The Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36)

A sermon preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton, February 14, 2021

During the last year we have been trying to see the big story that unites all of God’s plans.  We’ve traced God’s plan from Genesis, through Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets and see how they all prepare way for Jesus.  We’re discovering that when we have the big picture we can make more sense of the different parts of the story.

As we begin, I want to talk you a minute about Theme and Variation.  When a musician writes a symphony, they will choose a simple musical phrase for the theme of the entire symphony.  For example, Beethoven’s 5th symphony begins with phrase “da, da, da duh, da, duh____, da, da, da duh, da, duh____.”  For the rest of the first movement he keeps returning to the theme, but adding variations in volume, the instruments playing and even at one point changing the theme from a minor key to a major.  In the second movement he introduces a 2nd theme along with its variations.  In the final movement he combines the two themes to bring the symphony to a glorious conclusion. 

In our scripture lesson, Luke is doing something similar.  He is picking up themes from the Old Testament, along with  themes from the earlier chapters of his gospel, and then combining them in interesting ways to give us a deeper appreciation of Jesus and his ultimate purpose.  This morning I want us to look at three themes Luke develops in this passage

  1. Theophany
  2. Redemption
  3. Son of God

Theophany

The first theme is theophany.  A theophany is the manifestation of God in an observable way.  The word comes from two Greek words: θεο, a noun which means “God” and φαίνω, a verb which means “to shine or appear.” So a theophany is an event when God shines through.

In the Old Testament, theophanies usually occur on the mountaintop, that’s why Luke tells us that Jesus is up on the mountain praying.  He is picking up on this “mountain” theme.  In addition, the two people who have experienced a theophany are Moses and Elijah.  That is why they are here, to bear witness to the theophany of Christ.

Moses experienced a theophany on the top of Mount Sinai.  Moses asked God to show him God’s glory.  God told Moses he could not look on his face or he would die.  So instead God placed Moses in the cleft of a rock and covered it, as it were, with his hand as he passed by so that Moses caught only a glimpse of God’s back.  However, that experience transformed Moses.  Exodus 39:29 & 30 tell us

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tables of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.  And when Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.

Interestingly, when Luke tells us that “the appearance of Jesus’ face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” it is an allusion to this story.  This detail is a minor motif that reinforces the connection of Jesus’ story with Moses’ previous experience.  It as though Luke is saying, this is like what happened to Moses, only greater.

Elijah’s theophany, on the other hand was not visual but auditory.  After running from King Ahab, Elijah came to Mount Sinai.  There he experienced an earthquake, fire and a great wind, but only heard God speaking to him in a still quiet voice.  Notice that the disciples, like Elijah hear the voice of God, when God speaks to them, “This is my Son, my Chosen;[f] listen to him!”  So again, this is like Elijah, only greater. 

This theophany is not for Jesus.  Jesus is the theophany; he is the manifestation of God’s presence.  Nor is this theophany for Moses and Elijah.  They are here only to bear witness to Christ’s divinity. This theophany is for the disciples so that they can catch a glimpse of who Jesus is.  David Guzik, in his commentary at Enduring Word.

This was not a new miracle, but the temporary pause of an ongoing miracle. The real miracle was that Jesus, most of the time, could keep from displaying His glory.

Someone also adds:  Jesus is not the one who is changed in the Transfiguration. Rather, the disciples’ perceptions of him are changed; they literally see him in a new light.

Redemption

Let us turn now to the second theme of this passage: redemption.  Here Luke picks up on two motifs:  one from the Old Testament and one from Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Capernaum. 

In verses 30 & 31 Luke tells us, “Moses and Elijah, were talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  Now the interesting thing that the word that is translated as his departure, in Greek is actually his exodus.  Right now, all sorts of lights should be going off in your head because this is a clear reference to the exodus in the Old Testament.  And interestingly it has another connection with Moses.  Just as Moses redeemed God’s people from slavery to Pharaoh in the exodus, so Jesus will redeem his people from spiritual slavery in a new exodus. 

This redemption is right in line with the words of Jesus inaugural sermon.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free.”  These words have been a guiding motif for Luke’s gospel.  In the last few weeks we have watched Jesus, healing a leper and restoring a tax collector, blessing a Roman centurion and resurrecting a widow’s dead son. Even then we have only scratched the surface since we’ve had to pass over many incidents of Jesus bringing redemption to the poor, the broken, the outcast and oppressed.  Here Luke combines the story of the exodus with the ancient prophecy of Isaiah to show that God has come to rescue his people.

This redemption is the culmination of God’s plan for the ages. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, “μέλλω” the word Luke uses here to describe what Jesus is about to do is used to describe “those things which will come to pass (or which one will do or suffer) by fixed necessity or divine appointment.”  In other words, this phrase is describing God’s will and purpose for Jesus.  The word that is translated to accomplish also has the meaning of “to fulfill.”  Jesus is embarking on a plan to fulfill God’s plan of redemption

The way the Jesus accomplishes this redemption is different from how God used Moses and Elijah.  Both them exercised God’s power to bring redemption.  Through Moses God killed the first born of Egypt and parted the Red Sea.  Through Elijah, God sent down fire from heaven to consume the water drenched sacrificial altar and prove that only God is God and Baal is not. 

But Jesus’ redemption will not be accomplished by power, but through suffering. In Luke 8:22 right before this passage Jesus told his disciples what his mission was going to be

The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

It his suffering death and resurrection that brings us redemption. 

One of my commentators points out an interesting symmetry between Moses, Elijah and Jesus.  At the end of his life Moses died and was buried on Mt. Nebo.  At the end of Elijah’s ministry, he ascended directly to heaven carried by a fiery chariot.  However, Jesus both dies on Calvary and ascends bodily to heaven 40 days after his resurrection.  This shows how much greater Jesus is than Moses and Elijah.

Son of God

Let us turn the third theme: the Son of God. 

After Moses and Elijah had departed, Luke tells us “a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.  Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’”

Now I want you to notice several things about these words.  First, the cloud is another allusion to the exodus.  In Exodus 40:34 after Moses had finished constructing the Tent of Meeting, the portable place of worship, we read “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” In other places in the Old Testament this cloud is called the Shekinah which is a Hebrew word meaning “dwelling” or “settling” and denotes the dwelling or settling of the divine presence of God. Notice that this cloud settles not on Jesus but on the disciples.  So far they have been on outside looking in as Jesus discusses his future with Moses and Elijah, but now they are ushered into the very presence of God, surrounded by the shekinah.  No wonder they were terrified.

Second, this passage also includes an allusion Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary.  When Mary asks how would she be able to conceive Jesus since she had no husband, Gabriel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The word overshadow that Gabriel uses is the same word that Luke uses of the cloud overshadowing the disciples.  So like a master musician, Luke takes a theme he has used earlier and creates a variation that is richer for its association with the annunciation.  The same life giving Spirit who overshadowed Mary, now hovers over the disciples to help them to conceive a deeper and richer understanding of who Jesus is.

Third, God tells the disciples that Jesus is God’s Son.  This is a theme that Luke repeats at 4 different points in his Gospel.  He introduces this theme at the annunciation, where Gabriel tells her that Jesus will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35).  He reiterates the theme at Jesus’ baptism where God speaks to Jesus and says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) Both of these are private communications between God and Mary, and God and Jesus; they are meant for their ears only.  The last time Luke reiterates the theme of Jesus’ divine Sonship is at the climax of gospel.  When Jesus breathes his last the centurion makes a public confession, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” (Luke 23:47)

That leaves us with our scripture lesson this morning.  Note that these words are very similar to God’s word to Jesus at his baptism, but with two differences.

First, at the baptism calls Jesus, “the Beloved,” but here he calls him “my Chosen.”  This is a clear allusion to the five so-called Servant Songs of Isaiah which speak of sacrificial death of Jesus.  Specifically, it is allusion to Isaiah 42:1 where God declares: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.’ I could preach another whole sermon about this word, “Chosen,” but that will have to be another discussion for another time.  For now, I just want you to notice it so that you can think about it for yourself.

Second, these words are addressed not to Jesus but the disciples.  This means that the disciples recognize Jesus as the Son of God, not because they figured it out for themselves but because it was revealed directly to them. This must have made quite the impression on Peter because 30 years later when he wrote his letters he said,

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved,[j] with whom I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (I Peter 1:16-18)

Conclusion

At the end of his speech to the disciples, God says, “Listen to him.”  Perhaps that is where we should end today, to listen to Jesus as we make our way through Lent following him in an exodus to Jerusalem where we will experience our redemption. 

Someone has said at either end of Lent, you get Jesus on a mountain.

  • One is the Mount of Transfiguration, the other is Mount Calvary
  • In one Jesus is lit up like the Vegas strip, the other one is dark as night
  • In one Jesus is surrounded by his three best friends, in the other they desert him
  • In one he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, in the other he is flanked by two thieves
  • In one his garments are pure and white, in the other he is half-naked and covered in gore.
  • In one God says from heaven, “This is my beloved Son,” in the other the heavens are silent and Jesus cries out to heaven, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
  • One is the Jesus we want, full of glory and power, the other is the Jesus we get and the Jesus we need.

Let us walk with Jesus this Lent.

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