Transfigured by Theophany

This is the message I preached on Sunday 26th February 27th, Feast of the Transfiguration, at Lake Tyers Beach Uniting Church. It is modified from an earlier message.

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

The transfiguration of Jesus is probably one of those stories you have heard explained to you numerous times.  At least I hope it is as it’s supposed to be taught at least once a year, most often on the last Sunday before Lent.  As a preacher on days like this I wonder what I can say to you that is fresh and new about this story, or whether I even need to try.  It’s a good story, it has obvious truth to draw out about the glory of Jesus, the faithfulness of God, and the way Jesus is confirmed as the culmination of God’s revelation to the Jews in the presence of Moses their Lawgiver and Elijah their preeminent prophet.  The scriptures, traditions, and self-revelation of God to the Chosen People are manifest and made plain in this one episode.  And even if we have heard it all before it’s still worth hearing again.

In Exodus 24:14 we read that real life continues to take place at the foot of the mountain even when the shekinah of God is at the top.  On this occasion, Moses is meeting with the LORD for specific revelation, but Aaron and Hur who had been invited part-way up were delegated to deal with the day-today squabbles in Moses’ absence.  In 24:16-18 we read that Moses spent forty days on the mountain, and that God began to speak with him only after six days had passed.  I immediately want to know whether God and Moses had any “down time” on the mountain, and what Moses did when God was not speaking with him, even though the cloud was there.  I presume that God fed and hydrated Moses, or are such things not necessary in the shekinah? Did Moses fast?  Was he fed by angels (or ravens?)  Maybe the manna was there, but these are the questions I want to ask.  When the shekinah is there, real world stuff continues regardless.

Perhaps in contrast to the simplicity of Moses’ story, in 2 Peter 1:16-18 we read of how three apostles were eye-witnesses of Christ’s majesty.  Our narrator was there in the cloud when Jesus was transfigured: he saw the cloud, he saw the figures, he saw the glorified Jesus.  He heard the Voice and what the Voice said to Jesus and what the Voice said to him.  He was there, he knows what happened, and in the light of this experience he writes we have the prophetic message more full confirmed. That the message of the apostles would be “more fully confirmed” by their being eyewitnesses to the glory of God seems obvious, I mean if you’d seen Jesus in all his heavenly glory as Peter and the sons of Zebedee had done you’d be entirely convinced that Jesus is the Christ of God, no doubt whatsoever.  But what is the prophetic message exactly.  Why is their gospel called “prophetic”?  Well the writer goes some way to explaining that, in verses 1:20-21, where he speaks of interpretation as a matter of divine revelation.  What comes as revelation comes when the Holy Spirit moves upon women and men who are open to the spirit; it’s not a purely literary or mathematical process of logic or translation.  Second Peter is a letter to insiders, written to people who were already members of the Church to encourage them to stay focussed on the truth of the apostles’ teaching.  It warns them against being swayed by the pronouncements of a new generation of smart-alecs; men who claimed insight from their wisdom, but who didn’t know what they were talking about because they weren’t present at the events they are describing and they weren’t being honest to the Spirit’s direction. “I know because I was there,” says Peter, “I am speaking of my own experience, and I am speaking about what the Holy Spirit has done through me.”  Why would you prefer the “cleverly devised myths”, as described in 1:16, when you have eyewitness accounts written by actual apostles.

And so, in Matthew 17:1-9 we read the familiar story of the transfiguration of Jesus.  We have all heard this story before since it occurs in three places in the New Testament, once in each of Matthew’s, Mark’s (9:2-10), and Luke’s (9:28-36) gospels.  Like the story of Moses this event also involves waiting six days for the first sign of glory.  Like other stories of Moses, and of Elijah who also appears in this story, this is literally “a mountaintop experience” where the fullest experience of God’s glory is restricted to a chosen few.  Indeed, Jesus even tells Peter and the two other eyewitnesses not to tell anyone what they have seen: not only do the other nine disciples not get to see Jesus transfigured, they aren’t even allowed to know that it happened at all.  Why not, we might ask.  Since 2 Peter is a claim to authority through being an eyewitness why wouldn’t Jesus want such a reliable observer to speak about what he had seen?  By way of an answer I offer a brief insight from each of the gospel accounts.

Luke:  Luke’s account is very like Matthew’s, and indeed to Mark’s, with the added unique detail that the three disciples were rather sleepy on the mountain.  In Luke 9:32-33 we read of how they awoke to see Jesus being glorified, just as Moses and Elijah were leaving.  Perhaps this is an echo of Gethsemane, (more of that later), or perhaps Jesus had taken a few mates with him to fill some of that “downtime” we spoke of earlier regarding Moses’ extended time on the mountain. If Jesus took the men as company and as carers rather than as witnesses, there was no need for them to speak of what they were supposed to have slept through anyway.  I doubt it, but since only Luke adds the sleepy detail it must carry some significance for him or he would have left it out of the story like Mark and Matthew did.  In Luke 9:36 Jesus doesn’t say anything and it is the three men who choose to keep silent about what they had seen.

Mark: In what most scholars believe to be the original form of Mark’s gospel there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus.  In Mark 16:8 the women flee in terror from the empty tomb and the story ends there.  So, the only especially glorious appearance of Jesus is found only in this story in the middle of Mark’s account and not at the end.  We read in Matthew 17:9 that the world was not to be told of the transfiguration until after Jesus’ resurrection, so we presume that that is what the original copies of Mark’s gospel did.  The fullest revelation of the glorified Christ, in other words the only human eyewitness account to what Jesus is really like, takes place in private and some months before the crucifixion.  We could spend days just trying to get our heads around the implications of that, but we don’t have days, so let’s move on.

John: There is no story of the transfiguration in John at all.  Remember I said that there’s three stories, one in each of Matthew, Mark, and Luke?  Yep, three, not four, there’s no equivalent story in John.  Peter cites this episode as a mark of his apostleship in 2 Peter 1:17, but John who was just as much an eyewitness doesn’t mention it at all.   Why not?  Well the theory, and without boasting I emphasise that this theory earned me a High Distinction in an oral exam on John’s Gospel at Adelaide College of Divinity in 2015, is that John didn’t need to have a specific story about the gloriousness of Jesus because Jesus is glorious the whole way through John’s gospel.  The gospel opens in John 1:1-18 with a declaration of “the Word” and the majestic and universal fullness of the glory of God: how could one event in the life of Jesus ever hope to surpass that?  A transfiguration is not necessary for someone so glorious and continuously gloried as Jesus.  Once again, we could spend days thinking about John’s idea of Jesus, a constantly glorious figure walking among humankind, but we don’t have days and so we won’t.

Except for this one thing.  If Jesus is as John describes, why didn’t the twelve see it?  Let me ask you, have you ever wondered why only three of the twelve were invited to accompany Jesus to the mountain top?  Have you ever wondered why anyone at all was invited?  After all Jesus often went off alone to pray so why did he take spectators this time?  I wouldn’t be surprised if transfiguration wasn’t a regular event for Jesus and that this gloriousness shone from him every time he went off alone to pray; but on this occasion Jesus invites these three men knowing that what they will see will blow their minds.  So why these three and why now?

Like me you’ve probably been told that Peter, James and John were Jesus’ favourites who composed a sort of “inner three” within the twelve.  As the closest and most trusted friends of Jesus they were his strongest allies and most devoted disciples.  Have you heard that before?  Well that might be true, I’m not here to say that it isn’t, but I want to suggest an alternative.  Some of the best known stories about these men actually involve them failing.  Peter denies Jesus three times in the pre-dawn darkness of Good Friday, and he is actually called “satan” by Jesus and told to get out of the way of the purposes of God in another story.  James and John take Jesus aside at one point and ask for the cushy places next to him when he comes in glory as ruler in Heaven, sort of his right-hand and left-hand guys.  These are the same three, and only these three, who Jesus takes further into Gethsemane on the Thursday night to be near him while he pours his desperate guts out before God.  And what happens?  Zzzzzz.

We don’t hear of these sorts of colossal failures with regard to the other nine, except perhaps for Judas but according to John Judas was a lost cause all along and doomed by prophecy to be so…but that’s another story.  And if it was a “first called” special group then why is Simon’s brother Andrew not there?  I wonder whether Peter, James and John were actually the weakest of the twelve and rather than being a sort of elite they were more like the Special Needs kids who require extra tuition to keep up with their classmates.  Perhaps these three “slow kids” were given special booster classes in practicing the presence of God to get them up to speed for when the crucifixion and the persecution came.  And look, even in the midst of such a special class Peter still puts his foot in it and offers to build shelters.

Like Peter, James and John we have seen the fullness of Jesus right in front of us, and we have still so often missed what was going on in front of us.  Like them we are witnesses to the activity of God and we have been transformed: our experience of the presence of God has changed us.  Yet like Moses and the three we have then retuned to the foot of the mountain at times and have been overwhelmed by squabbling and confusion.  In the transfigured Jesus, we see God in the fullest expression available to humankind.  In the activity of the Holy Spirit we see the same, and whether you have seen a miracle for yourself or have only heard the first-hand account of an eyewitness, giving you a second-hand insight, the story of the actual glory of the otherwise humble brickie-cum-preacher from Galilee rings true.  The one we follow, the one we speak about from personal experience, really is the God of Ages and the promised helper all in one.  God is patient while we learn who we are and who God is: but each of us has a story to tell, no matter where we’ve been sat in the classroom or upon which part of the mountain you were permitted to walk.  Give glory to God for as much as you know, that’s all that is asked.

Amen.

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