In the foyer of a Manchester hotel Sir Thomas Beecham saw a distinguished-looking woman whom he believed he knew, though he could not remember her name. He paused to talk to her and as he did so vaguely recollected that she had a brother. Hoping for a clue, he asked how her brother was and whether he was still working at the same job. “Oh, he’s very well,” she answered, “and he’s still the king.”
In the case of Jesus, people could have been forgiven for not recognising the king. God’s king came to us humbly. He was a human being, from an ordinary background, with nothing to make him stand out. Yet as today’s reading shows, he was also divine, God himself on earth as a human being.
Of course, Jesus’ disciples already had some idea of who he was. His teaching was so profound, and his miracles so remarkable, his healings so compassionate, that the disciples had started to form their own view. Shortly before this reading, in Luke chapter 9 v 20, Jesus asked them ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered ‘The Messiah of God’.
That’s important, because right at the beginning of today’s passage, in v.28, there’s a little phrase, easy to overlook: ‘Now about eight days after these sayings’. Do you see what Luke is doing? He is deliberately linking what’s about to happen with what Jesus said eight days before. The sayings are going to help us understand the event. The things Jesus said are about to happen, are now taking place at the Transfiguration.
So if you could pick up a Bible and turn to page 66 of the New Testament, we’ll take a moment to look at them. That’s Luke chapter 9, v.21 onwards.
There are four points here. Firstly, Jesus is the Messiah. We get that from verses 20-21. Then in v.22 ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be killed and on the third day rise again.’ Jesus knew what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem – his death and resurrection. Thirdly, those who follow Jesus must take up their own cross, we get that from verse 23 ‘If any want to become their followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’ Finally, in verse 27 ‘there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see God’s Kingdom come’.
These four sayings are all demonstrated in the Transfiguration. We see that Jesus is the Messiah, we hear that he will die, we understand that his followers cannot stay in glory but must take up their crosses, and we see the glory of the Kingdom of God. What Jesus prophesied has come to pass.
Nobody knows for sure where the Transfiguration took place. Traditionally it was on Mount Tabor, and if you’re on the tourist trail you can hop onto an ancient minibus which grinds its way at alarming speeds up increasingly sharp hairpin bends. Eventually you get dropped off, weak and wobbly, at the flat top of a pleasantly wooded hill. You can see that it would have been a good lonely place to pray.
I’ve always imagined that the Transfiguration happened in the daytime. I’ve got a mental picture of the disciples toiling up through scented pasture, with the view rolling out beneath them. But the fact in verse 32 that the three disciples were sleepy, and in v.37, the observation that they came down the mountain on the next day, makes we wonder: was it night time? Just goes to show, every time you read the Bible you can find something new.
And if was night time, I suppose that Jesus’ clothes and face would have shone all the brighter. They shine with the glory of heaven. In Jesus God’s reality bursts into our existence. We see who he truly is –God’s Messiah, and we get a glimpse of his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Once we have seen, once our eyes have been opened to the vision, we know we’ll never see things the same old way again.
Money, success, relationships and children, career and priorities, everything is seen in the best way in God’s Kingdom. Once we’ve caught sight of the glory and allow ourselves to change, life is wonderfully transformed. In the light of Jesus we see things in different ways. This is why the voice from heaven affirms: ‘this is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.’
Listen to Jesus as he explains the Old Testament, which points to himself. In verse 30 Moses and Elijah appear, representing the Law and the Prophets which are fulfilled in Christ. They are talking with him about his departure, which he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Interesting word departure. Perhaps not the obvious way to speak about Jesus’ death and resurrection. And how do you ‘accomplish’ a departure? It always used to puzzle me until I learnt that the word translated departure is in the original Greek ‘Exodus’. So it is ‘The Exodus he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem’.
Yes it can be translated ‘departure’. But Exodus is so much more. It brings to mind that wonderful Old Testament story of God rescuing his people, of the Passover lamb. In Jesus God is about to rescue his people once and for all. Jesus is the Lamb of God who will offer himself for our sins. In his resurrection he will defeat death and set us free from its power forever.
This is God’s loving plan, which he knew right from the beginning. The fact that Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus about it emphasises that there’s continuity with the Old Testament, that’s it’s all part of God’s great plan. God did not have a Plan A Old Testament and when that went wrong came up with Plan B New Testament. Nor should we look at Jesus’ death as if it were just a human tragedy, and try desperately to find some meaning in it. The Transfiguration tells us that Jesus knew exactly what he was up to when he set his face to Jerusalem. He deliberately, freely, chose to complete God’s plan.
Unfortunately Peter hasn’t understood this. He would like to cling onto the glory, and in verse 33 offers to put up three tents so Moses Elijah and Jesus can all stay there. Of course we’d like it to be permanent! Someone has built a church on top of the hill I talked about. A very grand, beautiful commemoration of the Transfiguration – but rather ironic when you think about it. Because Jesus didn’t stay there. He came down the mountain to the plain. He left the spiritual retreat and re-entered the hurly burly of daily life.
There are some interesting parallels with Moses here. Moses too went up a mountain – in Sinai. He too met God in the cloud and glory. The disciples were told to obey Jesus – Moses was given the Ten Commandments. When Moses came down the people had already lost faith and made the Golden Calf.
Now Jesus returns to the crowd and finds the rest of the disciples struggling. He has to rescue them from their own inability. That’s a common spiritual principle. The high is often followed by a low. Mountain-top experiences, whether they’re on pilgrimage, retreat or conference, must then energise us for life on the plain.
If we’re not expecting the contrast, it can be overwhelming. Just a short time ago everything seemed so good, but suddenly there’s intense spiritual opposition and hard work. Even those close to you who seemed so reliable can surprise you with their wobbles.
When we set out to do something for God, we must expect the challenge too. We’ve recently got permission for our reordering and we’ve got some great plans for a new service – this is hugely exciting but it’s also now that the real work begins. We must be vigilant, prayerful and prepared. Let’s persevere in what God has called us to.
I think it’s perseverance which is key to the Transfiguration. After all, why was Jesus transfigured? So the disciples could understand and believe? So that whenever difficulties came they could look back on that day and remember: yes, that’s who Jesus is, and one day he’ll triumph. Perhaps also for us, so we can be strengthened and assured in our faith – that’s what St Peter says when he talks about the Transfiguration in the first chapter of his second Epistle. It happened so that we might be confident in our faith and persevere in building the Kingdom.
Most of all though, I think it happened for Jesus. To encourage him. To give him the strength he needed for the road ahead. To assure him that what he was doing was right and God would honour it. If Jesus needed encouragement, how much more do we! If he can accept it and receive – how much more should we! Let us then be encouraged! As we set out into Lent, may we be strengthened in our disciplines. As we try and build the Kingdom here, may we be encouraged to persevere when trouble comes. As we travel our path, let us remember that he cares for us. Amen.