Revealed as Son of God
Over the past few weeks we’ve been following through this theme of “Jesus Introduced” – looking at different aspects of the way that Jesus, and his message, were first encountered by the people of his day.
We began with those who recognised something in who he was even as a baby; that this child was something different.
We saw Jesus welcomed as a local star by his own people, only to be immediately rejected when he spoke hard words against them.
We saw Jesus call his first followers. And responding to his call, they left everything to follow him: a first hint, perhaps, and the deep and hard call that he would place on those who would follow.
That deep and hard call we then saw in his teaching; a call to go beyond the us and them tribalism, beyond the economy of quid pro quo, and into a life lived in imitation of the generous love of God; love for enemy, love for those who have nothing to offer you, love for those who are on the outside.
But none of this really put Jesus outside of the recognised categories of his day. There were many wandering preachers; others had been thought to be the Messiah; there were whole movements within first century Judaism based around the hard call of God to obedience. Jesus still made sense – he could still be placed into a known category, allocated to a box.
To declare, as Jesus did, that the greatest commandment was to love God and love others – to place love at the centre of what it meant to be a true follower of God – even that was not new. If you remember the prologue to the parable of the Good Samaritan, at least as recorded by Luke, it is the lawyer who challenged Jesus who names those commands as the heart of the law: Jesus just agrees with him.
But today is different. Today, in the transfiguration, we get – Peter, James, and John get – a glimpse of something unique, beyond all their expectations.
Jesus is introduced as the Son of God.
The story of the transfiguration lies in the middle of a block of narrative in Luke’s gospel. It’s sandwiched between two other stories, both of which are focussed on Jesus teaching his disciples that there is suffering on the path ahead – both for him, and for them.
In the middle of Luke chapter 9 we have Jesus questioning his disciples – “who do the people say I am?” and then “What about you? Who do you say I am?”. Peter declares the answer – “you are the Messiah” and in response Jesus begins to teach them about suffering. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed” and then “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”
And then immediately after the transfiguration we have story of healing, and then, Luke writes, “While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’”
We begin, then, with Peter naming Jesus as Messiah. The contemporary expectations of “Messiah” were of military or pollical leadership, of a person sent by God to overthrow the rule of Rome.
But Jesus teaches them that the true meaning of Messiah is both less and more than they expected.
The Messiah would not win great military victories over the Romans – he would be handed over to die. He would not lead the people as politician or general – he would be betrayed.
But at the same time, the Messiah was so much more than they had ever imagined.
So on the mountain top, with Peter, James, and John accompanying him, Jesus went to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that whatever happened there on the mountain top, it was beyond words, beyond the grasp of human language. So we shouldn’t be surprised that those first witnesses, people formed in the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures, described the experience with words that echo Old Testament themes. That was the language of spirituality that they had available to them. His face changed – just as Moses’ face had changed when he came down Mount Sinai with the words of the law; this clothes became dazzling, as angels are often described, and, indeed, as the prophet Daniel spoke of the “ancient of days”.
And then, there with him, were these two other figures, that those who saw somehow knew to be Moses and Elijah.
I’ve always been fascinated that it was Moses and Elijah. Because if you think through the story of the people of God, I’d say there were at least four obvious candidates. Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, named (by Jesus’ day) as the greatest of the prophets, but also Abraham, the patriarch, the father of the nation, and David, the King to whose time the people looked back, and whose Kingdom they hoped to see restored. Perhaps you could name others – Aaron, the first of the line of priests.
But they weren’t there. And I wonder if that says something: for the Jewish people of the day named themselves – with pride – “children of Abraham”. But Jesus declared that claim, of membership amongst the people of God by descent, as meaningless. “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham”.
And the Kingdom of David, that everyone expected the Messiah to re-establish: Jesus was making it very clear, as he taught about his coming suffering, and the way he would be handed over to be killed by the occupying forces, that this sort of Kingdom was not the reign that he had come to proclaim.
But the Law and the Prophets – the hard, deep call to obedience that we spoke of last week, and the disturbing voice calling us ever back to faithfulness and back to justice – those were the things of the tradition of Hebrew faith that Jesus spoke of himself as being part of – indeed, spoke of himself as fulfilling.
And what we see at the transfiguration – and I just love this – is a conversation. Which I honestly think is a powerful way of approaching the scriptures, indeed, of approaching the spiritual life. Faith is not a simple “this then that”, nor a well-defined set of rules to apply to any situation; just like everything important in life, it is a mess of priorities and principles that pull us, often, in different directions. We are called to meet together, but also to care for each other’s wellbeing – so what do we do in a pandemic? We are called to welcome everyone – but what happens when welcoming one might harm another? We’re called to trust that God will act, but at the same time, to take responsibility ourselves.
Faith is a conversation of ideas. It always was. That’s why the Bible contains obvious internal inconsistencies! Our response to the scriptures is not one of blind belief and obedience to any particular phrase, but of listening to all the voices within it and taking seriously their struggle.
“Come, let us reason together” says the Lord
So Jesus is found in conversation with Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, those traditions of the faith that he has come to bring to their fruition.
And then, as Peter would honour all three of them, God’s voice breaks in. “This,” God says, “This one, this is my Son. This is my Chosen. Listen to him”.
Words that God never spoke to Moses or to Elijah. They were both called and sent by God to speak to the people, but of the three in the conversation, the voice of God points to one. “This is my chosen”.
Faith is a conversation – an argument, even. But the voice in that conversation that we must pay our closest attention to is that of Jesus.
We read the law, we hear the prophets, and we hear their call on us, but we hear it through the way that Jesus spoke of it, the way that Jesus interpreted it, the way that Jesus lived it.
For this one, the Jesus, is introduced to us as more than just another voice in the conversation. He is revealed as the son of God.
But I’d like to close with a different thought.
In this juxtaposition of Jesus’ speaking about his suffering, his defeat at the hands of Rome; and his glory as Son of God revealed in the transfiguration, Luke shows us a Messiah who is both less and more than people expected.
And I wonder, how might that be true also for us?
How might Jesus be both less and more than we think he is?
In Lent, and especially in Holy Week, we see the Jesus who suffered, whose prayers went were met with silence, who cried out at God’s abandonment. The Jesus who is not the magical solution to problems that we sometimes want him to be. Who is not the source of easy, convincing answers to the issues of the world. Mark Driscoll once said “I cannot worship a guy I can beat up” – but that is exactly what we see, what we get.
A Jesus who is less than we might want.
But at the same time, as we draw near to Easter, we might learn again that Jesus is more than we have yet realised. We could do worse that to echo Paul’s prayer for the Church as Ephesus:
“that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know the hope to which God has called us, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe”