On the Second Sunday of Lent it is customary to read about the transfiguration of Jesus. This episode emphasizes by way of anticipation the glorious aspects of the risen Jesus while noting that what awaits Jesus in Jerusalem is suffering and death. I want to place today’s readings in the context of Luke’s concept of salvation history and his portrait of Jesus as the prophet of God.
The biblical story of salvation history begins with Abraham in Genesis 12. The first eleven chapters in Genesis tell about the sin of Adam and Eve, the murder of Abel, the flood as a punishment for humakind’s sins and the Tower of Babel. Then God begins anew by calling Abraham out of his homeland and promises him many descendants and the land of Canaan. The new beginning involved God’s choice of a special people and God’s entering into a covenantal relationship with them.
In today’s reading from Genesis 15 (the so-called “covenant of the pieces”) God makes a formal covenant (or agreement) with Abraham that is stated as pure promise. We Christians believe that through Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, all peoples can now become part of God’s people and share in God’s covenantal promises. We believe that those promises go beyond descendants and land to eternal life with God and the direct experience of God’s glory as our light and salvation (see Psalm 27)—something anticipated in the transfiguration of Jesus.
The distinctive way in which Luke tells the story of the transfiguration highlights his perception of Jesus’ identity as the prophet of God par excellence and adds to his picture of the time of Jesus as the center of salvation history. First, a prophet speaks for God and so must be close to God. At this decisive moment in Jesus’ public ministry, Luke notes that Jesus went up to a mountain to pray. Indeed, at most of the pivotal moments in Jesus’ career, Luke notes that he was at prayer. The source of Jesus’ prophetic ministry is the Holy Spirit, and his relationship with the Father is fostered through prayer.
Second, Jesus stands in the tradition of the prophets of old. That is why Moses (representing the law) and Elijah (representing the prophets) appear in the narrative. Moses was God’s spokesman, and God had promised to raise up another prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15, 18). Elijah had spoken on God’s behalf and did signs and wonders, as Jesus would also do. And in some Jewish circles Elijah was expected to return from heaven as a preliminary to the revelation of God’s Messiah.
Third, Jesus and the two prophets speak about Jesus’ immediate future. According to Luke, they were discussing “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” That clearly refers to Jesus’ suffering and death. But by using the word exodus, Luke alludes to Israel’s passage from slavery to freedom under Moses and suggests that Jesus’ passion and death will lead to his exaltation (resurrection and ascension) and to the possibility of freedom and right relationship with God for us all.
Fourth, it is the fate of prophets to be misunderstood and rejected. In this case, Jesus the prophet is misunderstood by his own disciple, Peter. As his suggestion to build three tents for the prophets reveals, Peter mistakenly identifies the present experience of Jesus’ glory in the transfiguration with the fullness of God’s kingdom. In doing so Peter wants to prolong the experience of glory and to bypass the suffering associated with the mystery of the cross. Finally, the heavenly voice identifies Jesus as “my chosen Son,” and says, “Listen to him.” The admonition to listen to Jesus as God’s prophet echoes the directive in the promise of the new prophet like Moses in Deuteronomy 18.
The identity of Jesus the prophet of God and the Holy Spirit are inextricably linked. Jesus the prophet is led by the Spirit. Indeed, during Jesus’ public ministry, the power of the Spirit is focused on Jesus. Where Jesus is, there is the Holy Spirit. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection the Holy Spirit has been made available to us all, and so we form a prophetic, Spirit-led community of faith. As the church of Jesus Christ, we are led by the Holy Spirit and so constitute the people of God.
We who live now, in the time of the Holy Spirit and the church, can hope to participate in the glory previewed in the transfiguration of Jesus. In writing to the Philippians, Paul reminds them and us that at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ “our lowly body” will be conformed with “his glorified body.” In the meantime we are to recognize that although “our citizenship is in heaven,” our task in the present is to “stand firm in the Lord.”