Though wars and rumors of wars rage here and there, the church year goes on in its circling way. Each Sunday marks another step in the life of Jesus and the people he draws to himself, round and round as each person goes to his eternal home one by one, and mourners go about the streets. And so today, though Russia is trying to take over Ukraine, though the whole world watches in anxiety, trying to figure out what is happening and who to believe, if you manage to stagger into a pew, you will have a few minutes to turn your mind to Jesus.
The last Sunday before Lent always marks the Transfiguration. It isn’t the Feast of the Transfiguration, but a sort of day of preparation, of turning from rejoicing over the Light of the World coming even to the Gentiles to contemplate the confusion wrought when that strange and incomprehensible Light sets his face towards his task. Taking only Peter and James and John with him up to what is called in the text the “mountain” but, depending on what sort of landscapes you are used to, might feel more like a hill, Luke tells us that Jesus goes up there “to pray” and that
as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Jesus, you probably remember, had been speaking to his disciples about this departure and they had been both unwilling and unable to understand what he was saying. They were so sure, so fixed in their understanding of who Jesus was and what he was intending to do, that when he directly contradicted their “knowledge” they were not able to hear him. They couldn’t get it, nor did they want to.
Because he had been saying to them that he was going to die a cursed and shameful death. He wasn’t going to Jerusalem to conquer that ancient city and restore it to its former glories. He wasn’t going to overthrow the oppressive power of its conquering occupiers. He wasn’t going to set up a stable and secure government that would right all the very obvious wrongs and bring about prosperity and peace. Nor was he going to honor Peter and James and John with positions of high regard. Rather, by means of a shameful and cruel death, he was going to “depart,” to go away and be seen no more.
And the disappointment of this departure was going to be gut-wrenching and intolerable for them. They were going to be lost and helpless, scattered, in confusion, caught in darkness and terror, unable to know what was really going on or why, sure that their Master had lost control.
Moses and Elijah—the Law and the Prophets—stand with Jesus and talk to him about this departure. What do they say? Are they consoling him? Encouraging him? Strengthening him? Reiterating once more the purpose for which he came and the promise of his sure and certain resurrection?
Certainly, the contrast between Peter and James and John, overcome by sleep, by malaise, by the doom scroll, searching for understanding and knowledge and finding none are a very peculiar contrast to Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Jesus is transfigured—that is, his face and his garments altered to a “dazzling white.” Like Moses who, communing so long and so intently with God on the mountain, returns to his people with his face shining, the light emanating from Jesus before his work is accomplished, does not fully pierce through the gloom and ignorance of his followers. They know that “it is good that we are here,” but they don’t know why. They think they should build tents, as if they are back there, perhaps, with Moses in the wilderness. Luke says of Peter that he “didn’t know what he said.” He was casting about for some way to prolong the moment, to make it all make sense.
But “as he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.” Of course they would be, for they had only read about this cloud, the awe of the presence of God Most High. The cloud had gone before Israel all through their sojourning. It had rested when they were meant to stop and pitch their tents. It had moved when they were meant to pack up and go forward. It had been there, along with the shining face of Moses, and yet the people had not understood, had not been able to face the light and the presence.
As they are together in the cloud, a voice comes out of the cloud saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One, listen to him.” And then Jesus is suddenly alone with Peter and James and John again, and they none of them say anything about it, except that, eventually, they do because here it is on the page. Much later Peter will write that all the words we have in the scriptures are more sure and certain than his own experience of the cloud. The Law and the Prophets, brought together in the person and work of Jesus, are more sure than any of our sense-perceptions, our expectations, our dismal attempts to grasp knowledge and power.
And what of Elijah? He leaves behind the powerful miracles and mighty works to make a journey to a mountain to figure out what on earth God is doing. There he discovers that what he is hoping to hear is not in the shouting of the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the consuming fire, but finally, only the quiet voice asking, “What are you doing here?” Elijah is grieved, exhausted, depressed by the strength and exultation of the enemies of his God. In answer to this discouragement, God sends him back down and then sweeps him up and takes him to heaven, never to taste the death that we all fear.
Moses and Elijah—and Peter and James and John…and you scrolling along for news and information, what are you doing here? Why did you come? What are you hoping God will do?
The Voice from the Cloud should answer all your questions—Jesus is the one you should listen to. All of his works and all of his words about his works will be enough for you. All of the Scriptures together speak about him. If you are lost, troubled, anxious, alone, wandering through your life wondering what you should do and where you should go, look at him and listen to him. He did not abandon you in his death. He did not go down to the grave to escape all your troubles. He set his face to Jerusalem and to the cross for you, to make room for you in the eternal Tent where he lives now, interceding for you. What should you do? Pray, ask him to illumine your darkness and help you understand. Stop scrolling for a few minutes and let him be the answer.