Preached on the Feast of the Transfiguration at St Luke’s, Ottawa. This was the first service that Matthew and I were able to do together as priests, I preached and he presided. It happened by the invitation of our friend, the Ven. David Selzer, who is currently priest-in-charge at St Luke’s.
(This one definitely makes more sense if you read the readings first…)
Now about eight days after these sayings…
Eight days after Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was…
After Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah of God…
After Jesus told them that he would suffer, be rejected, killed, and then be raised…
After explaining that anyone who tries to save their life will lose it and only those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them…
About eight days after all of these sayings, Jesus takes Peter and John and James and goes up the mountain to pray.
It is remarkable how much happens with prayer.
Three of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, share this account of Jesus being transfigured on a mountain top in the presence of Moses and Elijah, Peter and John and James.
But only this one, the account written by Luke, says that Jesus went up the mountain expressly to pray.
Prayer figures prominently in the account of the life of Jesus written by Luke. It undergirds other pivotal events in the life of Jesus such as Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism, Jesus’ selection of the twelve disciples, in the garden before Jesus is arrested, on the cross …
For Luke, prayer is the launch point for a dramatic encounter of God’s presence.
Because, while Jesus is praying, the appearance of his face is changed and his clothes become a brilliant white.
Here, again, Luke differs from Matthew and Mark… because while Matthew and Mark say that Jesus was “transfigured” or “metamorphosed” – Luke simply says that Jesus’ face was changed.
Unlike Moses, who appears with Jesus on this mountain but who, when he met God face-to-face on another mountain, reflected God’s glory in the shining of his face, here Jesus is not reflecting God’s glory because Jesus is God. Jesus is radiating God’s glory.
Jesus is God’s glory.
And while Luke says that Jesus’ face was changed, maybe it is more accurate to say the disciple’s viewing of Jesus’ face is changed. Finally, the disciples are getting a glimpse of who Jesus really is.
This is no reflected glory. This is God’s glory manifested in Jesus, shining through like a light in a dark room.
God is revealed in Jesus on this mountaintop. And witnessing it are Moses and Elijah – two giants of Hebrew history and mythology who have had their own encounters with God on the tops of mountains before – and Peter, John, and James – three friends of Jesus, the three who are a part of the inner circle who follow Jesus everywhere, and who have been and will be witness to God incarnate at work.
I wonder if seeing this helps these three disciples to start to realize a little bit more about the significance of those sayings eight days ago, those conversations that they have been having with Jesus about his identity and about the path that they must follow?
Perhaps that is part of the significance of this being the eighth day after…
Because the eighth day is the first day of the new week. In the tradition of the Early Church, the eighth day is Sunday. The day of resurrection. The day of new life. The day of new beginnings.
Here, Jesus is resetting the clock. He has just predicted his death for the first time and now he is turning his shining face towards Jerusalem and starting this journey.
Peter wants to pause here. He is on the top of the mountain in the presence of God, the Messiah. And if they stay and rest in the presence of God’s glory, then perhaps they can avoid the part about death and crucifixion.
But as Peter is still talking about resting, the cloud descends and overshadows them, terrifying them into silence.
This is no ordinary cloud and their terror is legitimate.
The only other place in Luke’s gospel where the word “overshadowed” is used is way back at the beginning, when an angel appears and says to Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favour with God and you will conceive a son and name him Jesus, and he will be called the Son of the Most High, and of his kingdom there will be no end…”
Mary, understandably, is confused and asks how this might happen.
The angel replies, The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…
This cloud that is overshadowing the disciples is the same Most High that overshadowed Mary at the very beginning when Jesus became incarnate on earth.
The air must have been electric with God’s power in that cloud.
And then the cloud speaks, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
The voice speaks words similar to words that marked another beginning: At the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he was baptized and the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove and he heard the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
This time, however, the voice is for the disciples: In case there was still any doubt in your mind – this is my Son. Listen to what he says.
When he says he will suffer, he will. When he says he will die, he will. When he says he will be raised, he will.
Do Peter, John, and James leave the mountain knowing exactly what will take place in the weeks and months to come? Do they always get it right from here on in? I think we can agree that the answer is no, not really.
But we can be reminded of the fact that Jesus still revealed his full glory to them on that mountaintop when they saw his face changed and whether or not we can see it at any given time, the glory of God is here, incarnate, dwelling with us and in us – whether we are up the mountain or down.
In the words of the letter of Peter this morning, It is that lamp, shining in a dark place all night long, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts and we see it once more.