If you could have a conversation with someone from the past, I wonder who it would be, and what you would say?
Perhaps it would be someone you knew, someone special to you, someone who you’d love to talk to again, or someone you wish you had a chance to sort something out with. Perhaps it would be someone famous from history – Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, Elvis Presley… Perhaps you’d like to know what it was like to be them, to have made history. I’d love to talk to some of the ancestors I have discovered in my family tree, people who lived hundreds of years ago, navvies and trawlermen and agricultural labourers. I’d love to know what they would have thought of me and my life, so very different from their own. Whether we want to satisfy a deep personal need or just our own curiosity, I expect we can all think of conversations we’d love to have with people who are now gone.
That’s exactly what happens in today’s Gospel. Through the eyes of his disciples, we get a ringside view of a conversation Jesus has with Moses and Elijah, great figures from Israel’s past. Jesus had been talking to his disciples about his death and resurrection just before this, talking about things that baffled and probably upset them. Maybe it was just as hard for him to accept where his ministry was leading him as it was for them. Who would want to contemplate a future like this? If you knew you were heading for crucifixion, how would you feel? Maybe that was why, at this point, he felt he needed to take time out to pray. So he headed up a mountain, taking with him his closest disciples, Peter, James and John.
And there on the mountain they saw a sight that astonished them; Jesus shining with light, and Moses and Elijah talking with him. There was a tradition at the time that Moses and Elijah would appear again to herald the coming of the Messiah, but I don’t think they are just symbols in this story. There is a real conversation going on here. It seems as if Jesus needs their company.
But what are they talking about? All we are told is that they talking “of [Jesus] departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.“ It’s frustrating that we aren’t given more detail – wouldn’t it be fascinating to have a recording? – but all is not lost, because what we are told is very revealing if we read it carefully. In particular, it helps to read it in the original Greek.
The word for “departure” in Greek is exodos . It is just the ordinary Greek word for “way out”. It’s what you would see in an airport or train station if you were looking for the exit. But of course that word “exodos” takes on a whole new significance in the context of a story in which Moses features. All departures were exoduses, but for the Jewish people – then and now - only one departure was The Exodus, that journey out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and it was Moses who led the people on it.
So when we hear that Jesus is talking to Moses about his “exodos”, his own departure - his death - I am quite sure we are supposed to make the link. We are being told that his death wasn’t just going to be a death, an ending, it would also be the start of a journey to a new place for him and for those who followed him. Like Moses exodus, Jesus would have to confront oppressive powers – the might of Rome and of the Jewish authorities, but in doing so he too would lead his people on a journey out of slavery, that sense of being trapped in hopeless cycles of vengeance and retribution and sin, into a new kingdom, the kingdom of God.
That kingdom, a new Promised Land wouldn’t be a geographical place, nor would it be somewhere you only got to when you died. It would be a place you found yourself in as you worked for justice, as you learned to love others, as you built a new community in which all were welcomed and honoured.
But it would be a painful, terrifying experience, just like the Exodus of Moses had been. It must have been terrifying to stand before Pharaoh, who had the power of life and death in his hands. It must have been a huge burden to feel responsible for thousands of men, women and children in the midst of the desert. It must have been painful to leave behind all that was familiar and comforting to go out into the unknown. So who better for Jesus to speak to than Moses as he faced having to stand before the powers of his age, knowing he would be deserted by his friends, who felt he’d let them down?
Jesus needed Moses’ wisdom and experience. What might he have said to Jesus about all this? “Yes, it was tough, and painful, and uncertain, but I discovered God was with me every step of the way, giving me the strength I needed as I needed it.”
The presence of Elijah underlines this message. He was the prophet who had confronted King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, manipulative, heartless, cruel monarchs who were only interested in preserving their own power. Often Elijah had stood alone, or felt that he did. Twice he had had to run away into the desert to save his life. There were times when he felt that his struggle was all for nothing, futile and hopeless, when he wondered what on earth God was up to. Jesus felt that way too, in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed desperately for some other way to achieve his goals, and as he hung on the cross, crying out “why have you forsaken me” to his Father.
So, as he stood on the mountainside, he had Moses, the great leader, and Elijah, the great prophet, by his side, with all their wisdom and experience. Neither of them could have given him a simple solution, a sure-fire way of coping with the days ahead , but they could tell him that, however it looked, God would be with him. However forsaken he felt, and however forsaken he seemed to others, God would not let him go.
That’s why Peter’s words seem so crass and inappropriate when he blurts out “Master it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings...” This conversation isn’t about dwelling; it is about departure. It isn’t about how good it is to be where we are, to stay put, to have arrived; it is about setting off on a journey into the unknown, which we may not want to take at all.
This story of the Transfiguration is very deliberately followed in the Gospel by another story, a story which might seem very different, but is actually meant to go with it, to help us see what it means. Jesus went down the mountain again, we are told, and straightaway he is greeted by a desperate father whose only son is suffering from what we would recognise very clearly today as epilepsy. At the time of Jesus - and indeed until quite recently – those who had fits like these were assumed to be possessed. That’s quite wrong, of course, and very damaging, but I can see how that idea might have arisen. A number of people in my close family have epilepsy, so I am very used to dealing with it, but even when you know what causes it – just some neurons in the brain misfiring – seizures can be alarming to watch. The person you know and love can seem to become someone else, someone strange, distorted by the fit into someone you hardly recognise. This father describes how his child is mauled by what he thinks is an evil spirit, as a lion mauls its prey. Jesus’ disciples seem to have been helpless in the face of all this, no use at all. Reading between the lines, I suspect they had recoiled. But Jesus didn’t. As he was speaking, right there and then, the child had a fit, but Jesus healed him, and gave him back to his father. That doesn’t just mean that he handed him over physically. It says to us that he gave him back the son he loved, restoring his true identity.
These two stories – the Transfiguration and the healing of this boy with epilepsy – go together, as I said. Both of them challenge us to look beneath the surface if we really want to find the truth about Jesus, about other people, about ourselves.
This boy, his father’s only son, is not a demon-possessed write-off. He is the beloved child of a father who will go to any lengths to see him healed, and who won’t take no for an answer. No matter how distorted his appearance becomes when he has a seizure, this father knows his son’s true identity and never stops loving him. In the same way, on the cross, at his exodus, Jesus will look mauled, disfigured, hopeless, but he is the only son of a loving father too – both these stories are about fathers and sons. Jesus’ Father God, the one who calls him Beloved and Chosen, knows that beneath the mangled appearance, there is the dazzling glory of love. That glory is revealed briefly here on the mountain, but it will be seen fully when Jesus is raised from that terrible death.
This Sunday is the Sunday before Lent begins. On Ash Wednesday we begin our journey towards the cross. That journey has to start by accepting that we are marred and disfigured, not the shiny, perfect people we’d like to be. That’s why we receive the sign of the cross, made in ash, at our Ash Wednesday service. It might seem like a rather negative thing to do, but actually it is profoundly hopeful. We can acknowledge our failings and limitations, we can admit that we are broken, disappointed and mauled by life, because we know that God will not only see that, but will also see the light of Christ within us, his own image shining out of the shadows. To him, we are infinitely worth loving, saving, mending, restoring, and just like that loving father who brings his child to Jesus, he won’t take no for an answer. He will stick with us until our journey, our exodus, is finished, until we become the people he wants us to be, in the land which is our true home.