Today is Transfiguration Sunday when we remember and celebrate the events related in the reading from Luke’s Gospel today. In this reading, Jesus takes Peter, John, and James up to a mountain to pray (Luke 9:28-36).
To put it in some context, this event occurs eight days after Peter had confessed Jesus as the Christ, which starts in verse 18 of this chapter from Luke. At that time, Jesus was praying alone and then he asked his disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And his disciples answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.”
But, Jesus then asked his disciples directly, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter said, “The Christ of God.” Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the one anointed by God to bring salvation to sinful humanity.
Jesus told them, though, to tell no one that he was the Christ, because he said that he must “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Jesus was pointing his disciples to what he came to do. Then, Jesus promised them, “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”
Now, eight days after this, Jesus has taken Peter, John, and James up to a mountain to pray. This eight day span may mean that it occurred at the end of the Feast of Booths, which is a feast that commemorates the Israelite’s deliverance from Egypt. While they’re up on the mountain, as Jesus is praying, his face begins to glow and his clothing becomes “dazzling white.” The prophets Moses and Elijah then appear with Jesus, speaking with him about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” What Jesus had previously told his disciples, Moses and Elijah are now discussing with him. They are discussing his “departure;” the actual word used here is the word “exodus.”
Peter, John, and James see the glory of Jesus as he is speaking with Moses and Elijah. Jesus is radiating the glory of God. Then, as Moses and Elijah are saying their goodbyes to Jesus, Peter – not knowing what he was saying – said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Peter offers to make booths for them to dwell in, as a celebration of the Feast of Booths to commemorate the original Exodus.
But, as Peter was saying this, a cloud overshadowed them and Peter, John, and James were afraid. In the Old Testament, the glory of the Lord dwelled in the midst of the people Israel by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. And when the people had gone to Mount Sinai after the Exodus, the departure, from Egypt, the glory of the Lord came upon the mountain in a cloud and the people were terrified.
Now, on this mount of transfiguration, the glory of the Lord again falls on a mountain, and it scares Peter, James, and John. They know that the Lord God has come upon that mountain. Then, they hear Him speak, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And then they saw Jesus alone. Moses and Elijah have gone, leaving just Jesus, God’s Son, the Chosen One; and the disciples are told to listen to him. The true Exodus is about to occur when Jesus will go to Jerusalem for his death and resurrection to deliver people from bondage to sin and death and evil.
What’s interesting is that John, although he was an eyewitness, doesn’t explicitly mention this event in his Gospel, even though it’s mentioned in the Gospels of Luke, Mark, and Matthew. However, John does a few interesting things. First, in his Gospel, he structures it such that Jesus celebrates the Feast of Booth in chapter 7, and then in John 8, Jesus teaches that he is the “light of the world,” evoking the pattern in Luke’s Gospel. Second, John does mention the glory of Jesus in the prologue of his Gospel; John writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Third, John will later write of seeing Jesus’ full, ascended glory in the book of Revelation.
One thing to note is that Jesus has the glory, not Moses and Elijah. Now, Moses and Elijah were great men. We read from Deuteronomy today that the Lord himself buried Moses in the desert, but that no one knows the place of his burial, and that no greater prophet had arisen than Moses and that the Lord knew him face to face (Deuteronomy 34:1-12). And Elijah was also a great man. He was a faithful prophet and so revered that the people in Jesus’ day suggested that Jesus might be Elijah come back, since Elijah did not die, but rather was caught up into heaven by a whirlwind.
But, here we see on the Mount of Transfiguration that Jesus is the one with glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth; and we are told to listen to him. Moses and Elijah are great men, and faithful prophets, but they were only great by proxy because the Lord used them to proclaim His word to his people. They reflected his glory as His people.
But, now the Lord himself has come in the flesh; and Moses and Elijah speak with him, because they know him. He’s the one who was with them throughout their wanderings. He’s the one who gave them the word to speak. He’s the one they were pointing people to. And now he’s here in the flesh, in fulfillment of the promises of God that they had proclaimed.
The Lord himself will tabernacle with the people, like he did in the Old Testament. But, no longer will the Lord dwell among his people in cloud and fire; now, he will dwell with them in person, in the flesh, in Jesus Christ, and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Lord’s glory has passed from the Old Testament tent of meeting and the tabernacle into the flesh of Jesus Christ and of his body, the Church.
This is because Jesus is the one who made the departure, the exodus, through his death and resurrection, fulfilling the mission of Israel. And through this exodus, he has delivered you up out of slavery to sin, and to death, and to the devil. He has delivered you and brought us into the promised land, the kingdom of God where he dwells with you and reigns. His disciples saw the coming of the kingdom of God, just as Jesus promised them, and so have you. You have been brought into God’s reign, and He dwells with you in the midst of his kingdom where he reigns through Word and Sacrament.
Peter, John, and James had a mountain-top experience. They saw the glory of the Lord and experienced his glory in their midst. They were scared, but probably amazed and excited at the same time. However, they had to come down off that mountain, back to everyday life. The very next thing that happens in Luke’s Gospel is that a man comes up to Jesus to ask him to help his son, because Jesus’ disciples could not help him. The disciples had to come down off the mountain into a life tainted with sin and failure and weakness; a similar thing happened in the book of Exodus when Moses came down from the mountain and saw the people of Israel worshipping idols; Elijah himself had to contend with a faithless generation.
We too have moments where we feel the presence of the Lord. We have our own mountain-top experiences. Sometimes we feel that the Lord is so close to us. But, then, something happens, maybe something catastrophic or maybe even nothing really in particular, just the normal patterns of life. We often live a life that is anything but glorious. We struggle and sometimes fail in a world with sin and failure and weakness. And at times we see the Church struggle also with her witness to Jesus Christ and see divisions and strife in the midst of God’s people.
But, throughout all of this, the Lord is still with you. He is tabernacling with you through the Word that’s proclaimed, the waters that drown in Baptism, and the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. He is dwelling within you through His Spirit. Your Lord has delivered you from bondage through his Exodus and is with you in the wilderness of this life, ultimately delivering you up into the promised land.
(Image: The Transfiguration of Christ. By Peter Paul Rubens – Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8434978)