Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
1After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
11 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
Back around 1950 (which was the highpoint of church membership in American history), a survey was taken of religious life in our country. In that survey, only 19% of Americans said they had ever had a supernatural experience that changed their life in any significant way. But just a couple of years ago, after seventy years of steady decline in religious participation in our country, almost half of the Americans responding to a similar survey said they have personally had a supernatural experience.
That’s a little odd, don’t you think?
And how about this: One of my seminary professors, the respected New Testament scholar Dale Allison, wrote an article about supernatural experiences in our time. And since the article was published, people from all over the country have contacted him to say that they’ve had experiences of this kind. But many of them who were active church members have said they didn’t tell anyone about their experiences because they were afraid others would think they were “crazy.”
Now that’s really odd: People in our time are apparently more open to the idea of supernatural experiences, but practicing Christians still think those experiences are somehow “unacceptable” to other believers.
I say this all because today’s reading is Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, which is a story in which the disciples were confronted with the fact that Jesus really was a supernatural being. So it’s a story about God revealing to humankind the true nature of Jesus.
You might remember that in one of last week’s readings, it had been revealed to the disciples for the first time that Jesus is the Messiah. Then Jesus had told them what that meant – it meant that he would be killed on the orders of the Hebrew religious leadership and raised from the dead. Jesus also told the disciples that those who follow him need to be willing to lose our lives, too.
Now, in our reading for today, God reveals that Jesus is a being from beyond our world – a being with supernatural powers who is the fulfillment of “the law and the prophets.” So the Messiah was not just a worldly revolutionary leader, but rather a figure from another realm who was here to establish a new kind of relationship between God and humankind.
And what’s more, Jesus is identified as the beloved Son of God, with the authority to speak for him. And we are commanded to listen to Jesus. And that means more than just being quiet when he speaks – it means we’re supposed to do what he says.
This passage from Matthew has a bunch of theological images and symbols in it. The story takes place on a mountaintop, where God has often chosen to meet with his people. And the mysterious cloud that appears around Jesus and the disciples at the Transfiguration reminds us that God would often speak out of a cloud during his encounters with humankind.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah is significant, too. Moses was the one through whom God communicated the Law. And Elijah was considered to represent all the prophets in the history of the Hebrews. There was a prophesy that Elijah would return to announce the coming of the day of the Lord. And when John the Baptist appeared, he showed up wearing the same strange clothes and eating the same odd diet as Elijah – which sheds some light on the way Jesus connects John the Baptist with Elijah in this reading.
You might remember that the Gospel of Matthew is understood to have been compiled for Jewish readers, to explain to them how Jesus connects with their history and traditions. And this passage is a good example. Jesus said he was the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, and the appearance of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration sort of illustrates that understanding.
The bright glow that surrounded them on the mountaintop was understood by the Jews to be a manifestation of God’s glory on earth. They called this bright light the ‘shekinah.’ So by showing Jesus glowing with this light, God was showing the disciples that Jesus wasn’t just another insightful rabbi – he was actually divine in nature.
As we said, this story has all a lot of important symbols in it. But when you have a story in the Bible in which God speaks, this most important thing to pay attention to is what God actually says. All the bright light and historical figures tend to distract us from the message God is communicating in the story. And that message is that Jesus is his Son and we’re commanded to do what he says. Because that’s really the most important thing that happens in this passage.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for what you revealed to us at the Transfiguration, and for coming into the world with the holy power and mystery that was revealed that day. Help us always to remember that Jesus was and is a divine being – a part of the Trinity who came into the world to teach us things that we are meant to hear – and to obey. Amen.
(The other readings today are Psalms 57 and 145; Ezra 7:27-28, 8:21-36; and Revelation 20:7-15.)