This is a sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, given in the “church up the road.” The Scripture it references is Luke 9:28-36.
Well. The gospel story we heard this morning is, according to a lecturer of mine, “one of the most neglected in the New Testament” – at least, in the Christian West. Protestant churches have more or less ignored it as a puzzling anecdote. In contrast, Eastern Orthodox churches have seen the story of the transfiguration as a key moment, one which helps us to make sense of the gospel, of God, and also of our lives as Christians. And its coming up as the reading for today lets us pause and rediscover why that is, and what it might have to say to us.
How we understand the story really hinges on what precisely it is that we think happened on that mountain. The gospel account tells us what the disciples saw – that Jesus’ face changed, that his clothes became white, that he spoke with Moses and Elijah. But what do those things mean?
The clue comes in the repeated mention of glory. Moses and Elijah appeared in glory; the disciples saw Jesus’ glory. A quick Google search tells me that today, glory is a word mostly used about sport, and war; both contexts in which it is closely associated with winning; with coming out on top and triumphing over competitors or enemies. God, who is without peer, has neither competitor nor enemy who is any threat to him; and he exists in a state of eternal glory, which is something which Luke comes back to again and again throughout his gospel.
Glory exists in Luke when people praise God, and when they experience the nearness of heaven (think of the shepherds in the fields at the time of Jesus’ birth, and how “the glory of the Lord shone around them”). Glory is what we recognize as the power and the presence of God, both in its utterly holy otherness, and its intimate nearness to human life.
And that reality – the power and the presence of God – is what the disciples recognized on the mountain. So this tells us two key things; first of all, it tells us again who Jesus is. The power and presence of God shines out of the depths of his very flesh, reminding us that he is God, who, although he has chosen to humble himself and take on flesh, is not limited by it in the way that we are.
Here I might make a brief comment about why we have this reading today. In Luke’s gospel, this part of the story is the turning point; before this, Jesus has been wandering, preaching and healing as he travels through the land. But after this encounter on the mountain, he turns towards Jerusalem and begins to make the last journey to his death. Notice that Moses and Elijah were talking to him about his coming departure – in the Greek, his “exodus,” with all the redemptive overtones that carries – in Jerusalem.
And our readings will follow him as he does so; from now until Easter, the gospel readings set for Sundays will take us, with Jesus, towards his death. So it’s not accidental that here, before his suffering and execution, Jesus is strengthened by the affirmation of who he really is and what he will accomplish. And his disciples, too – although they don’t understand yet – have a glimpse into the bigger picture which will make sense to them later, after the resurrection. In the language and understanding of faith of the time, the events on the mountain claim an unmistakable divine identity for Jesus, which lays the foundation for understanding the events of his suffering and death. That’s the first key thing which this reading tells us.
The second key thing this reading tells us looks beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the future. The glory which shone out of Jesus on the mountain is the glory which we will most fully know in God’s future; in the banquet at the end of time, and the establishment of perfect peace and harmony. The glory of Jesus on the mountain is a peek behind the veil of time, a foretaste of the future in which the lion will lie down with the lamb, human beings will cease their destruction, and all of creation will flourish in peace and beauty. Remember the promise in Revelation that at that time, we will no longer need sun or moon, because the glory of God is the light of the new creation – and it is that same perfect and holy light which shone from Jesus’ face on the mountain.
So the light and the glory of the transfiguration aren’t just descriptive details of the event on the mountain, but really they are the event. They are a down payment on a future where God’s salvation will triumph definitively over evil and suffering, where God’s glory will be – as Paul put it – “all in all.”
This means that the transfiguration is an encouragement to hope. For all their misunderstanding, confusion and fear, the three disciples on the mountain are given a vision of hope and joyful expectation. Peter’s suggestion of building dwellings, while it might seem silly, suggests that seeing Moses and Elijah, he thought the final, perfect reign of God was beginning immediately; that Moses and Elijah would stay on earth for the resurrection and the new, blessed era which was now present. He was only partly wrong; because in Jesus that reign of God is begun, even if it is not yet made complete.
In order to understand the vision of restoration and hope which the transfiguration offers, we need to remember that back down the mountain, there is the reality of a fallen world, and human beings alienated from God. It is in that context of fallenness and alienation that, like Jesus, we are called to live and work, always reminded of and holding out to others the possibility of reconciliation and restoration; a hope made real and concrete in human life lived to its full potential, with the worth and dignity of each person recognized and celebrated.
In the meantime, this in-between time in which God’s purposes for creation are not yet fulfilled, it is in our work and worship, that the meaning of these things becomes immediate and present to us. When we participate in the reality which has been revealed, walking by faith in the light which shone from Jesus, then the glory which shone from Jesus’ face, and the future glory of a perfect creation, come together in the glory which is the praise of our hearts and the work of our hands. These are not isolated incidents of glory, but are part of an unbroken strand of faith and hope and love, binding together the whole household of God, in every space and time.
So there is a call to action, here. The hope which is brought to life in us in the light of Christ’s being is not just for our comfort, but is also supposed to spark a way of life in keeping with that hope. We’re not just meant to feel the hope, we’re meant to live it, as active love which yearns for the fullness of that vision at the end of time, and shapes our lives to move and act and speak always in accordance with that vision.
The transfiguration is God’s answer to the world’s disfiguration, and we are entrusted with it.
So, since we have as our hope a vision of perfect peace and human flourishing, that commits us to work for these things; in the big picture, in supporting movements for social justice, the ending of war, and the overcoming of poverty; and in the small details; it calls us to make peace within ourselves, within our families and circle of friends, and outwards towards the whole of humanity.
Martin Luther King, Jr., told the story of how, during his struggle for justice, he was strengthened by God’s promises – by his vision of this hope. One night he woke up to find twelve sticks of dynamite on his front porch with the fuse still smouldering. The next morning, during his sermon, he told his congregation: “I am not afraid of anybody this morning…If I had to die tomorrow morning, I would die happy because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the promised land and it’s going to be here in Montgomery.”
What would it take, my brothers and sisters, for us to be convinced that we have been to the mountaintop, and we have seen the promised land, and it’s going to be here, in our local area? What would it take for us to live with that absolute rock-solid certainty, so that we would persevere, unafraid, certain of what God is up to in our midst? Perhaps, until we reach that point, we will need to keep coming back to the transfiguration and let it speak to us of the hope and glory of God.