There's an expression that talks of someone having "a mountain-top experience". The story from Luke, which appears elsewhere in the Gospels, could certainly be called that. And like so many New Testament passages it has its roots firmly grounded in Israel's history, in words that we can find for example, in Exodus 34:29-35
Do you see the similarity with Luke's account of that mountain-top experience of Peter, John and James?
"As (Jesus) was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning."
We don't know exactly what happened on that mountain, as there is no direct eyewitness account; just the story as retold by Luke, Matthew and Mark. But there's no doubt that something remarkable took place, and at an important point in Jesus' ministry. This event, called the Transfiguration was the prelude to Jesus' return to Jerusalem, to that famous ride on a donkey, to Passion Week, to Jesus' death on a cross and his subsequent resurrection.
Ahead of Jesus and his closest disciples were times of serious testing and temptations - could this victim of Roman torture and cruelty, rejected by both the priests and authorities really be the Messiah, the Christ, the one foretold by the prophets?
But of course at this time the disciples were still unclear about how this whole amazing story of which they were a part was going to unfold.
In the weeks before, as they had wandered through villages and towns around Caesarea Philippi Jesus had taught both them and the people he moved among, and he'd tried to prepare his disciples for what was to follow. Now it was time for the closest of his followers to glimpse something that would have been totally unintelligible to outsiders.
Peter, James, and John made up the inner circle of disciples. At the outer perimeter was the group of five hundred who saw Christ after His resurrection (I Cor 15:6).
A bit closer were the seventy disciples who were sent out two by two to preach and heal (Luke 10:1,17).
Still closer were the Twelve, of whom these three were specially selected to witness this event, the raising of Jairus daughter, and Jesus agony in Gethsemane. Of these three, John the beloved was closest to Christ (Jn 13:23;21:20).
So what was the point of this spectacular event?
And possibly more importantly, what does it say to us?
On a technical point, there is a difference between Luke's account and that of Matthew and Mark, and this goes back to what I said earlier, that we don't know exactly what happened on that mountaintop.
Luke does not use the word transfigured - metamorphoµtheµ (which Matthew and Mark used), perhaps because it had been used so much in the Pagan theology, but makes use of a equivalent phrase, to eidos tou prosoµpou heteronwhich translates literally as the fashion of his countenance was another thing from what it had been, or as the NIV has it "the appearance of his face changed" It's a small point maybe, but important in Luke's understanding of this event.
We know that Jesus retired to lonely places to pray and to be close to his Father. This was an important moment in his life, because Jesus was all too well aware of the dangers and pain that lay ahead of him on the journey he had to make to Jerusalem.
This time he felt the need to take his closest companions with him, and perhaps we can sympathise with Jesus there. Aren't there crucial times in our own lives where the last thing we want is to be alone, when what we need is the prayerful support of our nearest and dearest.
Jesus seems to have been someone of almost unlimited energy. Remember how in the Garden of Gethsemene he asked his disciples to stay awake while he prayed, and they fell asleep. Well, here again we find Jesus wide-awake and praying whilst his friends seemed to have dropped off to sleep after their hard day and arduous climb.
So it is that on that mountain Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus. Moses the great law-giver, and Elijah the greatest of the prophets add their encouragement and support to all that must happen in the days to follow. Both Moses and Elijah were associated in prophesy concerning the Messiah (Deut 18:15-19, Mal 3:1;4:5,6).
Early readers of this story, always alert for Old Testament imagery or thought would have recognised the cloud which enveloped the mountain, indicating the presence of God (Ex 40:34,35). They might also remember that both Moses and Elijah had strange endings in the east of Jordan where our story is based.
God often strengthens those who are about to face hardship or testing. How much Jesus needed this reassurance, this mark of approval, we can never know. However, because of what happened on that mountain Jesus could now set out for Jerusalem in the knowledge that at least that small group of close companions knew who they were in the presence of, and that God approved of the next step that He was taking.
So to answer my first question "What was the point of this event?" it would seem that there might be two possible reasons. Strange as it might seem for the Son of God, he needed the approval of his heavenly Father for the actions that he was about to take. In order to do that he had to be close to his Father, and that was achieved through prayer. So often in the Gospels we find Jesus finding a quiet place where he could pray.
Secondly, the presence of Moses and Elijah to the disciples, coupled with Jesus' own facial appearance - be it a brightness, an aura, who are we to say what the disciples saw - made those three men realise that they were in the presence of the Almighty. They "saw his glory". They heard God speaking to them through the cloud "This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him" Words which echo those uttered at Jesus' baptism in the river Jordan, and in themselves confirm that the path that Jesus took then was the right one
There would of course be another moment to come when Jesus would appear on a mountaintop with two others. But these wouldn't be prophets of the Old Testament resplendent in the bright light of God's glory, this time it would be with the lowest of the low. Then Jesus would associate himself with common criminals as he hung on a cross. I can't help but feel that there might be significance in hinting at a link between those two events.
One the brightness and glory of God surrounding Jesus as he is given the assurance by his heavenly Father that this is the correct path to follow. Then his disciples given the assurance (if they needed it) that this Jesus who they have been so faithfully following and drawing close to was indeed the Son of God.
The other event that would take place on that first Easter is of course the assurance that we have 2000 years later that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Was the one a foreshadowing of the other?
Jesus in all his Glory followed by Jesus the sacrificial lamb. Jesus as one with his heavenly Father accepting all the responsibility that was his as Son of God, followed by Jesus as one with humanity accepting all the responsibility that was ours as sinners. Do you see how the two might be linked, perhaps not immediately in the minds of those who were there at the time, but now in hindsight?
So what else does this story tell us, perhaps about ourselves. Well, one of the most telling phrases that Luke uses is perhaps one that could be easily overlooked. Verse 32 says "Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men standing with him."
This wasn't some fancy dream that the three men experienced, brought on by the exhaustion of climbing that hill after a busy day following Jesus around. When they saw Jesus standing there with Moses and Elijah they were fully awake.
How often do we go about our daily lives not literally asleep (although I've known exceptions) but with our minds asleep?
Asleep to what? Well, for instance asleep to what's going on in this world, refusing to question or address our fears or doubts about decisions that are made that might affect our lives. Refusing to question our own faith, to affirm in our minds just what we believe and make space to think through those areas in which we have serious problems.
We're happy to use "religious" language as a part of our worship; repentance, grace, sanctification, atonement, justification, sacrificial lamb, Messiah, Christ - if someone asked you to explain in layman's terms what these actually mean to you, could you? These concepts are fundamental to the Christian faith that I trust most of us accept, but if we cannot explain them even in simple terms to ourselves how can we share our faith with others?
"The unexamined life," said Plato, "is the life not worth living."
We need to be awake to the doubts and questions that affect not only us but also those outside the walls of this building. We need to be continually thinking through our own beliefs, in order that we can be strengthened in our faith should it be brought to the point of testing.
There seems to be a sort of in-built defence mechanism in humans which brings down the shutters as soon as any disturbing thought knocks at the door. There is also a form of mental prejudice that does the same whenever any new idea or concept is suggested. There's the knock on the door, but we prefer to keep our eyes closed as if asleep.
The disciples would have seen nothing if they had kept their eyes closed, if they'd stayed asleep. They needed to be fully conscious to see and understand.
Life is full of things designed to wake us up. There is love. Robert Browning talks of two lovers looking into each other's eyes "and suddenly life awoke."
There is sorrow. The composer Elgar said of a young singer, who was technically perfect but lacking in feeling and expression, "She will be great when something breaks her heart."
And there is need. We can drift through life half asleep to everything around us, and then suddenly there comes a problem that we can't overcome, a question that can't be answered, a temptation that can't be overcome and we're left feeling helpless. It's at that moment that all we can do is offer up a cry from the heart. A sense of need awakens us to God.
We need to keep our minds awake. Awake to the possibilities that God might bring our way. Did the disciples really expect to see Moses and Elijah up on that mountain? I think not, they were merely supporting Jesus as he found somewhere quiet to pray. We need to be awake to the very real doubts that sometime come our way. There is nothing wrong with questioning our faith, with saying to ourselves or others "I find it difficult to accept this or that" What is wrong is pulling down the shutters and leaving ourselves unsure, because that insecurity will be tested and found wanting.
We need to be awake to the new thing that God wants to do in our lives, the new truths that he wants to reveal to us. God cannot be confined to the pages of your bible, He is alive and wanting to work in and through each one of us, in the same way that he was to use Peter, James and John. But if we keep our spiritual eyes closed then we might miss out.
Would Peter, James and John have been as effective in the early church if they had spent that time on the mountaintop asleep, if they hadn't glimpsed something of God's glory in that very real moment of spiritual awakening?
We need to pray "Lord, keep me always awake to you."