Transfiguration – a glimpse of heaven on earth
Mary Copping, 3 March 2019
Luke 9: 28–36; 2 Corinthians 3: 12–4: 2
Today we have the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, when he took his three most trusted disciples – Peter, John and James – up a mountain. We’re told that the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. According to the dictionary, transfiguration means ‘a great change of form or appearance; especially a change that beautifies, glorifies or makes more spiritual’. This is what happened to Jesus.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t changing who he was; he was still the same, fully man and fully God. People who saw him each day could only see him as a man, even though he was fully God as well. This incident was showing his glory to his closest friends, showing that he was God’s Son.
The event described in these verses is one of the most remarkable in the history of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It is one of those passages that we can read with thankfulness, as it gives us a glimpse of heaven on earth.
In the days before this, Jesus had been telling the disciples that they would have to go through many difficulties, have to take up their cross to follow him. But they decided they wanted to follow him anyway, whatever was to happen. And now some of them were given this wonderful experience.
I wonder how we would have felt if we’d been there: seeing Jesus become dazzling white, like sun shining on snow, almost blinding; then hearing the voice of God coming out of the clouds. It might have been a scary and wonderful experience, as it was for the disciples.
A mountaintop experience. How we may long for one of those, and maybe some have had them. Perhaps we’ve had one by actually being on a mountain, and being breathless at the wonderful view? Or by going into a cathedral and being amazed at the splendour and beauty of the architecture, and feeling a wonderful sense of God’s presence.
The transfiguration of Jesus is the pinnacle of his public life. As his baptism was the starting point of his public life, this moment called the Transfiguration is the peak of his public ministry. Through the experience of the Transfiguration, Peter, John and James were given a glimpse of heaven in order to strengthen them for the terrible struggles and suffering that was yet to come.
Why was it Moses and Elijah in particular who were here with Jesus? Some say that Moses represented Jewish law – the Ten Commandments that God gave to him on Mount Sinai – and Elijah represented the Jewish prophets. So, when God’s voice from heaven said of Jesus, ‘Listen to him!’, that indicated that the law and the prophets must now give way to Jesus, who would fulfil the old way with the new way: he is the completion of the law and the fulfilment of the prophecies in the Old Testament.
We’re told in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that when Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, his face was shining with the glory of God, just as Jesus’ face was now shining with the same glory. To observant Jews, these parallels would have been meaningful.
Yet, as for these disciples so for us, this is a one-off experience. Most of the time, day to day, we live the ordinariness of everyday lives. No wonder the disciples wanted to put up tents; no wonder we want to stay with wonderful experiences and not get back to our everyday lives. We are living in the world, amongst pain and suffering, yet as Christians we know that somehow God is with us, even though often we don’t sense his presence.
They heard the voice of God saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ And the message to the disciples, and to us, is: is God asking us to listen to his voice? Easy to do on the mountaintop, much harder in the ordinariness of everyday lives. Do we hear God’s voice, do we have time to listen for his still, small voice in the quiet?
As we go into the penitent days of Lent, in whatever way we may live them out, let us somehow make special time to listen to God, to hear what he is saying to each one of us, to listen to his wisdom and guidance for our ordinary, everyday lives.
Of course, there are different ways that we can hear the voice of God. Sometimes something may strike us that seems meaningful, such as the words of a hymn, or part of the Bible reading, or something from the Collect. Often he may speak through a friend as we wonder what we should do. Sometimes it is in the quiet of our hearts as we spend time in prayer. Ours is to be alert to God speaking to us in various ways.
In Lent, we are encouraged to spend more time in prayer, in reading the Bible, in fasting. Whatever ‘more’ it is that we do, let us ask God to help us to hear his voice. He has the best way for us to live our lives; let us make the effort to hear and obey. The disciplines of Lent are not for us to try to achieve our salvation, or our worth in Christ’s eyes. They are to make us more receptive to his light and life, and so that we can be more effective witnesses for him.
The disciplines of Lent are not for us to try to achieve our salvation, or our worth in Christ’s eyes. They are to make us more receptive to his light and life.
When the experience was over the disciples would never have forgotten what happened that day on the mountain, and no doubt this was intended. As John wrote in his gospel, ‘We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (1: 14). When they were told by Jesus that he would have to die but would rise again, they would be strengthened by having had this experience, as we so often are strengthened by God’s presence with us in times of great need.
Part of a poem by Malcolm Guite called ‘Transfiguration’:
For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face.
He describes the glory of God shining from the human face of Christ. As we go into the world let us be aware that we as Christians are reflecting a little bit of this glory, this light, and walk forward as followers of Christ.