Glory and Suffering Exodus 34-29-end; Luke 9:28-43a
Just when we thought we had seen the last of it, more snow has fallen
this week. We haven’t had anything like the earlier amount, but
it reminds you what it is like. Even on a dull day the light is reflected
off the white and gives a different feel to being outside. Just as the
way lightning eerily illuminates the countryside or cityscape, thick snow
transforms familiar scenes. We can truly say that we sometimes see familiar
things in a different light.
In both today’s readings from Genesis and Luke the main character
shines with glory. Moses’ face glows from the encounter with God
– as if he had been in the cold winter weather that brings the blood
rushing to your cheeks. His face is so bright that he begins to wear a
veil over it except when he is in the presence of God. Luke sets up his
story about Jesus and the three disciples on the mountain in a way that
deliberately draws parallels with the Moses story. Meeting God in a special
way gives Moses a glorified appearance. But more than drawing a parallel
Luke also points to who Jesus is and that means.
this scene by saying that it happened 8 days after “these sayings”.
In a cut out portion like our Sunday readings it is easy to lose the connection.
The transfiguration happens after but connected to the confession of Peter
at Caesarea-Philippi. Jesus asks his disciples about who he is in the
eyes of the general public. “Elijah or one of the prophets,”
comes the response. Jesus presses them further, “But who do you
say I am?” ie “Have you got a different opinion to the public,
you who have followed me since I called you?” Peter, as so often,
is the first to blurt out, “You are the Messiah, the chosen one
of God!” Jesus then goes on to explain how the Messiah must suffer.
Peter cannot stomach that, but Jesus has to rebuke him for his misunderstanding.
He may have seemed harsh – saying “Get behind me, Satan!”
But Peter had voiced a diabolical suggestion, one which Jesus had already
faced in the wilderness: that suffering was not necessary to his mission
of saving the world.
Now Jesus takes his three closest disciples up the mountain to pray. Luke
continues to draw many connections which fill this event with a great
deal of meaning. For Luke the Transfiguration is one of three milestones
or symbolic events which mark specific stages in Jesus’ life on
earth. The first was his baptism after which he began his ministry via
the wilderness experience. The Transfiguration is the second great milestone
after which Jesus begins his final journey to Jerusalem. The third is
the Triumphal entry to the Holy City which leads directly into his passion,
crucifixion and resurrection. Luke relates all three of these significant
occasions by the way he tells us about them.
All three events, baptism, transfiguration and triumphal entry lead to
a new stage in Jesus’ mission on earth, but all three also reveal
something more of who Jesus is. In baptism and transfiguration the voice
of God declares Jesus to be the beloved Son in whom He is well-pleased.
In triumphal entry the ordinary people bless him who comes in the name
of the Lord. After all three there is confrontation with the forces of
evil in the world. Jesus has to face temptation in the wilderness after
his baptism. The triumphal entry leads to the cleansing of the temple
– throwing out those who have corrupted the holiness of the temple
by their vested interests. The Transfiguration is followed by the healing
of the boy troubled with an epileptic condition and then Jesus’
saying about being betrayed. (These days we do not think of epilepsy as
caused by evil, but for Luke that was the case.)
events also point to Jesus’ impending death. They show how his death
was part and parcel of his mission. Moses and Elijah appear talking with
Jesus. Just imagine what Peter, James and John must have experienced!
What they would have given to record the historic and unlikely conversation?
It is rather like those dream-team games we sometimes play: what would
it be like if we put Stanley Matthews, Bobby Moore and Ryan Giggs together?
England would be unbeatable! I recently saw a fresh version of the photo
of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Potsdam conference after the
II World War. What you wouldn’t have given to eavesdrop on their
casual remarks to each other on such an historic occasion?! Imagine, Moses
the great law-giver, Elijah the model prophet and Jesus, the Messiah,
all together at one time and place! No wonder the disciples wanted to
build three shelters to commemorate the occasion! Moses and Elijah never
died in the normal way: they were believed to have been taken up into
heaven. So they could return to earth to meet Jesus. Perhaps by appearing
with Jesus it meant that he, too, would not leave this earth through death.
That was certainly Peter’s strong feeling when he said that the
Messiah shouldn’t suffer in Jerusalem. The conversation of the three
figures was about the “manner of his departure from Jerusalem”.
(The word departure is a translation of exodus.) That connects Jesus up
with Moses and what he meant. But Jesus’ exodus from this world
was to be through the Red Sea of death on the cross. The means by which
all would escape the slavery of sin would be by the Messiah being crucified.
Jesus knew that from the beginning, and here his resolve is being strengthened.
of Moses and Elijah is also about Jesus’ fulfilment of God’s
covenant with his people. Moses represents the law and Elijah the prophets:
symbolically they are the scriptures. Their presence supports and confirms
Jesus as being in fulfilment of the scriptures. But the disciples are
heavy with sleep. Fighting off the tiredness and trying to stay awake
is not just because they are in the thin mountain air. Luke means us to
recall this when he tells of the experience in Gethsemane. Despite Jesus’
agony and that they were in the garden to pray, the disciples fall asleep.
The Transfiguration is connected to Jesus’ suffering and death once
again. Luke is also hinting that the true glory of Jesus is the cross.
The true way in which God’s people meet Him, encounter Him and know
what his will is, comes only through the cross. Glory and suffering go
hand in hand in God’s way of doing things.
What could all of this mean for us in our Christian lives?
Mountain top and down to reality
One of the frequent lessons to be drawn from this story is the reminder
that after a mountain top experience we have to come down to earth. From
time to time we have wonderful experiences: a celebration, a day out or
holiday, a special time with another person, a moving spiritual or emotional
experience. But soon afterwards we find we have to face reality. After
the transfiguration Jesus had to deal with his disciples’ failure
to heal the sick boy and that led to his repeated warning that he would
be betrayed and suffer. Coming down to earth with a bump is just a fact
of life that we have to accept. But for Christians we are to remember
that God is just as much in the down-to-earth as he is on the mountain
top. Suffering and glory go hand in hand. In the cross they belong together.
the cloud of unknowing
I have sometimes puzzled over the significance of the disciples struggling
with sleep when they were on the mountain. It makes more sense when we
see that Luke is making a connection with Gethsemane. That helps us understand
Luke’s gospel theologically. But what about the spiritual meaning?
I suggest that the sleepiness of the disciples can be connected to the
cloud that covers them. Sleepiness and cloud on a mountain (mist or fog)
are both about our senses being dulled, not seeing the way forward. The
cloud came over them when they were saying silly things having just woken
up. From the cloud came the voice of God saying a similar thing to the
voice from heaven when Jesus was baptised. Sometimes we cannot see the
way forward in our lives. Our senses are dulled, there is a cloud around
us. Yet even in our confusion we are listen for the voice of God, reassuring
and reminding us of his love and good purposes. The 14th C mystic who
wrote The Cloud of Unknowing expressed this feeling well. God cannot always
be understood or thought about clearly because above all He is to be grasped
© Rev Paul Smith