Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
The lights go down and the curtain rises. We find ourselves on the side of a mountain, where two men are looking up intently. It’s cold. The mountain is shrouded in cloud and mist. The men have been here a week. Waiting. The rest of the community is down below in the desert.
Gradually the clouds begin to part. The top of the mountain remains invisible. But the path that leads up is now clear enough. One man stands and stretches. “It’s time. I’m going.” He tells his companion, “Stay here. No matter how long it takes. I’ll be back.”
It turns out to be forty days and forty nights. That’s how long Moses was on the mountain top while Joshua waited. This exact number of days and nights first shows up in the biblical story of Noah. The Flood lasted forty days and forty nights. It took that long to cleanse the earth and begin a new creation.
Meanwhile down in the desert the Israelites waited with Aaron and Hur, their appointed arbiters in case of disputes. It’s a strange thought. That as Moses headed up the mountain he appointed people to deal with conflict. Not to be in charge of food or shelter or safety, or anything like that. Not to oversee practices of faith. Somehow, you wish that Moses’s last instructions had been about something spiritual. Likepray for me. But no.
As it was, things didn’t go well for the people under Aaron’s leadership. Moses was away in deep communion with God, receiving instructions for constructing the ark for the stone tablets of the covenant; making a holy tent for meeting; ordaining the first priests. During that time Aaron invented the Golden Calf and invited the people to worship it.
The end of that sorry story was sort of a new creation event. Moses heard the calf worship hoopla, called Aaron out, who blamed the fire for creating the calf, and things went downhill from there. Moses asked everyone who counted themselves loyal to him to stand up. Those who did, armed themselves with swords and killed the others. It was the destruction of disobedient Israel in favor of a new improved obedient Israel.
In some ways, this connects with the Transfiguration of Jesus. Some of it is obvious. Jesus, like Moses, goes up a high mountain for a purpose that is mysterious to his companions and followers. On the mountain there is an intense encounter with God. Both Moses and Jesus experience a change in appearance from an unearthly light. Moses and Jesus each receive confirmation that God is with them and is giving them a particular purpose.
But the Transfiguration goes further. Jesus is not alone on the mountain. There are the three disciples. It’s the bible’s typical way of saying that there were eyewitnesses to this startling vision. Then Moses and the prophet Elijah show up and converse with Jesus. Most biblical experts agree that they represent the Law and the Prophets. All three are speaking together which signals that Jesus is at least equal in status to the Law and Prophets.
The disciples are not disturbed by the transfiguration of Jesus or by the sight of Moses and Elijah. This is a vision after all. Peter even describes it as “good” using a word that has overtones of beautiful.
But the overshadowing bright cloud and voice of God were too much. Our translation lacks these important words: they fell on their faces.In the bible, people who are in the presence of greatness fall on their faces in reverence. You might have expected this to happen when the disciples saw Moses and Elijah. But it didn’t. Yet here the disciples collapse, truly terrified.
Jesus responds with a touch and the same words that are used in stories of healing and raising from the dead. “Get up and do not be afraid.” Why? Have they died?
Remember that just previously in the gospel of Matthew, Peter had forcefully denied Jesus’s passion prediction. He cannot hear what Jesus is saying. He cannot imagine death leading to anything good. Especially not glory.
The Transfiguration experience, for Peter, is dramatic. This is reflected in the account from Second Peter. How prophecy concerning Jesus was more fully confirmed. How the voice from the cloud rang out with the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved…listen to him!”
Here’s the point: the glory of Jesus is not in his physical appearance or in his elevation with Moses and Elijah. It is in God’s Word: Jesus and his teaching. Listening with obedience to Jesus can lead us through death to new life. Peter must listen. And to do that he must first be silenced.
And here’s another possible implication of the Transfiguration to ponder. Since the time of the early church people have wondered why Jesus told the disciples that some of them would not taste death before seeing the Son of man coming in his kingdom. Yet all the disciples died and Jesus had not come in his kingdom. To this day Jesus still has not returned as expected.
But consider this: at the Transfiguration, some of the disciples, that is, Peter, James, and John, heard God’s crowningof Jesus as the Beloved one. This aligns with the traditional coronation language of the psalm today. And they saw Jesus talking with the great biblical figures representing Law and Prophecy. An astonishing possibility is that wherever and whenever there is mutual respectful converse between God’s law, God’s prophecy, and God’s Word in Christ Jesus, the kingdom is come.
The curtain falls again. The stage is empty. Now is us we who wait. We stand on the brink of Lent. From Ash Wednesday, it will be exactly forty days and forty nights until we reach the beginning of Holy Week. Coincidence? Not so much!
An opportunity for being silent and listening to God’s Word? Sure. A goodly length of time for practicing spiritual obedience? You betcha! A time of preparation and movement toward becoming God’s new creation through death and resurrection? Absolutely.
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.