(Transfiguration: Luke 9:28-36)
The second Moses and Elijah show up on that mountain, the entire Jewish tradition of the Exodus and the prophets is brought to bear on this story—and on Jesus’ life and ministry. To understand the story of the Transfiguration, we have to understand the narratives of all three men:
Moses, who had survived a death sentence, who had confronted an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew slave, who had told Pharaoh to let God’s people go, who had called forth the plagues and led an often ungrateful people through the harsh wilderness. Moses who met God on Mount Horeb and received the ten commandments.
Elijah, who had also survived a death sentence, also confronted a king—and queen, who fed the widow and raised her son, who took on the prophets of Baal. Elijah who also met God on Mount Horeb, not in the earthquake or the whirlwind or the fire, but in the still small voice.
And Jesus, who also confronted powerful leaders; who also fed the hungry and healed the sick; who also led confused people through a type of wilderness; who also confronted false gods. Jesus who also comes to a mountain to pray. Jesus who will also, in his own way, survive a death sentence.
All of these men were called by God to do difficult things: to free enslaved people, to confront a corrupt government, to redeem the world. Difficult tasks, to be sure.
Jesus needs this time with Moses and Elijah; he needs this conversation with people who know what it is to do hard things for God; people who will encourage him to follow God’s path even though it is unpopular and uncomfortable and terrifying. Just as God came to Moses and Elijah on Mount Horeb to encourage and guide them in their work, God also comes to Jesus on this mountain of Transfiguration.
That’s another thing the three men have in common: not just that they did hard things for God, but also that God came to them in astounding ways in the midst of their hard work and struggle.
Moses had the burning bush, and the miracles before Pharaoh, and the water from the rock, and manna from heaven, and the voice on Mt. Horeb.
Elijah had the ravens bringing him food, and the replenishing oil and flour, and the fire from heaven, and the chariot of fire, and the voice on Mt. Horeb.
Jesus had the baptismal blessing, and the angels in the wilderness, and the multiplying food, and the miraculous healings, and the voice on the mountain.
God had called these men to hard tasks, yes. But God also provided the encouragement they needed to carry out their calls. God provided physical and spiritual nourishment to them at their times of need so that they could, ultimately, carry out the difficult tasks God had entrusted to them.
And that is a comforting thought, right? To know that if God calls us to some difficult task, God will walk with us, God will provide for us so that we can accomplish that task. This story assures us that if God calls us to a difficult task, we will be allowed to hear God’s voice and experience God’s encouragement.
Of course, we can also read this story in a slightly less comforting way. What if we have it backwards? What if it’s not that those who are called to a hard task get to hear the voice of God?
What if it is that any of us foolish enough to listen for God’s voice will be given a hard task?
What if Moses had seen that burning bush and walked in the opposite direction? He would never have had to confront Pharaoh.
What if Elijah, whose name means “my God is Yahweh” had just decided that his God was not Yahweh? He could have been a regular person instead of a prophet.
What if Jesus had spent less time in prayer listening to God and more time listening to Peter?
Was God present with these men because they were called to do hard things?
Or were they called to do hard things because they paid attention to God’s presence?
If it’s the latter, we might want to reconsider those Lenten disciplines we plan to start on Wednesday.
This reflection is excerpted from a longer sermon.