The scripture lessons from the Old and New Testaments this morning are like bookends. On one side of the bookshelf we’ve got Moses going up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. When he came down, having been in the presence of God, his face shown so brightly that the people of Israel had to cover their eyes. On the other side of the bookshelf we’ve got Jesus going up on Mount Herman. Luke says,
“…his clothing became white and dazzling …
(and) a cloud came and overshadowed them …
(and) a voice came out of the cloud, saying,
‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!’” (9:29, 34-35)
As we listen for God’s word in the sermon this morning, I’d like for us to take a closer look at this second story – the transfiguration of Jesus – and, in particular, I’d like for us to think about the radiance of God: What was it about being in the presence of God that was so apparent to the others – the Israelites out in wilderness, the disciples up on Mount Herman? Have you ever seen such radiance as this in the faces of people you’ve known over the years? And finally, to what extent is the radiance of God visible in your life today? The story begins,
“It happened about eight days after these sayings,
that he took with him Peter, John, and James,
and went up onto the mountain to pray” (9:28).
In the Bible, mountains are synonymous with the majesty and dominion of God. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exo. 19-20). Abraham offered his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to God on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22). The prophet Elijah challenged the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). The temple was constructed on Mount Zion. Jesus was crucified on Mount Calvary and ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives. Even now, it’s common for those who want to get in touch with the nearness of God to go to the mountains.
A few years ago, I had an elder in my church who’d disappear every two or three months. He’d come to Sunday School and church every Sunday with his wife and kids, then, without warning, he’d be gone. It took me a while to pick up on his pattern, and when I did, I asked his wife what was going on. She laughed and said, “Oh, he just needs a little time every once in a while to be alone with God.” She said he’d go backpacking on horseback in the mountains of New Mexico. For a few days, he’d live on beef jerky and chewing tobacco. He’d come back a different man – revived and ready to go back to work.
I admired him for that, and wished I could be a little more like him – to break away periodically, disappear, go up on a mountain and spend time alone with God in prayer.
It’s not easy to do. We lead busy lives. And we get a lot of positive reinforcement for being responsible, predictable and easy to get a hold of. Plus, we’ve got this little voice deep down inside of us that keeps telling us how important we are and how the world might fall apart if we weren’t here to keep it running smoothly.
And yet, we’d all do well to spend a little time on a mountaintop every once in a while. Like my elder years ago, we’d likely come back refreshed and renewed and revived in the Spirit.
Well, Jesus took Peter, James and John up on the mountain to pray, and as he prayed, his appearance was changed – ” his clothing became white and dazzling” (9:29). Clearly, he was bathed in the light of God’s presence.
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Now, let’s think about that for just a moment. We heard the story of Moses up on Mount Sinai. Now, here’s Jesus on Mount Herman. What is it that’s so apparent about those who’ve been in the presence of God?
There was a young woman in our church several years ago who, whenever she got up to speak or sing, had a certain aura about her. Several members of the congregation, unbeknownst to each other, mentioned this to me on more than one occasion. They said it was as if a ring of light encircled her face. Have you ever known anyone like that?
When I was out in Odessa, we decided to call an associate pastor. Our Associate Pastor Nominating Committee went to Dallas for a “Face to Face” conference, where churches looking for ministers and ministers looking for churches get a chance to meet each other. The committee interviewed several candidates, and each made a positive impression. But, as one particular candidate came into the room, the whole ambiance of the room changed. The moderator of the committee told me later, “It was as if someone turned on the lights. She lit up the room, and we all knew that this was the person we were looking for.”
In religious art, saints are often depicted with a circle behind their faces – sort of like a disk or pie plate. And while this looks a little one-dimensional compared to the computer-generated graphics we’re so accustomed to, it’s meant to represent their holiness. It also reveals a quality we tend to overlook, that those who’ve walked with God glow with the radiance of God’s presence. Scripture says,
“Those who are wise shall shine as the brightness of the expanse;
and those who turn many to righteousness
as the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:3).
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples, “Then the righteous will shine forth like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father” (Mt. 13:43)
And in his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “Awake, you who sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14)
Throughout the scriptures, light is a symbol of God, so that whenever we come into the presence of God, we’re filled with the light of God’s love, and, like a prism, the radiance of God is reflected and refracted through us to illumine and enlighten others.
When you get a moment, take a close look in the mirror. Does the radiance of God sparkle in your eyes? Does your face glow with the light of Christ? Know this: The closer you walk with God, the brighter your path will be.
Jesus prayed to God, and as he prayed, his appearance was changed, “his raiment became dazzling white.” And then he was joined by none other than Moses and Elijah representing, of course, the Law and the Prophets of the Jewish faith. A cloud covered the mountaintop, and from the cloud came a voice saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” (9:35)
If there was any question as to who Jesus was, there was no mystery about it now: He is the Christ, the only begotten son of God.
The disciples were bewildered. Scripture says they were “heavy with sleep but…were fully awake.”(9:32) Another way of saying it is that they were in a stupor. They were dumbfounded, speechless, awe struck. You would’ve been too.
When Peter came to his senses and realized the significance of the moment, he said,
“Master, it is good for us to be here.
Let’s make three tents:
one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33).
Now, we’re tempted simply to think of this as a Kodak moment, one you’d like to hold on to, that Peter was simply trying to concretize the experience and preserve it for all time.
But there’s more to it than this. The booths recall the Feast of Booths, one of the three major festivals of the Jewish faith. The Feast of Booths was observed in the fall each year at the completion of the harvest. It was a thanksgiving celebration. More importantly, it marked a renewal of God’s covenant with Israel.
Through the eyes of faith, we now see that the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is the story of a new covenant being established in Jesus Christ, a covenant that will be symbolized for all time, not by booths, but by the Cross of Calvary.
Peter wanted to build three booths, but Jesus said no. And just like that, it was over. The cloud was gone, Moses and Elijah vanished, and Jesus was left alone with his disciples.
Mountaintop experiences are important, but they’re not meant to last forever.
And this is a truth we all need to remember: Whether your religious experience is like that of the Apostle Paul, who was blinded by the light of Christ on the road to Damascus; or John Wesley, who felt his heart strangely warmed at Aldersgate; or Horace Bushnell, who confessed to being nurtured in the faith over a lifetime in New England, the real test of Christianity is not the ecstasy of the mountaintop experience, but the compassion and sympathy you show for others in the valley below.
No sooner than he got down off the mountain, Jesus was met by a woman with a sick child, who begged for his mercy and healing kindness. (Luke 9:37-38) The glory of the mountaintop was short-lived, at best.
As for the transfiguration of Jesus, it represents a turning point in his life: No longer would he continue his ministry in Galilee, his hour had come. Luke says, “he intently set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (9:51)
And this is where I’d like to end – simply by saying that for us to celebrate the transfiguration of Jesus is to renew our commitment to him, to recognize him as the Son of God and the Lord and Savior of our lives. It’s to sing with Charles Wesley,
“Christ whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only light,
Sun of righteousness, arise,
triumph o’er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near;
daystar in my heart appear.”
And it’s to pray without ceasing,
“Visit, then, this soul of mine;
pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
Fill me, radiancy divine;
scatter all my unbelief;
More and more thyself display,
shining to the perfect day.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.