February 26, 2017
Moses, Elijah, Disciples… and Us
2 Corinthians 3:17-18, 4:6-7
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
Luke 9:18-22, 28-36 (translation primarily from Luke Timothy Johnson)
The disciples were with him while he was praying privately. He questioned them, “Whom do the crowds say I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist; others say Elijah, others that one of the prophets from of old has arisen.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am? Peter answered, “The Messiah of God!” But he rebuked them, and ordered them to tell no one this. He said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and high priests and scribes, be killed, and be raised on the third day.”
About eight days after saying these words, taking Peter and John and James, he went up onto the mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzlingly white. And look, two men were speaking with him. They were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory. The spoke of his exodus, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.
Peter and those with him had been overcome with sleep. When they woke up, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they began to withdraw from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is a fine thing for us to be here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He didn’t know what he was saying. And as he said these things, a cloud appeared and overshadowed them. They were terrified as they entered into the cloud. A voice came from the cloud. It said, “This is my son, the chosen one. Listen to him!”
When the voice stopped, Jesus was found alone. They were silent; and they told no one during that period of time anything of what they had seen.
* * * * *
This story on the mountaintop is one we hear every year. It’s as much a part of the Christian year as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, but since we don’t make much of fuss over it, you might not have even noticed. Transfiguration Sunday shows up in the liturgical calendar on the Sunday right before Ash Wednesday, the mountaintop revelation that prepares us for walking in the shadow of the forty days of Lent.
It’s no coincidence we hear this story now, before Lent begins. This is the turning point in the Gospels. Up until now Jesus has been teaching, preaching and performing miracles near his hometown, around the Sea of Galilee. From this time forward, though, Jesus will set his sites on Jerusalem, turning into the conflict with the elders and the high priests and scribes, walking toward the city where the cross will inevitably happen, and he will be raised on the third day.
But before his suffering, before his rejection, we have this remarkable scene.
Truly, nothing in this scene is coincidental. The subtlety might be lost on us, since we don’t know the stories of the Bible all that well. But the timing, the place, the people – all the details resonate with meaning. The transfiguration echoes the stories of Moses and Elijah, those two ‘guests’ for whom Peter wants to build those tents.
Moses’ story might be more familiar to you than Elijah’s. It was Moses who led the exodus of the people of God out of slavery in Egypt. It was he who was sent by God to save them from Pharaoh’s yoke. It was Moses who led them through the wilderness for forty years until they reached the border with the promised land. When Luke speaks of Jesus’ ‘exodus,’ it triggers all of this, and more.
When we hear that Moses is on the mountaintop, we are meant to remember Moses’ own mountaintop encounter with God. When he went up Mt. Sinai – or Mt. Horeb, it’s sometimes called – when he went up the mountain to receive the ten commandments, there was also a cloud that covered it, and he also saw the glory of God. For forty days and forty nights, Moses stayed up on that mountain, and there the law of God was given to Moses to carry to all God’s people, the Word of God for the people of God.
Elijah’s mountaintop experience is less familiar than Moses’ but just as important in this Transfiguration story. Elijah was a prophet who lived long after Moses, after the time of the Judges, after the kingdom of David, during the time the kingdom was split into north and south by civil war. The prophet Elijah was called by God to challenge king Ahab, whose wife Jezebel encouraged the worship of the god Baal. Elijah faces down the prophets of Baal, taunting them, testing their god’s alleged power against the power of the Lord. Elijah wins the competition, but flees for his life because Ahab and Jezebel are trying to kill him.
For forty days and forty nights Elijah travels until he reaches Mt. Horeb – the same mountain on which Moses received the Ten Commandments, and hides inside a cave. But he hears a voice telling him to go outside, “For the Lord is about to pass by.” There is an earthquake; but the Lord is not in the earthquake. There is a raging wind; but the Lord is not in the wind. There is a consuming fire; but the Lord is not in the fire. But then there is utmost silence, the still, small voice of God. Hearing God’s call and command, he goes down off the mountain to battle the prophets of Baal.
The Transfiguration of Jesus echoes these stories of Elijah and Moses, and their own mountaintop God-encounters. Here he is with these two great heroes of the faith; Moses who brought the law of God, and Elijah, who legend said would come again before God saved his people.
So what’s this story about, and why does it matter so much?
For one thing, it’s about who Jesus is. Here he is, elevated to the status of Elijah and Moses. For the disciples to see a vision of their teacher with these legends of faith would reveal to them who Jesus really was. For them to see Jesus shining in glory reveals his identity to Peter, James and John.
But there’s something in this passage that I had never seen before. Looking at the structure of the story made me realize… It’s about their identity, too. See if you can follow it with me:
If you look at the structure of the story of Moses on the mountain, you see him going up the mountain alone, seeing the glory of God, and receiving the law of God to take back to God’s people.
If you look at the structure of the story of Elijah on the mountain, you see him going up the mountain alone, hearing the voice of God, and being sent back down to work on behalf of God’s people.
If you look at the structure of the story of the Transfiguration, you see the disciples going up the mountain with Jesus, seeing the glory of God in him, and hearing the voice of God. Then they are sent back down the mountain with the command to listen to Jesus.
The disciples – these poor, hapless disciples who fall asleep at the most inopportune times and who don’t know what to do – in the structure of the story, they are in the same role as Moses and Elijah were in their theophany stories. They are on the mountaintop, seeing God’s glory and hearing God’s voice. They are standing with Elijah and Moses. They have the same status as Moses and Elijah.
Now, maybe I’m making too much of this; that’s always possible! Maybe this is just me being a Bible trivia geek – though I happen to think “Bible trivia” is an oxymoron. But I think the details of this story reveal something enormously important. This story is about Jesus, of course, and who he really is. But this is also about Peter, James and John, and who they really are. And ultimately, it’s about all the disciples who will ever follow Jesus. It’s about us. About our identity and call, as disciples of Jesus Christ.
That we are as important to this story as Moses and Elijah.
That is hard to believe.
But that’s what Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, isn’t it?
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
We are in the presence of God, in the face of Jesus Christ.
And we are being transformed by him.
It isn’t a once-and-for-all kind of thing, as Paul sees it, or as the Gospel tells it. It’s not that we have a one-time mountaintop experience and we are changed, once and for all. It’s a lifetime of being transformed, day by day. We are ‘being’ transformed by living in the presence of Jesus.
And it doesn’t happen on our own, alone. Moses went to the mountain alone, Elijah went to the mountain alone, but the disciples went up with each other. It is a community of discipleship. “All of us,” Paul said, the community together. This isn’t an individual walk of faith but living together, witnessing to the transforming power of Jesus Christ.
It isn’t that we are something so special. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul said, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” We are not manufacturing some kind of internal beauty or power or holiness. We are not superior human beings. By all appearances we are as ordinary as can be. But we have this extraordinary power that comes from God.
And it isn’t for our own benefit. Like Moses, like Elijah, like the disciples, we have to go down the mountain and make something of this power we have been given by him. We have to do something with it for the sake of the people God loves.
I don’t know what your specific call is as a disciple. But this much I can safely say:
If you keep putting yourself in the presence of God, you will find yourself on the mountaintop.
If you keep walking with this community of saints, you will hear God’s voice speaking to you.
If you keep listening to Jesus, you will be transformed, day by day, until at last you are in his presence, forever.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church