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The story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top, in front of Peter, James and John, is well known to most Christians – in our church we celebrate this event at least once a year just before Lent starts (Matthew 17:1-9).
But this year I noticed for the first time the narratives about Jesus’ death on either side of the transfiguration story. In Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus tells his disciples that he will shortly be killed. Peter challenges him for this negative comment, and Jesus in turn rebukes Peter with strong words, “Get behind me, Satan!” How devastated Peter must have felt, both hearing about Jesus’ fate and hearing Jesus’ stinging rebuke.
And shortly after the transfiguration, in Matthew 17:22-23, Jesus repeats this statement, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. And they will kill him.” The disciples were filled with grief at these words. What dark encounters to have immediately before and after the transfiguration.
In addition to hearing these words, the disciples hear other difficult-to-swallow messages. In Matthew 16:24-28, Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to follow him, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and lose their life. A hard teaching – they thought they were going to journey with their saviour towards the Eternal Life that Jesus so often spoken about. But instead, they hear these hard words.
And after the transfiguration, they go out to heal people and cast out demons (Matthew 17:14-20). But there is one child they cannot save. Jesus comes and heals the body immediately. They ask Jesus why they couldn’t drive out the demon, and Jesus responds “Because you have so little faith.” Ouch! Tough, harsh words from their Lord.
It is like there are these tall walls on their left and their right, before and after the transfiguration, that block out the sun and that undermine and disrupt the disciples’ faith. Almost like they are at the bottom of a chimney tower, with walls all around that reach up into the sky, so that no light gets down.
And yet is it is in this very space – in this dark place – that the transfiguration takes place. It is here, in this darkness, that the light of Christ, his dazzling divine nature, is revealed to Peter, James and John.
Here is an important lesson: It is often in the darkest spiritual times that we we have the brightest encounters with God.
It is clear from Matthew 17 that Jesus goes immediately into the transfiguration – he wastes no time. It is as if this is exactly why he brought them up the mountain – so that in the midst of their darkness, they could encounter his light. And they hear the voice of God speaking, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
Here are hope and courage and spiritual resources to sustain the disciples, in the midst of spiritual testing.
Have a look back at Exodus 24:12, where Moses is invited to go up the mountain to meet with the Lord and to receive the Ten Commandments. God says to him, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here.” What a remarkable invitation! To be not only invited up the mountain to meet with God, but also to stay there with God. And Moses stayed there 40 days and 40 nights. All around the mountain, the Israelites saw a storm, thunder and lightning, dark clouds – it was terrifying. But Moses was safe in the light of God within the darkness of the cloud, just staying with God.
During the period of Lent, which kicks off on Wednesday this week, many of us will experience an intensification of spiritual attack. We will be working to deepen our faith, to nurture our spiritual life, to strip down the outer layers of excess, to step away from sin and get down to a more fundamental and authentic relationship with God. But in this very time, when we are trying so hard to grow spiritually, Satan attacks us the most. We experience increased difficulties, challenges, disruptions, criticisms, failures, hardships, losses. These are the dark walls of the chimney tower rising up around us.
It is in these times that we are most in need of the light of Christ. Peter, having recounted his experience on the mountain top, provides us with some helpful advice (2 Peter 1:19):
We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
‘The light shining in the dark place’ and the ‘morning star rising in our hearts’. This is the transfiguration of Christ taking place within us as we seek to follow Christ, even when the world is dark around us, even when our faith seems weakest, even when we feel besieged by evil. This is where we encounter the transfigured Christ.
“Transfiguration” by Lewis Bowman, from https://fineartamerica.com/featured/transfiguration-lewis-bowman.html