The gospel readings of the first 4 Sundays of Lent (Sunday 5 is from John) are chosen from different parts of Luke’s gospel to highlight specific areas of Lenten practice. Each one is a timely and appropriate message for Lent. Today we look at the “Transfiguration”.
It’s not difficult to imagine anyone being overawed by the sight of the stars on a clear night. “Look up to the heavens and count the stars.” Said the Lord to Abram in the first reading from Genesis.
The Pole Star, Polaris in the constellation of Ursa Minor (wherever that is), is the bright star that currently marks the point in the night sky that gives us true north. However, because the Earth wobbles on its axis, taking approximately 25,770 years to complete one “wobble”, on 24th March 2100 the pole star will be a different star in the constellation in Cepheus (wherever that is!) not in Ursa Minor. Even the heavens change, they just take a little longer!
Back to Genesis, when the faint star Thuban in the constellation Draco was the North Star, we are told that “(on) that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram” This was when God said: “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
One of many stories of mortal men speaking with God. A “mountaintop” experience which changed lives and even the course of history!
In today’s gospel Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him “up to the mountain to pray”. In Luke’s account of the transfiguration we are told that Jesus prayed. Mark and Mathew don’t explicitly mention this. Clearly, Luke wanted us to know that.
The apostles woke to see Jesus changed, his clothes as brilliant as lightning, talking to two men who they took to be Moses and Elijah. Two OT characters representing the Law and the Prophets. Both of whom, we are told in scripture, were taken up to heaven without actually dying.
In Martin Luther King’s last speech he said: “I have been to the mountaintop”. An experience which not only changed his life but the destiny of his society. I’m not sure the three disciples saw it quite like that!
It is hard to imagine what the impact of the transfiguration did have on the disciples. In Luke’s gospel, 8 days before, Jesus told them for the first time, the details of his suffering and death. Now they see him resplendent in glory with two people from the distant past who they believed never died! Does this hint at resurrection and/or eternal life?
Luke also tells us of the subject of the conversation of Moses and Elijah with Jesus; they were speaking of the ‘exodus’ he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. ‘Exodus’ is a word that calls to mind all that happened when, centuries before, Israel won her freedom by her escape from Egyptian oppression. Jesus was soon to bring deliverance to God’s people from sin.
Poor old Peter, half asleep, began babbling about building “three tents”, three monuments to mark this momentous event.
A voice from heaven saved him from acute embarrassment: “This is my son, the chosen one. Listen to him”
Then, a lovely sentence, when they looked round there was no one, only Jesus. What a fantastic thing, to wake up and find “only Jesus”!
This most dramatic revelation of Jesus’ identity comes with the voice of God. The basic message echoes the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism (3:22), but there are notable differences:
- The message at Jesus’ baptism was spoken directly to Jesus (“You are my son”), but here the message is for the disciples’ ears (“This is my son”).
- At the baptism the adjective describing Jesus’ sonship was “beloved” -- again, a message directed at Jesus -- but here it is “chosen,” describing Jesus’ relationship to God from the disciples’ perspective.
- The message of Jesus’ sonship here imperative: “Listen to him!” Jesus’ sonship is not a matter of abstract theology but requires the response of the disciples to Jesus’ message.
- The voice at the baptism came “from heaven,” but here it comes from the very cloud in which the disciples are already enveloped. An intense experience of God’s close presence! Reminiscent of Moses’ own experience of God’s presence at Sinai. These references are not just random!
Luke tells us that the disciples told nobody at that time what had happened. Would you be able to keep silent after such an event? I suspect they, as so often before, did not yet understand. Strangely, unlike Martin Luther King.
For us, who now understand so much more – maybe? The key message is clear “This is my son, the chosen one. Listen to him”
Listen and follow but beware, the going may be tough. Jesus’ most recent message to the disciples 8 days before emphasized the costly demands made on those who would follow him.
Jesus is going to Jerusalem where he will be put to death. He will rise again, as will all his faithful people, he will be the “first born of all creation”. However, the cost of discipleship may well be hard.