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Glory to Grace: Lessons from The Transfiguration

August 6th in the Anglican Calendar is the Feast of the Ascension — a strange, unnerving story from the bible where everything that three disciples thought they knew about Jesus was blown apart…

Let’s start with the bare-bones story from Matthew’s account.

After six days, Jesus took Peter, James, and John, his brother, and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves. He was changed before them. His face shone like the sun, and his garments became as white as the light. Behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with him.
Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let’s make three tents here: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them. Behold, a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” (Matthew 17.1–8, WEB)

I don’t know if the disciples mentioned in today’s reading were genuinely confused about whether Jesus was honestly speaking God’s words to them or whether they didn’t want to accept it because it might be too costly.

But they had recently heard a challenging message from Jesus, and Matthew directs us back to it. We are told that this episode happened “After six days.” This means we must look back and see what happened those six days earlier.

And we read that Jesus challenged the disciples, especially Peter, about who he was.

Jesus said to them, “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16.15–16, WEB)

Then he makes it clear that life is about to get a whole lot more complicated. Jesus will suffer and die — and his followers must be ready to take up their cross and walk with him.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16.24–25, WEB)

So now Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain — an image familiar to his Jewish listeners from the Old Testament.

Moses had climbed Mount Sinai to receive the law from God, and when he came down again, his face shone so brightly that the people were terrified they asked him to wear a veil so they wouldn’t have to look at him.

Later, the prophet Elijah went to the same mountain to meet with God.

As Jesus and his three disciples were standing on the mountain, we read that Jesus’ appearance was transformed, or transfigured, before them: his clothes, like Moses’ face, became dazzlingly bright.

Mark adds the little detail that it was “his clothes became much whiter than any bleach on earth could make them.”

Showing my age... This came to mind with that bible verse…

And suddenly — BOOM- Moses and Elijah are there talking with Jesus.

It tells us in Luke’s account of this same story that the disciples were feeling very sleepy. Perhaps they were wondering if it was all some sort of weird dream.

But this is no dream.

Jesus is speaking to the two significant figures of Judaism — Moses and Elijah. Two men who had encountered God on a mountain — but, of course, who were long dead. What on earth was going on here?

Peter decides he needs to do something. Don’t you love Peter? His rather strange response is to want to create shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses.

Why? Luke comments, “he did not know what he was talking about.”

I suppose nowadays; we’d whip out our phone, take a selfie and post it on Facebook or Instagram. We try to capture that moment for posterity — perhaps Peter had the same idea.

Maybe he was trying to be religious, almost to create “a church” to worship. Or perhaps he was trying to cling to Moses and Elijah — ‘Stay with us. Don’t leave.’

There is, of course, always the temptation to cling to the past. To cling to how things were back in the good old days when we had Moses and Elijah — before this Jesus fellow came and turned everything upside down.

It’s a Gospel theme — the old has gone, the new has come.

We’re not always very good at handling that transformation, are we? Just like Peter, we can try to fix things and build permanent structures when Jesus asks us to let go of those things and build a relationship with him.

Interestingly, as soon as he suggests this, the cloud descends with the voice of God.

This is my Son. Believe in Him.

And — whoosh — as quickly as they came, Moses and Elijah were gone. The historical figures fade away — but Jesus remains.

Moses represents the Law, and Elijah represents the prophets. What happens on the mountain is a visual representation of what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them’ Matthew 5:17.

Peter, James and John are given a revelation of who Jesus really is. We see pretty clearly that Jesus is on a level with God himself. He’s not just a good teacher; he is God in human form.

As we reflect on this encounter, let us examine our lives.

Are we, like Peter, clinging to the past, trying to hold on to familiar structures and rituals? Are we giving Jesus the rightful place as the Lord of our lives, or are we holding on to the past?

Jesus calls us to let go and embrace change. Just as Moses and Elijah faded away, the past will be transfigured into the new.

It’s tempting to cling to familiar traditions, but Jesus calls us deeper into a relationship with Him.

Let’s not build fixed shelters or idolise the past, but instead, open our hearts to the transfiguring power of Christ.

Adapted from a sermon at Saltburn Methodist Church on August 6th


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