The transfiguration: Jesus, Moses and Elijah unveiled
Sunday 11 February, 2024 – 10:30
A sermon preached by Kenneth Padley
Based on II Corinthians 4.3-6 and Mark 9.2-9
The transfiguration of Jesus is a powerful and mysterious scene, filled with many layers of meaning. All four gospel writers know the story and, inevitably, each has a slightly different take. Today we are privileged to reflect on the particular accents which St Mark wishes us to hear.
Mark appreciates the transfiguration for what it reveals of Jesus’ identity and the response which this demands. We see this from the very first verse as Mark sets the scene on a mountain. Mountains were important to ancient Jews because they thought that God lived above the clouds. So the higher one climbed, the nearer one got to heaven. It is therefore unsurprising to find several instances in the Hebrews Scriptures of people who meet God on mountains. Most notable are Moses and Elijah. What an awesome sight it must have been for the disciples to have witnessed their master in dialogue with these preeminent representatives of the Jewish Law and prophets.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration is full of symbolism. Ancient Jews anticipated that the days of God’s anointed messenger, the Messiah (or Christ), would be heralded by figures who were (or were like) Moses and Elijah. It’s worth reading beyond Mark’s transfiguration because he soon he gives us more information about these two characters.
As the disciples come down the mountain they ask Jesus ‘why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ This question picks up a promise by God in Malachi 4.5 that ‘Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord’. Jesus replies by telling the disciples that they are not to look for a future Elijah. This is because he identifies Elijah with John the Baptist who had already come and gone, having met a grisly fate at Herod’s dinner party three chapters earlier. Mark’s point is this: if John the Baptist (who came to prepare the way for Jesus) is Elijah, and Elijah was expected to prepare the way for the Messiah, then Jesus is God’s Christ.
Following this exchange, Jesus and the disciples reach the bottom of the mountain. Here they encounter a crowd having a dispute. At this point Mark makes a strange observation; it seems a throwaway line but is actually deeply significant. He says that, when that crowd saw Jesus, they were ‘immediately overcome with awe’ (Mark 9.15). As a result, the crowd cease arguing and run to meet him. Now why should Jesus have made such an impression when he hadn’t even opened his mouth?! What was it about his appearance that left the crowd so amazed?!
Contemporary Jews would have inferred a reference to Moses at the foot of Mount Sinai. We are told in Exodus 34 that, after his conversations with God, the face of Moses radiated and that this terrified the Hebrews. Moses’ sought to break down the barrier, paradoxically, by putting a veil over his face: he took the veil off when chatting with God but put it back on when addressing the people.
So, Mark is identifying Jesus as a messianic Moses, the man who could speak with God face to face and not die, the man who would then turn and share God’s word with the people. But note the difference: unlike Moses, Jesus does not wear a veil – he radiates God’s glory unmediated, direct to the crowd, and to us.
Saints Matthew and Luke missed this allusion to Moses’ shining face – or at least chose not to retain it – when they copied Mark’s gospel. St Paul, however, clearly knew and valued the tradition, as indicated by today’s reading from his second letter to the Corinthians. We heard Paul say, ‘Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing’ (II Cor 4.3). In other words, Paul understood that, in Jesus, God’s message is no longer ambiguous, and that any barrier is no longer on the face of the messenger but on those who ignore the message. Paul is emphatic. We heard him conclude that, through Jesus, we have direct access to the brilliance of the creator. II Cor 4.6, ‘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.’
So much for the verses which follow the transfiguration and what they tell us of Jesus’ identity. Further hinterland precedes Mark chapter 9 in the form of two incidents which relate the transfiguration to Mark’s understanding of discipleship.
Immediately before his account of the transfiguration, at the end of chapter 8, Mark recalls Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. Peter’s assertion that Jesus is the Christ is startling and new and correct – but he doesn’t really understand what he is saying. He thinks that Jesus is all about glory. He can’t get his head around Jesus’ subsequent announcement that they are going to Jerusalem for ignominy, suffering and death. Peter rebukes Jesus and Jesus rebukes Peter: ‘get behind me Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’ (Mark 8.33).
The transfiguration follows straight after this exchange. It is as if Jesus has admitted there will be glory, but a glory that only comes through suffering. Peter needs time to twig this. It requires a gradual unveiling for him to understand the profundity of Jesus’ messiahship.
To grasp this further, let’s step back just one more story. Prior to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi we hear a miracle in Mark 8.22-26 which none of the other gospels record. Moreover, it is completely unique among Jesus’ miracles because it involves a two-stage healing. In this incident, Jesus seeks to cure a blind man by laying his hands on him. ‘Can you see anything?’ Jesus asks. ‘The man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; … and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.’
I think it’s pretty obvious why Matthew and Luke didn’t bother to copy this miracle. They thought it was rubbish. Jesus didn’t do the business instantaneously. Likewise, I also think it’s apparent why this two-stage healing is so important for St Mark. This is because it illustrates the struggles which Peter went through to comprehend that the glory of Jesus’ messiahship is reached only through the suffering of the cross.
Friends, we know that Good Friday is a much harder story than Easter. But today, as we teeter on the brink of another Lent, we are summoned to walk that very same path as St Peter. We are strengthened with the account of the transfiguration, precisely because we are to travel with Jesus to Jerusalem for ignominy, suffering and death. So, with Charles Wesley, let us pray:
Our needy souls sustain
with fresh supplies of love,
till all thy life we gain,
and all thy fullness prove,
and, strengthened by thy perfect grace,
behold without a veil thy face.
 John 12.28-30.
 Second verse of ‘Author of Life Divine’.