Texts: 2 Kings 2:1-12; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-10
The Bible records that Moses died, but because nobody ever knew where he was buried it was widely speculated that he never actually died, either. Rather, because he was the most important prophet ever to speak for God, many believe that God took also Moses into heaven.
You may remember a few weeks ago the reading from Deuteronomy in which Moses delivers God’s message that God will raise up for the people a prophet like Moses. The books of 1 & 2 Kings suggest that Elijah was this prophet. Like Moses, he received the word of the LORD on Mt. Sinai—not on stone tablets, but in a still, small voice. Like the rod Moses carried, Elijah had a mantle that he wore as a symbol of authority. With the mantle he was able to do miracles, like when he used it to part the waters of the Jordan for him and Elisha to cross. Elijah was a great prophet in the tradition of the first great prophet, Moses. Both of them were said never to have died, but to instead live with God in heaven.
When these two holy men who still live with Jesus appear on the mountaintop with Jesus, it suggests that Jesus, too, is a great prophet in the tradition of Elijah and of Moses before him; that Jesus is the prophet written about in Deuteronomy. “You shall listen to such a prophet,” God said. That message is repeated on the mountain: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Six days earlier, Peter had identified Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus told his disciples to keep that identity a secret, but he then immediately began teaching—publicly—that he would have to be handed over to the religious authorities who would torture and kill him, and that he would rise again. This doesn’t fit the pattern: if he is a prophet in the tradition of Moses and Elijah, if he is really the Son of God, then we would expect that he will not die, either.
This is what is so interesting about the Transfiguration. It both fits the pattern of what we expect from the divine Son of God, and it doesn’t. All the markers of God’s presence are there: the mountaintop, the clouds and great prophets and shining glory, even the voice of God; but whereas Jesus openly taught about his coming suffering and death, the Transfiguration had only three witnesses, and they were told not to say anything.
After Moses came back from talking to God on Mt. Sinai, his face would glow with the glory of God. It was like holding a glow-in-the-dark sticker up to a lamp and then turning out the light. Unfortunately for Moses, like the sticker, the divine light shining from his face eventually faded. After he had delivered God’s words to the people and let them see his shining face, he would wear a veil; not so that people couldn’t see the glory, but so that they couldn’t see when it was gone. He may have worn the veil to remind people of God’s presence, or he may have done it to keep them from seeing him as a regular old human being just like they were.
St. Paul uses the image of Moses’ veil to talk about God’s glory. Like Moses, and like Peter, we see the glory of God in the shiny things, like the Transfiguration or the light from Moses’ face. We see God’s blessings in all the good things that happen to us: good health, a warm and safe place to live, a promotion, good fortune in the stock market. Like Moses and his veil, we think that God’s glory is only there when we see the light shining. When the light fades—when things are not going well, when trouble and misfortune set in—we believe that God’s glory and God’s blessing are gone.
That’s why when Jesus began teaching about his suffering and death, Peter took him aside and rebuked him, tried to set him straight. God’s greatest prophets and God’s Messiah don’t die. People won’t follow a Messiah who dies. That’s not shiny enough, not glorious enough. If Jesus wants people to listen to him, he’s going to have to give them a show, like Moses’ shining face speaking to him on the mountaintop.
In his book Hunting the Divine Fox, Robert Capon writes, “We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: he claimed to be God then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross… He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying.”
Peter and James and John and all of us see God’s glory in the great and mighty and miraculous things. We see the glory of God in the shining face of Moses, in the immortality of the prophets who speak truths and perform miracles in God’s name. Paul says that to see God’s glory in only those things is to be blind. We are wearing veils over our faces that keep us from seeing the glory of God where it is really shining: not in the dazzling face of Moses or the radiant white of Jesus’ clothing, but in the face of Jesus himself—the Crucified One.
According to Paul, it isn’t Moses’ face, shining with glory that reveals God to us, but the face of Jesus—the face contorted in pain and breathing his last on the cross. It is in this ugly act of sin and rejection that we see who God truly is: not the kind of God who overpowers or erases evil, but the kind of God who wades through it with us.
This is what Peter and James and John and the others don’t get; and it is why Jesus tells them not to talk about the things they know until after his resurrection. Until they understand what rising from the dead means, they cannot understand what Messiah means, what the Transfiguration means, what all the healings and exorcisms and miracles mean. None of it makes sense apart from the cross.
The feast of the Transfiguration is not so much about Jesus being transfigured on the mountaintop as it is about the way Jesus transfigures our perception of the world around us. Through the lens of the cross, we begin to see the world the way it truly is. Those places we call god-forsaken are actually where God is most present. God has not abandoned us in times of trouble or pain; God has settled in beside us.
What this means for us is that Jesus isn’t just found in the obvious places, or the obvious people. He isn’t in the beautiful churches or the music that stirs our souls or the miraculous recovery from an illness. He is in the ordinary, the mundane, even the ugly. He’s in simple bread and wine and water. He’s in the heart that aches for another. He’s in the pitiful face of a human being begging for spare change. He’s in the grief that tears us apart when someone we love dies.
It also means that it’s not our perfection, our goodness, our strengths that reveal God, but our weakness, our humanness. Moses veiled his face so that people would not see his humanness when the light faded, but it is the humanness of Christ, especially evident in his death, that reveals God’s glory. That humanness that we share with him is where God is made visible to our neighbors and friends. The fact that God uses such imperfect and unreliable people like us testifies that there is nowhere God is not. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul writes, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us… We…always carry in [our bodies] the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (2 Cor 4.7, 10)
The glory of God is that Christ did not come as a savior only for holiest of the holy, people like Elijah and Moses who were so great and powerful that they never died and whose deeds and faces shown with the radiance of heaven. God’s glory is shown in a savior who came for all those who are flawed and broken and imperfect, all who suffer and die. In him our suffering and death have been transfigured to reveal the glory of God to a suffering and dying world. Everywhere death touches us—in pain, in illness, in grief, in anger, in injustice—that is where we see Jesus because that is where he teaches us what it means to rise from the dead.
The lesson of Transfiguration is not that we can’t stay on the mountain with Moses and Elijah forever; it’s that Jesus is forever with us on the plain, in the valleys and even on the cross. God’s glory isn’t revealed in the glowing white clothes or immortal prophets, but a God who lives with us, a God who walks with us, a God who suffers and dies with us. God’s glory is revealed in a God who rises from the dead with us.