The Transfiguration: Unbridled Power and Consuming Flame

Exodus 24:21-18; Matthew 17:1-9

Our Gospel lesson today invites us to follow with Peter, James, and John to the top of a high mountain, for what, on the surface, is perhaps one of the weirdest events recorded in the New Testament.

We’re familiar with healings – God demonstrating his power in Jesus over the brokenness and disorder of this fallen world.

We’re familiar with mighty miracles – Jesus calming storms, as nature itself remembers the voice that spoke at creation.

But today, on the top of a high mountain, something different happens.  Jesus, it says, is transfigured before them.  Jesus is changed or, literally, in the Greek, Jesus undergoes metamorphosis before their very eyes, as his face becomes bright as the mid-day sun, his clothes become dazzling bright, and Moses and Elijah, the prophets of long ago, appear with him, in conversation as three old friends.

It’s a situation unlike anything else we’ve read… or is it?

A surprisingly familiar situation

While this mountain-top experience may be difficult to wrap our heads around on first glance, and many a preacher has created all sorts of theories about why or how this happened, if we acknowledge – as we have throughout this season of Epiphany – that God is, fundamentally, in the business of revealing himself to the world, then perhaps we can bring these gospel events into focus.

And, together with that, I believe this is one of those occasions where one of the richest gifts of Anglicanism to the Church shines through – our basic belief, though we sometimes forget it, that God has given us the entire scriptures, and that it’s not acceptable to mine out the scriptural jewels that support our arguments, but that, simply put, the best tool to interpret scripture is scripture itself.

So, we read, after faithfully leaving their worldly occupations and committing to follow Jesus, and just a few verses after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, we’re told in Matthew 16:21 that Jesus begins to teach his followers about the way of the Cross – that the Glory of God is revealed not in worldly power, but in “denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following him”.

And then, some time passes.  But not just any amount of time — according to today’s lesson, six days pass.  This is now the seventh day; a point that should ring a bell and pique the attention of any faithful Jew or Christian well-versed in scripture.  After all, it was the seventh day, after the work of Creation had been accomplished, that God declared holy, and on which God revealed the intended glory of his creation: a peaceful garden that provided for all who lived in it, and in which humanity and all of nature were united in his presence.

But, for anyone who knows the Old Testament, this isn’t the first mountain-top experience on the seventh day.  As we heard today in Exodus 24, after God had led his chosen people into the desert, teaching them to trust in him for their daily bread, and teaching them not to serve themselves, but to be a people of justice and mercy, it was the Lord who said to Moses, “come up to me on the mountain”.

Moses, obedient, went up the mountain. 

And, as we heard today, he was there 6 days.  And then, on the seventh day, from within a bright cloud upon the top of the mountain, God revealed Himself to Moses.  And what was revealed?  Well, the next 7 chapters of Exodus told God’s chosen people how they were to worship, and the details of how they were to build and worship in God’s House.  The house, the tabernacle, which, the Book of Hebrews tells us, is a copy of the heavenly sanctuary.[1] 

Moses, after six days, heard the voice of God in the brightness of the cloud on a mountain, and, we read this morning, he stayed on that mountain forty days and forty nights, receiving the Lord’s instruction, His message to be delivered to the people, and ultimately, the message, the light to enlighten the nations of the world.

But, if we know our Bibles, we know that as good as those 40 days were for Moses, they didn’t go so well for those whom he was supposed to lead. 

They, like many of us, think 40 days is a long time to wait for something; sure, God gave us literally everything we have, and sure, with him a thousand years is like the twinkling of an eye, but to commit to be faithful for a whole 40 days?  I don’t know…  So what did they do?  Well, they gathered up as much shiny gold as they could find – gold, after all, they had worked hard for – and made an idol that they could worship instead, and proclaimed a great festival to celebrate the work of their own hands.

Finally, after Moses goes back down the mountain to clean up that mess, God invites Moses up to the mountain once again, and Moses sees God’s glory revealed.  And, we’re told, that in the eyes of those wayward followers, those who had forgotten God’s goodness so quickly, those who were so quick to bow down and worship their own possessions, the skin of Moses’ face appeared to be bright like the sun, to the point that they were afraid to even come near him.

Now, fast-forward to the Gospel.  The disciples, after six days, go with Jesus to the mountaintop, and a bright cloud surrounds them.  Jesus, the light of the world, the source of life that enlightens every person, the light that pierces the darkness, is revealed to those who, while still sinful men, have denied themselves and have committed to following him.

And the light is dazzling.  The various Greek versions in the Gospels point to just how bright this was – it’s brighter than they had words to describe.  Not just a brightness that makes you squint, but a brightness that knocks you backward. 

One preacher[2] said the best analogy for us today is that it’s like the brightness of an arc welder, if you’ve ever seen one welder at work.  It’s the brightness of pure, unbridled energy; energy that, for those who are prepared with the proper equipment, can join mighty metals, building machines that literally move mountains.  But, brightness that, for those unprepared, without the proper mask, will actually burn your eyes; in Exodus, it’s that brightness described as a consuming fire – enormous power and energy that does wonders for those who are ready, but burns up those who approach unprepared.

And what happens in this cloud?  Well, we see that the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the God who is outside of time and holds time itself in his hand, reveals that the eternal Word, the eternal voice of God, the Word that was God, and through whom all things were made, is Jesus.

Moses and Elijah, the great giver of God’s covenant, and the great prophet who revealed God’s promised future return, appear with Jesus, talking, chatting, as old friends.  It’s here that those who follow Jesus see God’s glory, and see that Jesus is the very Word of God from the Beginning.

And, from the cloud itself, comes again the great Epiphany: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”.  And, as God’s glory is revealed, as they see that inescapable power and light that either works wonders or utterly consumes, they hear the eternal message, the sound that has gone out to all lands says, simply: “listen to him”.

Listen to him.

Our God is in the business of revealing Himself.

God wants you to be part of that, revealing Himself to the world around you though word and deed.

The incredible truth of the Gospel is that God wants to show you his glory – he wants to show you his great mercy, his incredible power to heal and to save.

But he won’t do it unless we follow him up the mountain.  And it’s a good thing, too.  All of us – every person – will one day see the glory of God.  If we’re prepared, if we’ve followed his lead along the narrow mountain path, if we acknowledge that all our strength and health and the blessings of this life are gifts to be used in his service, then we encounter his glory as the remarkable, dazzling, life-giving power that it is, and like the disciples who fell down to worship, Jesus reaches out his hand and invites us to stand in his presence.  But, for those who stay in the dust on the broad, easy plains below the mountain, those who rely on their own strength, who bow down to their own wealth or pride, that same glory of God isn’t life-giving, but all-consuming, just as the experience of an arc welder depends on whether or not you’re prepared.

We’re invited up the mountain.

Jesus invites us to experience his glory up on the mountain, the glory of his resurrection power revealed on the Cross on Good Friday and in Easter’s empty tomb.

But, first, we need to be willing to follow.

Just 40 days of obedience in the desert was too much for those whom God had rescued from slavery in a foreign land.  40 days of patient faithfulness was too much, as they molded an idol of gold.

Jesus calls you to follow him all the days of your life.

And as we learn that together, the Church invites you to 40 days of repentance and obedience, just 40 days of Lent, 40 days of preparation to experience the glory of God at Easter.

One day we’ll all see that glory face to face. 

Will we be ready?  Do we have what it takes to deny ourselves and follow Him?

Or is even 40 days just too long to lay aside the idols and excuses we have made?

May God have mercy on us all.  Amen.


[1] Hebrews 8

[2] The analogy is my own.

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