Now about eight days after these sayings 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.
This is the last sermon in a series called “The Truth about God” that started on the first Sunday in January and now has taken us all the way through February. It’s been a good series, hasn’t it? We’ve been focusing mostly on the Gospel lessons from Luke, but operating on a principle from John 1:18, where it says: “No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” So, if we want to know the truth about God, we have to look at Jesus.
This seems especially relevant after last week’s sermon in which I quoted Karen Armstrong, a scholar of world religions who pointed out that in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity there is a shared belief that you should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—the so-called Golden Rule. How did those three different religions end up with the same belief? Maybe because each of those religions would describe itself as monotheistic, that is, each of them has only one God. And if I could be so bold, I would say that each of those religions has the same God. But there is a difference, and it is this: Muslims look at God through the lens of Muhammad; Jews look at God through the lens of Moses; but Christians look at God through the lens of Jesus. And Christians would tell you that Jesus has not only seen God, but is God.
Today’s Gospel lesson makes that abundantly clear. I’ve been trying to think of a good way to explain it, and I keep coming back to the analogy of the sun and the moon. When I was a boy I heard people say that the moon was made of green cheese. I don’t think they actually believed it, but that’s what some of them said, and the truth is they didn’t know: nobody had ever been to the moon. But on July 20, 1969, I stayed up late and watched on a neighbor’s black-and-white TV set as Neil Armstrong came down the ladder of the lunar module, stepped onto the surface of the moon, and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”[i] One of the things we learned from that mission is that the moon is not made of green cheese. Armstrong and his fellow astronauts scooped up samples from its surface and brought them back to earth. I can almost remember how disappointed I was when I learned that the moon was nothing but a big ball of dust and rocks.
And yet the moon hasn’t lost its romance. When you see it rising above the horizon it still moves you, doesn’t it? My wife, Christy, went out for an early morning walk near the end of 2020 and was surprised by an enormous full moon that seemed to follow her everywhere she went. She ended up writing a children’s book[ii] about that experience that includes the line: “I see the moon, so big and bright, he shines in the sky like a big flashlight.” But Christy knows, and you know, that the moon has no light of its own. It’s just a big ball of dust and rocks that reflects the light of the sun. But it’s hard to remember that sometimes, especially when the moon is shining so brightly you could almost read a newspaper by its light. It’s hard to remember in those moments that it’s not a flashlight, but a mirror.
Some of our readings for today pick up on the theme of reflected light. Exodus 34 tells us that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai his face was shining “because he had been talking with God.” Paul alludes to that event in 2 Corinthians 3, when he talks about Moses putting a veil over his face, initially to keep people from being frightened by the glory of God that was still shining there, but eventually because the glory was fading, and he didn’t want them to know it. Paul suggests that there is still a veil between the people of Israel and the glory of God. “Indeed, to this very day,” he writes, “whenever [the Law of] Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed…. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”[iii] Which is to say that the more we look on Jesus, the more we become like him, the more our faces shine.
Can you see why those readings were selected for this day, this Transfiguration Sunday, when Jesus goes up on a mountain and his face begins to shine like the sun? Technically, it’s only in Matthew’s version of this story that his face shines like the sun. Luke says that his face was “changed,” and his clothes became “dazzling white.” But I’m going to borrow that description from Matthew because it makes it clear that Jesus’ face was not shining like the moon; it was shining like the sun. That is, it wasn’t reflecting light, it was revealing it.
This is the way Christians talk about Jesus. Some of the earliest Christian confessions affirm that Jesus was the “only begotten Son of God,” and they make much of that word begotten, which means “to bring into existence.” The Nicene Creed puts it this way: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.” The word in Greek is homoousia. It means “one being,” or “one substance.” I keep picturing it like one of those solar flares[iv] that erupts from the surface of the sun and shoots into space, except that in this particular instance that ribbon of white-hot plasma shot all the way to earth and became the Son of God, and on the Mount of Transfiguration his true identity was revealed. His face was changed. It began to shine like the sun that he was. Or, rather, like the son that he was. Do you see how we do that, we Christians? Do you see how we talk about Jesus as if he were God? Muslims don’t do that with Muhammad. Jews don’t do that with Moses. But we do that with Jesus, and this story is one of the reasons. Luke and the other Gospel writers don’t want us to have any doubt in our minds.
Luke tells us that while Jesus was standing there, with his face changed and his clothes dazzling, Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet suddenly appeared in glory and began talking to him about his departure (or in Greek, his exodus). For those who have ears to hear these two represented the “Law and the Prophets”—which was what they called the Bible in those days—and when God says later, “This is my Son, my Chosen: listen to him,” it seems to be a way of saying, “Listen to him even above the words of Scripture. Let his words be for you, ‘The Word of the Lord.’”
Thanks be to God.
Peter and his companions were “weighed down with sleep,” Luke tells us, but since they had stayed awake they “saw his glory,” the same glory Moses saw on Mount Sinai, when a cloud settled on the mountain and the Lord descended in fire, and the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain shook (Ex. 19:18). Do you remember how John writes, in the story about Jesus turning water into wine, that his disciples “saw his glory and believed in him”? Here, too, the disciples get a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, and although Luke doesn’t say so, I think they believed in him as never before.
As Moses and Elijah were preparing to leave Peter said, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tabernacles—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” He didn’t know what he was saying, but it’s not the craziest thing he might have said. When Moses was on the mountain God gave him detailed plans for the construction of a tabernacle, a “dwelling place.” Peter may have been offering to do the same. But even as he makes the suggestion a cloud comes and covers the mountain. Matthew calls it a “bright cloud,” and I can almost picture it, lit up from the inside with lightning and rumbling with thunder. The disciples were terrified, but from within that cloud they heard a voice say, “This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him.” Or in Matthew’s version, “This is my son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
If you were there on that mountain, and if there were any doubts left in your mind, they would have disappeared right along with that cloud. You would have found yourself, like Peter, James, and John, alone with Jesus, the Chosen One, the Beloved Son. And along with later generations of believers you might have testified that he was “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.”[v] Yes. All of that and more. That’s what the story of the Transfiguration is trying to teach us.
In her comments on this passage[vi] Debie Thomas says, “Growing up, I was taught that the Transfiguration is important because it does the following: it reveals Christ’s divine nature, confirms his Sonship, foreshadows his death, secures his place in the stream of Israel’s salvific history, exalts him above the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), and prefigures his Resurrection.” And then she writes: “I don’t have any particular arguments with Transfiguration theology—it’s all lovely, I’m sure. But it leaves me cold. Maybe this is because my eyes aren’t on the clouds this year; they’re pretty earthbound.” Thomas wrote those words in January, 2016, but they might have been written this morning. Our eyes, too, are “pretty earthbound.” We are saying prayers for the people of Ukraine, and holding our breath to see what will happen there. All this talk about Jesus and his shining face seems strangely irrelevant.
And yet, not for Luke. His eyes are on the ground, too. Immediately after this story of glory on the mountain he tells a different story altogether, one that is often included in today’s Gospel reading. Listen to the words of Luke 9:37-43a:
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
It’s a very different story, isn’t it? And yet Debie Thomas tells it in a way that makes the parallels between the two stories clear. Listen to the way she describes the first scene:
On the mountain, a man bent in prayer erupts in sudden light. As glory leaks from every pore, three sleepy disciples cower in the grass and watch their Master glow. Two figures appear out of time and space; in solemn tones they speak of exodus, accomplishment, Jerusalem. The disciples, comprehending nothing, babble nonsense in response—“Let’s make tents! Let’s stay here always! This is good!” A cloud descends, thick and impenetrable. As it envelops the disciples, they fall to their faces, certain the end has come. But a Voice addresses them instead, tender and gentle. “This is my Son, my Chosen.” The Voice hums with delight, and the disciples, braver now, look up. They gaze at their Master—the Shining One—and a Father’s pure joy sings with the stars. “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.”
And now, listen to the way Thomas describes the second scene:
In the valley, a boy writhes in the dust. He drools, he cannot hear, and his eyes—wide-open, feral—see nothing but darkness. Around him a crowd gathers and swells, eager for spectacle. Scribes jeer, and disciples wring their hands in shame. “Frauds!” someone yells into the night. “Charlatans!” “Where’s your Master?” the scribes ask the disciples an umpteenth time. “Why has he left you?” “We don’t know,” the disciples mutter, gesturing vaguely at the mountain. Panic wars with exhaustion as they hear the boy shriek yet again—an echo straight from hell. He flails, and his limbs assault his stricken face. A voice—strangled, singular—rends the night. “This is my son!” a man cries out as he pushes through the crowd to gather the convulsing boy into his arms. Everyone stares as the father cradles the wreck of a child against his chest. “Please,” he sobs to the stars. “Please. This is my beloved son. Listen to him.”
What becomes clear in the way Thomas tells the story is that the heavenly Father has a Beloved Son, but so does this earthly father, so do most of us—at least most of us have people in our lives whom we love, and for whom we would do almost anything. The people of Ukraine do. But in Thomas’ telling of this story it becomes clear that God’s Beloved is here for all those other beloveds.
There’s a place in the Book of Exodus where God explains to Moses what he is up to. He appears to him in a burning bush on top of a mountain, a bush that was blazing and yet not consumed. Moses turns aside to see this “great sight,” and God says, “I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” And there you have it: an epiphany on a mountaintop where God makes it clear that he has come down because he cares about the suffering of his people. In today’s Gospel lesson there is another epiphany on a mountaintop, and in the story that follows God makes it clear that in Christ Jesus he has come down because he cares about the suffering of all people. This is the truth about God, and it is revealed by Jesus, not because he is the lens through which we see God, but because he is God himself. Listen to how Luke finishes the story: “Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And when it was over everyone who had witnessed it was astounded at the greatness of God.”
The greatness of whom?
The greatness of God.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[ii] Christy Somerville, “Walking with the Moon,” Amazon, 2021 (https://www.amazon.com/Walking-Moon-Mindfulness-Christy-Somerville/dp/B08TQ4F52L).
[iii] 2 Corinthians 3:18.
[iv] Technically a “Coronal Mass Ejection” (CME), but I didn’t want to sound like a know-it-all.
[v] From the Nicene Creed.
[vi] Debie Thomas (yes, that’s how you spell her first name), “The View from the Valley,” The Journey with Jesus, January 31, 2016 (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/813-the-view-from-the-valley).