Sermon published by Pastor Joel Pukallus
Bible reading: Mark 9:2-9
Here today is another story where we need to ask: why did this happen? Why is it recorded in the gospels? Who was it for? Who are the main actors or speakers in the story? What actually happened? And what does It mean??
Who is this event for? The disciples! The voice of God said “this is my son” talking about Jesus: talking TO the disciples. I mean, he wasn’t talking to Moses and Elijah. They knew who Jesus was!
This event is unique in the gospels. It is like a time machine.
Recently on ABC radio I heard an interview with a man who remembers as an eight year old boy, standing in a museum in front of an Egyptian mummy of an 8 year old boy. Here were two eight year old boys from different cultures somehow connected over 3000 years of time. He describes it today as a “time bridge”. I like it as a description of a phenomenon: A Time bridge.
This event, the transfiguration, was just such a time bridge. It connected the disciples to ancient events and stories of the faith. It connects us to them too.
Let’s think about some of the aspects of this story that link to famous events from the Jewish Scriptures:
Jesus glows white. When have we seen that before? Moses, in Exodus 34, his face was radiant, glowing, after speaking with God in the tent of meeting. So here God connects Moses and Jesus. Although the glory of Jesus was not reflected: it was his own.
What about Peter and this idea of building three tents?
Peter was not as silly as we have portrayed him. For years we have talked about his folly in wanting to stay in that moment, this whole building tents or booths thing is ridiculous to us.
But, let’s look at the time bridge: there are a lot of biblical scholars who believe that this event of the transfiguration took place on the “Last, greatest day” of the festival of succot, or, the festival of booths. This is a 7 day festival, coinciding with harvest time, where the people of Israel are required to make and live in booths or tents to commemorate that God lived with them in the tent of meeting, the tabernacle, as they travelled in the desert.
This all made sense to Peter. Here is God present in a cloud, just like when he travelled the desert in front of the people of Israel in a pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night. Peter’s scripture studies would have prepared him for this. Oh, and There was also a Jewish tradition that the last days would begin during the festival of booths.
So, Peter thought, here it is, all happening, this must be the start of the last times, I had better build the tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah to live in. Not such a silly move after all. In fact, he really joins the dots pretty quickly.
As he so often does, Jesus takes and transforms a festival, a holy day, an observance, into something more. (Like he did turning the Passover meal into the Lord’s Supper) Here, unlike that wandering in the desert, God was dwelling with the people in human form. No veil is needed, no tent with a curtain. God is here in the shape of a man.
Now Moses and Elijah were the two who the people of Israel believed would come back at the last times, they were two who disappeared in strange circumstances. Elijah didn’t die but was carried into heaven in a fiery chariot, and Moses’ grave was never found, as we are told in Deuteronomy 34 that he was buried by God himself in the valley opposite Beth Peor. So they represent both the living, and the dead. In fact, they represent the whole Old Testament, the scriptures of the Jewish people: Moses, the law giver, and Elijah the prophet.
Peter, James and John see Jesus with these two, and then these two great men go back into the cloud, and Jesus comes back out. It is like they have done their job, they have handed over to Jesus. Can you imagine, Moses and Elijah just playing support roles? They were the greatest in the history of Israel, and God’s story of salvation. Yet this story is not about them. It is about Jesus. This talking with him and then handing over is a physical symbolic action saying, “this is the one now”. And as the voice from heaven said: “Listen to him.”
Why did this happen? This event was to be a reassurance to the disciples in the times when things weren’t so glorious. Jesus didn’t want them to tell anyone else until after his resurrection. It wasn’t FOR anyone else. It was for them, for them to remember. Things look bleak, an arrest, a trial, a crucifixion. All seems lost. But wait, we saw Moses and Elijah with him, we heard the voice say that this is the one. Hang in there. There is something more.
The significance of this event was not for when they are up on the mountain. The significance of the transfiguration was for the hard days, the days in the valleys, the days of everyday life. Easter Sunday is the same! One day a year, and we love to be there and celebrate it! Yet when we need it most, is in the dark days, in the temptation days, in the hospital rooms and funeral homes and the very non-mountaintop experiences.
So what does the transfiguration mean for us? It is tempting to want the mountaintop experiences, the signs and wonders, the miraculous shows of power. They are good for us, they buoy us up. But they are not all there is to the Christian Faith and this earthly life. The theology of the cross tells us that Jesus needs us to be where he came to be, in the everyday, in the seemingly mundane. In the meeting together on a Sunday and partaking in Holy Communion year after year, and listening to a faltering sermon and trying to find God in amongst all this.
Because he has promised that he will be found here. Remember this is the same Jesus who did not live in palaces, in luxury and in power. Just as they did at his birth, wise men (and women) still seek him today in lowly places. Where people are hurting and need comfort, where faith is flagging and we need reassurance, we remember the radiance and the glory and the heavenly voice, and we look forward, because we know that at the end of everything, it will be like that again. But until then, we come back down the mountain into the everyday.
And Jesus meets us here. Isn’t that glorious? Powerful enough to stand in the presence of God, talking with Moses and Elijah, yet humble and loving enough to be found in your life, in his word, in bread and wine and in other people.
It’s good, Lord, to be here.