Rev. Dan Haugh
Please read: Exodus 34: 29-35 and Luke 9: 28-36
This glorious transformation of the appearance of Christ is considered the most significant event between his birth and passion. The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the events at Mount Sinai frames the background for this narrative. In our first lesson we read a strikingly similar story of the prophet Moses. He spent 40 days and 40 nights in fasting, solitude and prayer on a mountain experiencing God’s presence and receiving the commandments. We read that when Moses returned to the people he did not realize his face was glowing.
He was radiating the glory of God and did not understand it. Moses put a veil on his face and we may infer this was because of the glory that shone from it which caused fear among those that saw it. However, the apostle Paul explains that it was to prevent them from seeing the fading of the glow. This was a fleeting glory, a temporary spiritual peak. Sometimes we do whatever we can to hold onto those moments, as if we could package and preserve God’s presence.
Our gospel text mirrors the event with Moses in many ways. We know that Jesus has been busy in a very successful and growing ministry. Luke specifically records that eight days after Peter’s confession of Christ as the Messiah and Jesus’ own foretelling of his death, Jesus ascended a mountain to pray.
He took his inner circle of Peter, John, and James. While he was praying, his face changed appearance just like Moses. The Greek word metemorphothe is translated metamorphosis; a complete transformation. Luke notes that even his clothes turned white. This was not to be mistaken as a ray of sunshine breaking forth from on high, much like the Parisians during winter have divine moments when the sun appears!
Whereas Moses temporarily radiated God’s glory, Jesus on this occasion radiated a foretaste of his own glory. This story takes an interesting turn when some unexpected guests arrive. Moses the great law-giver of the people of Israel and a prophet, a prototype of the Messiah and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets and an eschatological figure pointing to the future as a precursor of the Messiah.
Both were among the most highly respected Old Testament figures and both had their own theophany experiences on a mountain. Perhaps most significant reason for their appearance were that these two Old Testament figures were expected to appear before the coming of the messianic age. The presence of these two prophets certainly validated Jesus’ place and role in the continuing redemptive work of God as well as his superiority over even these divinely favored heroes.
They too appeared in glory and were discussing with Jesus about upcoming events. What a scene! Try to imagine with me being one of the three disciples. Two of the most famous prophets show up and begin speaking with your teacher. For any football fans out there, imagine SuperBowl winning coaches Vince Lombardi and Chuck Noll meeting up with one of the Harbaugh brothers a few weeks before the big game. How would the disciples respond? They were tired, perhaps much like anyone trying to wait up all night to watch the Superbowl, and though their fatigue altered their perception they remained awake and alert and were able to see God’s glory.
After the conversation, Peter, ever quick to respond, suggests that tents should be built for these three men. His comment suggests a desire to keep Moses and Elijah from leaving. Luke mentions that Peter really did not know what he was saying. Now this is not meant to indicate that divine inspiration came upon Peter at that moment, but probably sleep-deprived foolish talk, which I have been accused of in recent weeks!
It was foolish to equate Jesus with the other two prophets as well as trying to enshrine and perpetuate that which is only temporal. We discover Peter still not grasping the immediacy of Jesus’ forthcoming passion and departure from this world. Even though days earlier Peter confessed Christ as Messiah, the full realization and implication of that confession was still part of his growth and discipleship, much like disciples today.
While Peter was rambling, a cloud came and overshadowed them and the voice of God descended. Then from within the cloud a voice saying “This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.” Jesus is expressly declared to be God’s Son, a declaration similar to that spoken by God at Jesus’ baptism. Unlike what others were saying about him, Jesus was not Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist. He was much greater. He was the Messiah of God and the disciples needed to hear this once again.
In Luke’s version God is speaking to the disciples. If you remember earlier Peter refused to believe that Jesus’ journey would lead him to the cross. He was rebuked by Jesus and now God the Father clearly (and audibly) commands them to listen to Jesus. Robert Stein, in his book Jesus the Messiah, remarks that this voice from heaven acted as a seal of authenticity and approval; a heavenly ratification of Jesus’ teaching concerning his calling”, most notably that Jesus’ mission involved suffering and death.
In all accounts however, the voice from heaven affirms that Jesus is the one who is sent by God and who has God’s authority. Jesus is the true prophet, the Chosen Servant, and the beloved Son of God. This proclamation of approval, love, and identity which began the ministry of Jesus is now reaffirmed in the middle of Jesus’s ministry as he prepares for the journey towards Jerusalem and the cross.
Last week I had the honored of having my parents here to meet their grandsons. My father turned 60 years old and was able to hold both of his grandsons on his birthday. Later that day we went out to celebrate and discuss fatherhood. He shared with me a story from 20 years ago that I did not remember. His father was about to have a massive heart surgery and the the night before I, as a young child of 6 years old asked my father, “Dad, you love Papa?”
“Of course I do”, he replied.
My innocent and naive voice proceed to ask, “Have you told him that?”
Silence was evident as my father realized that years had passed without either of them verbalizing those precious words. Being Norwegian, love is often displayed in more stoic and practical ways. yet here was a man in his mid 30’s in the midst of a busy career with a young child of his own, longing to hear those words. You are never too old to hear words of love and affirmation and to hear your Father say “I love you”.
When we are awoken to the glory of God and affirmed of God’s love for us, change happens. We are caught up in God’s presence and begin to reflect His light and love.
We become transformed and others take notice the change. This type of transfiguration leads to radical changes in our own lives and the world around us.
Today we celebrate the Chinese New Year. Did you know that never before in the history of Christianity, has the faith grown as exponentially as in China over the past decade. The Church in China is experiencing tremendous growth like never before, reports the World Council of Churches. Over the past decade there has been a "unique and explosive growth" of Christianity among the Chinese people with the number of Christians estimated now as high as 130 million. People in China are experiencing God’s glory, are being affirmed in their identity and calling are being transformed in ways that are changing the world.
Even though the change of appearance did not last for long, this moment offered a glimpse to the true nature of Christ and what would be in store for all of Christ’s followers. This affirmation of identity and calling can awaken us and change our appearance. Where the old covenant brought about an external and fleeting form of glory, the new covenant instituted in Christ and ushered in by the Holy Spirit brings an internal, lasting and life-altering presence that has and will continue to change the appearances of Christians for eternity.
To conclude my father’s story, later that night he did tell his father that he loved him, to which my Papa replied back, for the first time in perhaps 20 years, “I love you too my son.” My dad left a new person with his face aglow and his appearance changed and that affirmation of approval and love has been passed down to the next generations.
So may we hear the voice of God calling us his beloved and chosen and may this truth change us both internally and externally for the sake of Christ and the world.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.