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7th February 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
5 February 2016


Exodus 34:29-35

Exodus 34 introduces the Decalogue or Ten Commandments which is the basis of the covenant that will allow the people to continue their journey and live in the land.  Moses meets with God face to face but the people receive God’s message through Moses.  The fact that Moses met with God was revealed in the glowing of his face and he was affirmed as a walking presence of God because the skin of his face shined after each meeting with God. [1]

This shining face, caused by the presence of God, is echoed in our reading from Luke as affirmation of the divine presence in Jesus.

Luke 9, 28-36

Theophanies or mystic experiences of the divine happen in Luke’s Gospel during prayer.  This was the case at Jesus’ baptism when the heavens opened while Jesus was praying.  The shining white experience is also mentioned in Acts at Saul/Paul’s meeting with the Risen Christ and ‘shining white garments’ are a feature of angels or heavenly messengers in Hebrew Scripture.

Luke has appropriated these metaphors and thereby reinforces Jesus’ connection with Hebrew religious tradition.[2]


Their Faces Were Shining is the title of Tim Wilson’s novel that a reviewer claims combines profound human insight with a thriller’s narrative drive.  

In the opening chapters the central character Hope receives an unexpected tearful call from her daughter. Kids had floated up through the roof in calculus class, their faces glowing with unearthly light.  ‘Mom, it’s the Rapture.’[3]

That is perhaps not the sort of dialogue we would have expected for a reporter on Seven Sharp and the previous TVNZ Correspondent in the US.  However having grown up as the son of a Presbyterian minister Wilson would certainly have a grip on biblical metaphors.  His time in the United States probably also put him in touch with those Christians who try to turn the great stories of our faith into science and history. 

The idea that the faces of those called out of this wicked and sinful world to a new and wonderful existence in heaven would glow and shine comes from passages like our Exodus passage.

We talked in the Wednesday Bible Study about this passage where Moses had met with God and been given the tablets of the law.  As we read though this section there appears to be some extensive chiselling on those tablets because they seem to contain considerably more than the Decalogue or Ten Commandments.  There also appears to be a number of editions and amendments, along with commentaries and interpretation. 

What we need to focus on however is the way we might describe someone like Moses who was excited by a new truth or determined to pursue a new quest.  

In Stories from Life by Orison Swett Marden an American author of inspirational and self-help books we find ‘Glowing with enthusiasm, the light of a high purpose illuminating his face, the sculptor, with steady hand and eye, begins to work out his ideal’ In Marrying Her Billionaire Boss Myrna MacKenzie writes ‘In that boardroom she had been passionate, electric, her face suffused with a glowing enthusiasm that had spilled over into her speech’  

Just two of a long list of people who conveyed someone’s elevated mood by the way their faces shined. 

Given our present day use of glowing faces as a metaphor for excitement and enthusiasm we should be able to understand the biblical writer explaining Moses’ commitment to a law that would bring unity and purpose to the freed slaves wandering in the wilderness. 

These were not just laws that Moses dreamed up, they were God’s laws.  They may well have been a collection of laws and wisdom sayings from past traditions but they were God’s laws and Moses was on a mission from God. 

Moses’ face showed his commitment, his enthusiasm and the fact that however these laws came into being, it was an epiphany moment for Moses, a theophany a meeting with God.

Both Mark and Luke pick up the shining face imagery along with other theophany and angelophany incidents from Hebrew scripture to make the point that the disciples find a God Moment in their realisation that Jesus has a unique connection with divinity.  In Mark’s Gospel this incident happens after Peter affirms Jesus as the messiah on the road to Caesarea Philippi.

But in Luke’s Gospel that logical deduction occurs while Jesus and his disciples are praying.  Luke then moves on to a section of teaching and this transfiguration episode happens eight days later.  This transfiguration is the moment when Peter’s intellectual understanding of Jesus becomes a spiritual understanding.

Bill Loader writes that this scene has many of the metaphoric images associated with a vision of the climax of history.  The bodies shine, faces and all, giving a preview of the transfigured spiritual bodies of the resurrected.[4]  This point is made by biblical allusion to Daniel.  ‘Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever’  (Daniel 12: 3) There is also allusion to 1st Corinthians chapter 15 and we must remember that Pauls letters were written before any of the gospels and Luke may well have had access to them.

The point is that Luke was using metaphor that would not only be recognised by his readers but they would also associate those references to other religious writing and so give authenticity to his religious writing.

Furthermore in verses 26 and 27 of this same chapter Jesus spoke of the coming of the Son of Man and the kingdom of God so we are being given a foretaste of that event.  In effect Luke is saying that what the hearts and minds of the visionaries have longed for is being realised in Jesus and will come to full completion in him.

The passage makes the point that heaven and earth meet in Jesus and future and present meet in him.  This is expressed in a creative way using recognisable metaphors that Luke’s readers would recognise.  Furthermore the two examples I quotes demonstrate similar shining symbolism is also used in contemporary literature.  It is symbolic language that builds pictures in our minds and captures our imagination and our understanding in a far better way than any dry text can hope to achieve. 

Luke not only presents us with the reactions of Peter, John and James but also indicates they were very tired.  This may be a preview of Peter’s response at Jesus’ arrest or perhaps it is a spiritual tiredness.  The tiredness may also be mentioned to remind us of the way dreams come as we struggle to wake up or slip into a restless sleep. 

Nevertheless the disciples become sufficiently awake to see the glory.  Or is that glory in the thin place between waking and sleeping, where Joseph Campbell perceives dreams as private myths.  

However whatever the reality of this transfiguration experience Peter did not know what to do or say so like any parish council he proposes a building project. 

But awe and silence is the appropriate response to a moment like this.  This is a moment when the same Jesus  Luke invites us to imagine, walking the dusty roads of first century Palestine, is recognised as the Christ.  That Jesus is also the Christ who lives out the meaning of all those shining threads which merge in the tapestry of the transfiguration.  

God in Christ is the one who sets the people free from their demons.  Christ who, by the Spirit which anointed him, fulfils his mission announced at Nazareth in his sermon to his home synagogue in verses sixteen to twenty of chapter four.  

Luke does not give the impression in this transfiguration episode that Jesus came to lift people to that higher level.  Rather Luke shows us that an elevated insight enables us to understand the God of the dust, the God with us in our earthly existence.  Where we are is where it happens and Luke is reminding us, as he constantly does through his story of Jesus, that making time and space for prayer and reflection is crucial if we are to know who Jesus is and where we are going with him.

Luke tells us that while they were praying Peter, John and James suddenly realised the religious significance of Jesus.  He fitted their tradition and offered hope for the future.  This was a religious experience, a mountaintop moment or the encounter in a thin place, somewhere that past, present and the world to come merges together in a moment of revelation.  It was an experience that the three disciples had but it was also an experience we can have.  Most significantly it was an experience that needed scriptural allusion, metaphor and symbolism to describe, just as our own spiritual experiences need mythical language and symbolism to describe.  In Marcus Borg language it was a Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, experience.    

This symbolism of Luke included the imagery of the cloud from Exodus.  Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after’. (Exodus 19:9)  Luke uses allusion from that text when he has the divine voice speak from a cloud and say ‘This is the Son: my Chosen; listen to him!’(Luke 9:35)  Luke re-uses the voice of God that comes out of a cloud that people hear and therefore they trust Jesus as they trusted Moses.

Furthermore that divine pronouncement echoes the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism: And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; With you I am well pleased.’ (Luke 3:22)   

The transfiguration is a celebration of who Jesus is and Luke typically frames this event in the context of prayer.  In so doing Luke invites his readers to a meeting with Christ in prayer. 

In this episode Luke not only relates the spiritual experience of three of Jesus’ disciples but also invites us to move beyond an intellectual understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  We are invited to experience the presence of the Risen Christ.  Certainly that can be a mountaintop experience.  But Luke is also stressing that we can draw closer to the God we image in Christ through prayer.  Luke is not talking about the please help me find a parking space or cure auntie Myrtle’s cold sort of prayer or even the more serious sort of intercessory prayer that seeks a better world. 

On this occasion Luke is talking about the ‘be still and know that I am God’ sort of prayer, the prayer where we open ourselves to the majesty, mystery, and grace of God.  This is prayer where we may or may not use words.  It is prayer that may also be meditation although purists might see it as too focused to be true meditation.  The imagery of such prayer creates our own personal thin place, the place where the perceived space between humanity and divinity is broken down.  It is the sort of prayer that can move a certain Anglican priest to reluctantly attend a meeting in Aldersgate Street.

Prayer that brings us to a place and an experience we can only describe with imagery and metaphor.  The Transfiguration calls us to a still moment that gives us a vision, a glimpse of a greater world than we have known. 

The Transfiguration calls us to prayer and reflection that lifts our imagination to an experience that, even if our face is not shining, our whole heart and mind is on fire, or at the very least ‘our heart is strangely warmed.’

[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp.127-129.

[2] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), pp. 132-134.

[3] Tim Wilson Their Faces Were Shining (Wellington: Victoria University Press 2010)


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