The Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-9)

Over the past year we’ve all become rather accustomed to wearing a mask, haven’t we? To protect ourselves and others from COVID-19 we’ve covered our faces when indoor in public – as you are today.

It may well have health benefits, but the wearing of mask is an obstacle to communication – its something that obscures who we really are. When our face is covered, our most distinctive features are veiled. Our personal identity is not as clear as it could be.

The glory of God in the face of Christ: Jesus’ divinity unveiled

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus reveals his true nature to his closest friends. Out in the open air, high on a wind-swept mountain-top (a COVID-secure location, if ever there was one!), Jesus metaphorically ‘removes his mask’ to show this three closest disciples who he truly is. Jesus ‘lifts the veil’ that covered his divine nature while on earth and he lets Peter, James and John see his face in its glorious supernatural state.

In verses 2 and 3 today, Mark tells us what happened – Jesus “took Peter, John and James with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.”

Peter and his companions were given the great privilege of seeing the face of Jesus with all the power and glory that he had as God’s Son. They were given a foretaste of the majesty that the risen and ascended Jesus has again today in heaven. This vision of Jesus was so glorious that Luke and other New Testament authors struggle to describe what Peter, James and John saw. They say Jesus’s face shone like a flash of lightning, he appeared brighter than the sun, he looked whiter than snow. Today the church calls it his ‘transfiguration’.

Peter and his companions received a sneak preview of the wonderful sight that every Christian will enjoy for eternity. They were given a glimpse of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. No wonder Peter was overwhelmed by the experience and at a loss for words.

We should try to keep the same magnificent image in our mind’s eye too. When we think of Jesus today, we shouldn’t envisage him as baby in a manger or carpenter wearing simple clothes. Today, in 2021, the risen Jesus is dressed in royal robes, drenched in inextinguishable light and awesome to behold – just as he was when he Transfigured on that hilltop. And when we think of Jesus in his glory today, we should be moved to worship his majesty. And we should also be reminded of the rightful authority he’s entitled to exercise over our daily lives. The loyalty and love he has every right to expect from all who follow him

A new exodus anticipated: The cross is coming

The government has been making use of celebrities and church leaders over recent weeks to encourage people to take up the coronavirus vaccine. Famous faces and influential people have been recruited by the government to remind and reassure people to get ‘the jab’.

Well in verse 4 of our passage today, Jesus receives his own influential endorsement. Because as Peter, James and John stood on that mountain-top, Moses and Elijah “appeared before them” and started “talking with Jesus”.

Moses, of course, was God-given author of the laws of Israel – the man who had led them out of capitivity in Egypt and towards the Promised Land. And Elijah had been the first of the great Old Testament prophets. One of God’s most prominent spokesmen to his people. So between them, Moses and Elijah represented two of the most famous and influential figures in Jewish history.

Astonishingly, these two figures from history appeared from Heaven to stand at Jesus’ side. And they came to endorse Jesus as the true ‘Christ’, as the long-promised Saviour sent from God. Their presence was designed to help convince Peter, James and John that their master, Jesus was more than a mere man, but the Messiah, God only-begotten Son.

You may have noticed that today’s passage doesn’t tell us what Jesus, Moses and Elijah were talking about – Mark’s Gospel leaves us guessing! But in Luke’s Gospel we are told what Christ and his companions were chatting about – Moses, Elijah and Jesus were talking his “exodus”, his imminent “departure” he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.

Even though they were on a remote mountain top, the thoughts of Jesus, Moses and Elijah were turning to the city, and the events that would unfold over the coming Easter weekend.

Just as we might look ahead to the Olympics in Tokyo this summer, Jesus, Moses and Elijah were looking ahead to events in Jerusalem that Spring. Events that would represent the climax of Jesus’ life, the culmination of his God-given mission.

In short, the imminent death and resurrection of Jesus in the Jewish capital city would achieve a new Exodus. Just as the first exodus saw God’s people the Israelites rescued from slavery in Egypt, this new exodus would once again rescue God’s people. Not from enslavement by the Egyptians this time, but from slavery to sin and death.

You see, through his death and resurrection, Christ would surpass the achievements of Moses and the first exodus generation. Over the first Easter weekend, Jesus would rescue for eternity all who put their faith in him. The first Exodus from Egypt, the one with the Pharaoh, the plagues and the Passover Lamb, was merely a prototype – a foretaste – of the great ‘exodus’, that Jesus would achieve in the city of Jerusalem, around 33AD. An exodus with everlasting effects.

Spot the difference: Jesus’ glory seen in power and humility

I was fortunate enough to receive my own COVID vaccination earlier this week. And on the wall of the booth were I got my jab there was a colourful ‘spot the difference cartoon’. (I think it was there to distract squeamish vicars while the needle went in!) If you’ve ever played a ‘spot the difference’ game, you’ll know that it presents the same picture but with some subtle but important differences that you have to spot.

If we compare Christ’s transfiguration with his coming death on the cross, there are some obvious similarities:

• Both events took place on a high place, on a hill.

• Both events saw Jesus reveal his divine glory to the world, at least for those with eyes to see.

• And thirdly, both the Transfiguration and the crucifixion were accompanied by signs in the sky above – signs which must have been spectacular and awe-inspiring for those who witnessed them.

But despite these similarities, there were some profound differences between the two events:

• At the transfiguration Jesus revealed his glory by his visible splendour and majesty – but at the cross his divine glory was shown by his humility in dying a humiliating death.

• At the transfiguration Jesus was flanked by two titans of Israel, Moses and Elijah. But at the cross he had common thieves crucified on either side of him.

• And at the transfiguration, a cloud envelopes the scene and the voice of God is heard declaring “this is my Son, whom I love, listen to him”. But at the cross, the sky above turned as dark as night – as the Son of God was briefly forsaken by his Father, for the salvation of us all.

Conclusion: A faith-building experience

As I finish, there’s no doubt that the transfiguration would have left a lasting impression on Peter, James and John. They had seen the veil between heaven and Earth lifted. They had glimpsed Jesus in all his heavenly glory. They had heard about the exodus Christ was about to achieve – and even heard the voice of God come from a cloud.

Remembering these remarkable sights and sounds must have helped to sustain their confidence in Christ during difficult days and weeks to come. This glorious vision must have helped keep the disciples’ faith in Jesus just alive when he faced hostility and rejection by the Jewish and Roman rulers in Jerusalem. And this glorious vision of Christ must have come flooding back when they saw the risen Jesus once again enveloped in a cloud, on his Ascension day.

May the transfiguration similarly stimulate and sustain our faith in Christ today.

Phil Weston