Exodus 24: 12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17: 1-9
I grew up in West Virginia going to see a lot of movies. In fact my house, for most of my childhood, was right around the corner from a local movie theater. Most weekends you would find me at at least one of the showings, if not more. Sometimes it was even the same movie for several weeks. But, going to movies became one of my past times and, to this day, is something I really enjoy. So, there are often times when I read scripture and I can relate it so vividly to something I have seen on the silver screen. I try not to intermingle the Word of God with pop culture too much, but for today’s reading I have an example that is just too good to pass up.
Most of the younger kids in our congregation have no idea who Christopher Reeve was and would laugh at the character of Superman he played during my childhood years. But, to me, during those years he was the Man of Steel and he was every bit the legendary hero that my comics made him out to be. The original superman movies were a bit more slapstick than our superhero movies nowadays but Superman always had to save Lois from the clutches of the bad guy back then, just as he does now. In Superman II, however, he admits he is in love with Lois Lane and, in doing so, has to reveal who he really is. Lois sees clark without his glasses, and has a moment of recognition, sees him stick his hand in a fire and not get burnt, and then she knows. Clark Kent is no longer simply a man, he is Superman.
Of course, after the love affair is ignited, mayhem ensues and Superman must save the world while Lois comes to grasp this information she has just learned. When the world is safe and the bad guys are defeated, we find our two main characters in Lois’ office at the Daily Planet. She is crying and Clark is trying to console her, but she persists, saying, “Don’t you understand? Nothing can ever be the same. I can never look at you the same. We can never be the same. Because I know who you are. I know the truth.”
Peter, James, and John likely believe they are ascending the mountain side with Jesus to go with him in prayer. Afterall, Jesus has done this on several occasions after speaking or being in large crowds. But, this time is different. To their amazement they witness something that is amazing, and is what we commonly call the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Most scholars would suggest that this passage of scripture is important for the similarities it draws between Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai and his meeting with God. So, let’s discuss those for a moment. First, the passage starts with the phrase, “after the sixth day”. It is difficult to tell what the six days is in reference to, but if we are to look back at Exodus, we see that Moses and Joshua ascended the mountain only partially until Moses was told to come up by God after the sixth day. Second, three of Jesus’ disciples are mentioned in this passage. Just as three of Moses’ closest companions are mentioned in the account in Exodus. Moses is accompanied by Joshua, while Aaron and Hur are tasked to keep peace with the people. The naming of these companions helps to give credence to the account by naming the witnesses to its happenings. Third, just as God has approached Mount Sinai in cloud, God is also present on the mountain with Jesus in the form of a cloud. Lastly, from that cloud comes God’s voice and what God says are the words God’s people are to live by; to Moses, God delivers the commandments, but to the disciples, God reveals the nature of God’s son, Jesus Christ, and ushers in the new commandments, by stating, “listen to Him.”
It is clear, there are many similarities between the passages. They are important because they carry the story and the work of Jesus through the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Matthew’s text is demonstrating the connection of Jesus to the original savior of Israel, Moses, and to the beloved prophet Elijah. Elijah’s presence is significant, for Elijah’s return was to precede the coming of the Messiah. The prophet’s presence on this mountain with Jesus, confirms that Elijah has indeed been with them, and that the presence was in the form of John the Baptist.
As you can see, just in this one account witnessed by the three disciples, there is a lot going on. But, I have not even mentioned the most significant event they witnessed yet.
The word “transfigured” is from the Greek word, “metamorfoo”, which means to be transformed. The description of Jesus’s transformation is accounted for in Matthew as he Jesus shines with light and His clothes became dazzling white. Again, there is a similarity here with Moses’ interaction with God. After Moses spoke with God his face shone so brightly that people could not look upon him. Therefore, Moses had to wear a veil when out in public from that time forward. Jesus’ light is different, however, because Moses’ face was more like a reflection, while Jesus’s face and body are radiating the light, like the Sun.
Jesus was transformed in the presence of God, Moses, Elijah, and the three disciples to reveal His true nature, that of God. He had been walking with humans as a human, but now he was revealing His full glory and power. There were no new tablets needed, for God was in front of the disciples. God, simply commanded to listen to Jesus. Jesus spoke the words of God.
Peter’s reaction receives quite a bit of criticism from those who look to pull significance from its meaning. He says, “let us build three dwellings for the three of you.” The most common suggestion is that Peter is referencing the Feast of the Tabernacles, in which the farmers build temporary huts at the edges of their fields as they prepare to make their harvest. Maybe, Peter believed he was witnessing the end of times or maybe, he wanted to build the three commemorative monuments. His thoughts are unclear, but I tell you what, mine would be too! Peter, we know is a hard charger, often to act before thinking, and he has just witnessed the most astonishing thing in his life! He needs to act! He wants to act! Yet, he is unsure how to do so.
In front of them, stands the man they have been following, listening to, and learning from for months. He stands before them transformed from man into God, dazzling white and shining like the sun.
The Greek word for Transfiguration, or profound change, is found only four times in the New Testament. As you can guess, two times are in reference to this event with Jesus on the mountaintop. But, the other two, are referenced in Romans and 2 Corinthians, in the Epistles from Paul. His use of the word does not speak of Jesus’ transformation but of yours and of mine.
James, Peter, and John are our vision to the account that gives us the definitive information, even before His death and resurrection, of who Jesus was. There was no way for them to come down that mountain in the same spiritual shape they were in as they ascended it. They had seen Clark Kent remove his glasses, stick his hand in the fire, and become Superman! Life could not be lived the same way. Each story told by their teacher would have more meaning, each miracle more impact, each lesson responded to with increased faith. Or, it should have.
In the passages of scripture that follow this narrative of Jesus’ transfiguration we find Jesus’ most strong rebuke of His disciples for their lack of faith. Maybe it is stronger because they have seen and should know. They do not just have an idea but they have witnessed the truth.
We are Jesus’ disciples. He has revealed Himself to us in many ways. We cannot be in His presence and be unchanged. Our hearts, just like Jesus was transformed on the mountain, must be transformed in God’s glory and God’s grace. We cannot be the same people we were before we knew Jesus and the salvation He brought us. It is impossible.
Lord, we are your church. Open our eyes that we may see. Open our ears that we may hear. Open our hearts that we may act.