A Transforming Transfiguration: Reflections on Luke 9:28-36
If you have ever compromised your faith convictions for popular opinion, you have a little something in common with Moses. When God took him to the top of Mt. Nebo to survey the Promised Land, he couldn't enter into it. If you have ever felt the pain of separation from God because of your actions, you have a little something in common with Moses. Fearful, making mistakes, yet all in all a great prophet and servant—maybe there is something there for us! Though we are excuse-making, soft-spined servants, we have still been chosen and called to leadership. We have a lot in common with Moses. Moses knew about suffering and he knew about glory and he came back to point Jesus toward the glory.
But what about Elijah, this fearless prophet who, rather than dying like the rest of us, was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kgs. 6:17)? I am intimidated when I think about identifying with him! Of course, he was the same prophet who, when he found out Queen Jezebel's forces were out to kill him, ran scared, hid out in the hills, and—sitting under a broom tree—begged pathetically for God to take his life (1 Kgs. 18,19). Any of us who have ever said to God, "This is the end of the line. I didn't sign on for this" have a little something in common with Elijah. From begging for death under a broom tree to being taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, Elijah knew suffering and glory. He had come back to talk to Jesus about the glory. Many people in Jesus' time expected that Elijah would return to signal the coming of the Messiah. And sure enough, on this mountain, he had.
What did these two talk to a tired and dread-filled Jesus about? Of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), only Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus about his exodus from Jerusalem. They told him, I imagine, to view his journey to Jerusalem as an exodus from death to life, like the Red Sea passage, and to view his end in the same way. They reassured him of the glory. They offered him encouragement. And then, our story says, they went away and "Jesus was found alone." If I had been in Jesus' place, I would not have wanted them to go. I would have wished they would stay and help me in the exodus that lay before me! Like Peter, I might have babbled about building them booths or tabernacles to stay with me forever up on the mountain.
In the throes of a lengthy labor with my first child, I remember clinging to the hand of a kindly nurse, who was trying to extricate herself from my grasp. "Give me back my hand now, honey," she said, kindly but firmly. "My shift is over now. I've gotta go home." I let go of her hand, reluctantly. She smiled at me and said, with that wonderfully practical manner that nurses have, "If one of us has to leave, it better be me. Because you're the only one who can have this baby."
So the two prophets say to Jesus, "Our shift is over. There's a job that only you can do."
Then a Cloud overshadows Jesus and the others, the same Cloud that stood at the door of Moses' tent to mark the Presence of God (Shekinah). The Cloud lifts, and Jesus is left alone. With a refreshed sense of his own identity, he is inspired by the suffering and glory of Moses and Elijah. Assured of God's presence in his own suffering and glory, he gestures to his disciples to fall in behind him and follow him down the mountain.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.