Eternity meets the present

Transfiguration – 2014
Matthew 17:1-9
Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals Godself in myriad and wonderful ways. Amen.

In Australia the highest mountain is only 2,280 meters high. In comparison, Everest is 8,850m. Brisbane is hilly, but the the “mountains” are even lower – Mt Coot-tha being only 287m in height. As a Brisbanite, it is amazing to be in Christchurch, New Zealand where the snow capped mountains appear to rise straight out of the plains to heights of up to 3754 m. The stunning view can catch you by surprise when you turn a corner. Flying over the peaks is amazing and landing on the source of a glacier makes you feel as though you are standing on the top of the world. No wonder people speak about “mountain-top” experiences. A mountain top is like nowhere else – the grandeur is overwhelming, the silence is profound and the rugged beauty unlike any other.

It is perhaps no surprise that mountains feature in both the Old and New Testaments as a place in which a person might encounter God. Elijah was in the mountains when he heard the “still, small voice of God”. Moses went up the mountain to meet face-to-face with God and it is on a mountain that Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah and is “transfigured” before his surprised and frightened disciples.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the account of the Transfiguration not only takes place on a mountain top, but it is in itself a watershed moment in the narrative. The account is positioned in such a way as to have maximum impact. Elements of the narrative point both forwards and backwards – to the beginning and end of the story as well as to the stories which form the immediate context of the account. It is as if everything that precedes the Transfiguration has led up to that moment and the Transfiguration points to everything that is to follow. The entire Gospel is concentrated in these few verses. We learn who Jesus is, his relationship to God and at the same time are confronted with the earthly reality of his impending death.

The question of Jesus’ identity has arisen in the previous chapter. Jesus has asked the disciples; “Who do people say that I am?” In that chapter there are a number of allusions or themes that recur in the story of the Transfiguration: Elijah is mentioned (as is John the Baptist), Peter is the speaker, or the spokesperson for the disciples, Jesus is identified as the Christ and the disciples have been enjoined to keep Jesus’ identity hidden. In the same chapter, Jesus reveals that he is to suffer and die and on the third day be raised from the dead. On the mountain, Elijah is present, Peter is the speaker, Jesus insists on secrecy and alludes to his death and resurrection. Peter’s claim that Jesus is the Christ is affirmed by the voice of God who speaks from the cloud.

This voice, and in particular the spoken words: “This is my beloved Son”, take us back to the beginning of the story and to Jesus’ baptism. At the same time, we are transported to the end of the story – to another mountain, to Jesus’ death, the fear of the disciples and the bystanders, the centurion’s declaration that this is the Son of God and to the white garment for which the soldiers throw dice.

As Jesus and the disciples come down the mountain, we come once again come across Elijah (and John the Baptist). We are reminded yet again that Jesus will suffer and die and once again Jesus insists on the disciples’ secrecy. By pointing backwards and forwards Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration focuses our attention on the whole of Jesus’ from beginning to end.

Not only does Matthew’s telling of the Transfiguration focus our attention on the whole gospel story from beginning to end, it also takes us back to the very beginning of God’s relationship with God’s people – the forming of a covenant in the giving of the law. The allusions to Moses and to this seminal story of the Hebrews, would have been obvious to Matthew’s Jewish readers. It was on a mountain that Moses met with God and there too that God spoke from the cloud saying: “Listen to him”. Like Jesus, Moses takes three others with him and the event occurs “after six days”. Moses is so changed by the experience that his face is radiant.

The resonances with Moses would have connected Jesus with a tradition with which Matthew’s readers would have been intimately familiar. The religious symbolism of mountain and cloud would have spoken to them of communion with God. These allusions and references would have ensured the impact of the story. Matthew’s audience would have been left in no doubt as to the identity of Jesus. He belongs in the line of the great prophets of their tradition Moses and Elijah, but he is so much more. Jesus is none other than the Son of God albeit a different Son from the one that was expected – he was to suffer and die (and on the third day rise).

From now on, both figuratively and literally, everything will go down hill. Jesus’ trajectory will lead him into conflict with the authorities, he will be brought to trial and put to death. That done, he will confound his followers and detractors alike – death will not be able to hold him, the one who is transfigured on the mountain will break through the confines and limitations of his human form and be restored not only to life, but to his heavenly existence.

The Transfiguration reveals who Jesus really is and prepares the reader for a future that will shock and confound the disciples no matter how much Jesus has tried to prepared them.

In the tradition of Elijah and Moses, and following on from John the Baptist, Jesus proves not only to be an integral part of, and development of the tradition into which he was born. At the same time, Jesus is so much more than all who have come before him. He is the pinnacle of the law, the completion and fulfillment of God’s plans for God’s people. Much of the story is yet to come, but here on the mountaintop it is encapsulated into a single moment – Jesus’ earthly life from his baptism to his death and resurrection is held in a moment of time. In that moment eternity meets the present, Jesus’ earthly presence is married with his heavenly existence, a voice from heaven confirms what the disciples already know what the centurion will soon confirm that this is indeed the Son of God.

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