Scripture Readings: 2 Kings 2:1–12 | Psalm 50:1–6 | 2 Corinthians 4:3–6 | Mark 9:2–9
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
This morning the Church celebrates Transfiguration Sunday: the part of our story when our Lord Jesus Christ was dramatically revealed as the beloved Son of God to Peter, James, and John, on top of a mountain. It is a strange part of our story, with puzzling, otherworldly elements, and yet it also offers us a clear, life-giving message; in many ways, summing up God’s word to us today.
But this part of our story does not simply stand all on its own. Its message flows throughout the entire story of the Bible, drawing together its distinct notes into a surprising melody. And so, while this passage from Mark’s Gospel wants to focus our eyes on Jesus, it does so by bringing to mind two renowned servants of God: Moses and Elijah two of Israel’s greatest heroes, appear with Jesus as He is transfigured in glory on top of the mountain.
Each of these ancient prophets, who spoke for and served the Living God, had their own dramatic parts to play in the story so far. Moses, of course, was chosen to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, to become a people set apart for the LORD. It was through Moses that God had given the Law, the commands of the covenant to transform Israel’s communal life by God’s own holy love. And centuries later, Elijah was known for powerfully challenging the unfaithful leaders of Israel, calling the people back to serve the LORD with all their hearts, and to turn away from the false gods they had been chasing after.
Yet besides having two very different roles to play in God’s story, there are also some striking similarities between them that we should note:
Both Moses and Elijah had encounters with God on a mountain. The same mountain, actually: Mount Sinai, or Horeb. Moses had met with God alone amid the lightning and the cloud to receive the Law from the LORD, in order to share it with Israel. Elijah, fleeing the wrath of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, encountered the LORD at his lowest moment, who offered some surprising hope that God had not given up on His people.
Both Moses and Elijah were also connected to the promise of the Messiah, seen as foreshadowing the coming of God’s ultimate Saviour. The last biblical prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, concludes his book with these words from the LORD: 4 Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. 5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:4-5). As God’s people longed for His Chosen One to bring God’s kingdom at last, the stories of Moses and Elijah were deeply tied to this hope: That the One who had promised to be their God, and to make them His own people would not abandon them, and would be their faithful redeemer.
Which leads us to one more way that both Moses and Elijah were connected: they had both stood before God’s people and called them to make a clear choice. To choose to be faithful to the Living God, or go their own way. To choose the path of life, or the path that leads to death.
At the end of his life, after leading the people of Israel through the wilderness for years, Moses challenged his people to stay true to the LORD. Deuteronomy 30:15-20
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. The way of the LORD leads to life, all others lead to death. Moses confronted the people with this call to faithfulness.
Centuries later, after years of Israel’s blatant unfaithfulness, worshipping the Canaanite gods, like Baal, Elijah confronts God’s people with the same kind of decision: Serve the LORD, the Living God alone, or serve somebody else. Take the path of life, or the path that leads to death. As we can read in 1 Kings 18, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a dramatic, mountain-top showdown in front of the assembled crowds of Israelites. Verse 21: 21 Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. But in a dramatic display of power, the LORD answered Elijah’s prayers, turning the hearts of the people back to the Living God, for a time.
These three similarities between Moses and Elijah… their special encounters with God on top of a mountain, their connection to Israel’s future hope of God’s coming kingdom, and their roles in calling God’s people to renewed faithfulness, all come together in our Gospel passage for this morning, and shed light on its significance. Helping us to understand it’s message for us today.
Mark tells us that Jesus brought three disciples, Peter, James, and John, up to a mountain with Him, where He was changed before their eyes. Transfigured, with clothes suddenly shining with an unearthly light, Christ gives these three a glimpse of God’s coming Kingdom through Him. This alone would have been an amazing experience for the disciples, but then suddenly Moses and Elijah are there alongside their master. Having grown up hearing all about these two heroes of Israel, no doubt their heads were spinning as they tried to grasp what this all meant. The scholar R.T. France points out that, “the reappearance of two such great men of God from the past, and their conversation with Jesus, would evoke a sense of Jesus’ climactic place in the ongoing purpose of God, and of the coming of the long-awaited age of fulfilment in his person.” Here they all were: on a mountain top, Moses and Elijah talking with their Master, who was just transformed in glory before their very eyes.
All this would surely confirm that He is indeed the Messiah, the Chosen One who would finally bring God’s good Kingdom at last. Then suddenly, a cloud overshadows them, like it did on Mt. Sinai when the LORD appeared long ago, and a voice calls out: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” More than a prophet, more than even a human Messiah, Jesus is being revealed as the very Son of God… and also revealing what their (and our) response to Him must be. The scholar Stanley Saunders maintains that “Everything in this episode —Jesus’ transformation, the appearance of Elijah and Moses, Peter’s babbling attempt to be useful —leads up to the moment when God speaks from the cloud that suddenly overshadows them, naming Jesus and commanding the disciples to “Listen to him!” This is the message of the Transfiguration: God’s word that “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” If this is truly who Christ is than what else could we do? Again, in facing Jesus we’re confronted with the choice between the way of life or the way of death: to listen to and follow God’s own beloved Son, or to listen to other voices, and follow our own way.
So, what is Jesus saying to us? What are we being asked to do if we too are to follow God’s beloved Son?
Many things, we can be sure. Some which will seem wonderful, filling us with hope and joy. Some which will be much harder, calling us to be transformed. Immediately before he led Peter, James, and John up the mountain, Mark tells us that Jesus had some hard words for His disciples to hear. Though Peter tries to push forward his own vision for God’s kingdom, Jesus reveals to them His mission is to suffer, die, and rise again, and that those who follow Him on this way of life will suffer too. He says to them in Mark 8:34-35: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Confronted with this choice, will we listen to Him? Will we find true life by taking up our crosses, and following Him?
This coming Wednesday, we will begin our journey through the season of Lent; choosing the way of life by following Jesus as He bears our sins up mount Calvary, overcoming the power of death, by dying on the cross. We follow Him there knowing that the grave could not hold Him, and that New Life awaits all those who place their hope in Him. The Season of Lent invites us to listen closely to our Lord: to draw near to Him, and be transformed by God’s mercy and grace.
So may the Holy Spirit of God open our eyes and hearts to God’s vision for our lives: for ourselves, for our families, our Parish, and our world. And may we draw near to Jesus, God’s own beloved Son, and truly listen to Him… committed to being faithful to Him, and in Him find New Life. Amen.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 352.
 Stanley P. Saunders, “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 9:2–9,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 453.