Transfiguration of our Lord
2 Kings 2:1012
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Seeing it is God, that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, who shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
When Moses met God on the top of Mt. Sinah to receive the Ten Commandments, he came back to earth glowing with an eerie light, a reflection of the glory of God. It was eerie to those who saw it because it was unnatural. It was also a reminder of how unworthy they were to stand in the presence of holiness, how they thought they could not hear God's voice or they would die. Not that Moses was all that holy. He was human, with human foibles and faults. But Moses had seen God's face and did not die. He had heard God's voice and he lived. He was the one to whom God gave the Law. When Moses had that glow, he wore a veil to hide the glory because the people were uncomfortable looking upon his face. It was really their fear that kept them from seeing God's glory. Fear is just one of the many reasons we might miss Him when He is revealed to us.
Today's Old Testament lesson takes us on a journey where Moses was never allowed to tread. Due to his own failings, Moses never entered into the Promised Land. Instead, the Hebrews were led across the Jordan River by Joshua as Moses watched from a hilltop. Then he died and God buried him in Moab. Joshua took the Hebrews through the Jordan, through Jericho, through Bethel to Gilgal where they were circumcised. All those who had left Egypt that had been properly circumcised had died in the desert. There, at Gilgal, Joshua restored the people to the covenant between God and His people by circumcising all the men.
It was from Gilgal that Elijah took his final journey. In today's lesson we learn that Elijah was about to be taken from earth by God. Elijah was prepared to take this journey alone, but Elisha would not leave him. When Elijah said he was going to Bethel, Elisha insisted on going also. At Bethel the company of prophets came forward to tell Elisha that his master was about to be taken away. Elisha answered, "Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace." It happened two more times that Elijah tried to go on without Elisha but Elisha insisted on accompanying him. Emphatically he said, "As Jehovah liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee." At Jericho a company of prophets met them with the same news, Elijah would be taken away today. Elisha answered again, Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace."
Finally they reached the Jordan River and a company of fifty prophets watched nearby. Since Elijah was the chief prophet, and they knew that Elijah was about to be taken away, they anxiously looked on to see what God would do. They were 'sons.' Perhaps one of them expected to receive God's blessing as chief prophet?
Elijah used his mantle to cause the Jordan to dry up so that he and Elisha could cross on dry ground, just as the Hebrews did all those years before. On the other side of that river was the wilderness through which the Hebrews had wondered for forty years. It was also very near to the place where Moses had died and was buried.
Elijah said to Elisha, "Ask what I shall do for thee, before I am taken from thee." Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah's spirit. Now we might think this is a greedy request, assuming that Elisha meant twice as much as Elijah had. I suppose someone following in his footsteps would hope for an extra helping of spirit because Elisha knew there was no way he could walk in the footsteps of this great man. However, Elisha was asking for something completely different.
Elisha, like the other prophets, were like sons to Elijah 'the father of the prophets.' Elisha was asking to be the first born, the one to follow Elijah, to continue his work. He wanted the inheritance of the first born, a double portion of Elijah's spirit. He wanted what all the other prophets standing on the other side of the Jordan wanted. He wanted to be the chief prophet. Elijah answered, "Thou hast asked a hard thing." It was not Elijah's place to give Elisha such a thing. It was up to God to give the Spirit and to call the one who would be His prophet. Elijah did not reject the idea, however. He said, "Nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so."
Suddenly, a fiery chariot with horses separated the two and Elijah was taken up into heaven. Elisha was watching as this happened and called out "My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof!" Elisha did see the sign from heaven. His request was granted. Elisha mourned the loss of his master, but picked up the mantle and returned to the other side of the Jordan. He crossed in the same manner, by hitting the water with the mantle. The water parted and he walked across to the company that waited.
They recognized by that sign that the spirit of Elijah had fallen on Elisha, but they did not believe that Elijah was gone. They wanted to send a company of men to search far and wide, thinking that God had lifted him and set him down on a mountain or in a valley. They were blinded by their own desires.
From that day forth, the Jews continued to look for Elijah, believing that he would return to announce the coming of the Messiah. He did return. On the way down from the mountaintop Jesus explained to the three disciples that Elijah had returned in John the Baptist. But the leaders missed him and then also missed knowing that Jesus was the one for whom they waited.
But Elijah also returned for a mountain top experience. In the Gospel lesson for today we see Jesus and three disciples climbing to the top of a mountain. Suddenly Jesus was transfigured. His clothes were dazzling white as no earthly cleaner or bleach could ever make. He stood there talking with Elijah and Moses. In this brief moment of glory, the Law as represented by Moses and the Prophets as represented by Elijah revealed that Jesus was indeed the one to whom they had pointed. It was the revelation of the Truth. Jesus was the Messiah, the Promised One, anointed by God and fulfilling the promises spoken through the Law and the Prophets.
If they had any doubt, a cloud came over the scene and a voice spoke, "This is my beloved Son: hear ye him." I like this translation. "Hear him." Other translations say, "Listen to him." Perhaps it seems like a minor point, that hearing and listening are two words describing the same thing. Yet, how often do we listen to something, or someone, and do not actually hear what they are saying? We listen to our spouses, but do we hear them? We listen to our pastors, but do we hear them? We listen to Jesus, but do we hear Him? All too often we listen without ever hearing.
We need to back up a moment. The three disciples that went to the mountain with Jesus were Peter, James and John. These three were His closest friends. They were the inner circle. If there were a hierarchy of disciples, these three would have been at the top. James and John even had the guts to ask Jesus to place them at His right and left hand when He came into His kingdom – much like Elisha asking to be the chief prophet. Jesus was no more able to do such a thing for James and John than Elijah could do for Elisha. If it was meant to be, then it would be.
Yet, James and John were beloved and invited to be present at this extraordinary event. We don't hear much from them in this story. From Matthew's version we know they fell on their face in fear.
We do hear from Peter. When Peter saw Elijah and Moses, he did not know what to say. Yet, typically Peter, he rambled anyway. "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah." Generations of scholars have tried to interpret Peter's meaning. It is possible that he wanted to extend the mountain top experience by giving the three great men places to stay. Perhaps there was some spiritual purpose, like the booths built for use at the Feast of Tabernacles.
According to Mark this event happened six days after Peter's confession of Christ, and his subsequent fall. After saying that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Peter rebuked Jesus for predicting His death. He was blinded by Satan when he wanted to keep Jesus from death. Perhaps there on the mountaintop Peter was still blinded, trying to put off the inevitable. If he kept Jesus in glory dwelling with Elijah and Moses, then Jesus would not die. We don't know for sure why Peter suggested building tabernacles.
What we do know is that Peter did not know what to say. Perhaps all these reasons contributed to why Peter blurted out "let us make three tabernacles." This was his way of dealing with the shock and awe of the experience. He always had to do something in response to what was happening around him – walk on water, pull out a sword, go fishing. It's how he dealt with fear and uncertainty. "For he knew not what to answer; for they became sore afraid." Peter babbled.
Peter was interrupted by the voice. "This is my beloved Son; hear ye him." Then it was over. Elijah and Moses disappeared. Jesus was back to normal. On the way back down the mountain, Jesus gave them another command. "Do not tell anyone." Is He kidding? They just had the most extraordinary experience and they could not tell anyone? How do you go from glory to the valley so quickly? We want to hold on to those mountain top experiences.
Yet, is it really on the mountain top that we have life changing experiences with God? Oh, Moses surely did and the experience left him glowing. Elijah did and it forced him back into the world to complete the work he was called to do. Yet, it was not necessarily those moments that made them the men that they were. They met God in fear and trembling, not in glory moments. To Moses and Elijah, the image of God was of fire. The psalmist writes, "Our God cometh, and doth not keep silence: A fire devoureth before him, And it is very tempestuous round about him." Moses experienced the bush that burned without burning. Elijah was taken to heaven in a flaming chariot. This is how God revealed His presence to the Law and the Prophets.
Jesus allowed Peter, James and John to have a mountaintop experience which they met with fear and trembling. But that moment was only the beginning of something much greater. Though Christ was glorified, it was not the moment of glory. That would come later, on the cross. The transfiguration was the beginning of a new journey, the journey that would lead to death. We want to grasp the mountaintop and the glory, but the real change, the real healing, the real salvation comes when we go down into the valley. The Gospel would not come because Jesus was glorified on the mountain. It would come on the cross.
There on the mountain they saw something new. In the Old Testament, God was revealed by fire, in the Law and by the Prophets. Now, God is revealed in Jesus and for one moment the three disciples saw the Light. It is a different kind of light, a light we saw only faintly in the glory that shone on Moses' face. But Moses was human, imperfect. The light on his face faded. The light that is the Christ will never fade. It will be extinguished for a moment, that moment on the cross. The darkness will not last, however.
During Epiphany we have seen Jesus being revealed as the Anointed One, the Messiah. In His words, in His healing, in His exorcisms, Jesus showed by powerful signs that He has the authority to forgive sin and make people whole. Some saw His signs as the beginning of an earthly kingdom, a kingdom that could be harnessed and kept on earth. Peter tried to do that with the booths, but Jesus still had work to do.
Not everyone hears Jesus. Paul knew this. He recognized that there were those in opposition to his ministry. They accused him of manipulation and lies. Those accusing him were those who would do such things themselves – ministering out of self interest, commending themselves so that they might know positions of status and influence, playing games. They cared nothing for the Gospel or Christ, but only for themselves. They seek triumph, to stay on the mountaintop, to bask in the glory. To them, there is no glory on the cross. To them, the truth was veiled. They could not see because they were blinded by the god of this world – Satan. They were also blinded by their own fears, their own desires
In the Old Testament lesson, we saw Elijah pass the mantle of his power and authority to his son, Elisha. Elisha went out into the world and in his stories we are reminded of Elijah. While the company of prophets was waiting to see where God's grace would fall – motivated by their own desires – Elisha sought to follow his master's footsteps, continue the work of his father. He saw the light and was graced with the gift.
Paul did not choose to receive God's grace. On a roadway to Damascus, on a journey meant to persecute the faithful, the Lord came to him in a blaze of light and a powerful message. Instead of continuing to seek his own glory, to persecute the people following Jesus Christ, Paul was transformed. Jesus passed the mantle of power and authority to Paul on that road. Paul writes, "For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. Seeing it is God, that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, who shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." Paul did not take the mantle to do his own work, but to share Christ.
Peter, James and John saw the glory in Jesus' face for one moment on that mountaintop; there they saw the image of God. But it was not time for Jesus to be glorified. He still had work to do. It was time to walk toward the cross. This is the last Sunday before Lent, the last Sunday of Epiphany. While Advent was a time of increasing light, Lent is a time when the god of this world seems gain power until we think he has succeeded at destroying God's work. Like Elisha at the Jordan and Jesus on the mountain, we are beginning a new journey. We have to get off the mountain and go into the valley where we will truly find the grace and mercy of God. There we will see Him, there we will find Him at the cross, and there we will see the glory of God revealed in a whole new way as the light shines in the darkness. Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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