What must it have been like to have seen Jesus transfigured on the mountain as he talked to two great heroes of the Jewish faith – Moses and Elijah? I imagine the impact of seeing Jesus as he really was, a glorious being radiating the shekinah glory of God and yet still a man. God took the opportunity of that stunning event to give a vital message to Peter, James and John – Listen to him! God says the same to us today.
In our service on 10th February the readings were Psalm 99, Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-36. My reflection follows:
I really love being on the beach or on mountains, even seeing the sea in the distance or being near mountains is enough to lift my spirits. I don’t think I am unusual in liking these places. I remember reading that these are common places for people to like. The theory is that they are transitional places. The beach is where the land meets the sea. A mountain is where the land meets the sky. It seems we sense something powerful or special; something numinous – filled with the presence of God – in these ‘in-between’ locations.
Last year I went on holiday to the Pyrenees, close to Lourdes. It was wonderful to camp in a valley surrounded by mountains. During the two weeks my family and I did lots of exploring. On one occasion we drove part of the way up a mountain and then began hiking to the top. It was hard work but well worth the effort. We stopped for a rest after a while and I was able to get my first view of eagles in real life. They were gliding on the air currents level with where I was standing. I was fascinated and could have watched them forever. Eventually we climbed so high that we were looking down on clouds, on tiny roads and villages and the eagles were wheeling well below us. There on the summit of the mountain, we were in a different world; the everyday world was far away – small, insignificant – whereas I was in a freer place with a vast expanse of world spread out before me.
Mountains feature often in the Bible when significant events are described. They truly do seem to be numinous places, places where people are more likely to meet with God. Perhaps it’s simply because they offer a more remote place, a place of solitude and silence which allows God to be heard. Jesus seems to have had a very close relationship with God his Father, which is to be expected. However, even he withdrew to pray in quiet places. Matthew tells us that Jesus went up a mountain to pray after feeding the 5000. In today’s Gospel passage Luke tells us that he took the inner circle of his disciples – Peter, James and John – with him when he went up a mountain to pray.
Prayer seems to have been a very tiring activity for the disciples! In the Garden of Gethsemane they fell asleep when told to pray. Here they were weighed down by sleep but somehow managed to stay awake. Their wakefulness was rewarded by an incredible sight. They saw Jesus transformed, alive with light, shining with the glory of God. The man they had eaten with, walked with, talked with, the one that Peter had only a week ago declared to be ‘the Messiah of God’ (whatever that actually meant to Peter), was there before the three disciples emanating the glory of God himself.
Of course not only was there the glory but there were two extra people with Jesus – Moses and Elijah. I have no idea how the disciples recognised who these men were. Perhaps Jesus used their names or perhaps the knowledge was somehow given to the disciples. Both men had had encounters with God on mountains. Moses, as the reading from Exodus tell us, went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. He was exposed to so much of the glorious light of God that his face shone with it when he came down the mountain. He himself wasn’t even aware of what was happening but the people who saw him were and were afraid.
Elijah met God’s power on Mount Carmel when he had the encounter with the prophets of Baal. God sent fire which was so powerful it could lick up the water in the trench around the altar Elijah had made, before it consumed his offering. God’s power even consumed the very stones of the altar! Later God also spoke to Elijah on Mount Horeb which may be the same place as Mount Sinai.
The mount of the transfiguration is thought to be Mount Tabor, which stands alone in a plain. Unlike the mountains I visited on holiday, it’s not part of a range. Going up there very quickly gives a feeling of being isolated from what is going on down below as it’s a place which is so very different from its surroundings.
There on the mountain, Peter, James and John saw Jesus as he really is, God incarnate. The presence of Moses, who represents the Law, and Elijah who represents the Prophets, shows continuity with the story of the Jewish nation, chosen by God to be a blessing to all. Jesus came to fulfil all that was promised, not to set it aside. We can read of God leading the people by fire and cloud, of the shining reflected light on Moses’ face, of the still small voice of God, of the Shekinah glory which filled the newly dedicated Temple. All these are present in this event.
This must have been overwhelming for the disciples, frightening, confusing, and yet it was something Peter at least didn’t want to lose. Here, way above the everyday challenges of life, was where he wanted to stay with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. It was just as Moses and Elijah were leaving that Peter made his suggestion to build some kind of permanent home for the three. It seems he had noticed this wonderful experience was coming to an end and he was reluctant to let it go. I think most of us can relate to that. When something wonderful happens to us, something that helps us to forget that the world is not always a very nice place, we don’t want to let that experience go. We want it to last forever. But it can’t be like that.
Peter, James and John may have been frightened before, but God’s next action left them terrified. A cloud, reminiscent of God’s guiding presence in the wilderness, descended and enveloped all six who were there on the mountain top. Clouds covering mountains is nothing unusual but this one was far from ordinary. This was a cloud of God’s power and glory and the disciples found themselves right inside it.
If there was any doubt about Jesus’ identity, God put that away by calling Jesus his Son, his Chosen. Something similar to this had been said before at Jesus’ baptism of course. Maybe Peter, James and John had been present then and had heard it before but it certainly bore repeating. Their idea of the Messiah was unlikely to involve his dying a criminal’s death but that is what Jesus had just recently told them would happen. Perhaps they needed to know that such a death was not a mistake but all part of God’s plan from the beginning to restore all of creation to its rightful state.
God’s final action was to point the disciples to the future. They could not stay where they were; they had to go on, to return to the valley and the everyday challenges of life. In order to learn and become all they were intended to be, God told the disciples how they were to relate to Jesus: ‘Listen to him’.
It is surely the same for us today, as we follow Jesus. We may be blessed with wonderful experiences; with times of closeness to God; with sudden understanding of something that has puzzled us; with a vision of the breath-taking beauty of this world, but we can’t stay within that experience forever. How can we cope with the ordinary, the annoying, the painful, the depressing aspects of life? How can we turn away from the glory that is revealed to us and face the rest of our lives?
By listening to Jesus.
Jesus guides us, encourages us, corrects us and empowers us. He is sufficient to make life in the valley not just tolerable but exciting, a time of growth into all we were meant to be, a process of transformation into his likeness.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor