The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Lord, make me a hollow reed so that Your Voice might be heard by all who hear these words. Amen.
In our readings today, this last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we encounter not one, but two characters being “transfigured.” “Transfiguration” is not a word that is in our everyday vocabulary—but if you’ve read any of the Harry Potter novels, you’ll be familiar with the concept. In the magical world of witches and wizards, the ability to transfigure—to change oneself into another creature—is one of the many magic skills students are taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It’s clearly a useful skill, allowing one to travel about undetected, as Professor McGonagall does when she becomes a cat, or to hide from one’s enemies, as Harry’s godfather Sirius Black does, taking the form of a big shaggy dog when he escapes from Azkaban, the wizarding prison, and as the more nefarious Peter Pettigrew does as a rat, hiding out from his former master, the evil Lord Voldemort.
You might have noticed that in all the examples I’ve given, transfiguration allows one to be less obvious, to go unnoticed. But the kind of transfiguration that Moses and Jesus undergo is quite different—their appearance changes, to be sure, but rather than making them less conspicuous, helping them to blend in, or to get by undetected, their transfiguration – with glowing white robes and luminous faces – puts them right in the spotlight. Rather than hiding their true identities, the transfigurations of Moses and Jesus reveal them as who they are—prophet and liberator on the one hand; messiah, son of God on the other, and they serve as vivid reminders of God’s enduring presence in the world.
Moses, you will recall, has led the Israelites out of Egypt, out of slavery, into freedom—and right into the wilderness, where they must find their way, trusting in God to lead them to the “Promised Land.” The Israelites aren’t used to such freedom; it’s scary, and despite repeated assurances from Moses—and indeed, signs from God—they whine and complain every step of the way. When Moses ascends the mountain to consult with God on how to handle this recalcitrant people, he stay a little too long to suit the people, who, sure that they are being abandoned, quickly forge themselves a new “god”—a golden calf. When Moses, coming down with the stone tablets engraved by God, sees this idol he is so enraged that he drops the tablets and they shatter. It’s not just Moses who is angry, of course—God is angry, too, but Moses goes up the mountain again and intercedes, convincing God to give the Israelites yet one more chance. It is during this encounter that Moses is transfigured, and when he comes down, his face is shining so brightly that he must put a veil on it because the Israelites cannot bear to look at him.
You might have noticed that when Moses is transfigured, it is not during his first encounter with God. There is little doubt that each and every meeting with God, from the burning bush forward, changed Moses in some way, but this change was different, When Moses’ face was transfigured, changed so that his visage was so bright and shining that the people feared to look at him—well, that was more than Moses’ own personal transfiguration; instead, this was a sign to the people that God was still with them, and each and every time they gazed at Moses’ face alight with the glory of God, they would be reminded of that yet again.
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration in many way parallels that of Moses. Jesus, accompanied by Peter, James and John, climbs up a mountain to get away from the crowds that are always with him, to rest and to pray. As Jesus prays, his whole appearance begins to change – his clothes become a dazzling white, and his face begins to shine like the sun. And if that weren’t enough, Moses and Elijah appear beside him, and the three engage in a spirited discussion of what will come next for Jesus. Peter, James, and John, sleep-deprived as always and struggling to stay awake, don’t know what to make of this, and their wonderment and confusion must’ve only increased when the voice of God thundered from behind a cloud, “This is my son…listen to him.” When they came down from the mountain, they told no one of their experience, but surely as Mary did earlier, they must have pondered it in their hearts.
As it was for Moses, the timing of Jesus’ transfiguration was not accidental. Jesus’ ministry is drawing to a close, and he has begun to warn the disciples about what is to come, warn them that they, too, must be prepared to take up the cross. Peter has declared Jesus to be the messiah, the chosen one, but Jesus must have known that the disciples really didn’t understand who he was and what they would have to face. And so, witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus, seeing him reflect the glory and majesty of God, hearing God proclaim him as his son would’ve been for them like seeing Moses’ shining face was for the Israelites, a potent reminder of God’s on-going presence in their lives, a reminder that would become evermore important as they traveled with Jesus to Jerusalem and the cross.
The placement of these readings in our lectionary is not accidental, either. On Wednesday we’ll begin our long passage through Lent, retracing that road to the cross. Even though we have the assurance of the resurrection, the promise of Easter, this can be a dark, lonely and painful journey. We are asked to examine our lives, our hearts, our consciences; we’re asked to face up to our faults, to seek forgiveness, to turn away from those things that separate us from God and from being our best selves. We are asked to acknowledge not only Jesus’ suffering, but also our own and the world’s so that we may be truly prepared to enter into the joy of the resurrection at Easter.
Today’s readings remind us, as we undertake our Lenten journey, of the majesty and the glory of the God who created us, and of the promise of the God who does not, will not –has not ever—leave us on our own. Just as Moses’ shining face was a reminder to the Israelites that God will not abandon his people, no matter how difficult those people are, so too does it reassure us of God’s on-going presence in our lives. And just as Jesus’ transformation in the presence of Moses and Elijah proclaimed him as the messiah, the chosen one of God, so too does it affirm for us, that in Jesus, God’s promise to be with us always reaches its fulfillment. In that promise we can rest secure, knowing that we are held safely in God’s embrace, no matter how long or how hard the journey.