Scripture Readings: Exodus 34:29-35
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading- the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus- is a strange, even unlikely, tale. And it’s been an interesting story for me to live with. Because for months now, whenever I have read the Bible, or thought about a Biblical text, I have done so just for myself. I’ve read and I’ve thought about the Bible, and heard others speak about it, in sermons or conversations. And, as always, the words of the Bible have brought me comfort and challenge.
But this week, for the first time in months, I’ve read and I’ve prayed and studied and wrestled with a Biblical text; and I’ve done it not just for myself, but for you folks as well. I’ve been asking- is there a Word from the Lord for in this story? And how can I speak that word to my congregation this Sunday?
So here we are. I have a sermon for you. Creating it has not been easy. But it was exciting to be doing this again. So I hope you will enjoy this sermon, because I enjoyed crafting it for you, after such a long break. It’s been good to take the strange, unlikely story of the Transfiguration and ask, ‘Is there a Word of God here?’- not just for me- but for you too!
To begin by retelling the story- Jesus takes three of his chief disciples- Peter, John and James- up a hill to pray. The disciples fall asleep, but as Jesus prays, ‘his face changed its appearance, and his clothes became dazzling white’. Suddenly he is joined by two Biblical heroes of the past, Moses and Elijah, who ‘appeared in heavenly glory and talked with Jesus about the way in which he would soon fulfil God’s purpose by dying in Jerusalem’, says Luke, the Gospel writer. The disciples wake up to this extraordinary sight. Peter says an odd thing about building tents for Jesus and the other two (whom he seems to know are Moses and Elijah). But he is interrupted by the shadow of a cloud, and a voice speaking from the cloud. And suddenly, they are alone with Jesus once more.
The story of the Transfiguration is about how the disciples came to know that their friend, Jesus, was much more than they had so far been able to comprehend. It’s a mystical, mysterious experience- the sort of thing which is hard to put into words. It might not have been a single event. Perhaps it’s a story to illustrate how, over time, the disciples grew into a deeper understanding of Jesus. And Luke the Gospel writer tells the tale in language and imagery which we nowadays perhaps struggle to understand.
Let’s begin our struggle to understand it by recognising that this is a story which reminds us of the Jewish roots of our faith. This story of Jesus ‘glowing’ as he has an encounter with the divine has a number of parallels in the Hebrew Bible. Luke the Gospel writer wants to make comparisons with the ancient heroes of the Jewish faith, such as Moses. Moses went up a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments (just as Jesus and his companions go up a hill in our Gospel text). Moses experienced God speaking out of a cloud, experienced the glory of God as a shining light, and was, in fact, transfigured as Jesus is in the Gospel story. When he came down the mountain, Exodus tells us, ‘his face was shining because he had been speaking with the Lord’. Moses was shining so brightly, that he had to wear a veil so as not to blind his companions. He was shining with the reflected glory of God.
Luke uses the same imagery in the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus- imagery of the glory of God lifted straight out of the Hebrew Bible, which would have been very familiar to the first, Jewish, followers of Jesus. And then Moses, himself, comes into Luke’s story. Moses appears to Jesus, along with another Old Testament character, the prophet Elijah. Luke is telling us that Jesus is a successor to Moses, the law giver, and Elijah, the prophet. Jesus stands in line with the heroes of the Jewish story. He’s the latest witness to the God whose glory shines in the Old Testament.
The Church has a lot to apologise for, because Christians have not always valued the Jewish roots of our faith, and have encouraged discrimination and violence against the Jewish people. In 1986, Pope John Paul the Second visited the Rome synagogue. Acknowledging the sad history of Christian persecution of the Jews, he said,
The Jewish religion is not “extrinsic” to us, but in a certain way is “intrinsic” to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.
I love that image of the Jews as our ‘elder brothers’ in the faith. For our Saviour, Jesus Christ was born a Jew, grew up in a Jewish family, imbibed the law and the stories of the prophets as he grew. All this we are reminded of in our Gospel text today, in the story of the Transfiguration.
The Sunday Times newspaper recently had to sack a columnist for writing about some television personalities (who happened to be Jewish) using old anti-Semitic clichés. Surprisingly, antisemitism seems to be making something of a comeback. You would think that after the Holocaust- in which six million people were murdered for being Jewish- we would have moved away decisively from those kinds of attitudes. Yet anti-Judaism still rears its ugly head.
Today we still find that those who are outspoken against immigrants and other minorities are often also anti-Semites as well. Historically, racism anti-Judaism have gone hand in hand. We seem to be seeing a rise in intolerance and discrimination against people in our communities who follow different religions, faiths or nationalities. As we respond to these frightening trends, Christians would do well to remember that our faith has deep roots in Judaism, the religions of a group of people who were often targeted for being different. We should remind those who justify racism by saying claiming they’re defending ‘Christian’ values that Christianity is a world-wide, multicultural faith, which was founded by a Jew.
For our faith goes back those 2,000 years to Jesus, the wandering rabbi of Palestine. Yet Christianity is, as a hymn puts it, ‘ever old and ever new’. We need to reinterpret the meaning faith for each generation. Ours is a world which changes faster than we can keep up with- and too often, the Church fails to get our message across because we use the methods and language of previous generations.
However, the story of the Transfiguration reminds us that ours is an historical faith. The disciples saw Jesus talk with Moses and Elijah- and Luke writes that ‘Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus about the way in which he would soon fulfil God’s purposed by dying in Jerusalem’. By going to Jerusalem, Jesus would challenge the old religious authorities. By dying on the cross, he would inaugurate a radically different relationship between God and humanity. Jesus was a religious radical. But as he prepares to do radically change things, he has a conversation with giants of the faith from his past.
As we ponder the future of the faith in our own day, as we wonder about what the future of the church might be, I ask you to take away that image of Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Getting ready to do a new, radical thing, reimagining the old religion for the people of his day- but doing so in conversations with his ancestors in the faith. Today, we too, need a conversation with the ancestors. Moses and Elijah weren’t telling Jesus that things needed to keep things as they had made it. No!- Luke the Gospel writer says it was a conversation about the future– about how Jesus would die, and thereby do God’s will. Moses and Elijah are not calling on Jesus to be a traditionalist. But he consults with them about the new, radical, world-changing thing he is about to do. Jesus was not a traditionalist, but he lived out of the tradition. And there is a model for the Church of today- as we get ready to do new things, let us have a conversations with our ancestors. They don’t get to tell us what to do- but they do have wisdom we need to hear.
Even as the disciples try to make sense of what they are seeing- Jesus transfigured, talking with ancient heroes of the faith- the light is dimmed. They are covered by the shadow of a cloud. And out of the cloud comes a voice. Again, this is imagery with which Jesus’ Jewish followers would have been familiar from the Hebrew Bible. They would remember that God spoke to Moses from a cloud. Now the disciples hear a voice from the cloud: ‘This is my Son whom I have chosen- listen to him!’
Well, we do that, don’t we? We’re Christians- of course we listen to the Son of God. That’s what all this effort I’ve put in this week is meant to achieve- to produce a sermon in which we hear a Word from the God of Jesus Christ, and which you can take home and live with. And yet- how hard it is to listen to- and to obey the Word of Jesus Christ.
Just before the story of the Transfiguration in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples who he thinks he is, and Peter says, ‘You are God’s Messiah’. And he then goes on to tell his disciples what lies ahead. He will go to Jerusalem, and he will die and be raised to life. This, then is the context of the Transfiguration story. It’s the point at which Jesus begins to move decisively towards Jerusalem. He will move from his home region, Galilee, towards the centre of power. Jerusalem is the home of the Temple, the seat of religious power. And it is the seat of the Roman governor, Pilate- the seat of secular, Roman imperial power. Jesus is telling his disciples that his work will only be complete when he has directly confronted those powers. He will suffer, even die, for confronting power in Jerusalem. And yet, this is the Son, whom we have to listen to. And having listened, we are called to follow.
‘Listen to him!’ says the voice from the cloud. But directly before he went to pray on the mountain, he has told Peter and John and James and his other closest disciples that they, too, will suffer for following him. ‘Anyone who wants to come with me must forget self, take up their cross every day, and follow me. However wants to save their own life will lost it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will save it’. That is hard to listen to, scary to obey. And yet he also makes a promise- ‘…there are some here who will not die until they have seen the Kingdom of God’.
Listening to and obeying Christ will may sometimes bring comfort, but will always lead us into conflict and suffering. In Luke’s Gospel, this happens as soon as the disciples come down the mountain. A father comes to Jesus, asking him to help his son who’s possessed with a demon, who doesn’t seem to be able to be cured. Jesus scolds the people for their lack of faith- even the disciples who have seen clearly on the mountain can’t quite seem to grasp what is going on here. But eventually, Jesus does bring healing, leading the people to rejoice as the power of God comes near.
God’s kingdom disrupts the world- but we’re not always clear how and why. Our world is full of controversy, division, misunderstanding- and yet, even in our confused and confusing world, healing can happen, love can triumph- the Kingdom is at work. In Jesus, the Kingdom is here. Preaching the Kingdom will lead him to his death- and yet he will be raised, for love cannot be defeated.
It has been said that at the Transfiguration, ‘…for a brief moment, the curtain, as it were, is drawn aside, [the disciples] have been allowed to see in Jesus something of the glory of God and his kingdom’. If we listen to Christ, sometimes the curtain will be drawn aside, all will seem clear, and for a moment we will see the glory of God, as the disciples saw it on the mountain of the Transfiguration.
But following Jesus will also bring suffering, confusion, misunderstanding, conflict. In the struggles of life, we don’t see the glory of God as clearly as the disciples did on top of the mountain of Transfiguration. We have to do without mountain-top experiences most of the time.
But perhaps the sign of real spiritual maturity is when we see God at work in everyday struggle and suffering. One of the things which I’ve been reminded of recently are the many people who have said to me, as they have faced far worse personal problems or illness than I’ve ever experienced, that they nevertheless have felt the presence of God sustaining them. And it’s true- God remains present when as we carry our cross, as we face denial, suffering, ignorance, ridicule- even death- for the Kingdom of God. For God is equally present in the valleys as the mountaintops. God is just as present when we are struggling with our faith, as he is in those times when, for a moment, the curtain is drawn aside, and we see and believe clearly.
‘Listen to him!’ Listen to him among the myriad of other voices, which offer false comfort, lies which sound like certainties. Listen to him tell us to love our neighbours- yes, even the ones whose nationality or religion seems so strange to us. Listen to him as he tells us to strive for good over evil, justice over wrong, peace over violence, love over hatred. Listen to Jesus Christ, speaking of the glory of the God of Moses and Elijah. And take up the cross and follow him, till you, too, shine as someone who has seen the glory of God face to face!
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo
 From Pope John Paul II’s discourse during his visit to the Rome Synagogue on 13 April 1986: http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/magazine/documents/ju_mag_01111997_p-42x_en.html
 One more step along the world I go (Sydney Carter, CH4 530)
 Luke 9.20
 Luke 9.23-24
 Luke 9.27
 Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke p161