Exodus 24: 12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17: 1-9
The story of transfiguration (metamorphosis) of Jesus is one of the most difficult in the New Testament. It has the form of a historical narrative, but its content is so otherworldly that it is hard for us to accept it historicity. Some have tried to find an historical kernel in the account by citing reports that the faces of mystics caught up in an intense experience of the divine are sometimes transformed by a luminous glow. Such an explanation does not take us very far in understanding this remarkable story. Whether we admit it or not, even those of us who think ourselves especially open to mystery feels uneasy in the presence of texts like this.
So, what is this story trying to convey to us? It is trying to convey a Christophany which is a manifestation of Jesus as Messiah. A question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously stated: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” –the question that Jesus himself put to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15).
In order for us to understand who Jesus Christ is for us today we would also look at other sacred texts appointed for this Sunday. There are two mountain top experiences mentioned in the book of Exodus chapter 24 and the Gospel of Matthew chapter 17. Moses is called by God to go up on Mount Sinai and wait. In this account we learn that the cloud, the glory of the Lord, descends on the mountain for six days. It is not until the seventh day that God calls to Moses out of the cloud, and he remains on the mountain for the next forty days.
Forty years is a generation, and the forty days can suggest that the time Moses spends on the mountain represents the start of a new generation or era in the life of Israel. Did Moses really need to have the mountain top experience to bolster his own confidence and faith? Moses, after all, has been in continuing conversation with God since the moment of his call. The mountaintop exchanges with God are meant for the people of Israel. So God pulls out all the stops: thunder and lightning, trumpets blaring, fire blazing, and thick clouds billowing. God’s loving communication assures them that “I Am Who I Am (Exodus 3:14)” is with them.
Similarly, like Moses, Jesus does not “need” his encounter with God on the mountain top (Matthew 17:1-9) to enter into conversation with God. Notice here that God pulls out all the stops: the dazzling white robes of Jesus, his face shining like the sun, the appearance of Moses and Elijah. As in Exodus 24, the transfiguration of Jesus is meant entirely for the immediate benefit of Peter, James, and John, so that they may at least begin to understand the seamless relationship of Jesus to God the Father and the unlimited power behind it. We also note two striking differences in these two stories. In the Exodus story God’s face is hidden from Moses. In Matthew there is a stunning revelation that God is incarnate in the person of Jesus and his location is in and with Jesus:
This is my son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him! (Matthew 17:5).
While the purpose and mission of God may not have changed from the time of the Exodus to the time of Jesus, the presence of God in Jesus is the epiphany of all epiphanies. God is no longer hidden in a cloud but mediated in the person of Jesus. Now we see God face to face. That is the Christophany that these three disciples experienced, and through their testimony we come to know who Jesus is. St. Peter in his second letter testifies to it:
…. But had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God
the Father when the voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “this is my
Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (2 Peter 1:16 b-17).
This moment of transfiguration affirms to us about Jesus’ divinity and invites us to live in “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthian 4:6). As that light shines in our hearts, the incarnate God is made real in the every day. He becomes real to us in the time of Chaos to come, death, loss, fear and especially for the persecuted communities of Christians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan and Iran. This week in Pakistan the Federal Minister of Minority Affairs, Shabaz Bhatti, a Christian, was brutally killed by Islamic Taliban. Christians in that country face this challenge every day. How can they continue to profess their faith in such darkness? These disciples of Jesus continue to walk in the light of God only in places that are hostile to the light of the Gospel of Christ. Earlier this week I was talking with one of my friends in Pakistan over the phone. He told me once we experience the glory and light of Christ it is not possible for us to leave him and go into the darkness. In the face of persecution we don’t water down the truth of the Gospel. We pray for those who persecute us as Jesus did from the cross “Father forgive them they know not.” There is no other name by which we must be saved … Jesus Christ has been exalted above every other name; we long for the time when every knee shall bow to him and every tongue shall confess him Lord. It is then Taliban and Al-Qaeda will stop acts of terrorism and come to know the love of Jesus Christ in their hearts. What an epiphany to behold and to live with.
The experience on the mountain was the way for God to prepare a human band of companions for the sacred journey, to offer something to hold onto when Peter, James and John descend into the crushing realty of the world below. May we find our call to the mountain during the coming season of Lent.
Sources used to prepare and directly quoted from in this sermon:
Douglas R. Hare. Interpretation-Matthew
John Stott. The Incomparable Christ
Randy Singer. The Cross Examination of Jesus Christ