The Transfiguration – changing perspectives

I am indebted to Ian Paul’s blog post for this Sunday’s reading and the video he made too. Well worth looking at if you want to go a bit deeper than this sermon. Click here for an interesting essay on Elijah and Moses’ relationship with each other.

I woke early on Friday with the idea of the painting and prayer journal image to illustrate my sermon. I avoided painting people and hope that it doesn’t distract from the value for people to grasp the message. Here’s the video I created as a trial run to ensure the PowerPoint for Sunday’s worship was all in the correct order.

And here’s the text.

Sunday before Lent – The Transfiguration

Jigsaws – do you look at the picture on the box or not?  Valerie never does.  I do.  Lots of different sorts of puzzles. Some have extra small pieces, or strange shaped pieces.  And isn’t it annoying if you find there’s a missing piece?  The recent WASGIJ – guessing the view from a character in the scene’s perspective.  I’ve never done one of those. Some are a mix of various pictures all adding to the overall scene.  Our bible reading today is a bit like that and I hope there aren’t any missing pieces.

The disciples were often puzzled and didn’t understand.  We have the advantage over them.  We see the picture on the box lid – they didn’t see it, although of course looking back and then writing the gospels they did see it.  That’s why Luke arranges the material in such a way that we can see the bigger picture.  That is of course if we understand all the elements.

I want us to think of the gospel today as a puzzle. I read a blog post and watched a video of a couple of clergy discussing today’s gospel and did a sort of a mind map of my ideas and then coloured things that were similar.

Mind map of sermon preparation

Then on Friday morning I woke up early having had all sorts of ideas of how to paint the images in my mind.  So that’s what I did and I present it to you today in the hope that it helps you to understand the puzzle that is The Transfiguration.

What do you start with?  The edge pieces:

Messiah:  Immediately before this incident Peter recognised that Jesus was the Messiah (‘who do you say I am?’) and Jesus immediately predicted his suffering, rejection and death.  Interestingly, Luke does not record Peter’s objection and Jesus saying ‘get behind me Satan’.  

Immediately after today’s account of the incident on the mountain there’s a healing of a demon possess boy with people being amazed at the greatness of God and THEN Jesus predicts his death a second time.  We are told though that the disciples did not understand. Jesus said that if they want to follow him they must pick up their cross and “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.“(Luke 9:24)

Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus.   Side edge piece: They too were rejected and suffered at the hands of God’s people.  

And then at the end of Luke’s gospel there is, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, his ascension when Jesus …. (Luke 24:45)  …. opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah[n] is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.  Not easy to see, but the word SUFFERING is there.  We don’t want to think about it, we don’t want to see it. But in the midst of life there IS suffering. You only have to watch the news – Russia and Ukraine – or closer to home tragic loss of life.  Or to put another way, before the glory there’s the suffering.

That’s most of the edges done  – rejection, suffering and death – surrounds  us all.

I like to go onto the central or main bit of the puzzle’s picture: the transfiguration of  Jesus who has gone up a mountain to pray.  PRAYER is an important thread running through Luke’s gospel. He is with Peter, James and John who have gone with him to pray. We are reminded that later on at Gethsemane, they will again pray just before Jesus’ arrest and the start of his suffering.

And of course, the main point here is the actual transfiguration. The change in Jesus’ appearance – the glory of God being displayed.  God’s voice: This is my Son, Listen to Him.

The verse immediately before the passage we read was: “truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’”  Peter, James and John are now seeing the Kingdom of God, there on the mountain.  The curtain or veil between heaven and earth drawn back a bit and they get a glimpse of what is to come. A sneak preview of Jesus in his glory.   That’s the whole of the top bit done.

The important thing here is not that Jesus changed but that the disciples’ perception of Jesus changed. Peter, and the others, were with Jesus every day for about 3 years and they had a gradual deepening of their understanding of who Jesus is. After Jesus’ resurrection the women brought the news to the men, who didn’t believe them. Peter ran to the empty tomb to see for himself. He saw the evidence, and he then believed. His perception and understanding grew a bit more.

I think the main reason that the disciples’ understanding grew is due to what Jesus said at the ascension.  He opened their minds to understand the scriptures.  We all need to have our minds opened.  If you don’t understand something in the bible, then ask Jesus to show you what it means.

Their understanding continued to develop after Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit and the promised power.

Let’s go back to the mountain and the glory of God.  Mountains were where people had significant meetings with God.  We often refer to great times of worship and being aware of God’s presence as mountain top experiences. They keep us going through the humdrum ordinary times – which are more frequent than the highs.

And clouds also indicate God’s presence. We take clouds for granted and don’t think of them in any other way than a sign that it is probably going to rain. But in a country that has blue skies almost all the time a cloud is a sight to behold.

Behold – is an important word.  In our translation we are just told that 2 men appeared, but in the original Greek the word we translate as Behold is used.  Whenever that word is used it is like saying, take note!  It is important.

Having at least 2 witnesses was important for the Jewish legal system. There were 3 disciples on the mountain to corroborate each other’s testimony. There were men who went up the mountain with Moses, Luke records that there were 2 men who appeared at the empty tomb, there were 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus and of course Jesus appeared to many more people.  There was no shortage of witnesses to the risen Jesus.

Back to the transfiguration. I’ve painted the two mountains in the background. They are the back story to our story today and would have been known to the disciples and the early church amongst the Jews.

Moses went up a mountain and God spoke to him, giving the 10 commandments. A cloud covered the mountain and when he came down Moses’ face was shining because of being in God’s presence.  So much so that he had to cover his face for the benefit of other people.

Elijah hid in a cave on the mountain and the glory of God appeared – he also had the still small voice experience. I have painted a fire on an altar to refer to the time that Elijah did battle with the Baal god.  And of course, the true God of Israel won.

Moses and Elijah are often thought to have appeared with Jesus as representing the Law and the Prophets. However, Elijah was not a prophet who wrote anything.  Why not Isaiah and Moses?  I think that Moses and Elijah appeared because they were known as the deathless ones.  They both avoided death and were taken up into heaven. Elijah in the chariots of fire. Moses’ death is recorded in the bible. He didn’t get to enter the promised land and although we are told he died, his grave was never found, hence the idea grew that he didn’t actually die but was taken up to God.

Jesus was not known as the deathless one.  He did die.  And he was victorious over death. The empty tomb has death defeated written over it.

Peter, James and John glimpsed Jesus’ glory on the mountain top. Their perceptions were changed and that must have added to their continuing to change and deepen their faith. 

That continued after Pentecost. The start of the Christian church when the empowering of the Holy spirit enabled us to come to God for ourselves, to be purified and reformed.  That is, I believe, whey Elijah appeared with Jesus on the mountain.  Not because he was representing the Prophets as in the written scrolls, but because he was the one who brought reform and renewal to the people.

Jesus is another Elijah – only of course not a prophet but God’s son.  Not a go-between God and people, but God himself. He came to renew and reform the worship and life of God’s  people.

And that is what we continue. We can only effectively witness to God’s love in the world if we allow God to change us, to transform and transfigure us from glory to glory, as mirrored here our lives tell his story.

So this Lent, why not think about how you can draw closer to God, to perhaps change or improve your perception of Jesus?

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