LAST SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY, C
The transfiguration has always seemed to me to be the oddest of all the Bible stories. Why does it happen? Is Jesus the focus or is it the disciples?
This time, while reading the first lesson I saw a glimpse of something that helped me understand. The conventional wisdom, both in the time of Moses and Jesus, was that if you saw God you would die. Moses goes up Mount Sinai into a dark cloud and there the Lord speaks to him directly. When he returns to the people at the foot of the mountain his face is shining, although he doesn’t know it. After telling them what the Lord said to him, Moses veils his face, because his appearance frightens the crowd.
The text says his face shone because he had been talking to God. So his face is still reflecting the great light, the great glory of God. The light is not coming from Moses, but is the light of God reflected in his face.
In the transfiguration, Jesus also lights up, to such an extent that his disciples can clearly see it. Notice that it happens when he is praying. This tells us that Jesus has also been talking to God, just as surely as Moses did.
Then who should appear but Elijah. Now Elijah was perhaps the most prominent of the Jewish prophets. When I attended a Passover Seder in the home of the Jewish Rabbi in 1952, I discovered the Passover tradition of leaving the door open and having an empty chair at the table for Elijah, just in case he shows up. He is supposed to appear three days before the Messiah, and he guards the sanctity of Jewish homes.
So it makes sense for Elijah to appear with Moses. “They appeared in glory,” meaning they also shone with light, and were seen speaking to Jesus about his upcoming and last trip to Jerusalem.
Dear Peter, so quick in action and slow in understanding, suggests building three dwellings. He’s talking about building booths as was the custom during the Festival of the Booths. The instructions for this festival come from Leviticus (23:42) “42 You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths,
43 so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
So there are clear pointers throughout this story back to Moses and Exodus. Clearly Peter gets this, but does not see the implications. We can, because we know what happens when Jesus goes to Jerusalem.
These pointers to the escape of the Jews from slavery suggest that Jesus is leading a new Exodus out of Galilee to Jerusalem and the cross. Like Moses, he is leading the people out of slavery to the old and into the freedom of understanding God in new ways. Or you could say leading people into the freedom of life in the Kingdom of God, the alternative way of living that Jesus has been teaching.
I agree with John Dominc Crossan that the central point of Jesus’ story is not about salvation in the next life, but rather about salvation in this life. Salvation comes by embracing the Kingdom of God, by embracing the way of life Jesus teaches; a life of loving God and neighbor, a life without violence or fear, a life in which equality and justice rule.
Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany and the last Sunday of Epiphany is always a lesson about the transfiguration. Why?
- It echoes the baptism with which Epiphany starts.
- It sets the stage for the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem by linking it to the Exodus, the primal story of the Jewish people; it does the same for our journey through Lent to Easter.
- It describes an epiphany experience. Can you imagine being the disciples here? Peter, James, and John see weird things happen, then are enveloped in a dark cloud and are spoken to by God!
- The last reason comes from a minor epiphany I had Monday morning after watching the Super Bowl and while pondering this odd story. Eureka! This event is like the coach giving his team a pep talk before they go out on the field!
Jesus and his disciples are about to leave Galilee to make the long walk to Jerusalem. Moses and Elijah show up to encourage Jesus. God’s glory is made visible to the team leaders and God tell them to listen to Jesus. Whether they understand it or not they are being prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
Remember, God is with you! Listen to Jesus, not to others. He knows what he’s doing. Follow him. Moses and Elijah are with him too.
Even though Peter, James and John didn’t tell the other disciples, I imagine they remembered what happened. I have to believe that it helped to hold the group together in the face of later events.
Can you imagine what that last week in Jerusalem was like for the disciples? Oh the entrance into the city was glorious, but it was all down hill after that. Why was Jesus going out of his way to upset the authorities? Why wasn’t he doing other things instead? Don’t you think that Peter, James, and John remembered what God said to them? Can’t you imagine them passing on the advice to the others? Trust Jesus. He know what he’s doing.
And consider what might have happened if they had not heard God’s message. The disciples might have split up; some might have given up when Jesus was arrested; some might have gone home early. I suspect that the experience of the transfiguration helped Peter, James, and John to keep them together long enough to experience the resurrection.
The take-away lesson for us is the same as it was for the disciples. Remember, God is with you. Listen to Jesus, not to other voices. He knows what he’s doing. Follow him! We, too, can find new freedom in the Kingdom of God right here and now. AMEN