Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.Luke 9:28-32
“Transfiguration” is a great word, isn’t it? It’s a word that used to be familiar only to active churchgoers. Until Harry Potter came along, that is. In Harry Potter’s world, “Transfiguration” is a branch of magic that deals with the alteration of the form or appearance of an object. The object is “transfigured,” changed in form or appearance. Just like Jesus in today’s gospel reading (Luke 9:28-36).
The Transfiguration of Our Lord is an important event in the New Testament, but we might wonder why. What is the point of Jesus being changed in this way? What does it mean, and why is it important enough to have its own festival? To get right to the point, the Transfiguration of Our Lord is important because it gives us a glimpse of how the Jesus-story will end. And sometimes it is important to know the ending. It gives us encouragement to continue on the way.
Seeing the Shore
This brings to mind a story told of the renowned distance swimmer, Florence Chadwick. Among her many other accomplishments, she was the first woman to swim across the English Channel both ways. Back in 1952, she set out to become the first woman to swim from Catalina Island to the mainland of California, a swim of over 20 miles. She stepped into the waters of the Pacific Ocean on a foggy, chilly day, determined to accomplish her goal. She swam for more than fifteen hours, in a fog so dense she could hardly see the boats accompanying her. But after fifteen hours, she was ready to quit. She asked to be taken out of the water. Her mother, in a boat alongside her, told her she was close, and assured her that she could make it. But Florence was physically and emotionally exhausted. She stopped swimming and was pulled out. It wasn’t until she was on the boat that she realized that the shore was less than half a mile away. At a news conference the next day, Florence said, “All I could see was the fog.…I think if I could have seen the shore, I would have made it.”
It’s amazing what we can endure when we know it will end, when we know for sure how much longer it will be. Seeing the shore can be the difference between swimming on, and giving up.
The Transfiguration – A Glimpse of the Shore
I think of this great miracle that we celebrate today as God’s way of showing Jesus and his closest disciples the shore. It is God’s way of encouraging them, before they go down the mountain and on to Jerusalem, by reminding them of how it will end, by showing them the shore.
But this miracle can also encourage us in the same way. It shows us the shore. It reminds us of the day when we will all be transfigured into heavenly glory. Right before we begin our Season of Lent, we are offered a glimpse of Easter. And it can give us the courage to face our sins and to face the cross, just as it did for Jesus and his closest disciples.
This miracle comes at a very important moment in the gospels, and in Jesus’ journey with his disciples. In fact, just eight days before going up the mountain, Jesus told his disciples for the first time what was about to happen, and it was not at all what they expected. He told his disciples that it was time for him to go to Jerusalem – to suffer, to be rejected by the chief priests, and to die, before being raised on the third day.
This is not a surprise to us, but it was to the disciples. This was not what they expected to happen. Not at all. We know the ending. We’ve read the story. But they were living the story, and the ending had yet to be lived, much less written.
And so, eight days after this puzzling conversation, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and went up on the mountain to pray. And while on the top of that mountain, this incredible miracle takes place. For Jesus, and for his disciples. While Jesus was praying, his appearance changed. He was transfigured, at least for a little while, into his post-Easter appearance. He was changed, for a moment, from the Son of Man to the Son of God.
For a moment, at least, they all saw through the fog, through the uncertainty that surrounded them, through the cross and the crucifixion and the trials that awaited them, to catch a glimpse of the shore, to see, for a moment, the heavenly glory that was coming.
Moses and Elijah
When we ponder this great story, we might wonder about one particular detail, and that is the presence of Moses and Elijah. Why did these great heroes of the faith appear to Jesus? What did they talk to him about?
Moses and Elijah have both been gone for centuries, but the way they left this earth was rather mysterious. Moses died after speaking with God on the top of a mountain, but no one knows where this great man was buried, according to Deuteronomy, which is surprising, and quite a mystery. And Elijah, of course, was carried on a chariot of fire, straight into heaven. And here, suddenly, in this incredible miracle, Moses and Elijah appear and are talking with Jesus. And their appearance itself is a glimpse of the distant shore, isn’t it?
Life-after-death is for real, and they are proof of it. They have come from that distant shore, to show Jesus and his closest disciples that heaven is for real, that life-after-death is for real. They have come to offer them, and us, a glimpse of the shore.
I think if I could have seen the shore, the great swimmer said, I would have made it. The Transfiguration offers Jesus and his disciples (and us) something similar: a glimpse of the shore, that they (and we) can envision as they head down the mountain and back to the struggle that awaits them.
Coming Down the Mountain
And it will be a struggle – for Jesus, and for his disciples, too. They must come down the mountain. Jesus must go to Jerusalem. He must suffer. He must die. They can’t stay on the mountain, as much as they would like to. Peter in particular loves being on the mountain. “It is good for us to be here,” he says, “let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
[As a side-note, I had the opportunity to visit Mount Tabor with my daughter, Katie, and it was an inspiring place, without a doubt. But I had to smile when Katie showed me the three shrines that were part of the church there: one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. It appeared to me that Peter got his wish, after all. 🙂]
Of course, you can’t really blame Peter for wanting to stay on that mountain top. We all like to draw out those mountaintop experiences. It was good for them to be there, and Peter wanted to stay. But they couldn’t stay on Mount Tabor. There was another mountain that awaited Jesus: Mount Calvary. And if heaven is to be real for us, if the shore is to be reached by us, then Jesus must go to that mountain, too. But that mountain could not be more different.
Think of the differences between Mount Tabor, where Jesus was transfigured into glory, and Mount Calvary, where Jesus was crucified into shame.
Here on Mount Tabor, his clothes are shining white. There on Mount Calvary, his clothes have been stripped off and gambled away.
Here he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes. There, he is flanked by two criminals, being crucified for the crimes they have committed.
Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene. There, darkness comes upon the land.
Here, Peter speaks up and offers to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. There, Peter hides in shame and denies even knowing Jesus.
Here, a voice from God himself declares that this is his son, his chosen. There, the voice of the crowds ridicules and derides him.
Mount Tabor and Mount Calvary could not be more different.
But they are connected. And they are both needed to tell the whole story of Jesus. Only together do these two famous places teach us of who Jesus is, and what he means for us. We can’t understand the glory of the transfiguration without the shame of the crucifixion. Nor can we understand the shame of the crucifixion, apart from the momentary glory of the transfiguration, and the eternal glory of the resurrection.
When we look at Jesus in glory, we must also see the cross. But when we look at the cross, we must always see the glory that awaits.
Lent and the Journey to the Cross
The Season of Lent begins this Wednesday, when we focus on the cross. We will gather for Services on Ash Wednesday, and have ashes placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. And we will begin the discipline of Lent, when we struggle with the sin still in our life, and the evil still in our world.
It won’t be easy, not if we take it seriously. It is, and should be, a struggle. But it is a struggle that has an endpoint; it has a goal; it has a destination. A glorious destination. A heavenly goal.
The shore may seem distant at times, but stories like today’s Gospel reading offer us a glimpse of that shore. They remind us that our struggle is not in vain – that there is not only a shore to be reached, but one that has been reached for us.
We know it to be true, because we know the end of this wonderful story. We know that Jesus went down the mountain, and journeyed to Jerusalem, and stretched out his arms, and did not give up the struggle, even when it would cost him his life. We know that Jesus accomplished what he set out to do. What we needed him to do. And we know that the Father raised His Son from the dead after three days, and transfigured Jesus once and for all into eternal, heavenly glory.
We know, in other words, that Jesus has reached the shore. And he beckons us to follow. And so, strengthened by the glimpse that we have been given, let us follow Jesus: to the cross, to the tomb, and finally to the heavenly glory that awaits us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.