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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Transfiguration 2/15/2015

As you study the Bible, one of the things that becomes clear is that the writers of the gospels frequently re-used familiar themes and imagery and stories from the Old Testament in their telling of the Jesus story and in making their case for who they believed Jesus to be. For example in Matthew, Joseph of Mary and Joseph fame is portrayed as one who received messages in dreams much like Old Testament Joseph was portrayed as a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams. It’s the kind of connection intended to make you want to find out more and it would have gotten the attention of Matthew’s readers.

There are also several Jesus/Moses parallels that do the same kind of thing: in the Old Testament the parents of Moses were warned about Pharaoh’s order to throw all the Hebrew baby boys into the Nile, and so they acted to protect their son and thus save his life. In the New Testament Joseph, having been warned in a dream about Herod wanting to kill all the children two years old and younger, acted to protect Jesus by fleeing into Egypt. Moses went up on a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Jesus went up on a mountain to deliver his Sermon on the Mount which is largely interpretation of the Ten Commandments. You get the idea. If you’re trying to convince Jewish people that Jesus is the Messiah, it makes sense to want to connect Jesus with Moses, the great hero of their tradition. It makes sense to tell the story of Jesus in ways that cause people to recall the stories they already know.

The Transfiguration story is yet another example of the Moses/Jesus connection with parallels between the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration. The account from Mark today begins with the phrase, “Six days later,” in the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai, the glory of the Lord covers the mountain for…six days. In the Transfiguration Jesus ascends the mountain with three companions, Peter, James and John; to receive the Ten Commandments Moses ascends Mt. Sinai with his own trio of followers, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu. In both stories there is a change in appearance as in Mark it says that Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white, in Exodus Moses’ face was shining, and in both stories the response of the others who are present is fear. Lots of parallels which I’m sure is not an accident.

In addition to the parallels, the Transfiguration story along with the story of Jesus’ baptism serve as bookends to the first half of Mark’s gospel as well as to the season of Epiphany which ends today as in both stories the divine voice speaks from beyond and affirms Jesus’ role as the Son of God. The Transfiguration is also a story that some interpreters see as a prefiguring of the resurrection of Jesus and/or a prefiguring of the second coming of Jesus.

All of which is interesting, at least I think it is, but it still leaves us with the question of what we’re supposed to make of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration because it is pretty strange. It does have to do with the identity of Jesus as the Son of God being made known, that’s clear and it’s important, but maybe to get at what else it might say to us and what our response might be, we need to approach it from the perspective of Peter, James and John, Jesus’ companions on the mountain.

They represent three characters who had been travelling with Jesus for awhile. They knew him as their teacher and their friend; they had seen him do some pretty amazing things, things that must have made them wonder exactly who Jesus was and what they’d gotten themselves into, but now they have this mountaintop experience that causes them to see Jesus differently, to see him in a different light, Transfiguration light if you will. In that different light, all they had thought about him before doesn’t go out the window; Jesus is still their teacher and friend, but on the mountain, all of a sudden, Jesus is more than that and the vision of Moses and Elijah, those legends of the faith, present with Jesus, add to the “more” and add to the drama of the moment.

The response of Peter, James and John to this vision is that they are terrified on the one hand, but there is also a desire to prolong the moment. “Let us build three dwellings” Peter impulsively says, but who can blame him? That’s how it is with mountain top moments; you wish you could make them last, but you can’t, so they don’t. Sooner or later, usually sooner, you have to come down from the mountain and that might be part of the “what else” the story has to say to us.

I would hope that we’ve all had some sort of mountaintop experience, something that has caused us to have a time when our troubles were gone and things looked and felt different, a moment that really seemed to change things. Personally I think of all the years I went to Celtics games and six times they won the championship during those years and it was always awesome. I basked in their reflected glory, kind of like Peter, James and John basked in Jesus’ reflected glory on the mountain. But as much of a mountaintop as it was, I couldn’t stay there. I couldn’t just hang around and wait for the parade. There were kids to teach and papers to correct and meetings to go to. I had to show up for school the next day. There was work to do.

Such was the case for Peter, James and John. They heard the voice from the cloud say to them, “Listen to him!” and that was their back to earth reminder, the message that there was work to be done; this wasn’t and couldn’t be the end of the story. To be who God wanted them to be, they had to come down from the mountain. They had to pay attention to and act on the words of Jesus.

In thinking about this story though, while I can look at it from the perspective of Peter, James and John, and I can think of my own examples of mountaintop experiences like with the Celtics, it’s much harder for me to think of a mountaintop experience with Jesus like the one those three had. I wish I would have such a time, a moment when I would really experience the divine essence of Jesus as clearly as they did, at least I think I wish for that although maybe in reality I couldn’t handle it; being terrified might be as far as I could get. Not having had such an experience though, it’s much easier for me to relate to pre-Transfiguration Peter, James and John when they knew Jesus mostly as their teacher and friend; he’s still a complicated and mysterious character, but as teacher and friend he is easier to understand.

But then I think, maybe I do have moments, not overwhelming moments like what happened on the mountain of Transfiguration, but moments; moments when because of something I read or something that happens in worship or in the words of a hymn or an anthem or in a comment someone makes, I have a moment when Jesus as the revelation of God does become clear. I still may not understand all that Jesus as the revelation of God means at that moment, in fact I know I don’t understand it all, but what I do know is that it has something to do with grace and forgiveness, grace and forgiveness that I know I need. Like any mountaintop experience, I can’t hang on to it; it’s there and then it’s gone and I’m back to Jesus as a great teacher, but there was a moment.

Maybe you’ve had those moments, or maybe you haven’t. Maybe you’ve had a more dramatic experience of Jesus’ full identity like what happened in the Transfiguration, or maybe you haven’t. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. What’s worth remembering in thinking about this story is that Peter, James and John were disciples before they had this mountaintop experience. They were already following, they were already listening to the voice of Jesus. The mountaintop changed things for them, but they were already disciples.

With or without a mountaintop experience, we can situate ourselves with Peter, James and John as followers of Jesus. We might long for the mountaintop but even if it happens, we can’t stay there; we have to come down. There is work to be done. For each of us, that work is different, but it’s always guided by the voice, the voice that declares Jesus “My son, the Beloved,” the voice that calls us to “Listen to him!”

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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