john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Transfiguration - breaking the myth of sacrifice

    Sourton, Bratton Clovelly, Germansweek

    Exodus 24.12-18, 2 Peter 1.16-21, Matthew 17.1-9

    Some time after he, James and John had witnessed The Transfiguration of Jesus, Peter wrote,
    'For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.' (2 Peter 1.16)
    Now, some would say that The Transfiguration sounds more like a myth than a reality, but Peter, James and John were there, and seeing what they saw, from that point on, they couldn't help but be convinced of the glory of God, the glory of Jesus. To them it was a true vision, not just a story.

    But, whether a cleverly devised myth or an extraordinary event which had three disciples as eyewitnesses, The Transfiguration said so much about what the glory of God actually means. It added to Jesus' mythical status; and it was no accident that of all the saints of old who Jesus might have met on that mountaintop, it was Moses - Israel's lawgiver, and Elijah - Israel's great prophet who stood with him that day.

    On one side was Moses who had previously met God on a mountain, in thunder and lightning, trumpet-sound and smoke. Moses who had brought the Ten Commandments down from the mountain to the people, ten words of justice for the people to live their lives by. When Jesus stood by Moses on the mountaintop that day, he stood by the commandments that Moses had brought to the people.

    And on the other side was Elijah, who had met God on a mountain, in the storms and the earthquakes and the fire which passed by Elijah hiding in a mountaintop cave, a fugitive on the run from enemies whose prophets he had condemned to death because they refused to worship Israel's God. In ancient times when people's justice was measured by the sacrifices they made to God, Elijah's harsh message made perfect sense: if you break your covenant with God then you bring death on yourself.

    And when Jesus stood by Elijah on the mountaintop that day, he stood by the covenant that Elijah had brought to the people.

    So this is what Peter, James and John saw that day: the Son of God, with whom the Father was well pleased, standing in the glory of God with the lawgiver and the covenant-keeper. Three great leaders of the faith, talking together. The Transfiguration gave his disciples a firm idea about who Jesus actually was, and where he stood in God's order of things. Especially when they realised that Jesus hadn't just stood with Moses and Elijah as an equal - but actually Jesus had stood out in front of them, as the greatest among them.

    How so? Well, Matthew's description makes it clear that Jesus was transfigured - that means changed, transformed, his appearance altered, before his disciples but also before Moses and Elijah appeared on the scene. The glory of Jesus that day wasn't a reflected glory based on the status of Moses and Elijah with whom he stood - the glory of Jesus came first, before those two greats even showed up.

    And Matthew's description tells us something else which sets Jesus apart from and above the lawgiver and the covenant-keeper of Israel: it tells us that God the father spoke to all three (and the disciples heard this too), and that he said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!'

    'This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.' You might recall where else the Father spoke that way of Jesus - at his baptism in the River Jordan. But at the Transfiguration he speaks a new and unique line, consisting of three short significant words: 'listen to him!', he said. Not Moses, not Elijah, not all three equally, but 'listen to him!'.

    This phrase implied that beyond the witness of Moses and the words of the commandments he brought, beyond the witness of Elijah urging the people in their covenant relationship with God, from now on it is Jesus who the people should now listen to, from now on it is Jesus who they should look to for guidance and inspiration.

    'Listen to him!' Peter, James and John would have realised that is was those three short words that revealed the real glory of Jesus, and that his transfiguration heralded a real transformation in the relationship between God and his people. Jesus was different from Moses and Elijah - and from now on God wanted all to follow him.

    We know that Jesus was different from Moses and Elijah because of what they each did when they came down from the mountain after their encounters with God.

    The book of Kings tells us that after Elijah came down from the mountain after his encounter with God he spoke out against the sacrificial cult of Ba'al, a cult which still practiced human sacrifice, especially child sacrifice, a cult which the people of Yahweh had supposed to leave behind ever since God had stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. But how did Elijah oppose the cult sacrifices of Ba'al? By slaughtering the four hundred and fifty prophets of Ba'al (1 Kings 18:22, 40) after winning a dramatic showdown with them. In other words, Elijah enforced his own brand of human sacrifice in his efforts to stop someone else's human sacrifice. The glory of Elijah was tainted by his righteous violence.

    And the book of Exodus tells us that after Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets of the law, his face shining with God's glory, he found his people worshipping a golden calf. He had been ready to to guide his people into a new way of life after coming out of slavery in Egypt, but how did he first try to convince them? By turning the sons of Levi on them, killing three thousand of them to punish their sin of worshipping the calf, by ordaining the sons of Levi as priests for the Lord's service on the basis of their sacrifice (Exodus 32:28-29). Thus just like Elijah, Moses found himself enforcing his own brand of human sacrifice in his efforts to stop someone else's human sacrifice. The glory of Moses was tainted by his righteous violence.

    While on the mountain together Peter had offered to set up three altars in honour of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, but Jesus rejected his offer because he knew what trouble altars cause - altars are sacrificial places justified by the myth of righteous violence - that one brand of human sacrifice can stop someone else's brand of human sacrifice.

    And when Jesus came down off the mountain to continue living among a people disobeying God's laws and breaking their covenant with him, he did something beyond what Moses and Elijah could imagine - rather than wreaking vengeance on the people, in righteous violence sacrificing the wrongdoers in an attempt to restore God's righteous order, Jesus preached peace and forgiveness to the people, went about among them healing them, stood above Jerusalem and wept for its people in compassion, opposed those who oppressed the people with their religious rules and misinterpretations of the law. Jesus' stories showing the first being last and the last being first, his teachings about the meek inheriting the earth and the poor being satisfied, stirred up the people's hearts - but scandalised the lawmakers and covenant-keepers whose ways Jesus fundamentally challenged.

    Then, ultimately, Jesus became the most significant sacrifice the lawmakers and covenant-keepers of Israel ever made, who, scandalised by Jesus and what he had stirred up in the people, in an attempt to restore order, in an act of righteous violence, crucified him. They were doing what presidents and terrorists had been doing from time immemorial and have been doing since.

    But The Transfiguration teaches us that God sent his Son into the world not to wield the righteous violence to end all righteous violence, but to suffer at the hands of our righteous violence, to forgive us for it, and to begin to show us true obedience to God's totally nonviolent way of love.

    The glory of Jesus is not tainted by righteous violence. Jesus stands outside all that causes and sustains that in the world. This must have dawned on Peter as he reflected on the Transfiguration over the coming years. In his second epistle he writes,
    'For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.' (2 Peter 1.16)
    In Christ Jesus, we come to see the righteous violence of Moses and Elijah as being justified by a "cleverly devised myth", the myth that sacrificing others can stop someone else sacrificing others. It's a myth which remains strong today. A decade after the terrible events of 9/11 we reflect on how one people's attempt to enforce their own brand of human sacrifice was counteracted by another people's attempt to stop them - by enforcing their own brand of human sacrifice: and we can see now where all that righteous violence has led us.

    Moses and Elijah were great leaders of the people, but they were trapped in the same myth which still directs the decisions and strategies of presidents and terrorists today. Jesus stands out from all of them in offering a new way, a non-violent way of love. His death and resurrection make it possible for us to share in his liberating way of life.

    And that is why the voice from heaven on the mountain of Transfiguration singled out Jesus from those other two heroes of the faith and said, "Listen to him!"

    [1] It almost goes without saying (to my regular readers) but this sermon owes quite a bit to one by Paul Neuchterlein, with the very descriptive title of Following Jesus means learning not to 'follow cleverly devised myths', and the Moses and Elijah coming down off the mountain paragraphs are rewordings of his.