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There are some events in the life of Jesus and in the Bible that are so significant that we talk about them every year. Jesus’ birth. The resurrection. The Holy Spirit appearance on Pentecost. Today is another one. One of the more mysterious ones. The Transfiguration.
Peter, James and John go up a mountain with Jesus to pray, and see Jesus radiant with light and standing with Moses and Elijah. It was a life-changing moment for them, and rich with significance.
It’s also a scene that leaves us asking questions. Some we can answer, some we cannot. What questions do you have about this story?
It’s easy for us to look at this scene through modern eyes and miss the connections with the Old Testament and with Jewish tradition. God was giving them a faith-building moment, but they wouldn’t fully understand it until after the resurrection. They needed to hang on to the memory so they could renew their understanding later on. We too have moments like these.
This event is called the transfiguration because the appearance of Jesus is changed. Some Bible versions say that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun.” The Message version says, “Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light.” This is the glory of God and the divinity of Jesus being dramatically revealed.
Remember that we started today’s reading with a verse from the end of the previous chapter, in which Jesus says to the disciples, “Some of you standing here are going to see it take place, see the Son of Man in kingdom glory.” On its own, we might read that verse as a prophecy about end times, but it happens for Peter, James and John right away, when they go up on the mountain with Jesus six days later.
Peter writes about this moment in his second letter. He says, “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16) They saw and they heard. Peter says, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” Peter goes on to say that this confirmed for them who Jesus was, and that this was the work of the Holy Spirit, sent from God.
Rabbi Dr. Albert Slomovitz, in his book entitled, “A New Look at Rabbi Jesus,” helps us see why this was confirmation for Peter. The rabbi talks about the parallels between this scene and events in the Old Testament. All three of them, Jesus, Moses and Elijah, have mountain-top encounters with God. The description of Jesus’ transfigured appearance is like the description of Moses’ face in Exodus 34 when he comes down the mountain after meeting with God. Both Moses’ and Jesus’ faces were radiant.
The words in Hebrew, taken at their most literal, say that there were beams of light coming from Moses’ face.
Michelangelo created a sculpture of Moses in which he attempted to represent these beams of light as horns, possibly because the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible written in the 4th century by Jerome, says, “And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord” (Exodus 34:29). The only Bible version that still today says “horns” is the Douay-Rheims version.
For a time in history, Jewish people were required to wear hats with horns because of this verse. Thankfully, scholars continue to research and revise our translations so that errors like this get corrected.
The appearance of Elijah and Moses with Jesus would have helped the Jewish people in that time connect Jesus with their Jewish history and to the prophecies, like the one in Malachi 4:
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” (Mal. 4:4-5)
The presence of Elijah and Moses with Jesus could be seen as their endorsement of Jesus, and helps the disciples know that Jesus is not just another man claiming to be the Messiah, or just another prophet. Jesus is indeed the Messiah.
Peter offers to build shelters for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. Some say he is offering an act of service. I think he is also attempting to celebrate this divine moment in the way that God had instructed Israel to celebrate the annual Feast of Tabernacles, by building structures. Leviticus 23 says about this feast:
42 Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters 43 so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’”
It’s a significant festival, and Jewish scholars have written volumes about the significance of this holiday, just like Christian scholars have done about our Christian holidays. The Feast of Tabernacles is a time for celebrating God’s provision in the present, as well as God’s provision in the past. According to Maimonides, the sukkah is meant to induce both a feeling of gratitude and a feeling of humility.
One commenter says: “It was about six months before the Crucifixion and it was probably during Sukkot, The Feast of Tabernacles. . .Not only that but the Jews since Zechariah’s day have pointed to Zechariah, chapter 14, as proof that the Messiah will come during [The Feast of Tabernacles]. . .”
So it’s no small thing that Peter is offering to build shelters. He’s acknowledging that this is a significant moment.
We too build shelters in a variety of ways when we connect certain places or songs or people with significant experiences of God and God’s love. For example, for me the song “I Will Never Be the Same Again” takes me back to the moment at a retreat at a church in Southern California where I experienced God’s love in a deeper way than I ever had before. Both the song and the place hold that memory for me. The people who spoke and sang at that retreat are also shelters – connected to that experience in my memory.
We also write in journals as shelters to hold on to our experiences with God, as well as other mementos, spiritual practices, and forms of artistic expression. These are all ways of holding and remembering. The danger, though is that we can get too attached to these shelters. We might forget why they are important to us, even as we hold on to our connection with them. We might get so attached to them that they can become idols, as we forget that they were not the object of our worship, but simply elements of the experience, tools for seeking God and remembering how God has worked in our lives.
Maybe that’s why God interrupts Peter.
“While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: ‘This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.’” Matthew 17:5.
These are almost the same words as the voice that was heard at Jesus’ baptism. What’s different are the words, “Listen to him.”
Similar to Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses told the people of Israel: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.”
The command to listen seems to indicate that what’s remarkable in Jesus is not his momentary existence or his phenomenal appearance, but his words.
Listening, remembering, hanging on to Jesus’ words will be important for the disciples later on when the going gets rough. In a sense, this is what Peter’s trying to do with the idea of building shelters.
We do this when we get attached to certain scripture verses. The cross and all it represents is also a kind of shelter for us.
Some say Peter was wrong to want to build shelters, but around the 4th century a sanctuary was built on the same spot, and here’s the Church of the Transfiguration that’s there now.
We do build shelters and monuments, and I would argue that we sometimes need these tangible reminders so that we have ways to remember and come back to God’s love when we’re feeling like we’ve lost our way.
What are the shelters in your faith life? What are the things that have special significance because they were connected to an important time with God?
As we build shelters, we can also be building bridges.
Karen Thorpe, our church treasurer and administrative assistant, found the perfect picture for this message.
This is a bridge near Youngstown Ohio. Most covered bridges were built between 1825 and 1875. Do you know why they built covered bridges? The original reason for the cover was to protect the bridge’s trusses and decks from snow and rain, preventing decay and rot. But the cover also helped keep horses from spooking as they went over a rushing river, provided respite for weary travelers and protection from the weather, and served as a meeting place and gathering space.
Modern construction uses materials that are much less vulnerable to rot and decay. Now, the only reason to build a covered bridge is because we like the way they look. In fact, this one was built in 1989 as part of a park because covered bridges draw people in. They needed the bridge so people could get to hiking trails across the river. They made it look old to fit with their aesthetic.
The important thing is that it fulfills its purpose – as a bridge connecting people across the river. It’s good for us to consider our shelters, too. Are they still connecting us with God and helping us to connect with people?
That song I mentioned earlier was very important to me for many years, and I still remember the feelings I had the first time I sang it, but it’s not as effective at pointing me to God as it once was. I have learned lots of new songs since then, and currently find that art and writing are better at helping me connect with God. They’re my current shelters.
There’s so much going on in this scripture that it’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening at the center of it, just like it’s easy for us to lose sight of what’s important in our lives.
In our scripture reading, Jesus was transfigured. He was transformed. He was changed. All three of those words are used in the various translations. Jesus didn’t become someone different. His appearance reflected who he really was – God in the flesh. God who came to be with us. God, who is love.
We are also transformed and changed by love. We shine, too. Think about what we say about someone who is in love. We say they have a glow about them. The love shines through their faces.
On that day on the mountain top, God’s love was shining through Jesus, a love so bright that it would change the world. When we experience God in moments that shine like that, it makes sense to build shelters, to capture the memory and hold on to it for those times when God feels far away. Those moments give us courage and hope and peace. Those moments strengthen our faith.
But not just for ourselves. Those moments give us the courage and strength to build bridges to God’s love with the people around us, so that they too can know the brilliant love of God that shines through Jesus Christ.
May we all, as Paul prays in Ephesians 3:17, “experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”
 By Carl Bloch – http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Carl-Heinrich-Bloch/The-Transfiguration.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7850713
 By Raphael – Downloaded from Artist Hideout, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=379381
 By Theophanes the Greek, 15th century, Public Domain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transfiguration_of_Jesus
 Photo byy Jörg Bittner Unna – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46476441
 Rabbi Albert (Abraham) J. Slomovitz, Ph.D., A New Look at Rabbi Jesus: Jews and Christians Finally Reconnected, (Murrels Inlet: Covenant Books, 2019), p.128-129.
 Slomovitz, Ibid, p.131
 Slomovitz, Ibid, p. 126.
 Rabbi David Golinkin, “Seven Reasons for Sukkah Sitting,” MyJewishLearning.com, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/seven-reasons-for-sukkah-sitting/
 C. Lemley-McRoy, commenting on https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/02/transforming-vision.html?m=1
 Mark Davis, Left Behind and Loving It: https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/02/transforming-vision.html?m=1
 Photo by Gary Yost on Unsplash Lantern’s Mill Covered Bridge, Youngstown, OH.
 Rickie Longfellow, “Ohio’s Vanishing Covered Bridges,” https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/back0804.cfm