Listen to the sermon here:
Scripture: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
Moses died outside the Promised Land. After guiding and enduring the huge crowd of Israelites for 40 years, Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. He had done something to displease God. His death is recorded in scripture. I read from the end of Deuteronomy. “The Lord said, ‘Moses, this is the land I was talking about when I solemnly promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that I would give land to their descendants. I have let you see it, but you will not cross the Jordan and go in.’ ” This passage continues, “And so, Moses the Lord’s servant died there in Moab, just as the Lord had said. The Lord buried him in a valley near the town of Beth-Peor, but even today no one knows exactly where. Moses was a hundred twenty years old when he died, yet his eyesight was still good, and his body was strong. The people of Israel stayed in the lowlands of Moab, where they mourned and grieved thirty days for Moses, as was their custom.” Deuteronomy 34:4-8 (CEV) Joshua became the new leader of the Israelites in the Promised Land. Joshua had been a protege of Moses.
The prophet Elijah did not die. He was lifted to heaven in a chariot after having given his mantle to his successor and protege, the prophet Elisha. Elijah knew that he should go to Bethel. He knew it was going to be the end of his earthly life. He tried to have Elisha stay behind in order to save Elisha the trauma of seeing this model and now close friend, Elijah, leaving the earth. However, Elisha could not bear to be left behind. He pleaded to continue with Elijah whenever Elijah said, “Stay here, Elisha.” After Bethel, it was Jericho. After Jericho, it was the Jordan River. By this time, they had fifty prophets following to watch this history in action. At the Jordan River, Elijah touched the water with his coat. The water parted. Does this remind us of another story? Sure it does. The Lord parted the Red Sea for Moses and the Israelites as they left Egypt years earlier when the forty-year trek was just starting.
So here are Elijah and Elisha with fifty other prophets separated by the Jordan River. Elijah and Elisha walk and talk. Elijah asks what he could do for Elisha. Elisha asks to inherit a double share of Elijahs’ spirit. Elijah answers that if Elisha sees Elijah being taken to heaven, Elisha would receive his request. And then…! Then a flaming chariot comes along pulled by fiery horses. The scripture says, “A chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two men, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.. Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when Elisha could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in pieces.” 1 Kings 2:12 (NRSV)
In sadness, Elisha numbly starts the trek to retrace the path of heartbreak, carrying Elijah’s mantle, a cloth or special garment which Elijah had worn. When Elisha reaches the Jordan River, he wonders if he really was given the gift of miracles that Elijah promised. Elisha touches the water with the mantle and the water parts so that dry land appears again. So he does have this attribute! Who will know! How will this make a difference to anyone? What will God have Elisha do? Well the fifty prophets were watching. They believed after seeing the water part.
They bowed to the ground before Elisha. These prophets went to search for Elijah. Elijah could not be found.
Zooming through centuries, we find ourselves with Jesus and his closest disciples: Peter, James and his brother John. We are on a mountain outside Jerusalem. Jesus had recently told his disciples the sad news that Jesus would soon die. While they are on the mountain, the three disciples see Jesus be changed, transfigured, in front of their eyes. Not only that, but Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. Over the years, people have asked me how the disciples knew that these mystery people were Moses and Elijah. I certainly have not yet discovered an answer to that. But the gospel writers, Matthew and Mark and Luke, clearly have Peter naming these two people from the past. Peter is so excited he is not thinking straight and so blurts the idea of building little shelters for Jesus and the two figures from the past so that they can stay always. Matthew writes, “Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’” (Matthew 17:4)
Did Jesus like this idea? Of course not. Peter is known as the impulsive disciple. He is the precursor of all of us who talk before we think. No matter. Jesus knows Peter and still loves Peter. Jesus even made Peter the Rock of the church and gave Peter the keys to heaven. You know how we say that St. Peter is standing at the gate of heaven and accepting some and rejecting some. I personally believe that we are all accepted. I can’t prove it with scripture. However, the God, whom I know through Jesus Christ, created us, has plans for us, and loves us with an everlasting and non-critical love.
I think it took me much longer to tell this story than it did for Moses and Elijah to come and go. But while they were still a threesome with Jesus, a booming voice came from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!” No doubt whatsoever! This same voice with this same message came at the time of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Upon hearing this voice, the disciples closed their eyes in fear but Jesus assured them that fear was not warranted. When they opened their eyes, the two Old Testament figures had disappeared. Now once again it was Jesus, Peter, James, and John.
This quartet starts down the mountain. Jesus warns these three friends not to tell anyone until he has died and lives again. It seems that the three disciples obey him and keep this experience to themselves until after Jesus rises from the grave.
You may be able to tell this story without missing a beat. For example, you probably know why God invited Moses and Elijah to be with Jesus in his glorifed state. I mean, Jesus in this transfigured state is something to behold. Clothes were whiter than anyone could make them with bleach. They glowed. His skin glowed. It was blinding!
In case you are still wondering why these two specific persons appeared, think with me about the end of the life of Moses and Elijah. No one knows where Moses is buried. The scripture says that the Lord buried Moses. Elijah did not die; the fifty prophets could not find him. I am thinking God saved Moses and Elijah in this ambiguous state to share in this glorious event with Jesus because it makes the picture meaningful: Jesus did not come to abolish the law and the prophecies. Love does not make a complete picture. Jesus came to complete the picture of Law, Prophecy, and Love. Just as God is three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there was this threesome of Law, Prophecy, and Love. Another threesome is the small group of disciples – Peter, James, and John.
There is something else to this mysterious occurrence. I have just now thought of this slant. I always felt sorry for Moses. It seemed to me that Moses was unjustly being punished. It seemed to me that he was actually obeying God but God had a different version of one day back in the wilderness. It had to do with the account of water coming from a rock when Moses tapped the rock with his rod. You could read this account in Numbers 20:1-13. Moses and his brother-assistant Aaron should have had more faith and should have shown that faith in a more forceful fashion and waited for God to provide water without this drama of water coming from a rock. So lack of trust, lack of faith kept Moses from enjoying the blessings of the Promised Land such as they were.
My flash of understanding reveals Moses’ delayed reward. Here he is with Jesus on a mountain outside Jerusalem with Elijah and in front of the three favored disciples of Jesus. Talk about delayed gratification. It is like waiting for a whole year to have your favorite birthday meal. Well, think about Moses waiting centuries for this reconciliation between himself and God.
How about Elijah? I don’t think that he felt punished by his dramatic entry into everlasting life when he left Elisha longing to hold Elijah on earth. Remember Elijah a short time before this scene? He is the prophet who made Queen Jezebel very, very angry. He had to flee from the Queen and Elijah pleaded for God to let him die. Remember how God coaxed Elijah to rise and eat and find strength to complete his task on earth. This privilege of being on the mountain with the transfigured Jesus was well worth getting up and eating once upon a time.
Imagine being Peter or James or John! Even though they were sleepy, they did not fall asleep, much to their credit. Some events remove sleepiness from our heads. If only this loss of sleepiness had followed them to the Garden of Gethsemane. Remember? The disciples fell asleep when Jesus longed for their companionship on the eve of his death. My standard response and belief is that God is in charge. We can will things to happen such as staying awake, but it does not work. We fall asleep. We can will ourselves to think before we talk such as Peter should have done; but things flow from our lips which do more harm than good. God could change the outcome but God has God-wisdom. It is not our wisdom.
God may be quite displeased when we say and do unkind things. So why does God not zipper our mouths or tape our mouths or make our voices silent? It is this battle between being kind and being quite human. When we would build three shelters to preserve our models and mentors and encouragers and our own good works, God would have us go down the mountain and keep our mouths silent.
When we would continue God’s work on earth, God calls us to himself. If we wonder how things will be when we are called, we might think of this Transfiguration account where centuries melt into nothing. The story is a continuing story. Glory is shared. We can share the mountaintop with Jesus no matter our sins, no matter our sorrowful human state. Let us picture ourselves in this place that is all light and where all things are genuine; where we will join in this transfiguration of our souls and of our countenances. We will be glowing with the love and glory of God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.