The Transfiguration is a story with six characters. Can we identify with any of them? Would we want to identify with them?
Picture and listen. Picture the scene as if it were a kind of still life, like a creche set up before our eyes. Here is Jesus, dazzling with the presence of God, with two long-dead prophets talking to him. And three disciples – Peter, John and James -- so sleepy that at first they can hardly hold their eyes open.
Would we fully identify with even one of them? Jesus is the Son of God, and we wouldn’t want to be presumptuous and think we could ever be all that he is. Moses spoke to God face-to-face (kind of scary), and Elijah, instead of being buried in the earth, was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. We’ll deal with them in a minute or two. The disciples, sitting slumped on the ground – I can almost see two of them leaning back to back, the other maybe even stretching out on the ground, leaning on one elbow, yawning. Frankly their human frailty, their not sitting up straight and wide-eyed, and paying attention to Jesus and these amazing visitors -- that is, until he takes on an unearthly glow – makes them a little bit too human. We’ve seen them be dense sometimes, pushy sometimes, and now really dense. We don’t want to be like that, do we?
But let’s not slip out of this scene because we feel like we don’t belong. Let’s not walk out on the Transfiguration. God does promise us that through Scripture we will meet God, and our identities as individuals and as a community of faith will be formed and transformed. If that is so, surely there is someone here who is like us, someone whom we would desire to be like so that the Scripture’s presentation of the Transfiguration is truly a formative story for us.
Let’s circle the scene starting with Jesus. Of course we can’t presume to identify fully with Jesus the Son of God, God’s chosen. But there is something we have in common with Jesus – our humanity. As a human being, Jesus often got really tired. We see that when he tries to get away, to go into the hills for a prayer break, to get a mountaintop perspective. As a human being, maybe he’s wondering how effective his ministry has been to date.
From the mountaintop looking over the land of Galilee, if he squints, maybe he can make out the figure of the little girl that he raised from the dead a few days earlier. She’s playing happily outside in the courtyard in front of her house. Perhaps he can see Herod, pacing back and forth on his roof, shaking his fist in the air and muttering, “I got rid of John. Now who really is this new nuisance, this Jesus? How will I deal with him?”
Perhaps Jesus can see a crowd gathering on one side of the mountain asking one another, “Where did that miracle worker go with his loaves and fishes? We’re hungry again!” Maybe on the other side of the mountain he can see another crowd gathering – in their midst, a young boy having a seizure, foaming at the mouth, shrieking and moaning, while people ask frantically, “Where’s the healer?”
If you know what it is to be tired, to be misunderstood, to have too many people seeking you out for what you can do for them, to have people criticizing you and working against you, you have a little something in common with Jesus. And if you have ever been filled with dread at what lies ahead, you have a little something in common with Jesus.
He has come up here to be alone, but once on the mountain, deep in prayer, with the three disciples waiting a little ways away, here comes company – Moses and Elijah! So much for being alone. The Hebrews themselves believed that any new Messiah that came would have to be in the mold of these two. Moses, the greatest prophet Israel had ever known, set the standard for any Messiah who would come in the future. Moses led the people in an Exodus from Egypt across the Red Sea through the wilderness. He had seen God face to face on Mt. Sinai, the Mount of Revelation. Moses’ face had actually shone afterward. How could we possibly identify with him?
Of course, on the human side, we remember that Moses hadn’t wanted to be a prophet in the first place and tried to make excuses to God to get out of it. If you know what it’s like to make excuses to God, you have a little something in common with Moses. I know I do. When I got a letter from the Bishop informing me that I had been selected to study for ordination, I had so many excuses I could have written a novel based on them! But like Moses’ excuses, my excuses didn’t stand up to prayerful scrutiny. Moses had given in to the people when he just couldn’t stand their murmuring and complaining and rebelling for one more minute, so he led them and fed them and got them water. I gave in and studied (for five years) and was ordained deacon in 1992, priest in 1993. Not that I’m anything like Moses.
If you have ever compromised your faith convictions for popular opinion, if you have ever compromised your faith convictions in the face of a close friend’s strong, seemingly logical arguments, (I remember that one), you have a little something in common with Moses. When God took him up to the top of Mt. Nebo to survey the Promised Land, he wasn’t allowed to enter into it. Why? Because his incredible patience with his people had finally reached the breaking point. There had at last been more grumbling and murmuring and complaining than he could take. So, when once again they whine and complain of desperate thirst, God tells Moses to speak to the rock and water would flow forth. Operative word: speak. Instead Moses (and I can sympathize with him) raised his hand and struck the rock. Twice. Hard.
Haven’t we all been there? So mad that we throw things? I remember one time I was so, so angry that I slammed my fist into a wall. The bone I broke was very small, but painful nonetheless. Served me right. So, Moses, in his total frustration, comes to the end of his journey. He had disobeyed, compromising his convictions. So, he isn’t allowed to go on into the Promised Land. His journey ends on the cusp of Canaan.
If you have ever felt the pain of separation from God because of your actions, you have a little something in common with Moses. But who can blame him? He was fearful. He made mistakes – nevertheless he was a great prophet and servant. So maybe there is something there for us. Though we may be excuse-making, soft-spined servants, we have still been chosen and called to leadership. Hence, we have a lot in common with Moses. Moses knew about suffering and he knew about glory, and he comes back to point Jesus toward glory.
But what about Elijah, this fearless prophet who, rather than dying like the rest of us, is taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire, for heaven’s sake!? It’s intimidating when we, (or at least I) think about identifying with him. Of course, he was that same prophet who, when he found out Queen Jezebel’s forces were out to kill him, ran scared, hid out in the hills, and -- sitting under a broom tree – begged pathetically for God to take his life.
OK. When I was a kid, if I had heard the term “broom tree,” I’d probably have pictured a sturdy trunk with broom handles for branches, broom straws for twigs and dust bunnies for blossoms. However. A broom tree – more bush than tree really -- does have a relatively sturdy trunk and can grow to a height of up to twelve feet. It’s a desert plant, twiggy and bushy – good for shading people like Elijah. If you’re a tree person, you can picture it looking sort of like a juniper.
From begging for death under a broom tree to being taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, Elijah knew suffering and glory. And now he has come back to talk to Jesus about the glory part of it. Many people in Jesus’ time expected that Elijah would return to signal the coming of the Messiah. And sure enough, on this mountain, he does just that.
What do these two discuss with a tired and dread-filled Jesus? Of the three synoptic gospels, only Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus about his exodus from Jerusalem. They tell him, I imagine, to view his journey to Jerusalem as an exodus from life to death to life, like the Red Sea passage, and to view his end in the same way. They reassure him of the glory. They offer him encouragement. And then, our story says, they go away, and Jesus is left alone. If I had been in Jesus’ place, I wouldn’t have wanted them to go. I’d have wished they’d stay and stand with me in, maybe save me from, the trial that lay before me. Like Peter, I might have babbled about building some kind of structure, some kind of altar, to memorialize their having been there with us on the mountain.
Let’s leave the mountain behind now and visit a bed, yours or mine, in a hospital.
Maybe you’ve suffering an attack of gall stones, or a difficult childbirth.
In your pain you’re clinging for dear life to the hand of a kindly nurse. As she tries to extricate herself from your grasp, she’s saying, “Give me back my hand now, honey.” Her voice is kind but firm. “My shift is over now. It’s time for me to go home.” She smiles as you reluctantly let go, and she says in that wonderful, practical manner that nurses have, “If one of us has to leave, it had better be me. Because you’re the only one who can stay here and have this baby or pass those gall stones. I can’t do it for you.”
So, the two prophets say to Jesus, “Our shift is over. Now the job ahead is one that only you can do.”
Then a cloud overshadows Jesus and the others, the same cloud, by the way, that stood at the door of Moses’ tent to make the Presence of God known to the Israelites during their desert journey. Then the cloud lifts, and Jesus finds himself and his no-longer-drowsy, very wide-eyed disciples alone. With a refreshed sense of his own identity, he is inspired by the suffering and the glory of Moses and Elijah. Assured now of God’s presence in his own suffering and glory, he gestures to his disciples to fall in behind him, and they head down the mountainside.