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 as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. (Luke 9:28-36 ESV)
What did Moses and Elijah talk to Jesus about? Were they updating him about what had happened in heaven since he left? Were they giving him special messages from the Father or the Holy Spirit or both of them?
I suppose my question begs another question – what can you talk about with the Son of God and why would he want to listen?
Both Moses and Elijah have their mountaintop experiences. Both have served God. Both had their successes and their failures. Both have personal experiences of God – Moses enters the cloud atop the mountain on a number of occasions and when God passes by him he sees the back of God (Exodus 33:17-23) while Elijah on the mountain doesn’t see God in the strong wind, the earthquake or the fire, but he sensed the presence of God in the still small voice that whispered in his ear (1Kings 19:9-13). Both have strange endings involving God. And now here they are talking with Jesus who had been praying on a mountain while shining – white and bright – brighter than whatever glory Moses and Elijah appeared in.
What did Moses and Elijah talk to Jesus about? Luke tells that they spoke of his departure – the Greek word is ‘exodus’ – not without a lot of Old Testament meaning – which Jesus was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Ok, that gives us the topic but what about Jesus’ exodus – God’s rescue of his people? Were they giving Jesus updated instructions like a coach might give at half time? Were they encouraging him to stick at it – with everyone knowing what lies ahead for Jesus?
If mountains are close to the door of heaven – just one step out of this world so to speak, were they like bouncers on the door whose presence were to put a barrier between Jesus and home? And if that is a strange idea to you, we know that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are and wouldn’t we have wanted to go home if only for a moment if we had the chance and our life was hard and our future was getting harder and harder? Was this Round 10 of a 15 round bout and Jesus is in his corner confident ready to get out punching again? Or was he saying to the support team that he wasn’t sure he could go on?
So many questions! We often concentrate on the disciples’ trying to capture the moment – make a shrine perhaps. We also note that the disciples really get scared when the cloud descends because whether they like it or not, they are in the presence of God and that’s scary but the voice points to Jesus and that they are to listen to him. And the next scene is only Jesus – non glowing – with no Moses or Elijah or cloud – and they go down the mountain and keep the experience silent. It will be revealed after Jesus’ resurrection but be out dazzled by the resurrection – though the transfiguration helps confirm what they are discovering from the resurrection – that Jesus is fully human and also the Son of God and everyone is to keep listening to him!
I have some sympathy for Peter, James, and John and their not getting it right because they reacted to what they saw but what they were seeing wasn’t the full picture. Seeing isn’t always understanding at all. In fact most times everything we see might be interpreted in a number of ways! Just look at many conflicts between people who see the same thing differently and they are there in the moment. So often sight must accept words so that understanding can come about. In a conflict the exasperated phrase, ‘Can’t you see?’ or ‘Don’t you see?’ aren’t referring to actual eyesight but understanding something the way the speaker does. Sight usually isn’t the issue. The eyes usually do work. What is so often missing or debated are the words that go with the sight.
We can understand the message from the voice in the cloud – ‘Listen to him’ – told consistently by all reporters of this event – Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
So what were the disciples to hear? Well in the days prior to the transfiguration Jesus had said according to Luke:
“Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 9:3-5 ESV) He said this to the Twelve as he sent them out.
They came back buzzing and the crowds followed and Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God and healed them and when the disciples wanted to send the crowds away, Jesus told them to give them something to eat. The disciples didn’t know what to do – how to share a small lunch or how to go and buy food for everyone and so Jesus feeds the 5,000 men and whomever else was there (Luke 9:10-17).
Later Jesus asks the disciples about his identity (Luke 9:18). “Who do the crowds say that I am?” This leads to Peter saying, “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:20). And Jesus teaches them what this means.
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” [And then Jesus said to all] “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:2127 ESV)
These are the messages that are ringing in the disciples’ ears. That applies to Peter, James, and John – as well as to us. The ongoing truth exists not as a history lesson – what would Jesus do in this or that situation? – but as daily reality – what does Jesus want us to do? Listen to him.
For us in the 21st century that means listening for words that reflect accurately what Jesus has said and done; words said in obedience to Jesus or in his name; words draw us to a Jesus revealed to us through a cross and empty tomb.
In Lutheran language this means hanging around the Bible, Baptism and Holy Communion, the Divine Service, and filling our days with moments where we listen to Jesus and follow him.
Why? Because only in Jesus is there life – and a living in all its fullness. That is why Jesus is here on Earth and he is still active here among us – so that we can live with faith, hope, and love – most of all love. There is no better way to live.
Listen to him.
- Luke 9:28 - 36