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Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 7, 2016

When I was a girl, I identified myself as a student. My symbols of my purpose were my books and my pens. I also identified myself as a ballet dancer. I had leotards and toe shoes. As I grew I took on other identities. After school, I became an arts administrator, working for a company that put on dance shows. Posters that I hung up at different places to market the shows identified my work. That morphed into a marketing job and a job with another publication. I became an editor, with my galley proofs and my glue to stick them on pages for layout until we had computers doing that job. Then God moved me on to the priesthood, where I wear a collar and carry a Bible. I have had many purposes in my life, and I believe God sent me all of them. In a sense I was transfigured, my new meanings and purposes made plain by the equipment I carried.) 

A transfiguration is an event in which meaning and purpose are revealed. Jesus’ transfiguration is such an event. Of course, mine were pedestrian transfigurations and this is an awesome event. Jesus had one purpose; his life had one meaning and God revealed it to Peter, James and John in order that they might hear and listen to Jesus and by implication do what he said.

It is important to know when the transfiguration occurred. It is sandwiched between two explanations of Jesus’ passion. When Peter identified him as the Messiah of God, he was thinking person who would save Israel from the Romans. When Jesus explained himself as a suffering and dying Messiah instead, it scared Jesus and it scared the disciples. Jesus talked about picking up your cross daily and following him as a way of discipleship. Jesus had committed himself to this mission to Jerusalem and death and resurrection, but the disciples were very unsure.

So eight days later they go on a mountaintop, where important experiences of God occur, and Jesus is transfigured and blessed by God. This event is surely designed to give Jesus confirmation of who he is and what he is to do and to give the disciples notice that Jesus is who he says he is and that they are to listen.

Several important events characterize Jesus’ transfiguration The first is prayer. Jesus had been in prayer after his baptism, when he chose his disciples and when Peter identified him as the Messiah. Now he is in prayer again when this startling change in him takes place. His face shines and his clothes are dazzling white.

Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus in glory. They are the great symbols in Israel of the law and the prophets, and mark his continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures. They too have had mountaintop experiences. Moses received the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai and climbed a mountain to see the Promised Land, even though he would not be permitted to enter it. Elijah had met God on Mount Hebron where God defeated the prophets of Ba’al. Their presence with Jesus signifies that he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. He is the Savior – God’s promise coming true for God’s people. That is his identity. That is his mission and purpose.

Moses and Elijah are there to talk about Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection and possibly his ascension. His departure or his “exodos” in Greek will take place in Jerusalem. Just as Moses’ led God’s people to liberation through the exodus from Egypt and through the wilderness, Jesus’ death will lead God’s people out of the bondage of sin and death to new life. Jesus’ death is not an accident. It is part of Jesus’ meaning and purpose.

And there is something more. Jesus’ dazzling appearance suggests that there is more to this story than suffering and death – that crucifixion is not the end of the story. Readers of this gospel know that it is the resurrection, but the disciples don’t know. They are still stunned by what they have heard from Jesus and worried about the investment they have made in him. Resurrection too is not an accident. Jesus’ meaning and purpose is defined by it.

But the most important thing about the transfiguration is the voice of God sounding from a cloud, blessing Jesus and instructing his disciples. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him! As at Jesus’ baptism, when Jesus is identified as God’s beloved Son in whom God is well pleased, he receives continued confirmation from God, and the disciples receive instructions to listen.

What about the disciples? Do they see Jesus’ meaning and purpose as something they can participate in or are they just too befuddled? Luke tells us they are sleepy, but they stay awake and alert enough to see the glory all around them. They are on the ball enough to want to do what all of us want to do when faced with an experience of the divine –to hold on to it. That’s why Peter wants to build three booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. But Moses and Elijah are heavenly beings now and Jesus cannot be contained either if his purpose is to be fulfilled. Peter did not understand the temporary nature of any mountaintop experience. The disciples did understand when the cloud descended on them that God was going to speak because God had lead Israel through the wilderness in a cloud during the day, and they were terrified. Then when Jesus stands alone and ordinary after the experience they are too stunned to say anything about it. They were also instructed by Jesus not to tell anyone who he was.

The transfiguration story ends here in Matthew and Mark, but it goes on in Luke. They come down the mountain, back to real life, back to the hard work of ministry. The disciples have been given the power to heal for the journeys they took, but do not seem to be able to do it here. Have they lost their power because they have lost their faith in Jesus as the kind of Messiah they want? Whatever the reason, Jesus has to heal the boy and he does. He has great faith in his Father, especially after the Transfiguration.

The disciples go on to hear Jesus’ second passion prediction and then argue about who is the greatest. They clearly are only listening to the parts of Jesus’ teaching they want to hear. How are we about listening to Jesus? Do we have mental faith that leads us to belief? What about relationship with God, that leads to trust and then to healthy relationships with others and ourselves. That is good, but that is not enough. Once we trust Jesus, we have to do what Jesus tells us to do. That is part of listening. (Thomas Groome). Doing what Jesus did is risky business for all of us. Standing up for the poor, the oppressed, those in prison, those with illnesses or disabilities is the hard work of ministry. And it is not just hard for us as individuals. It is hard for the church to discern its meaning and purpose. Who are we and what does God call us to do? It takes work and prayer to vision for our community as much as it does for ourselves.

The Transfiguration teaches us that Jesus is who he says he is. God confirmed it in changing his appearance and in his words to us about listening to Jesus. We need to be here, growing spiritually, so we can go out in the world and follow Jesus. Our sole meaning and purpose is to be disciples. Our job is to live that vocation is all that we do.


     --- Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
The three parts of the Transfiguration – continuity with the law and the prophets, death and resurrection come from Beverly Gaventa, Texts for Preaching, Year C, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) p. 177-178.

Thomas H. Groome, A Shared Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, the Way of Shared Praxis (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991) p. 18-21, in Jeffrey L. Tribble, Sr., d, Year C, vol. 1, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 456