Texts: Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2; Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]
You know what it’s like to go on a trip with your family, and then to recall it many years later. Perhaps pulling out old photographs and reminiscing about all the things that happened… the places you stayed, the sights you saw.
And how different things were back then. I remember a family trip to Yellowstone National Park in 1966 or so. Somewhere, someone has black and white photographs of Old Faithful and, rather than family shots, my father’s favorite photographic subject then, as now: his car. It was a 1966 Oldsmobile 98; bright shining white; enormously wide, and heavy as a railcar.
One of the big thrills of going to Yellowstone, besides the geothermal pools and geysers, was the bears. Back then parks and people were more naïve. There was no quota on cars in the park. Traffic was bumper to bumper. People would get out of their cars to feed the bears by hand. Remember that? The bears became accustomed to approaching cars for a handout from the picnic basket. Parents sometimes placed their children next to bear cubs for a cute picture.
Sure enough, the bears were out on the road that day and the endless line of cars slowed to a stop. People were getting out for a close encounter. My mother had no intention of letting us out of the car but a bear came right over to us. As we sat stuck in traffic it reared up, placing its huge paws on the top of the car. Which happened to be a convertible. The sound of the bear’s claws dragging across the soft fabric top of the car will remain with me forever.
Suddenly, what began as a pleasant family trip to the park became an event of a whole different magnitude. Our naïveté ended with the unexpected consequence of an encounter with something far more powerful than we had imagined. We don’t all remember or tell this event in the same way. But the awakening of our fear and respect remains.
Today, consider Peter, John, and James on a trip up the mountain with Jesus in a similar family story context. Did the disciples see the trip as a well-deserved break from their work? An opportunity for some centering prayer? It turned out to be such a peaceful spot that the disciples had difficulty remaining awake. Meanwhile, Jesus entered deeply into prayer.
Sometime later, the disciples came to an awareness that something unexpected was happening. The story is remembered differently by Mark and Matthew as usually happens when various people retell an epic experience. In this case, they say the men fell asleep. Luke charitably suggests they were only resting their eyes. But in any case, they came fully awake and discovered Jesus in close conversation with none other than Moses and Elijah! All three figures were bathed in celestial brightness. And the disciples had naively thought of this as an ordinary outing to the mountain! Suddenly, this was no longer a little diversion from daily discipleship. They were in the middle of an event. But what event was it?
We call it the transfiguration because Jesus was visibly altered – even beyond the brightness that surrounded Moses and Elijah - his face changed somehow, and his robes illuminated as if in a white flash of lightning. The transfiguration has become an important story for framing our understanding of the person of Jesus and his work, and the role of all who follow, worship, and serve God in Jesus Christ. An astonishing amount of symbolic meaning is found in this story.
Here is Jesus next to Moses and Elijah. The two historical Jewish figures seem to affirm Jesus in the role of law giver as Moses had been at Sinai, and as God’s voice of instruction and reproof as the prophet Elijah had been. But Jesus does not merely take on the roles, he indisputably is God’s Word and God’s law. Jesus is confirmed as more than human, and more than a representative of God, as Moses and Elijah had been.
And what about that glory? Moses reflected God’s glory, but it faded between each visit with God on Mount Sinai. Jesus however, bears in his very being an unfading brilliance that can only be God’s own glory. Glory suggests something otherworldly, pertaining to the cosmic power of God. Can it be the same light that bears us through the gate of death to a new and promised land?
Then there is the content of Jesus’s conversation with Moses and Elijah. Luke reported that the conversation was about Jesus’s departure at Jerusalem, using the word “exodus”. In Hebrew it literally means journey out, and certainly must refer to his death and resurrection. Another clue that points to resurrection is Elijah’s presence at the transfiguration. The prophet was carried up into heaven, leaving no grave. Mark’s gospel, by the way, doesn’t provide the content of the discussion at all, so once again, different members of the family tell the story differently.
Peter’s offer to make tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah was an important part of the story too. This suggests several things. One is that Peter believed that Jesus would stay on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. Another is that Peter had no expectation that he or the other two disciples would remain there because he didn’t offer to make tents for the disciples. Furthermore, God’s thundering voice and charge to the disciples: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” shows that Jesus was not done teaching them and they were not done listening to, and following Jesus. After this powerful encounter they had nothing to say, and meekly followed their Lord down the mountain.
And once off the mountain, there was plenty of work to be done still, beginning with a spirit-infested boy and his desperate father. The failure of the disciples to heal the boy made Jesus respond sharply that their helplessness arose not from lack of talent and skill, but from lack of faith. It is a theme of the veiled mind and spirit that Paul takes up eagerly in 2 Corinthians. But remember that Jesus, in healing the boy, unveiled the greatness of God’s glory for all who were sufficiently awake to see.
The world changes and people no longer feed the bears in Yellowstone, or take photos of children next to bear cubs. Everyone knows it’s unsafe. But we know that there are still demons of self-destruction to be cast out of us and others. And no matter how committed our discipleship may be, we still are too often found drowsy or asleep when faithful action is called out of us.
But God is great. This is the story the whole family of faith has to share, though we may tell it in different ways. It needs to be told that God is the brilliant light of the cosmos. That God is here, in brothers and sisters, in bread and wine, in life, and in death. And that God saves us by love. It’s a story this world is dying to hear. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.