February 5, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for February 7, 2016. Transfiguration. Year C.
Texts are: Exodus 34.29-35
My thoughts were inspired by Brian Zahnd’s sermon, “Jesus is What God Has to Say“; Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life (Lancaster, PA: JDL Press, 2013), esp. ch. 1.1, “Beginning with Jesus” (pp. 32-38). And Sufjan Stevens’ transcendent song, The Transfiguration.
An audio link to the sermon is embedded below for those who would rather listen.
A STORY TOO WEIRD NOT TO PREACH
Our Gospel lesson today began with Jesus taking three of his disciples—Peter, John, and James—up on a mountain to pray.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary there. Jesus preferred to pray in secluded places like mountaintops. And Peter, John, and James were his constant sidekicks.
Now, here’s where the story gets weird.
As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem. Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him.
This story, to me, raises so many more questions than, Why was Jesus glowing?
For instance, Luke tells us—and Luke is the only one who records this embarrassing little detail—that Peter and the others were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake. How do you have to pinch yourself to keep from dozing off through that? We’re talking incandescent Jesus and two very special guests from the great beyond. Not one of my sermons. We would have missed out on hearing of this fantastic event because the disciples slept through it.
Of course, those of us who grew up hearing all the Bible stories know this wouldn’t be the last time the disciples got caught dozing on the job.
Here’s another question I’ve always had about this story. How did they know it was Moses and Elijah up there with Jesus? Did they come with accessories to identify them? Was Moses holding stone tablets? Was Elijah wearing his mantle? Or did Jesus say, Hey guys, I want you to meet my friends, Moses and Elijah. Yes, that Moses and Elijah.
Like most biblical authors, Luke is not interested in my cheeky questions. He just rolls on with his story. Ignoring me hopping up and down, waving my hand in the air, desperate to know all the hows and whys.
Tell you the truth, as dazzled as I am by this story, I have a difficult time making sense of it. Much less preaching it. To me, it’s one of those random, spookier than the X-Files, what’s this doing in the Bible? and do we really need three versions of it? passages. It’s right up there with God wants to kill Moses and his wife saves the day by circumcising their teenage son and throwing the foreskin at Moses’ privates (Exod. 4.24-26). There’s some interesting devotional reading for you.
On the other hand, the story is just too weird not to preach. Because if I don’t help you make sense of it, some wild-haired conspiracy nut with a degree from a diploma mill will go on TLC and convince you it’s about ancient aliens.
MOSES AND ELIJAH DISCUSS JESUS’ EXODUS
You know what? I’m not sure that Jesus himself expected this visit from the long-dead heroes when he took his disciples up on that mountain.
I like to imagine that he’d gone up there intending to be alone with his three best friends for a while. Processing. Praying. Prepping for the next leg of the journey, which would take them to Jerusalem. Where the leaders of his own people would sell him out to Rome. A state-sanctioned lynching.
I see Jesus praying. I see Peter, James, and John—worn out, freaked out, ground down to the nubs—beginning to doze. Fighting sleep. Winning the first few rounds. But they’re getting wobbly.
All of a sudden, Jesus realizes that light is radiating from him. It takes him a few seconds to become fully aware of this. After all, stranger things have happened in his life. Why am I glowing?, he wonders.
That’s when he notices they’re not alone. Moses and Elijah have shown up. Literally out of nowhere. No one has to tell him it’s Moses and Elijah. He just knows.
Just like the detail of the dozing disciples, only in Luke’s Gospel do we find out what Moses and Elijah have come from the great beyond to speak with Jesus about. They spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem.
The word Luke used for departure was Exodus.
Of course, Moses knew a thing or two about Exoduses, didn’t he? And what about Elijah’s departure? Slipping the surly bonds of earth in a chariot of fire to touch the face of God.
But Jesus knew his Exodus would be something completely different. There’d be no thrilling escape for him in a chariot of fire. The violent men who were hunting him down to kill him would not be swallowed up by the sea.
I hope that Moses and Elijah spoke tenderly to Jesus. Especially Elijah. That man always was a bit moody. And even the Son of God must be terrified by the idea of being betrayed. Thrown away. Left behind. Tortured. Exposed. Mocked while he suffers. And his mama has to watch.
But mostly, I suspect they basically came to tell Jesus, It’s your turn now.
They had done what they could to “produce”, as Brian Zahnd put it, “a just and worshiping society.”  Their shift was over. Jesus had clocked in. It was his time, now.
The dozing disciples came to their senses enough to catch glimpses of this mountaintop summit of Jesus and the heroes of old. James and John were speechless. Peter, yawning and rubbing his eyes, managed to blurt out: Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
Luke makes sure to let us know that Peter had no idea what he was talking about. So often we don’t, when it comes to holy moments. We can be standing three feet from a miracle, and still have no idea what it means.
“THIS IS MY SON! LISTEN TO HIM!”
Elijah and Moses have joined Jesus on the mountain. They’re incandescent, clothed in heavenly splendor. Peter, James, and John have been half-asleep. James and John are tongue-tied. Peter stammers something about building shrines for Jesus and Moses and Elijah.
But Peter isn’t fully awake. Peter doesn’t know what he’s talking about. God needs to come down and sort it all out for him.
Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. It’s the glory cloud. It’s the cloud of God’s presence. It’s the cloud that led the Exodus generation by day. It’s the cloud that covered Sinai while God gave Moses the law. It’s the cloud that filled the tabernacle, and later, the temple. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe. It’s time for Peter to join James and John in silence.
And in the silence of the cloud, a voice rings out: This is my Son, my chosen one. We have heard this voice before, saying very much the same thing. When Jesus was baptized, the voice said: You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness (Luke 3.22). God addressed that word to Jesus. Now God wants everyone to hear it: This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!
This is my Son. Listen to him! All authority in heaven and on earth is given to him. Whatever he binds and looses on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven.
And in the cloud of God’s presence, the meaning of what has happened on this mountain is crystal clear. Moses represents the law. Elijah represents the prophets. Together, they embody the the Hebrew Scriptures. The law and the prophets. Genesis to Malachi. They have been leading the people toward Jesus. They have reflected Jesus to an extent—in a mirror dimly, as it were. But now it is time for them to take a bow. They knew in part, and they prophesied in part. But now that which is perfect has come.
And, as if on cue, Luke tells us, Moses and Elijah vanish into the night. Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone.
Jesus alone is left. This is my Son. Listen to him!, God says. This means that nothing in the law and the prophets can override, contradict, or qualify anything Jesus has to say.
Like my friend Michael Hardin puts it, we must interpret the law and the prophets in the light of Christ before we interpret Christ in the light of the law and the prophets.  That’s the message of the Mount of Transfiguration.
This story illustrates the claim that begins the first chapter of Hebrews:
In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways. In these final days, though, he spoke to us through a Son. Jesus is God’s final word.
And so we hear Jesus, again, in the Sermon on the Mount: I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5.44-45). Moses told the Israelites to slaughter their enemies, the Canaanites. Elijah did slaughter his enemies, the prophets of Baal. Who will we listen to?
One time, some Pharisees brought a woman caught into the act of adultery to Jesus. They asked him: In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say? (John 8.5) They had book, chapter, and verse on their side. But Jesus said: Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone (John 8.7). Who will we listen to?
In Matthew 15, Jesus healed a Canaanite girl. According to Moses, that child should have been killed. Who will we listen to?
A few days after the encounter with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, some Samaritans chased Jesus and the disciples out of their village. James and John apparently hadn’t learned much from the experience, because they asked him: Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them? (Luke 9.54). Elijah did that once to some enemy soldiers (2 Kings 1.10-12). They were still listening to Elijah. Who will we listen to?
Near the end of his days, Moses stood atop a mountain and told the tribes to go out and conquer all the nations. Jesus’ last words to his disciples—again from a mountain—were: go and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28.19). Who will we listen to?
Well maybe—just maybe—we should actually pay attention to what God said on that mountain: This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!
“Jesus Is What God Has To Say – Brian Zahnd.” Brian Zahnd RSS. February 12, 2015. Accessed February 05, 2016. http://brianzahnd.com/2015/02/jesus-god-say/.
 Michael Hardin, The Jesus-Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity with Jesus. Rev. ed. (Lancaster, PA: JDL Press, 2013), 33.