First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
As a child, I believed that all the miracles of the Bible happened exactly as they are described. And that belief was easy to sustain, because I was a child. But it got harder as I grew up, as I was exposed to science and philosophy, theology and anthropology, history and comparative religions. And so, it was that over time my ideas about miracles morphed and changed. I still believe that God acts in the world, sometimes in ways that defy easy explanations. But I also have come to believe that the point of a miracle is very often not actually the miracle itself. The Bible refers to the miracles of Jesus as “signs.” That is, they point us to something beyond the mere reporting of strange facts. They point us back to God and to ourselves
Now making that connection is easier to do with some miracles than with others. For example, when we speak of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we may not completely understand what happened that first Easter morning, but the message of the miracle is loud and clear: God’s love is stronger than anything – including death. Likewise, when he read that Jesus took one boy’s lunch and fed 5000 people with it, we may not know exactly how that happened, but we see clearly God’s concern and care for our physical needs: food, shelter, community. When Jesus heals a leper, we may not understand that physiologically, but we connect in powerful ways with our own yearnings for health and social acceptance.
But what about the Transfiguration of Jesus? Where do we see ourselves in a glowing Jesus on a mountaintop? How is that event a sign – pointing us toward God and ourselves?
The Transfiguration is reported in all three of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Some details differ in each, but the main point is the same: Jesus was transfigured in a blaze of glory. -- Luke tells his version like this: about a week before the Transfiguration, Jesus had told his disciples that he would suffer and die. Nobody wanted to hear that news. And so, when Jesus asked Peter, John and James to go away and pray with him, I suspect they welcomed that opportunity with open arms. Maybe, they thought, Jesus would explain what he meant. Maybe they could change his mind.
And so, they climbed a mountain in order to escape the crowds. While Jesus was praying, his face changed and his clothing became dazzling white. Then Moses and Elijah appeared and engaged Jesus in a conversation about his impending death. Upon seeing such a sight, Peter exclaimed that they should build some shrines to memorialize this wondrous event. The icing on the cake was a cloud that suddenly descended upon them, while a voice announced: “This is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him!”
And then, quite typical of a miracle, it was all over before they could even begin to comprehend it. This left them frightened and confused. Luke reports that: “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Well, why on earth would they? What do you say about a glowing Jesus?
So what could this event mean? One of the most common interpretations is to emphasize the appearance of Moses and Elijah as representatives of the Law and the Prophets, and thus a continuity of God’s revelation through the Jewish people. This three-way conversation on the mountaintop seemed to confirm that Jesus fit into divine history in a unique way.
Others take that thought further by proposing that the appearance and then disappearance of Moses and Elijah actually signified their diminishing importance. While in the past God’s people were to obey the law and heed the prophets, in the coming of Jesus God’s new commandment was simply to “Listen to him.” But taken to its logical conclusion, this kind of thinking has led to some truly dreadful persecution of the Jews by the hands and at the indifference of Christians who assume themselves to be spiritually superior.
Other scholars see this story as a literary device. They are quick to point out that this tale is not that out of the ordinary for the ancient world. Mountains and clouds were often seen as places where the gods dwelled. Remember, Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Law. The Greek gods were said to live on Mount Olympus. And later some of the Roman gods were thought to spend time there as well. So, they say, maybe Luke was using a common cultural myth to make a point about the divinity of Jesus.
Finally, perhaps the most common explanation is also the simplest. Maybe the Transfiguration was God’s way of visually demonstrating that Jesus was different, special, chosen. Transfiguration is the visual proclamation about who Jesus is.
But no matter which of these you accept, we are still left with a strange story that seems to have little application to us. And we are still left wondering where we might be found in the details. And I am left wondering if there is any transformative power for James Campbell, or for any of you, or for the ministry of this church, in the story of a glowing Jesus on a mountaintop.
Well, actually, I think there is. In my reading, I came upon the musings of Episcopal priest Adam Thomas, who also wondered about where we might connect most powerfully with this story. And Thomas suggests something a little radical, a little out of the ordinary, but intriguing. Perhaps, he writes, this story is not only about how Jesus looked as he was transfigured. Maybe it’s also a story about how we look – not to ourselves, but to God.
Now, we look at ourselves and what we see is our weaknesses and our sins and our secrets. We see bodies that age and become frail and sick and die. But God, we are told, planted the divine image in each and in all. There is in you and in me something of the divine DNA. Scripture proclaims this. And so, when God looks at us, God sees part of God’s own self. God looks at us and we are luminous with the possibilities for goodness and grace and transformation. Maybe that is what St. Paul meant when he exclaimed: It is “… Christ in (us), the hope of glory!” Colossians 1:27.
And I think that the practice of seeing ourselves from God’s point of view might be a really interesting Lenten discipline. What if in the confessing of our sins, we could imagine that each word of confession rubs a little more tarnish off our inner glory? What if in acts of Lenten charity and justice, we opened our eyes to see the blazing glory of God in everyone else - especially those we hate? What if the silence of Lent, we dared to listen to the voice of the One who knows us best, saying: “You are my daughter. You are my son. You are chosen and beloved. And believe it or not, you shine.”