A sermon preached this past Sunday, on the transfiguration of Jesus. In this sermon I have relied on the insights of various people, including N.T. Wright, Timothy Keller, and Barbara Brown Taylor.
Have you ever had a mountaintop experience? You have worked hard for something; you’ve put in time and energy – perhaps days or weeks of hard work. And then you finally accomplish the task or achieve the goal you’ve been striving for. There is a feeling of delight, accomplishment, of confident joy.
A mountaintop experience is of course named for the experience of those who put in the time and energy – sometimes the extreme effort – of climbing a mountain. When you reach the top there is an exhausted, glorious delight as you look out on an amazing vista, as the wind whips against your face, as clouds pass by before you. There is a sense of freedom and joy and accomplishment. A mountaintop experience…
The story of Jesus transfiguration, on which we focus this morning, is a kind of mountaintop experience. It is in many respects a glorious event – an event that in some ways represents the high point of Jesus’ ministry. Indeed, it represents a glorious high point in the disciples’ life with Jesus – why else would Peter suggest putting up tents for everyone there on the mountain.
Yet as soon as we say that the transfiguration is a glorious, mountaintop experience, we immediately have to begin qualifying what we have said.
The transfiguration is a mountaintop experience, but….
The transfiguration is a glorious event in the life of Jesus, however…
That we have to qualify what we’ve said becomes clear when we notice that in terms of the progression of the story, the event of the transfiguration falls under a kind of shadow. It falls under the shadow, if you will, of Jesus suffering – his death. In the opening verse of our passage, verse 28, the narrator begins by saying, “now eight days later”. Eight days later? Eight days after what? Looking back in the narrative we see that eight days earlier Jesus had this to say:
“The son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed…”
Eight days earlier, Jesus had this to say:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
Even in middle of this mountaintop event, the suffering and death of Jesus becomes central. Jesus appears in his glory with Moses and Elijah, and what is it that these three are talking about? We read in verse 31: “They were speaking about his exodus, which he was going to accomplish at Jerusalem.” They are talking about what Jesus is going to do in Jerusalem, what he’s going to accomplish in Jerusalem – the three of them are talking about Jesus’ last days – his suffering, his death.
There is, we might say, a profound tension between what happens on this mountaintop and what will happen a short time later on the hilltop in Jerusalem. In fact, the New Testament scholar Tom Wright says that in order to understand the mountaintop experience of transfiguration we must set it side-by-side with the hill-top experience of crucifixion – holding the two in tension with each other.
Here, on a mountain, Jesus is revealed in glory;
there, on a hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus is revealed in shame.
Here his clothes are shining white;
there, they have been stripped off, and soldiers have gambled for them.
Here Jesus is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes;
there, Jesus is flanked by two criminals.
Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene;
there, darkness comes over the land.
Here, Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is;
there, Peter is hiding in shame after denying Jesus.
Here, a voice from God himself declares that this is his wonderful son;
there, a pagan soldier declares that this really was God’s son.
The mountain-top and the hill-top must be understood together. The glory of the transfiguration and the shame of the cross go hand in hand. Which means that the point of the transfiguration is this: Yes, Jesus has a glory all his own. From his very being there is a dramatic shining forth. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: “Jesus catches fire from within. On the mountaintop, light burst through all his seams.” But the glory of Jesus is not only in his identity as the unique Son of God. His glory is also in his suffering love, in his dying with us and for us – it is a glory in which we participate as we take up the cross of humble service, following Jesus. Glory in humility. Glory in service. Glory in taking up the cross.
On the mountaintop, Jesus appears in his glory – and there in the circle of his light, who should appear with him but Moses and Elijah. It’s almost the Mount Rushmore of the New Testament. But we have to ask: Why Moses? Why Elijah?
With Moses, it’s hard to miss the meaning. As we’ve already noticed, as Jesus, Moses and Elijah converse together on the mountain, they are speaking about the exodus (that’s the Greek word – the exodus) that Jesus is going to accomplish. Jesus, like Moses before him, was about to set God’s people free – but Jesus sets them free not only from oppression and bondage in Egypt. Jesus was about to accomplish the deliverance of the world from anger, violence, shame, bitterness, brokenness – from the shadow of death. Moses, as leader of the first Exodus is there on the mount of transfiguration as a witness to the great, final exodus accomplished in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But what about Elijah? Well, the presence of Elijah is like God’s seal of approval on Jesus. In the time period between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, it was widely understood and believed that before the messiah came, Elijah would appear. Otherwise put, if Elijah hadn’t appeared, then the messiah could not yet have come to God’s people. But there he is – there is Elijah on the mount of transfiguration, standing alongside Jesus who is bursting at the seams with light. Elijah is the divine stamp of approval on this Jesus and his way of messiahship – the way of suffering love.
So there you have it: the Mount Rushmore of the New Testament:
There is Moses – a representative of the Exodus, of Jesus’ deliverance of God’s people.
There is Elijah – the divine stamp of approval on Jesus the messiah.
There is Jesus – deliverer, messiah.
As we think about these three, together on the mount of transfiguration, perhaps we should take a moment to clarify that from the perspective of the New Testament, these are not three equal figures. To some extent that goes without saying. You might ask: Roland, do we really need to be reminded of this?
But it’s worth remembering that Jesus is set apart from Moses and Elijah, because in the last two hundred years in western Christianity and western culture, there has been a constant tendency to diminish Jesus.
Increasingly, Jesus is thought of as just one more in a long line of prophets. He is thought of as just another wise teacher. He is thought of as just one of the many women and men in history who had a special God-consciousness. But this is not how the New Testament presents Jesus. Though the Gospel of Luke sets Jesus alongside Moses and Elijah, Jesus is nevertheless the pre-eminent figure. The New Testament as a whole presents Jesus as
one who shares in the divine nature,
as one who himself shines with the divine glory,
as one who uniquely reveals the identity and love of God,
as one who uniquely leads the human out of death and bondage through suffering love.
Acknowledging what so many in our culture say (on the one hand), and acknowledging what the New Testament says about Jesus (on the other hand), we are left with a choice. Either we accept Jesus’ uniqueness, his glory, his capacity to restore women and men and children – or he’s just another teacher, just another prophet, just another good man. In which case, as Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan puts it, Christianity is pretty weak tea.
Tom Wright also helps us think through this choice that confronts us. He points out that becoming and living as a Christians means coming to terms with the terrifying thought
that the hurricane has become human, that the fire has become flesh, that the Life has walked into our midst. Christianity either means that or it means nothing. It is the most devastating disclosure of the deepest reality in the world or it is a sham and nonsense.
Then Wright goes on to offer these challenging words:
Most people, unable to cope with saying either of those things [about Christianity] are condemned to live in the shallow world in between.
With these words Tom Wright clarifies the choice we face. Either Jesus is the unique Son of God, who shares in the divine glory, and who uniquely brings new life to our world – or this whole Christianity thing is a pointless sham. As Tom Wright also says, however, most people find it difficult to say one or the other of these things.
On the one hand, we find it difficult to say that Jesus is uniquely God in human flesh – full of glory – the source of our new life and joy. We find it difficult to say that in Jesus the hurricane became human – the fire became flesh.
On the other hand, we also find it difficult to say that the story of Jesus is just a sham and nonsense – that the narratives of the gospels are just a quaint story, told by naïve and perhaps deceptive men and women of the first century.
And because we can’t except either perspective, we end up with weak tea – Jesus as just another prophet, just another teacher, just another good person. Jesus as just another face in the Mount Rushmore of religion.
But according to the New Testament, the only real Jesus is the supernatural Jesus. The only real Jesus is the transfigured Jesus.
I’d like to turn toward a conclusion this morning by playing on the title of a book by C.S. Lewis, words he actually takes from 2 Corinthians. The title of the book is: The Weight of Glory.
I want to play with that title because there is a sense in which the glory of Jesus seems removed from our lives. There is a sense in which the transfigured Jesus seems at a distance from us. And perhaps what we want, above all, is to feel, to know and experience in our own being, the weight of his glory. We don’t want the glory of Jesus to remain something that is simply out there in a story, detached from us, having no significance for our life and identity. We want the transfigured, glorified Jesus to come with his full weight and significance into our lives. We want to encounter and be changed by him in his glory. There are so many corners of our lives where we want, where we need his hopeful, loving glory to come with its full weight.
But how does this happen? In some ways it’s a profoundly difficult question. For it seems that, either it will happen or it won’t; either our eyes will be opened to his glory or they won’t; either we will be touched by his glory or we will not. After all, only three disciples were invited up the mountain with Jesus. Perhaps the most we can do is to remain open to the possibility – to live with arms wide open, expecting and hoping that God will show us the glory of Jesus – to live with arms wide open, expecting and hoping that God will transform us in the glory of Jesus.
But maybe we can extend this a little further. If we want to know the glory of Jesus in our hearts and minds – if we want to know the full weight of his glory in our daily living – then perhaps we must also listen to the divine voice that spoke there on the mountain: “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him” This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him.
You see, to know the glory of Jesus is not only to know Jesus himself in his bursting at the seams glory – is not only to know him as the fire become flesh. To know the glory of Jesus is equally to follow him and obey him – to listen to him. As we said at the outset this morning – the glory of the mount of transfiguration goes hand in hand with the suffering of that hill outside Jerusalem. Which is to say, that if we are to experience the glory of Jesus, if the full weight of his glory is to enter our lives, it will be as we walk alongside Jesus in the way of the cross. As we walk in his way,
he will remind us of his unwavering love for us,
he will remind us of our identity as the beloved children of God,
he will give us the gift of a self we have never had,
he will challenge us to put our neighbour first,
he will call us in the way of humble service,
and he will give us delight in the way of love.
This is my son, my chosen; listen to him. As you listen to him, as you walk with him, you will be drawn into the circle of his bursting at the seams light. You will know the weight of glory.