosing to ignore those passages that speak of topics that make us uncomfortable.

Paul says that if we can see Jesus through unveiled eyes, then we will see the true glory of God, and that we too will be transformed, because when other people look at us, they will see a reflection of Jesus Christ in the way that we live our lives. 

When I was 16 years old my passion was tennis, and my idol was Bjorn Borg. Borg was probably the player who made the double-handed backhand so popular. I had been coached in the traditional style and used a single handed background, however I wanted to emulate my hero. So I bought a Donnay brand racquet, which was the brand that Borg used and which had a much longer grip, and I tried to teach myself a double-handed backhand. Unfortunately it was a total disaster, and I nearly ruined my own backhand, which until then was probably my best shot. I eventually did revert back successfully to a single-handed, but I still used a much more “wristier” action which was in some way similar to what Borg did with his backhand. 

Just as we can hero-worship others, and begin to reflect their ways in things that we do, like I did with Bjorn Borg, so too we can reflect the ways of Jesus in our lives. That is the very point that Paul was making about how we can be transformed when we see Jesus through unveiled eyes. In Jesus, we see the true glory of God. And if we try to emulate Jesus in keeping the Two Great Commandments – to love God with our whole being and our neighbours as ourselves – then we are slowly transformed ‘bit by bit’ into the very image of Jesus. We reflect the image of Jesus, who himself is a reflection of the image of God.

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