Sunday 3 March 2019: Next Before Lent
A Strange Story?
Exodus 34:29-34; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
By Christopher Burkett
Diocesan Director of Ministry, Chester and Editor of The Preacher
Context: mostly middle class Roman Catholic parish. Largely families but some older people. Sung Sunday mass with procession from parish centre into the Church
Aim: to encourage the congregation to ‘identify’ their own journey of life with that of Christ and to see Palm Sunday as a real ‘spiritual’ tipping point
A Disclosure Experience
I have to admit that I find this story of the transfiguration incident on the mountain a strange one. In comparison to the accounts of Jesus’ teaching and healing it seems ‘other-worldly’. Boundaries of time are crossed, and Jesus’ human frame is changed into a glowing, almost ethereal, presence. No wonder then that some have claimed this is a resurrection appearance of Jesus shifted in time. But the Gospel-writers were both careful and purposeful in their accounts, so I don’t think they made a mistake. No, the Transfiguration has to be a disclosure of something that, in one form or another, happened in the disciples’ experience of Jesus present among them.
Eight days before the incident, Luke says, Jesus had spoken of his suffering, death and resurrection. He then went on to say that this experience of the cross, literally or metaphorically, would also be the lot of his followers: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9.23). Perhaps the eight-day hiatus is there to indicate just how difficult for the disciples these thoughts were? Might they have argued and prayed and discussed and struggled with what Jesus had said? We don’t know; but we do know that whatever was said and done in those eight days Luke links them to the Transfiguration. Why?
A new exodus?
I think the clue is in verse 31, Moses and Elijah are talking to Jesus, and then it says, ‘They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.’ In other words, their conversation is about those very things that Jesus had spoken of eight days previously – his suffering, death and resurrection. This is a detail unique to Luke and there’s a word he uses that we should particularly notice – they were speaking of ‘his departure’ and the word that translates is exodos. Luke says that Jesus’ death or is it his death, resurrection, and ascension, is a new Exodus.
Whatever they understood or misunderstood, Peter, John and James knew very precisely what Exodus was about. Like every devout Jew they rehearsed its significance again and again. They celebrated God’s intervention to save his own people from slavery; they recognized the struggles involved; they honoured Moses as the determined leader of that journey to freedom; and they rejoiced in being called by God as a people in this remarkable act of deliverance. Here a people were freed and brought to new life despite their many failures. Remarkable! Exodus: the story of a God who loves and saves, and the story of a people redeemed – literally.
That you know Peter, John and James. Well, you more than know it, you’ve lived it your whole lives. And now you are going to experience nothing less than Exodus Plus – the glory breaks into our world anew, but now the liberator won’t be Moses, his arms outstretched that the freed slaves can pass through the sea; but Jesus, his arms outstretched on the cross that the whole of humanity can pass to freedom. The glory of God is seen anew in Jesus who breaks the spiral of hurt, harm and vengeance. Look, says Luke, the glory of God’s new exodus is here.
The three disciples are being urged to use what they already know well as a lens to see something remarkably new. Use what you know – but go beyond it. See your human experience made glorious by God’s action. The Jesus you see is Jesus the Galilean you know but he is also bearer of God’s glory here and now.
Living exodus now
And what is the three’s response? They are weighed down with sleepiness! It’s as if it’s still too much for them to take in. They are too dozy to make the connection. Perhaps Peter has an inkling of what this is about; if they stay there longer maybe he’ll work it out. ‘Let’s build a shelter so that we’ve time to think.’ Too late, Peter, it’s time to come down from the mountain. It’s time to recognise that what was true there in moments of glorious brightness is just as true in humdrum world of every day.
Peter, know this – Jesus is the Messiah – God’s glory breaks into the world. A new path to freedom – a new exodus – is created by the cross. Go and live that Peter – let hope cast out despair; let death be broken in new life; and let the dreadful fury of violence be crushed by love. That’s glory. That’s exodus. And Paul picks up the theme:
For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4.6).
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