The story of the Transfiguration in the gospel of Luke is one of the most puzzling stories in the Bible. It is a story that is so puzzling that biblical commentators tend to throw up their hands in defeat. One commentator remarked that there is "rather limited success in understanding the meaning of the transfiguration." This is a comment I find somewhat comforting!
The story itself is brief in the gospel of Luke. We are told that about eight days after Jesus spoke to his disciples about his impending death and resurrection, he went with Peter and John and James up the mountain to pray. While he was praying--and while the three disciples were struggling to stay awake--suddenly Jesus had company. Moses and Elijah were there with him, and the whole appearance of Jesus changed into dazzling brilliance. As the disciples looked on in amazement--surely, fully awake now--Jesus and Moses and Elijah discussed together what was about to unfold in Jerusalem, the very events that Jesus had foretold just a week earlier. Peter wanted desperately to hang on to this holy moment, and so he boldly suggested that small dwellings be quickly built. But, instead, a thick cloud engulfed the mountain and the voice of God spoke out of the cloud--this is the second time in the gospel of Luke that God spoke from heaven--at Jesus' baptism and now again, on this mountain. When the cloud lifted, Jesus and Peter and James and John were the only ones left. They descended the mountain in silence; the three disciples probably not knowing what to say and Jesus, perhaps, deep in thought about the conversation and about the voice.
That is the basic outline of this story. On the surface, its meaning is not so clear. The details of the narrative wander off in a number of directions. Nothing is explained. Jesus does not unpack the experience with his disciples on the way down the mountain. They--and we--are left baffled.
Except, there is one thing that is clear--what is really clear--is that this story speaks consistently and compellingly about the glory of Jesus Christ. It is a glory story.
It turns out that many of the puzzling details of this story serve that central insight, that this is a glory story. And it yields its treasures to patient and careful readers. These treasures deepen our understanding of the story, and they all point to one main character and one main meaning: Jesus Christ and his glory that once shone on a distant mountain top. And as we explore the story, we get to peek over a rock ledge on the side of that mountain and look on in awe.
As you look in wonder, notice small clues in this story. Think first of the detail that the face and clothing of Jesus changed. As Jesus was praying, his face shone and his garments became radiant. This is an unmistakable echo of the story in Exodus about the shining face of Moses. You'll remember that Moses' face shone after he returned from the top of Mt. Sinai after being in close proximity to God. God's glory rubbed off on Moses. In our story today, the radiance of Jesus is a clear marker that Jesus is in very close proximity to God. In fact, not only does God's glory rub off on Jesus, but Jesus shares in that glory. God's glory takes up residence in the incarnate Jesus. Think for a moment of Colossians 1:19 which says, "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell," and then make it a glory verse, "For in him all the glory of God was pleased to dwell." On that Transfiguration mountain, glory was visible to the eyes of the astonished disciples.
Another small clue of the glory of Jesus is the behavior of Peter. Let's allow ourselves two attempts to understand the behavior of Peter. Many commentators complain a bit about Peter, accusing him of rudeness, even stupidity. But maybe Peter wasn't being inconsiderate but awestruck. Maybe Peter wasn't blurting out a rude demand but expressing a deep longing to celebrate and enjoy the glory of Jesus. It's true. The text does admit that Peter did not know what he what saying. But I suggest that, even though Peter did not know what he was saying, he was yet reaching for that glory, sensing it. After all, this is the same Peter that made a stunning declaration in the previous chapter in Luke. When Jesus asked him, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered boldly, "The Messiah of God." It's not hard to imagine then that here, on this holy mountain, Peter continues that witness in his desire to lift up the glory of Jesus.
That's the first attempt to understand Peter. It is the optimistic understanding, giving Peter the benefit of the doubt and imagining that he is witnessing to the glory of Jesus. But there is another possibility, of course. Stanley Hauerwas suggests that Peter wanted to "secure in place, if not tie down and domesticate, the wild spirit of God's kingdom." That, certainly, is the pessimistic understanding, that Peter was trying to take all that glory and tame it. If that is the case, then Peter truly did not know what he saying. The glory of Jesus cannot be domesticated; it fills the whole earth.
Interesting, though, isn't it, that both the optimistic and the pessimistic understanding of Peter's bold suggestion, "Master, let us make three dwellings," both still point to the glory of Jesus. In the first, Peter begins to see the cosmic expanse of the glory of Jesus, and he is compelled to witness to it. In the second, Peter sees that glory and wants to capture it, contain it, and even control it. We need not choose between the optimistic and pessimistic understandings of Peter's impetuous request. Instead, we see both operating in Peter and we see both in ourselves. By God's generous mercy to us, we sometimes see the vista of the grace of Jesus Christ and speak out our praise. In our own foolish pride, we also sometimes presume on the glory of Jesus and want to seize it and tame it.
The clues in this puzzling story start piling up; yet another one is the voice from heaven. Scholars call this an enthronement declaration. God's voice speaks out and says, "This is my Son, my Chosen." Here is an emphatic identification of Jesus as the Messiah. And then, not content with that, God said, "Listen to him." That imperative--"Listen, listen to him"--that imperative extends all the way from that mountain top long ago to all our present day valleys, plains, cities, towns, neighborhoods, and homes. "Listen to him." That imperative proclaims and highlights the glory of Jesus.
The most sobering and poignant clue in the story of the Transfiguration is the simple observation that this story is a pivot point in the gospel of Luke. Before this, Jesus was in Galilee where he engaged in his ministry--teaching, preaching, healing. After this, Jesus made his slow and inevitable way to Jerusalem, where he would encounter betrayal and death. The transfiguration gives us a 30,000 feet up perspective; on one side lies the Galilean ministry and on the other side lies Calvary. This holy mountain is the pivot point. In fact, just a few verses later, Jesus says it straight, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands." And a few verses after that, we are told that Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem." The face that had shined with splendid brilliance in the Transfiguration conversation with Moses and Elijah was soon to be set with purpose and determination for God's plan of salvation.
The Transfiguration was the last oasis of Jesus, a pivot point in the plan of God for us and for our salvation. Transfiguration glory shines on both sides of that oasis. It shines in Jesus' ministry to the poor and powerless, and it shines in Jesus' death and resurrection. Even more, Transfiguration glory points ahead--way ahead--to the time when the glory of Jesus will be fully revealed. Former Archbishop Rowan Williams once said, "When Jesus is transfigured, it is as if there is a brief glimpse of the end of all things--the world aflame with God's light." (Dwelling of the Light, p. 9).
This is a puzzling story. It overflows the banks of just one meaning. The mountain, the cloud, the conversation, Moses and Elijah, the sleepy disciples, the shining face, the voice from heaven--all of it overflows the banks of a single meaning. But what we have discovered is that all those details point to a central meaning: to the glory of Jesus. And this central meaning is the gospel in microcosm. The glory of Jesus is the hope of the world. The disciples barely glimpsed it. We see in a mirror darkly and often misunderstand it. But God will bring it to completion. In Jesus Christ, the world is aflame with God's light. We are all caught up in this glory story. Thanks be to God.