The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ ~ August 6, 2017

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The Rev. Imogen Rhodenhiser
Luke 9:28-36


This week, I received one of those marketing emails that one gets from different stores and different purveyors of goods. And in this case it was a store that sells skin care and beauty products, per se. And the email, the sender did not stand out particularly but the subject line did. And it said: “Your radiance revealed.” And I immediately thought, well how absolutely apt because this Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday. Which I’m sure is not what they had in mind when the marketing team got together to decide when to deploy which emails and yet, we come to this Feast Day where we remember it largely for the fact of its visual emphasis, the transfiguration. The word in and of itself refers to what happens to Jesus’s face, and by extension, his clothing. His face shines, his clothes become dazzling white.

There is a particular cast to this feast of what it is that we can actually see about Jesus that’s different. And then you might think, as you recollect what you recall of the transfiguration at all, you might recollect that there’s a fairly anticlimactic ending to the passage. Because after this mountain top experience where Moses and Elijah are there and Jesus is revealed in glory, everyone goes back down the mountain and it is business as usual again.

If you were to be asked by me at this point, say, to get out your welcome cards at the back of your bulletin and write down the top five moments or parables that Jesus tells, or things that happen to Him, or that He does – the five that most speak to you, that most fill you with a sense of who Jesus is and what he’s about, then chances are the transfiguration I would wager would not make it into the top five. Possibly not even the top ten. Part of this is because it’s rather an unwieldy sort of account, because it doesn’t have the key components, the footholds that we’ve come to expect of passages about Jesus and His life as we come to read them.

We might expect that there would be within this momentous occasion some teaching of Jesus’s. There would be some words spoken, whether in debate or in conversation, with people at the dinner table, or the religious authorities. And yet, as far as one can tell in this account from Luke, Jesus doesn’t really speak. Then we might expect Jesus to actually do something to work miracles and affect healings. And yet, Jesus doesn’t seem to do very much himself in the account of the transfiguration as we have it. So it resists in all kinds of ways our usual sites of inquiry for what Jesus does and what Jesus says.

And yet, if we push a little further past the changed face and the dazzling clothing, we find that this moment in Jesus’s life that is witnessed by these three disciples, John and James and Peter, does not tell us in and of itself who Jesus is, but rather points us towards what Jesus has been and who Jesus will be. But it maps where Jesus has been and where He’s going to go, and that uses a whole different set of our faculties because it forces us to be patient and humble. It forces us to attend to what’s alluded to and what’s gestured to, rather than being satisfied then and there with what actually happens. There’s more emphasis on what is seen than what is done. More emphasis for us on what is heard rather than simply what is spoken.

For this reason, we may find ourselves on firmer ground with the reading we hear this morning from Exodus, because it relates, in this beautiful way, the relationship that Moses has with God. Moses, who at this point is coming down from Mount Sinai, having reconciled with God, the Israelites, after the golden calf idol that they had built at one point. He’s reconciled the Israelites and now there are two new tablets that have the Commandments on them. He brings them down to the people and it just so happens that Moses doesn’t even know it but his face, in Hebrew, it’s radiant. It radiates light because he’s been talking to God. And he doesn’t even know it. It’s just that everybody who sees him as he comes down the mountain, they can tell that something has happened because he has been speaking with God. And it has all of those components that we would like to have that help us understand where we are. Because there is a conversation happening between God and God’s people through Moses, and there are commandments to be followed.

Moses knows where he is. Moses knows his role in the relationship as do the people of Israel, and Moses comes down and he tells them everything that God has told him, word for word, so that they are clear as to how they can be in right relationship with this god who has been faithful to them and promised that they are His chosen people. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

In Luke, it’s still true but it doesn’t seem to be what’s going on. There is not an explicit conversation happening. There are little patches of talk here and there. But our patience and our humility are tested because we have to wait and we have to simply observe. And we have to hold back and be, as Peter says in his epistle, those witnesses. Not those who are necessarily in the account themselves, but those who are watching to see what is revealed, not just in the face and the clothing, but in the being of this Christ, who we worship.

And this account begins with Jesus going to pray, which we’ve come to expect of Jesus. He’s usually hounded by all these crowds, and it is not uncommon for Him to go off to be by Himself to pray to God. And sometimes He goes without the disciples and then they get very anxious because they have no idea where He’s gone, and everyone’s clamoring for some healing. But in this case, He brings three disciples along with Him. And while He’s praying, His face changes as do His clothes. And it’s not something that He makes happen. It’s not that He’s just said a particularly incredible prayer that’s had some fantastic effect on Him. It’s simply what happens in this moment as He’s praying on this mountain that those who are there, these three disciples, can see Jesus for who He is and who He will be revealed to be.

More than that, though, He’s not alone, because Moses and Elijah are with Him. Which is strange, of course, because both of them have presumably departed their earthly lives a number of centuries before this time. And yet, they are there which indicates to us and begins to open up the significance of who Jesus is beyond His momentary teachings and beyond the healings He affects. That He is the fulfillment. That He continues all the promises mediated by Moses with the people of Israel. All that God has promised to do with God’s chosen people that He carries through in His own mission and life, everything that God has been doing and promised to do to restore this creation.

So when Jesus stands there with Moses and Elijah, it is taking up all that the patriarch who Moses is, and the supreme prophet that Elijah has been, and carrying it forward to fruition. They’re not just standing there in this silent tableau, but they’re talking. And of all the things that they could be talking about, they’re talking about Jesus’s departure, which He is going to accomplish at Jerusalem. And we could also hear the word departure, meaning His death, which is going to take place in that city.

But also, as we stand there with Moses and Elijah, looking on, the word in Greek for “departure,” for “the way out” that is used here is “exodus”. What we begin to see as this light shines from Jesus and these supreme holders of the faith stand there is that Jesus will be and is enacting this path, making this road out of bondage the same road that Moses paved for the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Jesus Himself, as Luke alludes to, and Jesus speaks in the earlier part of the gospel, is proclaiming good news to the poor and setting the captives free so that the blind can have sight and the lame can walk. And that is part of this path to freedom, this exodus that will happen at Jerusalem but in such an uncanny way, because it will not necessarily look the way that Jesus’s disciples or we expect.

When they see Him die and suffer, it will not indicate in and of itself that this is the path that leads to freedom and life for everyone. And that makes it imperative that at this early stage in the gospel, only in chapter 9, there is a glimpse for a moment of the glory that is God, and that God is working out even in the midst of suffering and death. Whether it’s of those whom Jesus goes to, to heal and to cast out demons from and to feed, or whether it is His own suffering and His own pain that He will accept and He will endure to free the world from sin and from death.

In that moment of glory, of seeing Jesus for a moment as who He truly is, Peter, who will have such a mixed relationship with Jesus, between faithfulness and proclaiming Him to be the Messiah, and then when the going gets rough, denying Him and being filled with this guilt. Peter who will turn out to be the rock that Jesus will build the church on. Peter says to Jesus in all this, Master, it’s good for us to be here. Let’s make some tents. Can we not prolong this moment of glory? Can we not stay on the mountain top a little longer? While you’re talking about your death that is going to happen, can we stay in the exalted state that we see you in now and make the moment last just that much more?

Again, this conversation that we see happening in Exodus between God and Moses and then the people of Israel, it’s broken in this because Peter asked Jesus this and Jesus doesn’t even reply, because while Peter is still saying it, there is a cloud that comes and envelopes these three disciples. And out of this cloud that surrounds them comes a voice that says, this is my Son. My chosen. Listen to him. And we’re not told. We presume that the cloud departs and it leaves Jesus there standing alone. Moses and Elijah are gone and the disciples do not say a word to anyone about what they have seen.

Listen to Him. The transfiguration ushers us into a time of hearing, a time of watching, and there has been so much prior to this, and there will be after it that Jesus will say just before this in Luke there has been the feeding of the 5,000. And after it, Jesus relates to his followers that He will be betrayed and handed over, that the Son of Man will die. And in the same breath, He tells them that those who would save their life must lose it, and those who do lose their life will find it. And that everyone who wants to follow Jesus wants to follow this very strange and glorious God, will have to deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Him.

The way that Luke frames the transfiguration, he says eight days after these things had been spoken, Jesus went up the mountain with James and John and Peter. So while Jesus may not speak on the mountain, except for in His prayer and in His conversation with Moses and Elijah, yet He speaks so profoundly elsewhere, and God speaking out of this cloud in a way that absolutely frightens the three people inside of it. God reminds them and reminds us that even as it remains unclear or not as clear as we would like it to be – even as God is working out God’s plan of freedom and salvation for all of us, remains obscure in some sense and remains at this moment unfinished in so far as it must lead to Calvary and it must lead to an empty tomb and a risen Lord. Even then, that God asks us to heed and to watch for this God who has become human and for this moment is as Peter in his epistle says, a light shining in the darkness.

Even in this talk of death, there is glory and there cannot be spoken of Jesus, in the same breath, Jesus’s glory without speaking of His suffering. His glory will be bound up and hidden in the pain that He undergoes, and also that He meets so many of us even now inside of this god who will deliver all those who are imprisoned and in bondage, whether it is literal or figurative, and He will lose His life to save ours.

What we see and what we hear in this mountain top moment that forms and clues us as to what we should listen for, what we should attend and watch out to see. So look for a god who is making a way out, a way of freedom and life for all those who sit in death and in the shadow of darkness. And listen for a god who is fulfilling all of the promises that God has made to God’s chosen people, and then opening out that promise to all of us, to all of God’s children. And behold, your God who holds glory that is radiant and suffering that is real together, and asks us to share in both. And assures and declares to us that with God in both of these lie eternal life and true freedom.