Have you ever had a defining moment in your understanding of God? A moment when you saw things clearer than you had ever before? It may have been a conversion experience or something else.
There was a man in the fifth century named Augustine. Augustine was always a very intelligent person but he lived a fairly wild life. He never married but he had a concubine. He loved learning but he also loved a life of pleasure. His defining moment was when he heard a child’s voice say, “Take and read.” He took that as a divine command. He had a copy of Romans at hand and he read a couple of verses where it was open which spoke to his wasteful life. After studying all sorts of philosophies and religions, Augustine finally found what he was looking for. He wrote this in his account of his life story:
Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold,
Thou wast within and I without, and there I sought Thee.
Thou was with me when I was not with Thee.
Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.
Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispell my blindness.
Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.
For Thyself Thou hast made us,
And restless our hearts until in Thee they find their ease.
Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new.
Augustine went on to be one of the most important Christian theologians who ever lived. Augustine is really to theology what Plato is to philosophy.
What is your defining moment?
The story that we are looking at today is a defining moment in the life of Jesus and of three of his disciples. When we read the story of the transfiguration, it really stands out from the surrounding stories. There are plenty of miracles in Jesus’ ministry but nothing like this.
What Happened on the Mountain?
We need a good understanding of what happened back then before we reflect what this means for us. In the story, Jesus brings Peter, James and John up a mountain. These three are included in the most intimate moments in Jesus’ life. we are never told why.
I don’t know what these three were expecting when they got to the top, but it probably was not what actually happened. There was Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. Why Moses and Elijah? Why not Abraham and David? Noah and Nahum?
Moses and Elijah are a natural pairing. They represent the two main divisions of the Old Testament: the Law and the Prophets. They also had similar ministries of freeing their people from oppression. They also were the only two to actually see God. Both were put in a cleft were able to see the glory of God pass by them. Those two events were on a mountain by the way.
What were Moses, Elijah and Jesus talking about? It was not sports or the weather. They were talking about something very important and that was Jesus’ departure. I don’t normally get into the Greek of a word but in this case I think it is relevant. The Greek word is exodus. Sound familiar? That is the name of the book that describes how God used Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. Jesus was about to do the same thing with people, only spiritually. Jesus was going to free the people from the bondage of sin. It totally makes sense that Moses and Jesus would have something to discuss.
But why invite Elijah to the party? Wouldn’t he be a third wheel? Elijah had experienced his own exodus but in a different way from Moses. Elijah had accomplished his life mission which was to demonstrate that the God of Israel was the one true God. After that, everything fell apart for Elijah. God responded by bringing Elijah to heaven bodily, without having died. Elijah departed this world in a very miraculous way. Jesus was also going to experience such a departure or exodus. After his death and resurrection, Jesus would ascend to heaven bodily, just as Elijah had done before him. Jesus was going to be involved in an exodus that had much in common with both Moses and Elijah.
Before looking at the practical application, we need to make note of one more thing. God the Father makes an appearance in this story. Although the Father is spoken about throughout the Gospels, he only has two speaking parts. One is at Jesus’ baptism and one here. This tells us how important this story is. At the baptism the Father said:
“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
This time, the Father says:
“This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
This too contains an affirmation of the Son by the Father. The addition is that of a command to listen to the Son.
What took place was something so special, that these three didn’t even tell their fellow disciples what happened, and kept it secret until after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
What We Learn From the Transfiguration
From both a historical and theological perspective, I find the story of the transfiguration fascinating. But my role as a preacher is not just to tell you what the Bible says but to share how it impacts us as Christians today. I would like to present six things that we learn from the transfiguration.
- One of the most neglected details about this story is that it starts with Jesus and his friends going up the mountain to pray. Something happens when we pray. There is so much about prayer that I don’t understand. Sometimes I have to step back and just admit that on a practical level, prayer does something. I don’t believe the detail about prayer in this story is incidental.
- Some people are intimidated by the heroes of the Bible because they create such a high standard. A closer look often reveals that they are as flawed as we are. This is especially true when it comes to the disciples. We are told that all four went up to pray but it ended up that only Jesus was praying. Why? The disciples were falling asleep. When Peter does realize what’s going on, he makes a silly suggestion. Human weakness is a part of this story. God uses flawed people like the disciples and like us.
- This is an incredible story. It includes an appearance by Moses and Elijah and even by God the Father. It would have been a much more reverent moment without the disciples. They don’t add anything to it other than their awkwardness. We are told that Jesus took the disciples, not that they followed where they weren’t wanted. Human participation is invited. Have you ever thought that God could do ministry a lot better if he did it without our interference? But God chooses to work through people and he invites us to participate in his kingdom.
- One of the aspects of this story that is really interesting is the idea of time. In one way it looks to the past, to the exodus of Moses and the exodus of Elijah. But their discussion with Jesus also looks to the future, to his own departure or exodus. What was happening at the transfiguration was not the beginning or the end of the story. We too, are a part of a bigger story. We are one point along the timeline that includes a rich past and a hopeful future.
- While in one way this is a triumphant story with Jesus all dazzling and shiny, there is another message behind the text. Moses, despite successfully bring the Hebrews out of Egypt, continually faced both grumbling and opposition from his people. Elijah, after his greatest victory of demonstrating the truth of God to some pagan prophets had a death warrant put on him. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, things will be getting more and more dangerous, ultimately leading to his crucifixion. Serving God is not easy. There is often a high price to pay for being faithful to God. That goes for us as well.
- I think it is fair to give the final word to God the Father. His message, and this would have been aimed at the disciples, was to listen to Jesus. Listen to Jesus. This story is surrounded with mysteries. There is so much we don’t understand. But we can listen to Jesus. Sometimes simple obedience can be the rock that keeps us steady in the midst of the storm. The only command that God the Father gives us in the New Testament is to listen to Jesus. Sounds important.
In many ways this is one of the most supernatural stories that we find in the New New Testament. We have Jesus transfigured, shining brightly, giving us a glimpse of his heavenly glory. We have the appearance of two Old Testament saints. We even have God the Father speaking out of a cloud. And yet at the same time, this story is surprisingly relevant to us. We see what happens when flawed humans are invited to experience the glory of God. God wants to use us, no matter how unworthy or ill-equipped we may feel. We are invited. And the bottom line, when we are confused about everything else, is to listen to Jesus.