How are you all doing? Hanging in there? At least February is over even if winter is still around. We Wisconsinites are hardy folk, We pride ourselves in not being thwarted by a few inches of snow or sub-zero temperatures. But let’s be honest: a forecast of -10 tonight? I’m sure we’re all waiting for spring, or wishing we were somewhere warm and sunny. Last night, we drank Sicilian wine, ate Sicilian food, watched a TV show set in Sicily. It only made things worse.
As this winter continues, I feel myself dreading the Season of Lent. I feel like I’ve been in the middle of a spiritual discipline which is simply surviving winter. I’m not sure I’m ready to take on something else. But here we are on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany with Ash Wednesday only a few days away.
Because Ash Wednesday is so late this year, we seem far removed from the joyous celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany, the manifestation of God in Christ seems more a faint memory than lived experience. So it may be appropriate that on this Sunday each year, we experience another jolt of glory as we read the story of the Transfiguration.
Each gospel writer tells the story somewhat differently, reflecting their different emphases and their different understandings of Jesus. So for Luke, the first thing that we notice is the reason Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain—to pray. Matthew and Mark only observe that Jesus took the three of them to be off by themselves.
We have seen this emphasis on prayer before. Just a few weeks ago, I pointed out that Jesus began his sermon on the level place after going up to the mountain to pray with his disciples.
Thcere’s a similar moment a few verses before today’s gospel reading. Luke reports that one time, Jesus was praying, with only his disciples near him, and he asked them the famous question, “Who do people say that I am?” We might think what ties these three instances together. In the first, prayer precedes Jesus revealing himself to the disciples and the crowd by teaching them. In the second, he asks the disciples about his identity; in the third, God reveals Jesus’ identity, “This is my son, the Chosen, listen to him.”
These three different episodes in which Jesus reveals himself or in which his identity is revealed, have much to say to us. We might ask how we expect to encounter Jesus Christ, how we understand and experience him, what assumptions we bring with us. Do we expect preaching and teaching, a confession of faith, a miraculous experience? What satisfies us, what convinces us, what changes us?
There’s another important theme here. The story is full of imagery that looks back to the Hebrew Bible and forward to the resurrection. For example, the words that Luke uses to describe Jesus’ appearance are the exact same words he will use when describing the appearance of the angels at the empty tomb—the dazzling clothes appears in both places. But the ways in which this story points backwards in the biblical tradition are even more striking.
It’s not just the presence of Moses and Elijah, which 21stcentury readers might assume is only the gospel writers’ attempts to add to the drama and spectacle. Moses and Elijah were important figures in Jewish speculation. Both had mysterious deaths—Deuteronomy tells us that when Moses died, God buried him, and no one knows the location of his tomb. In the case of Elijah, he didn’t die at all but was carried off to heaven by chariots of fire. Because of this mystery, Jewish apocalyptic thinking focused attention on the return of both figures.
But their presence may be accounted for in less dramatic fashion. Moses, the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet were two key figures in the development of scripture and Jewish identity—Luke repeatedly tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, so their presence here are a reminder of Jesus’ continuity with the tradition that came before him.
There’s another theme that connects back with earlier tradition and with Moses. Luke tells us that the Moses, Elijah, and Jesus “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” It’s an odd turn of phrase in English that takes on surprising significance in the Greek, for the Greek word used is “exodus.” With this, Luke is reaching back to the story of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, a journey they were on in today’s reading from Exodus. In doing so, he is laying the foundation for his interpretation of the events of the cross and resurrection—like the Exodus Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection liberates us from our bondage to sin and death.
But there’s another departure, or exodus here. The voice from heaven says to Jesus’ disciples, “This is my Son, my Chosen, Listen to him.” Jesus and his disciples will go down the mountain. In Luke’s gospel this is the introduction to a lengthy section, from 9:37 to 19:28, which takes place during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Having spent most of the preceding section of the gospel teaching in his home region of Galilee, Jesus now sets out on that final journey, towards his exodus.
Equally important, these 10 chapters are made up of material that is almost entirely unique to Luke, that is to say, it is material that doesn’t have parallels in Matthew or Mark. It includes some of Jesus’ most familiar and beloved parables: The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, for example. When the voice commanded, “Listen to him” it speaks to us as well as to Jesus’ disciples, commanding us to pay attention to what Jesus is teaching us.
We are about to enter the season of Lent and our focus as Christians turns toward Jerusalem, the events of Holy Week, the joy of Easter. It’s easy for us in this season of repentance to focus on our sins and shortcomings, to view the 40 days of Lent as a season of struggle, fasting, time in the wilderness. While Exodus in the biblical tradition did include such themes, much of it took place in wilderness, it was much more than that. It was a celebration of freedom and God’s mighty act of delivering God’s chosen people from oppression in Egypt, and it looked ahead to a promised land, a future of freedom and plenty.
In Luke, the cross and resurrection are God’s mighty acts of deliverance of us from our bondage to sin and death. Our repentance in Lent opens us up to the joy of God’s forgiveness and the overwhelming power of God’s grace. May this coming season be for all of us a time to experience God’s forgiveness and the joy of God’s love.