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March 2017

Exit Strategy

First read Matthew 17:1:9; Luke 9:28-33

 There is a mountain in Galilee called Mount Tabor. It is over 1800 ft high – twice the height of the Cave Hill. It is stuck in the middle of a plane, just like the hill of Slemish in Co. Antrim. It has been there for years and years. And it had a great view of the surrounding countryside, overseeing the north-south and east-west trade routes that passed close by

 It is mentioned in Joshua 19:22 as a meeting place of the borders of the land given to three tribes Zebulun, Issachar and Naphtali, after the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites under Joshua’s leadership, and again in Judges 4:12 during one of the battles fought during the time of Deborah.

 It is still there today

 Scholars suggest that Tabor is the mountain in today’s reading from Matthew, although the Bible does not give us its name. Christians now refer to it as The Mount of Transfiguration.

 Another contender to be the Mount of Transfiguration is Mount Hermon much further north, which is much higher at 9,000 ft. I think, though that Mt Tabor wins as it is conveniently on the Tourist Trail, and if you ever visit the Holy Land as a tourist, you will probably visit Mt Tabor. There are two churches on the summit. (It is pretty flat on top.) One is Roman Catholic and the other is Greek Orthodox.

 It is possible to walk up to the top, and of course that is how, Jesus, Peter, James and John got there. Today, though, while you can walk if you choose, you can ride up in a coach for part of the way, completing the journey along narrow, steep roads by taxi. It has been suggested that God favours the taxi drivers over the coach drivers, because passengers do a lot more praying in the taxis than they do in the coaches or elsewhere. The taxi drivers are a bit kamikaze.

 Now what is the Transfiguration all about? Who was it for and why?

 Well it was a meeting with God, what theologians call a “theophany”. Jesus was strangely lit up – his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. And Jesus got a lovely message from his Father, overheard by the three disciples – “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” This was reassuring for Jesus and it gave the disciples another insight into the true nature of Jesus. St Luke tells us that the disciples “saw his glory”. This by itself did not necessarily indicate that Jesus was divine. No, he was still very human, and note that Moses and Elijah also appeared “in glorious splendour.”

 Moses and Elijah both had theophanies of their own, all on Mt Sinai, also called Mt Horeb. Moses met God in the burning bush when he received his commission to lead Israel out of Egypt and again when he received the Ten Commandments and the law. We also read that when Moses met with God his face was shining so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil when relaying God’s word to the people.

 Elijah met God when he was fleeing from Queen Jezebel after the great contest on Mt Carmel. He ran as far away as he could, to Mt Sinai - and God came to him when he felt he just wanted to die. God inspired Elijah to go back and continue the fight against the corrupt King and Queen.

 Between them, Moses and Elijah represent the whole of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) of the Hebrew Bible.

 So when St John, in the prologue to his Gospel (1:1-18), says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father” what did he have in mind? Was it the glory they saw at the transfiguration, or was it something more, something divine?

 Jesus had said that all God’s people – all Christians – “would shine like stars” (Matt 13:43) and the early Christians tell us that to see Jesus’ divinity, we must look at his suffering and death. This seems a bit of a puzzle, but the early church says we should accept this and live with it.

 We should also note that St Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus “about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.” In other words they were discussing Jesus’ impending death on the cross. This was part of Jesus’ self-preparation for the horrible death that he was walking towards. He was planning his exit strategy.

 There is a strange parallel and contrast between the transfiguration and the crucifixion. If we are going to meditate on the one, we should also hold in mind the other.

Mount of Transfiguration

Hill of Crucifixion

Jesus revealed in glory

Jesus revealed in shame

His clothes are shining white

His clothes have been stripped off and people are gambling for them

He is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two 0f Israel’s greatest heroes, representing the LAW and the PROPHETS

He is flanked by two criminals, representing the level to which Israel had sunk in rebellion against God

A bright cloud overshadows the scene

Darkness comes over the land

Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is

Peter hides in shame after denying he even knows Jesus

A voice from God himself declares that this is his wonderful son

A pagan Roman soldier declares, in surprise, that this really was God’s son

 The mountain top explains the hill top – and vice-versa. Perhaps we really only understand either of them when we see them side by side. Learn to see the glory in the cross; learn to see the cross in the glory; and you will begin to bring together the laughter and the tears of the God who hides in the cloud, and the God who is to be known in the strange person of Jesus himself. We are surprised by the power, love and beauty of God which we see on the mountain top. But we then learn to recognise that same power, love and beauty within Jesus. We listen for it in his voice, especially when he tells us to take up the cross and follow him.

 Peter had recently declared that Jesus is the Messiah. And now we hear Moses and Elijah echoing God’s declaration of the same truth – Jesus is the one who has come to save people from their sins and he shows us the way into God’s kingdom. Through the glory of the cross, Jesus attains the glory that is rightfully his sitting at the right hand of God in heaven.

 But we must, as God commands, “listen to him.”

Ken (14 March 2017)

Note that this Message is inspired to a considerable extent by Tom Wright's commentary Luke for Everyone.

  NOTE - Previous "Monthly Messages" are archived at