Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Today is one of the rather rare days in our Church calendar on which we divert from our sequential walk through our Old Testament lessons and our Gospel lesson to celebrate a “non-major” feast of our Lord; every Sunday is a feast of Our Lord. The Feast of the Transfiguration takes precedence over our weekly Sunday feasts only when its assigned date of August 6 falls on a Sunday. Thus, we put aside our normal Propers for the day, pull out the white hangings, and focus our attention on this glorious and very significant account in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
We refer to this feast as the Transfiguration because Jesus is transfigured. What is it to be transfigured?
None of us can watch without tears the TV and YouTube clips of surprise encounters between children of our military men and women as they are reunited unexpectedly after a tour of duty. In every case, the children are transfigured. I was entranced these last few days as I watched, over and over, the twelve-year-old daughter as she followed her mother quite apathetically through the crowd at the dolphin show at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. I watched in anticipation of her transfiguration as she became aware of the announcement coming over the loud speaker welcoming her father home after nine months in Kuwait. There he stood in dark blues – but, likely for her, in the glow of a dazzling raiment of white; the apathy evaporated; her expression was indeed transfigured as she rushed into the strong embracing arms of her father. And, we in the audience were transformed by this demonstration of unrestrained unconditional love and joy.
In our Gospel lesson of Jesus’ transfiguration, the surprise encounter is with Moses and Elijah. In anticipation, we read in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus leads his disciples Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop. Throughout the Bible, mountaintops are places to encounter God; figuratively, we continue to speak of mountaintop experiences as those pinpoint-able moments when our lives are changed.
Most familiar is the mountaintop experience of Moses, much earlier in the history of God’s people. As we read this morning in our lesson from The Exodus, after leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, Moses was called to Mount Sinai to encounter God and receive the Ten Commandments – God’s Law. When Moses returned to the people after this encounter, his face was shining – he had been transfigured.
Today, as we read from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is transfigured as he encounters God on the mountaintop, joined there by Moses – the vessel of God’s Law, and Elijah – recognized as the chief vessel of God’s prophetic voice. Here, Jesus is embodied in the foundation of our human relationship with God – the Law and the Prophets. Jesus, much like Moses as he descends Mount Sinai, was transfigured. Luke writes that the appearance of Jesus’ face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. Jesus was transfigured as he took his equal place among these earthly representatives of God.
But Jesus otherwise remained the same. Jesus continued to be Jesus Christ – God’s Son, God’s Chosen – as confirmed by the voice of God speaking from the cloud on the mountaintop. God’s voice instructed the disciples, thusly, to “listen to him.”
This point of Transfiguration is a turning point in Luke’s Gospel message. In the three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – we confront this turning point – that significant time when Jesus’ focus turns toward Jerusalem – the necessity and the inevitability of the Cross.
In the early chapters of our Gospel narratives, we travel with Jesus as he calls his disciples, as he teaches and heals, and models the ministry to which we are all called. But, in each case, there is this turning point, when we, along with the disciples, sense the baton passed to us as it carries the message of the necessity to listen for deeper understanding. And, we become aware of Jesus’ face turning toward Jerusalem.
On this morning’s mountaintop, we read of Jesus speaking to Moses and Elijah about this earthly departure, which would be accomplished in Jerusalem. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke we read of only one adult visit to Jerusalem for Jesus – that journey takes place in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life; that journey is toward his earthly death on the Cross, which we always hasten to add is followed by the Resurrection. Thus, the time is urgent; the disciples must listen and seek clearer understanding.
The Transfiguration changes Jesus’ outward appearance; he is transfigured. But, it does not and is not intended to change Jesus inwardly. That change is clearly intended for these companion disciples who now have witness to whom and what Jesus truly is.
Had the message been intended to be left on the mountaintop, Peter would have been called to the task he suggested; he would have built booths of human construction to keep God and his earthly messengers here on the mountaintop – separate from all other. And, we would be called to believe that God resides only in houses built by human hands and separate from us.
Jesus was not to be housed on the mountaintop, and these disciples were not to leave this revelation boxed up under lock and key high in the sky.
Certainly, not just for the disciples, but for us, it is not simply an outward transfiguration; it is an inward transformation that is expected. This transformation comes when we go to the spiritual mountaintop to listen and to see Jesus as he really is, clothed in the light of the Messiah, our redeemer – the true Son of God. But, we don’t leave God boxed up on the mountaintop; God is everywhere. We are called to come together regularly and frequently here in these houses of God to join in relation with one another, to share our praise and worship, to hear the Word of God, and be transformed into the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. Of course, we can’t leave all that here under lock and key – held separate for our return next week.
God is everywhere; God’s story is the story of all of his people; it is one story – from our Creation, through humanity’s Fall into sin and death, through our redemption from captivity in Egypt and our redemption through the saving grace of Jesus Christ – God’s story does not change.
God comes to earth in the human person of Jesus Christ to continue our transformation into faithful people of God – faithful people everywhere – our countenance transfigured by our encounter with God through Jesus Christ our Lord – our lives transformed by our commitment to his mission and ministry as we are embraced into his unconditional loving arms of grace.
And, we bring this mission down from the mountain, sometimes way down into the gutters of reality of daily life. But, God is there in those gutters; we have been transformed to make known his presence in those gutters.
From the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”