Moments of great joy, of pure happiness and contentment, can feel like rare moments in our lives. They are frequently hard to put into words as we try to capture the emotion, the details of the event, the feelings we experienced together with time and place so we might hold on to them and return to them in our minds. The strength of the emotion is what fixes the occasion in our hearts and minds as transcendent soul memories.
Can you remember such an occasion?
Today we celebrate the last Sunday after Epiphany and we read and learn about the Transfiguration of Jesus which took place at the top of a mountain. On Wednesday this week we start our Lenten journey with our Ash Wednesday preparations.
The journey we explore today with Jesus, mirrors our journey as disciples.
So I invite you to think about this event Luke(9:28-36) describes for us. The story comes after what Luke describes as Herod’s ‘perplexity’ as he hears stories and rumours about Jesus; and Herod questions ‘who is this Jesus?’ People around him wonder if Jesus is John the baptiser and preacher who is resurrected; or perhaps he is Elijah or some other ancient prophet? (Luke 9:7-9).
When Jesus subsequently asks his disciples a similar question ‘who are people saying that I am?’; Peter’s inspired response is different. He declares Jesus is:
The Messiah of God. (Luke 9:20)
It is at this point in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus chooses to prophesy his capture, torture, death and resurrection; and then Luke tells the story of the Transfiguration.
Immediately after the Transfiguration experience, Luke tells us about a boy being healed, a boy who is struggling with demonic possession and Jesus casts out the demon at the request of the boy’s father who is distressed that Jesus’ disciples have tried and failed to do the same thing. Jesus is somewhat acerbic in his response:
You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? (Luke 9:41)
Jesus then tries a second time to tell the disciples what is about to happen to him:
Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands. (Luke 9:44)
So where does all this take us as we step into the Transfiguration story? What might we learn from this wider narrative and from the story itself?
Firstly, we can note we have had two recent occasions when questions were raised about Jesus’ identity. We now have a definitive answer in the Transfiguration from God who states very clearly:
This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him! (Luke 9:35)
Let there be no doubt about this.
Next, we have had several reminders of the way people around Jesus are making connections about who Jesus is, how he fits into the story of Israel and into God’s ongoing story of creation.
There are repeated references to Moses, who climbed a mountain to pray and talk with YHWH, to advocate on behalf of the Israelites and to establish a covenant between God and Israel. This culminated in the gift of the Ten Commandments (Exod.34); and the story includes a description of Moses’s shining face as a sign of his communion with God which resonates with the Transfiguration.
At the end of his life, we are told Moses ascended the mountain one last time to look over the Jordan River and catch a glimpse of the promised land.
For Elijah, the mountain was a site of context between the claims of YHWH and the prophets of Ba’al (1 Kings 18). There on the mountain, God’s identity and faithfulness to the covenant with Israel were reconfirmed.
Luke’s Transfiguration story reminds people of these long-standing memories, expectations and hopes living on actively in the lives of peopl of faith with God.
Moses was the great law giver, and Elijah was the prophet of the end time. Both now are seen to appear in glory with Jesus.
And it is only in Luke that we are provided with the content of their conversation: Jesus’ departure – literally his exodus – which he is about to accomplish by finishing his journey in Jerusalem. (Luke 9:31b)
The use of the word ‘exodus’ is enormously symbolic as we think about the whole of Jesus’ ministry being an ‘exodus’, with this absolutely, extraordinary experience of glory woven into the story; as we journey with Jesus as his companions on the way through Lent.
And we can begin to reflect on Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension, as he carries out God’s final exodus from the powers of sin and death.
Then we hear Peter identifying Jesus while the disciples are at a loss for words and understanding, as the glory that is God enfolds them. In this moment, Peter struggles to speak sensibly just as we do in such circumstances as he and the other two disciples are unable to describe what has happened.
Luke also takes this opportunity to point to a broader context in the telling of this experience: how it is bound up in Jesus’ baptismal experience and our own declarations as we mirror Jesus’ behaviour with God.
To listen to Jesus whom we recognise and accept as God’s Chosen One is to hear again the lifelong call to baptismal discipleship as we take up our cross each day and follow him (Luke 9:23).
At Jesus’ Baptism, God spoke to Jesus. As we hear the story of the Transfiguration, God speaks to us as witnesses to the world and as Jesus’ disciples.
Let us be in no doubt about Jesus’ identity, and our own identity as disciples. Let us remember to listen to him.
As we come down from the mountain top, we are once more back into the busyness of life and our normal ministry. The daily discipline of prayer, community life and service to those in need drives the activity of our lives. This is our normal way of being.
So, it is important to recognise the mountaintop experiences we have with God and each other are not to be seen as places of escapism.
Such times and places provide us with solid preparation, renewal and recommitment to the daily battles we have, encountering the demonic forces of evil that oppress, subjugate and hold people captive today.
As Jesus healed the boy possessed by demons when he came down the mountain, so we work to heal and engage with those similarly oppressed and rejected, captured and reviled by our own demons today when we come off our mountain tops.
Whether it’s the oppressive demons of poverty, addictions to drugs, to constant consumption, accumulation of wealth and status; or our own narcissism, self-reliance and rejection of God, Christians work in an increasingly hostile and sceptical world.
In our baptism vows we reject selfish living and all that is false and unjust, we renounce all that is evil; we choose to walk in Jesus way, being led into the light of Christ, repenting and forgiving.
In our transfiguration moments on the mountain tops, we are speechless. It is an ineffable mystery; a momentary breaking in of the infinitely loving God into our finite, human consciousness that can only be experienced and held in faith and trust. As disciples, like Peter, James and John, we remain speechless.
All we can do is give thanks as we follow Jesus towards Jerusalem.
The Lord be with you.