The Transfiguration: Moses’ and Elijah’s Side of the Story
I love it when God laughs at me, not in a mean way, but in a “you are adorable and I must tease you” way.
I think that happened this week when I drew the Transfiguration as my preaching scripture.
I am not a fan of fluffy miracles such as the Transfiguration and the Ascension.
I’m not really into the scenes in the gospel when Jesus flies through the air with lights and fireworks and stuff.
I prefer him to walk either on the ground or on water, and work with concrete things such as bread or fish or mud.
But no such luck, Jesus really went big this Sunday in the Gospel of Matthew, and it appears to be an important part of the story because it’s in the Gospels of Mark and Luke as well. Thomas Aquinas thought it was the greatest miracle in the Bible, so I guess maybe we should look into it.
If you’re like me, you definitely identify with Peter in this story.
He’s walking along with his friends James, John, and Jesus when this totally crazy thing happens.
Jesus starts emanating dazzling light, and Moses and Elijah are there speaking with him, and Peter just freaks out.
Like any of us might do in a terrifying situation, he throws out a random suggestion that they build wooden shacks on the mountain for the three figures to live in.
He’s interrupted by the voice of God instructing him to listen to Jesus as the Beloved Son with whom God is well pleased.
This moment is where we get the phrase “mountain top experience,” but Peter and the others are so afraid that they fall down on the ground and hide their faces.
The whole thing sounds more like a bad acid trip than the great and holy Epiphany of the apostles.
But thank God for Jesus. He’s just so good, so steady, never failing the disciples and us.
After God finishes delivering the message that Jesus is the real deal and everyone better listen up, Jesus is right there for his traumatized friends. As soon as the light fades away, he comes over and squats down and touches them, saying, “It’s okay, I’m here, don’t be afraid.”
As soon as the light fades away in our lives and we’re left lost and terrorized by the storms of life, Jesus is right there, reaching out to us and telling us not to be afraid.
But as valuable as it is to reflect on what it felt like to be Peter or James or John on the day Jesus was transfigured, there are actually two other people in this story: Moses and Elijah.
Martin Luther said they represented the Law and the Prophets, and their conversation with Jesus shows how Jesus fulfills both the Law and the Prophets.
But what were they talking about?
I know exactly nothing about how heaven is constructed, except that it involves God and is generally a positive experience.
If Moses and Elijah experienced the passage of time the same way we do on Earth, they presumably were in heaven for a few thousand years and then one day were yanked back down to Earth to make a brief appearance with Jesus on Mount Tabor.
How strange, even for people like Moses and Elijah, who saw some really strange things when they were still alive.
Here we are mindful that the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures stand on their own and have value independent of an interpretation including Jesus Christ.
But in this story Moses and Elijah and Jesus are all together and so we will consider them in that context.
Moses and Elijah both went their whole lives right at the edge of Epiphany, and suddenly now, finally, they get to be right in the middle of the ultimate Epiphany, the fulfillment of all the law and prophecy they spent so many years trying to communicate to the people of Israel.
They had lives full of yearning for God to be manifest to them and their people, and feeling as if it was always just out of their reach.
I wonder if any of us feel like that sometimes.
Elijah spends most of his career beating his head against the stubbornness and treachery of the Israelites.
They have left the Lord God to worship Baal in large numbers, and Elijah has to preach against both the people and their leaders and do signs to try and woo them back to Yahweh.
He’s very poor and never has enough food to eat, and Ahab and Jezebel are sending out people to kill him.
No matter what great works he does the people keep running after false gods and Elijah eventually gets so discouraged that he goes and hides in a cave.
God finds him there, however, and calls him out of the cave to stand on the mountain.
First a great wind sweeps over him, but God is not in the wind.
Then a great earthquake shakes the mountain, but God is not in the earthquake.
Then a great fire passes by, but God is not in the fire.
When in your life have great upheavals struck you and God seems nowhere to be found in them?
Today we might stand on the mountain with Elijah, and the cataclysms sweep over us like earthquakes and fires, losing a job, being diagnosed with cancer, the death of a parent or child.
Where is God?
Shouldn’t God be right in the midst of these devastating storms?
Elijah, beaten down with grief and failure, can’t find God either in the fire or the hurricane.
After it is all over, he hears the still, small voice within, but is it enough?
Is it enough to renew his courage to go out and strive to do God’s will, day after day?
Moses didn’t have it any easier than Elijah.
Forty years in the desert with whiny Israelites, his sister struck by leprosy, his brother helping the people build and worship the Golden Calf, it’s just bad news all the way around.
He gets a little closer to seeing the glory of God than Elijah does, but he still ends up falling short.
He cannot see God face to face, he can only see the back of God passing by as he hides in the cleft of the rock.
And at the end, he doesn’t even get to enter the Promised Land.
Once again, a person yearning and longing after God his whole life, and falling just short of that final fulfillment.
But thousands of years later, long after they have entered communion with God in heaven, their deepest wish is finally answered. They are summoned to the top of the mountain and stand in glory with Jesus Christ, the summation and embodiment of their lifelong missions.
Everything they had tried to communicate to their people over those long years is expressed in this one glorious moment of the fullness of the Word made Flesh being revealed to the apostles.
No longer the whisper of a still, small voice, no longer the hem of a robe moving away, God is here and real and now in the person of Jesus Christ, a companion for conversation and sweet communion.
The faithful Moses and brave Elijah were rewarded for their devotion.
We could identify with Moses and Elijah when they were on Earth, battling through doubt and disaster day after day, struggling to keep the faith.
And we could identify with Peter and James and John, frightened by the glory they were witnessing.
But can we identify with Moses and Elijah as vessels of revelation?
Is there hope that our long years of searching for bone-deep knowledge of God will bear fruit not only for ourselves but for others?
I think that is part of the lesson we can learn from this story.
All of us know what it’s like to search for God and wonder if the hints of God’s presence we sometimes encounter are real or figments of our imagination.
But do we ever consider that we might be showing the face of God to others?
Moses and Elijah surely never expected to be summoned to the mountain to help show Peter and the others the goodness and glory of Jesus.
Is it possible that we may be called to the mountain to help show the face of Christ to someone who needs to know that Jesus is real and good and loves them?
The first time we go to the mountain we may have the Peter experience of terror and confusion at the sudden reality of God.
But if we can persevere like Moses and Elijah, pushing through the long deserts and deep valleys, we may find that God can use us like God used them.
When we’re least expecting it, the sacrifices will seem so worth it, not to satisfy our own longing for God, but to feed the hungry heart of a neighbor.
Our Epiphany, whenever it comes, be it small or great, will be twice as sweet when we see that even in this moment of awe of God’s glory, Jesus is helping us care for our neighbors.
And then the chain begins to grow, the sparks of Epiphany striking off one another until the love of God starts to spread like wildfire.
Person after person says yes to the internal drive to search for God, and hours or days or years later lights the flame in another.
Eventually being summoned to the mountain to share the love of Christ with another will no longer be frightening and unexpected, but longed for as much as the original Epiphany.
Eventually we start sharing God with others in a way that is full of peace and generosity, no longer distracted by the fireworks and shining lights of the Transfiguration, but finally hearing the words and knowing God means them for us too: “You are my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”