This is a strange story; we don’t often know what to make of it. What does it mean? What does it do? Jesus on a mountain, a shining moment, a voice from on high? This is the final story we read in this season of Epiphany, the season of revelation, manifestation. In other words, this is the season when things of God should be revealed, uncovered, be brought into the light. This story is no different. So what does it reveal?
Up to this moment in Luke’s gospel, there are two dramatic encounters when Jesus Christ is revealed for who he is: Jesus’ baptism back in Luke 3 and this transfiguration on the mountain.
In this story, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up with him on a mountain. He is praying and, as usual, they want to go to sleep, bored while Jesus is over there praying. Suddenly, Jesus’ appearance changes. He turns dazzlingly white. A brightness that comes from within shines outward. And then just as suddenly, two men are standing there talking to him – Moses and Elijah: Moses the great lawgiver of Israel and Elijah the great prophet of Israel. The three talk as equals, as if they had known one another.
Peter speaks up. When the Lord is standing there talking with Moses and Elijah, how could you say anything? But Peter, like some people we may know, never misses the chance to talk; deciding that someone needs to make a suggestion, he says, “Let’s build some dwellings for you and Moses and Elijah to stay in while you talk with one another.” In other words, not knowing what to say, instead of keeping quiet, he says whatever entered his head.
Again, suddenly they all are engulfed in a cloud. Peter and James and John are terrified. They hear a voice that say, “This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him!”
After the voice has spoken, the cloud disappears, Moses and Elijah are gone, Jesus looks normal, and Peter, James, and John keep their mouths shut.
It says, “Jesus was found alone.”
This is a strange, mystical experience that cannot be explained, only reported. In one shining moment the veil between Jesus and us was pulled back and we saw a stunning revelation of who he is. Here, in the flesh, is the very Son of God.
As I said, up to now there has been one other place where Luke gives us a glimpse of who Jesus really is – at his baptism. When Jesus is baptized, he comes up out of the waters and a voice is heard, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus leaves the waters and goes directly to face the Evil One.
Both here on the mountain of transfiguration and at baptism a voice from heaven is clearly heard, identifying Jesus as the Son, the chosen, the Messiah.
In this transfiguration story, Luke tells us that right before it happened was Peter’s confession and realization that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus explains that God’s messiahship is one in which the messiah will suffer and die and be resurrected. Then Jesus explains that anyone who wants to follow him as a disciple also should expect suffering.
On the mountain, we are told that Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus about his coming suffering. Here, we see Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus is the fulfillment of the hope of Israel and Luke is telling us very clearly that Jesus is God’s Son, the chosen One, but also that the Son of God must suffer and die. The two are connected, inseparable; we can’t have one without the other. Christ’s Lordship is shown in his death on the cross.
Suffering and humiliation is coming (that is why Lent is beginning this next week) and we are privy to the truth of who Jesus really is.
Note that Moses and Elijah leave, and after the voice, only Jesus is left, alone. As great as Moses and Elijah were, of neither of them did God say, “This is my Son; listen to him!”
Moses and Elijah are great, but now we are to listen to Jesus. Moses and Elijah were essential in revealing God to us, but Jesus is God incarnate. At the end of the story, Jesus is standing there alone. Listen to him.
The Christian faith is about Jesus. It is about a lot more than Jesus, but he is our starting place. He is the center and he is the end; the Alpha and the Omega. We confess that in this Jew from Nazareth, we have seen the fullest, most complete picture of who God is. Now, God speaks to us in a variety of ways but God’s clearest, most complete self-communication is through this, the epiphany of epiphanies, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. It’s about Jesus.
When one of my best friends, Charlie, was in seminary in Louisville he and a friend were driving guest lecturer Morton Kelsey to his hotel. Kelsey was a highly respected Episcopal priest who was teaching at Notre Dame and had written several books on prayer, healing, dreams and such. Kelsey was in the passenger front seat and asked Charlie, who was in the backseat, what he was doing while at seminary. Charlie replied that he was just beginning a student pastorate.
Kelsey immediately turned completely around in his seat so he could face Charlie fully, looked him in the eye and said, “Young man, evil is all around you. You will not survive without daily contact with the Risen Christ.”
It’s about Jesus, the Risen Christ. And without him we not only won’t make it through Lent. We won’t make it, period.