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On the Mount of Transfiguration, Matthew 17:1-9, March, 6, 2011


Matthew's story of the transfiguration begins by telling us that the incident took place "six days later," . . . "Six days after what?" The answer is what happened at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (Matthew 16:13-27). They respond, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets" (Matthew 16:14).

In short, the people think that Jesus is a forerunner of some kind of Messiah, but someone like John or Elijah, or some other prophetic figure that was expected to appear before the real Messiah came.

But the transfiguration disproves all speculation. Jesus cannot be equated with Elijah after this experience, because he is seen talking with a very much alive Elijah and Moses on the mountain (17:3).

Another parallel could be made between these sections of Matthew 16 and Matthew 17.  And that is the answer that Peter gives to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" in 16:15. Peter responds, "You are the Messiah/Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:16). This is confirmed during the transfiguration when a voice speaks from heaven and says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him."

It has often been noted that in the transfiguration, a story told by all three synoptic gospels (Mark 9:1-13; Luke 9:28-36), Jesus is placed in direct line (continuity) and on equal footing with the greatest figures of Old Testament tradition -- with Moses, the great Levitical lawgiver, and with Elijah, the great prophet. It is often suggested that this implies that Jesus' giving of law and revelation of prophecy will surpass those of these older figures.

In biblical symbolism, Moses is the great personal symbol of the Torah and Elijah is the great personal symbol of the Prophetic Traditions.

Together they symbolize the Torah and the Prophets, the Sacred Scripture for most Jewish people and early followers of Jesus at the time of the writing of the Synoptic Gospels.

The Transfiguration accounts proclaim that Jesus is in the same league with Moses and Elijah, who talk with him.  In these accounts Jesus and his words and work are being validated as on the same level of authority as the Sacred Scriptures -- the Torah and the Prophetic Traditions -- as they were then known.

In this view, what the transfiguration is thought to be implying is that whereas one used to listen to Moses as a legal authority, or trust the visions of Elijah, one would now turn to Jesus for such matters.

The casual familiarity among the three is reminiscent of the familiarity portrayed between God and God's chosen messengers in the Old Testament. Jesus speaks to Moses and Elijah face to face, which is just the way Moses is said to converse with God (Exodus 33:11).

Jesus' face shines during this encounter, as did the face of Moses after encountering God on Sinai (Exodus 34:29). And Jesus' garments are said to shine, perhaps denoting the sanctity that was often attributed to the special garments worn by the high priests of Israel and by Elijah (Exodus 39, 2 Kings 2).

All of these events, if you were to go back and read them, took place on a mountaintop, and suggest that Jesus is the inheritor of the direct communication with God that these great figures experienced. Moses and Elijah (the personal symbols of the Torah and Prophetic Traditions) have faded away.

Only Jesus is seen, and the voice of God from heaven has proclaimed Jesus to be God's beloved Son whom his disciples are commanded to hear.

Another valid interpretation is possible. Image Jesus the King, standing in the presence of the great Priest and the great Prophet. When the voice from heaven says, "This is my Son, the Beloved," it is a reference to two Psalms and a prophecy which point to the adoption of King David as the symbolic son of God (Psalm 2:7; 89:26-27; 2 Samuel 7:14). Even more convincing is the reference to Jesus as "Beloved," which is the translation of the name David. So whatever else is being claimed for Christ at the transfiguration, among them is the title of Davidic Messiah.  Is Jesus telling Moses and Elijah that He is in fact the Messiah that they, and all of Israel, have been waiting for?

This phrase, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased," also occurs at the baptism of Christ in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22).

For the gospel writers, the transfiguration held significance on a par with Jesus' baptism. If at the baptism Jesus was marked for his special mission, confirmed in his role as inaugurator of the new era, here that designation is confirmed with two historical, if not impeccable, witnesses. He was designated to be the Messiah, and is hereby confirmed to be the Messiah. He is not only "beloved" now; he is to be "listened" to as an authority, if not THE authority.

Peter’s first reaction is to start talking about doing something and, for that matter, to do so with a somewhat inflated view of his own importance. Notice how after claiming “it is good for us to be here,” Peter says, “I will make three dwellings.” 

Granted, he probably did this in good faith, trying to be helpful but missing the point. It was frightening to be in the presence of God’s glory. How often have you gotten up and gotten busy when the presence of God came close for comfort and you realized the magnitude and reality of the Divine Creator?

Peter wants to build a memorial that preserves the memory of this divine event. Memory, of course, is a profound dimension of how faith stays alive throughout Scripture. But the content of memory is valuable only to the extent that looking back bolsters our awareness that God is in our midst right here and now, not stuck in the past.

Memorials serve us best when they keep us currently faithful to our ever-present God, who’s always leading us into the future.

The problem with memorials, however, is how, despite our best intentions, they can devolve into tidy keepsake boxes that preserve holiness like some memento to which we can return at our convenience. Here, the Divine is treated like a commodity. Our human impulse to want to build dwellings for God—yet, the infinite cannot be contained in finite.

Yet the voice from the cloud proclaims: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  God answers Peter — and everyone since like Peter — whenever they respond to the holy as if they know how to domesticate the Divine and manage the presence of the living God.

First and foremost, be still long enough to listen to the One with whom God is well pleased, the only One who knows what is up and needful heading into the future that God holds in store. Before going into action, be still long enough not only to listen but also to reflect the glory of this One.

Such glory isn’t an entitlement to privilege for the disciples but the source of sacred empowerment from on high. It energizes and equips them anew to accompany Jesus through the hardest part of his ministry.

The Transfiguration affirms Jesus’ divinity, but it also gives the disciples eyes to see God’s light in the chaos to come, where they will live in a world without Christ’s bodily presence.

The Transfiguration invites us to live in “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor.4:6).  As that light shines in our hearts, the incarnate God is made real in the every day. God prepares us in transcendent encounters of our lives to endure the world below, the world of the cross that tries to break us. This same world, however, is never beyond God’s redemption, and neither are we. 

God doesn’t need us to build memorials but to be memorials: living memorials who reflect Christ in how we conduct our lives, now and moving into the future.  Amen.


Rev. Rosemary Stelz, First Presbyterian Church,

Bastrop, LA

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