Transfiguration Sunday Sermon
Pastor Erin Coleman Branchaud
St. Philip Lutheran Church
27 February 2022
It is so good to be with you, saints of St. Philip, on this Transfiguration of Our Lord. To those of you who are here and to those who are joining us online this morning — thank you for receiving me so warmly.
In the gospel of Luke, elevation matters a lot. Remember a few weeks ago, the sermon on the not-mount? The sermon on the plain. Jesus goes up to a high place to pray, and then down to a level place to preach and do ministry. “Blessed are you who are poor.”
And here again this week, an astonishing story of Jesus up on a mountaintop, transfigured and sparkly in prayer—and then down again on the very next day, healing a child suffering with a spirit that causes convulsions.
Every year, this story—called the Transfiguration—comes up on the last Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday right before Ash Wednesday. And so every year this story leads the church into the beginning of Lent.
It’s a weird story! Jesus is glowing like a neon sign and the disciples are so confused they decide to plan a construction project right then and there. Clouds, dead prophets, the voice of God. Encounters with the divine are weird like that. Unpredictable and confusing. Hard to believe the story afterwards, even if you were there.
Standing in the presence of God changes a person—that much is clear because sometimes they are absolutely glowing.
And the changes are more than just skin-deep. When Jesus comes down from the mountain, his mission and determination have changed too. The gospel says that from there, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” For a while now, Jesus has been trying to tell his friends what he knows about his purpose, about the fact that suffering and death are going to be a part of his story, and that somehow in the losing of life there is also the saving of it. And now after this mountaintop experience, Jesus has his eyes on the prize: he is headed directly to Jerusalem, ready for what comes next: His exodus.
Our translation says that up there on that mountaintop, Jesus was speaking with Elijah and Moses about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” but the word used for departure is exodon. Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and were talking to Jesus about his exodus.
The mountaintop experience gets Jesus ready for the exodus that lies ahead.
And it is really just so beautiful to imagine Jesus talking with these two prophets in particular. These teachers, ancestors, know what it’s like to be headed into an exodus. And even Jesus, the Chosen One of God, isn’t expected to do this terrifying thing yet without a little help from people who have been there before.
You remember Moses’s exodus. How the people of Israel were enslaved and oppressed in Egypt. How God tells Moses tells the people to spread the blood of a lamb over their doorposts and eat a meal quickly while the Lord passed over their houses to defeat their enslavers? How God led the people in a pillar of cloud and a pillar of flame while the Egyptian army pursued them with chariots and warriors all the way to the Reed Sea—And how Moses stretched out his arm over the sea to make a dry path for the people to safety?
Getting free, it turns out, is easy—staying free is harder. And Moses and the people have years of wilderness wandering ahead of them. Luckily, Moses has his own sparkly mountaintop experience: When Moses receives the covenant on Mount Sinai as a gift from God to help with the work of staying free.
They’ve already made their exodus from slavery, and meeting God on the mountaintop gets Moses and the people ready for the exodus freedom that lies ahead.
And do you remember Elijah’s exodus? Elijah was a prophet and miracle worker who demonstrated God’s power through bread and fire and water, who convened cosmic contests between the false gods, and the God who Elijah knows by name.
Once upon a time, when ministry was getting really tough, persecutors were close at hand and it felt like he couldn’t go on, Elijah went to the mountain—the same mountain where Moses had received the Ten Commandments—and waited for God to pass by. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” And in the silence, Elijah heard the voice of God.
Meeting God on the mountaintop gets Elijah ready to face the danger and adventure of his ministry. Elijah lives a colorful and storied life, which ends with Elijah’s “departure,” an astonishing exodus from earth into heaven.
The story goes like this: Elijah and his disciple Elisha are on the road from Gilgal to Bethel, and Elijah knows what’s going to happen, that he’s going to be taken up into heaven, so he tells Elisha to stay behind. But Elisha says, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Then some people from the nearby town say to Elisha, "Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?" And Elisha said, "Yes, I know; be quiet.”
Again, Elijah tells Elisha stay here, I’m going to Jericho. But Elisha says, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Again the townspeople say to Elisha, ”Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?" And Elisha answered, "Yes, I know; be quiet.”
Finally they rehearse their call and response a third time, and come to the Jordan River. Elijah takes up his mantle—like his cloak—and strikes the water, and it splits in two, and they cross on dry ground. Before Elijah ascends into heaven, he asks his disciple, “What can I do for you before I go?” end Elisha says, “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.”As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.
Elisha cries out and tears his cloths in grief. Then he picks up Elijah’s mantle, now carrying a double meaning—not only his literal cloak but also now his mission and responsibility—and goes back the way he had come, parting the Jordan and walking over by himself now, on dry land.
So in our story today, when Jesus goes up on the mountaintop to pray, knowing his mission and the journey to Jerusalem that lies ahead, Jesus is in good company. These ancestors know what it’s like to travel long distances. To be tired and hungry and feel like giving up. To cross through waters into an unknown future. They know what it’s like to have a mission so important it’s worth risking everything.
And when Jesus meets Moses and Elijah, their exoduses crash and overlap in time and space, and the exodus that was then, is now, and God is leading all God’s people to freedom crossing time and space and water and mountain.
That exodus of Moses that was then, is now—and God is still freeing people from slavery in all its old and new forms. Even as tanks roll in and air strikes rage, God is still leading the way to safety from the weapons of violence and war, and leading us to freedom through the waters.
That exodus of Elijah that was then, is now—and God is still speaking to us in still, small voices that nourish us for difficult journeys. Even when we face one challenge after another, loss on loss, when the future seems uncertain, God’s love still wins the day. God is still giving us companions for the road and passing the mantle of prophetic ministry on, from generation to generation.
That exodus of Jesus that was about to being then, is now—and God is still bringing freedom from death to life, through the one who came down from the mountain, healed a sick child, and then turned their face towards Jerusalem, toward the power of empire and domination, even knowing the cost.
When Jesus and the disciples get to Jerusalem they’ll share a meal called passover, where they’ll remember Moses and the exodus from Egypt, and eat and drink together on the night before Jesus’s exodus from death to life.
Elevation matters, because mountaintops like this get us ready for the journey ahead. We have seen the goodness and mercy of God this Epiphany season—the star leading all nations to the crib of the infant God; the promise of baptism revealing God’s mercy in the waters of the Jordan River; the miracle of abundance in water turned to wine at Cana; the word of Jesus to proclaim release to the captives; the promise that the poor are the ones who are blessed. Christ’s glory has been beaming in this season, and sometimes it is so good and God seems so close, that it positively radiates out from our pores.
And elevation matters, because there is also the walking down. The heaviness that is like chronic pain of how it feels to be not-yet-free. For those of us who live most of our days in the flat places, this season of Lent that is around the corner will feel familiar. The walk towards freedom. The honesty of pain and death.
It is hard work, Lent, and this mountaintop has been getting us ready. Because we come down the mountain different than when we went up all those weeks ago.
Now not only are our faces shining, but also we have picked up some things along the way: A memory. And a promise.
The memory is that God has always been with God’s people up and down the mountain, through the waters, into freedom and freedom and freedom.
And the promise is that the exodus that was then, is now. God is a God of freedom, and that freedom is coming. Even now it lies just ahead.