Sunday next before Lent – Transfiguration

Sunday 3 March

Exodus 34:29-end, Luke 9:28-36

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Once, many years ago and certainly before we had children, Vivienne and I went away to celebrate New Year’s Eve with some friends in a cottage in Suffolk.  Actually that makes it sound too pretty – it was a rented house in Lowestoft, in a bit of a grotty street.

For some reason that night, I had never done it before or since, I decided that rather than drinking wine or beer, my usual tipples of choice, that I would drink vodka and Red Bull.  As I’m sure you know Red Bull is an energy drink which is stuffed full of caffeine and goodness knows what else.  One of them is supposed to ‘give you wings’.

Anyway, the night went as New Year’s Eve does when you’re young and five or six of these Vodka and Red Bulls went down quite smoothly.  But after a while my face started to feel a bit odd.  More than usually odd I mean.   I went to the bathroom and looked into the mirror.  I’m not kidding my face was bright red and glowing.  I had been transfigured by my contact with this cocktail from hell, and not in a good way.

Today we hear about the transfigurations of two other people, first Moses and then, of course, Jesus. 

In my bible the story of Moses’ partial transfiguration is headed – ‘The Radiant Face of Moses’.  Which is what put me in mind of my experience with Red Bull.  But I am pleased to confirm that the radiance of Moses’ face was not caused by too much Red Bull, but by conversing with God. 

Just as an aside, I am aware that, at first glance, this does not put me in a very good light when compared to Moses.  I would simply remind you that I was in my 20s at the time and when Moses was 40 he killed someone and had to flee from Egypt for another 40 years before leading his people into the wilderness for another 40 years.  So he is well into his 80s or 90s when he becomes radiant because of God, rather than Red Bull.  That may be worth bearing in mind.

So Moses has led his people out of Egypt and into the wilderness.  This should put us in mind of the wilderness that Jesus will enter to face temptation at the start of his ministry and at the start of our Lent, which lies just around the corner. 

Although Moses and his people are in the wilderness the presence and the glory of God are still very much with them.  In the chapter just before today’s reading we are told how Moses conversed with God face to face like a friend in the Tent of Meeting.  Then God told Moses to cut two stone tablets and to climb up to the top of Mount Sinai alone.  There Moses sat constantly in the presence of God – any idea how long for?

34:28 – He was there for 40 days and 40 nights without eating and drinking. Again an interesting prefiguring of what Jesus will do in the wilderness of temptation. 

At the end of that 40 days Moses descended from the mountain carrying the stone tablets containing the ten commandments.  But he did not know that his face was glowing with the reflected radiance of God’s glory.  This must have been quite a glow because Aaron and the others were afraid to come near him.  To help them overcome their fear Moses had to wear a veil over his face which he would then remove when he went back into the presence of God. 

Moses was changed by dwelling in the presence of God.  On the one hand that should not surprise us – how could one not be transformed or transfigured by being continuously with God for that time?  But it should also inform our approach to God.  When we come into the presence of God, whether that is in church or as we seek him in our everyday lives, we should not expect to be left unchanged by that encounter.  God accepts us all as we are but an encounter with God never leaves us where we were.

When the time came for Moses to die he ascended another mountain, Mount Nebo, and from there he could see all the promised land that his descendants would enter.  We are told in Deuteronmy 34 that he died and was buried but that no one knew where his grave was, which is strange for such a revered figure.

And, as Moses encountered God on a mountain so too did the prophet Elijah.  It was on Mount Horeb that Elijah encountered God not as a storm, or as fire or earthquake, but as a gentle whisper.  And, also like Moses, Elijah had a rather ambivalent death.  In fact we are never told that Elijah actually died – in 2 Kings chapter 2 we are told that he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire and a whirlwind.  In terms of ways to depart the earth it is a pretty good one – it’s what he would have wanted.

Why all this talk of mountains, encounters with God, Moses and Elijah?

Because, of course, all these elements are present in our reading from the Gospel of Luke, about the events of the transfiguration of Jesus.

Jesus took Peter, John and James with him up a mountain to pray.  We don’t know which mountain it was but both Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon are the traditional favourites.

Whilst Jesus was praying the appearance of his face changed, sadly we are not told how, but we are told that his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.  This mirrors the description we have of the angels present at the tomb in at the resurrection which not only makes us think of the resurrection but also tells that Jesus is from that same heavenly realm.  A flash of lightning comes and goes in seconds, but often leaves on imprint of light on the back of our eyes, can you imagine what it would be like to be in the presence of something as bright as lightning continually?

Unlike Moses whose face became radiant by being in the presence of God this feels, to me at least, that Jesus is radiating the presence of God because he is God.  This also feels like an unveiling of his heavenly nature which was normally kept under the veil of his human nature, a bit like Moses with his face, because it would otherwise be too overwhelming for those around.

Whilst Jesus was in this transfigured state we are told that he spoke to two men.  It doesn’t suggest they are spirits or ghosts or anything of that nature, it simply says men, albeit they were also in glorious splendour, and these men were, of course, Moses and Elijah. 

Some Protestants can’t seem to imagine that the saints may be with God in glory before they experience the general resurrection, but the fact that Moses and Elijah appeared as men in this way suggests that the life of heaven may be going on, even before we get there.  Shocking I know.

Jesus and Moses and Elijah were talking about his ‘departure’ which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.  It is striking here that the language used makes it sound as though Jesus is the one controlling the events to come, not merely a passive victim in a chain of events outside his control.

Peter, James and John we are told were very sleepy – perhaps prefiguring the garden of Gethsemane when they were unable to stay awake and pray with Jesus.  But they managed to wake up just as Moses and Elijah were leaving and Peter gabbles about putting up tents for them all.  You’ve got to love Peter.

Then the cloud of God’s presence descends on the mountain top.  This would have been familiar to Moses as God led his people as a pillar of cloud and this is how he encountered God on Mount Sinai. 

Finally the voice of God announces:  “This is my son whom I have chosen, listen to him.”

The ultimate epiphany moment.  The Episcopal Church in America does not have a brief green period between Epiphany and Lent, but celebrates today as the last Sunday of Epiphany, and I can see the sense in that.  The disciples have had an unambiguous realisation or epiphany that this man Jesus is also part of the heavenly kingdom, he converses freely with the giants of Israel’s past and he is anointed as God’s son.   

I love the story of the transfiguration, and the church loves it so much that it appears twice in the year – once now before Lent and once at the Feast of the Transfiguration in August.  It speaks to us of the wilderness to come, of encountering God in that wilderness, it speaks to us of both the death and resurrection of Jesus, it even points towards his baptism and the voice from heaven announcing his sonship.  It speaks of human frailty in the disciples, it reminds us that Jesus stands in continuity with Israel’s past as well as doing something new, it even says something of the very life of heaven. 

But, for me, today it most of all says this:  draw near to God and he will draw near to you.  But as God draws near to you do not expect or desire to remain unchanged – as we stand in the light of God we will each of us be transfigured and transformed, not with the temporary glow of too much Vodka and Red Bull, but with the deep interior radiance of the transfigured Christ as we become more Christlike as we journey towards the Father in the power of the Spirit.