14th February 2021 - Transfiguration

14th February 2021 - Transfiguration

It’s often tempting, when thinking about the Transfiguration to talk about ‘mountain top’ experiences with God and hope that we will all get to experience God in a dramatic thunder and lightning way and regularly. Some Christians spend their whole time wishing for a dramatic experience of God and then wonder why they’re disappointed. Dramatic encounters of God are rare – even for saints such as St Peter. These flashes of God’s glory are incredibly rare both for the ordinary and extraordinary Christian.

I don’t think the story of the transfiguration is there to tell us we can all have a mountain top experience of God. I think it’s there to reveal to us who Jesus really is.

It feels like Jesus here lets Peter, James and John peer behind the curtain to see who He really is. So let’s have a peer behind the curtain ourselves.

Jesus takes just Peter, James and John to pray with him. Incredibly, they are heavy with sleep when they get to the top of the mountain. Can you think of another occasion where Jesus takes Peter, James and John to pray with him and they fall asleep? It made me straight away think of the garden of Gethsemane. I think this shows something of the disciples’ inability to comprehend Jesus. On the mountain top, the divinity of Christ is revealed to them. They are woken up by the flashing light – the word used to describe Jesus’ dazzling appearance is the same as that used to describe lightning. The disciples are woken out of their ignorance, their sleeping, to see the light of Christ. In the garden of Gethsemane, the humanity of Christ is fully revealed to them. They are woken up by Jesus to see him going to his death. The fact that they are asleep on both occasions speaks to me of the difficulty of really comprehending who Jesus is, who God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is – the deep Trinitarian mystery at the heart of our faith.

In the Eastern Orthodox priest tradition they have what is called the iconostasis which is the screen that is put up in front of the altar in Orthodox churches . On certain occasions in the year, the screen is opened up for people to see through. This only happens at certain times such as Easter week.  One is only allowed to get a glimpse of the holy of holies very occasionally.  This illustrates how we as Christians only see rare glimpses of God. Much of the time we are either asleep, like the disciples, or experiencing hardship, rather than seeing the glory of God on the mountain top. Indeed if we were really to see God in all His glory I am sure that we would be perplexed and terrified, just as Peter, James and John were. I’m not sure the experience they had was altogether comfortable!

So Peter, James and John are woken up from their sleep by this lightning flashing and somehow discern that Jesus is speaking to the two great figures of Judaism – Moses and Elijah. These were men who were long-dead however them meeting with Jesus like this points to the reality of resurrection.

Peter decides he needs to do something. Don’t you just love Peter? I think if he were around today, he’d have tried to take a photograph – I know I would have! His, rather strange, response, is to want to create tents for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. All the text tells us is that ‘he didn’t know what he was saying’. Perhaps he was trying to preserve what he could see – in the way we might take a photo now. Perhaps he was trying to be religious, showing how he wanted to worship. What is interesting is that as soon as he suggests making these tents the cloud descends with the voice of God. The cloud and voice intervene just as Peter is trying to give equal importance to Moses, Elijah and Jesus. But we know that Jesus is the very image of God, the firstborn over all creation (Col 1:15) – he is not equal to Moses and Elijah – he is their God.  Moses represents for Jews the Law and Elijah represents the prophets. What happens on the mountain is a visual representation of what the gospel story is all about. Peter, James and John are given a revelation of who Jesus really is. We see quite clearly that Jesus is on a level with God himself. He’s not just a good teacher, he is God incarnate.

So, we, just before the contemplative and sometimes difficult season of Lent, are given a glimpse of who Jesus really is, resurrected, ascended, glorified; we must keep this reality in our minds as we journey towards Easter.

The other thing to keep in mind as we journey to contemplate our Lenten journey are the words that God speaks in this transfiguration episode “this is my Son the beloved, listen to him”.   

So be encouraged as we go into Lent, the resurrected Christ is with us throughout our journey of life, whether we are in darkness, or whether we are on the mountain top, He journeys with us and is the one we should listen to.