Luke 9:28-36 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Epiphany is a season that allows us to reflect on and experience the unveiling the glory of God present in Jesus. If we start the with Jesus’ baptism (I’m thinking of the Sundays of Epiphany here) and end with his Transfiguration, the circle is completed. In both stories God makes an appearance, even if only in the form of a cloud. In each case God declares Jesus to be God’s son. In Luke 3, in the moments after his baptism, as he is in prayer, God speaks. In this case only Jesus seems to hear this voice from heaven. It is a very personal, even private encounter. As the story proceeds through the season, we learn more about Jesus and his calling. We have a story from John 2 about a miracle—a sign—that reveals something of who Jesus is. In the two prior weeks, we have focused on Jesus’ visit to Nazareth, where he claims the mantle of the Spirit-empowered messiah. He comes to Nazareth and declares that he is the one who will ring in the year of Jubilee (Luke 4:14-30). Because Easter is early this year, the number of stories that can be told during Epiphany are fewer, but we get the picture. There’s something unique and powerful about this person.
Now it’s time to climb to the top of the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus takes with him three of his disciples, those who appear to be closest to him. Peter, along with John and James. These will be the ones who will continually bear witness to the moments in which the veil is let down. We are allowed to witness the unveiling of God’s glory that radiates from Jesus, the one filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. It is good to remember that the lectionary pairs this reading with Moses’ encounter with God on the mountain. He too radiates and wears a veil to cover the glory. The glory fades with Moses, but with Jesus it radiates from within. Therein lies the difference. But we get ahead of ourselves.
Jesus takes the three disciples to the mountain top to pray. It is good to remember that in the ancient world to go to the mountain was understood to place one closer to the divine. The mountain top was a thin place, where the borders between heaven and earth were nearly transparent. When Jesus gets to the mountain top and begins to pray, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” He glowed with the glory of God. It is good to note that this act of transfiguration happens to Jesus. He doesn’t transfigure himself—it is an act of God beyond his control. Karl Barth writes that “it comes wholly from outside. He does not say or do anything to bring it about” [Preaching through the Christian Year, p. 139].
Appearing with them are two figures from the past: Moses and Elijah. They confer with Jesus, and according to Luke they speak of his departure, which will happen in Jerusalem. This departure is his exodus. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson point out how the use of the word exodus (the Greek here) connects the Exodus of Israel with Jesus’ own time of departure, which he had already revealed to the disciples a few days earlier. They write:
Similarly, Luke uses the Exodus to interpret Jesus’ death and resurrection as an event whereby the God of Israel liberates the present world by moving history toward the final manifestation of the Reign of God. [Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, p. 192].
Connecting Jesus’ ministry with that of Moses and Elijah isn’t an act of supersession, wherein Jesus replaces them in God’s work. Their presence in this moment of unveiling is a sign of continuity. This is an eschatological moment, where we get to see, if only for a moment, the ongoing work of God that leads to the revelation of God’s reign. Jesus isn’t a substitute for an earlier plan. His ministry continues the work that connects Genesis to Revelation. And as already revealed, his exodus will include his death, but also his resurrection.
While the passage looks back to the baptism, when God’s make a claim in Jesus, pronouncing him to be Son of God and the one with whom God is well pleased, it also looks forward to the resurrection. In the verses preceding this encounter on the mountain, which we’ll attend to in a moment, Jesus reveals the way forward to his disciples. He tells them that he is going to suffer and die, but then be raised on the third day. Not only that, but if they want to be his disciples they will have to take up the cross and deny themselves (Luke 9:21-27). The lectionary reading picks up in verse 28, where Luke tells us that “eight days” after these events took place, Jesus took Peter, John, and James with him up on the mountain to prayer. What is the significance of the eight days? Of course, it could be simply a time set, but it may be much more. Consider that the eighth day is the day following the Sabbath, and according to Luke Jesus was raised on the first day of the week – the eighth day!
This is a moment of amazement. Peter, James, and John are sitting there watching all of this unfold. They see Jesus’ countenance radiate. They watch as Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures in Jewish history, appear. They’re not sure what they’re seeing, only that it is something powerful. Peter, being impulsive, interrupts the conversation. He suggests that he and his companions build some tents, some booths, for the three figures. In making this suggestion, Luke connects us again to the Exodus. The Feast of Booths (Sukkoth) is an annual festival that celebrates the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Sukkoth allowed the Jews to enact and remember, much as we do at the Table, this founding event in their story. Karl Barth writes of Peter’s intervention, suggesting that Peter didn’t want the vision to end. By building the tents he hoped to extend this glorious moment. “But the vision did not stay, as Peter hoped it would. It vanished as quickly as it had come” [Preaching through the Christian Year, p. 139]. The two figures vanish as God speaks from the cloud, declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God and the chosen one. God says to the threesome, and to us, “listen to him.” At that moment they are all alone. The vision has ended, but Jesus has been revealed to them as the Chosen One. They have a unique viewpoint. They alone have seen and heard this witness. But the time for them to share the news has not yet come, so they “kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things that they had seen.”
Why remain silent? Perhaps it is because they had not yet completely understood the mission of Jesus. Again, turning to Barth, who suggests that the Transfiguration “is the supreme prefigurement of the resurrection, and that its real meaning will not be perceived until the resurrection has taken place” [p. 139]. Indeed, each of the miracles serve to point to a fuller revelation, that can only be understood at the resurrection. Then the message can be fully declared. For now, we’ll keep it close to the vest!