The texts for Transfiguration Sunday can be either 2 Kings 2:1–12 (Elijah) or Exodus 34:29–35 (Moses). We will utilize both this week.
The center of our first text and an image from our second text lines up perfectly with the theological center of scripture: Jesus Christ ascent to the cross, His glorious resurrection from the dead, and His ascent into Heaven. It is helpful to see how our first text is organized.
“(2 Kings 2:1-12) is part of a larger passage that is chiastically structured (verses 1-25):
A. Elijah and Elisha Leave Gilgal (2:1–2)
B. Elijah and Elisha at Bethel (2:3–4)
C. Elijah and Elisha at Jericho (2:5–6)
D. Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan (2:7–8)
E. The Ascent of Elijah (2:9–12)
D1. Elisha Recrosses the Jordan (2:13–18)
C1. Elisha at Jericho (2:19–22)
B1. Elisha at Bethel (2:23–24)
A1. Elisha Returns to Samaria (2:25)
It is clear from this chiastic pattern in 2 Kings that the ascent of Elijah in a whirlwind into Heaven is the heart of the entire passage. These events in the reading for today’s liturgy all prepare for and move toward an extraordinary event.”
The extraordinary event is Jesus’ descent from Mount Tabor and then His ascent of Calvary for us. Jesus climbs Calvary and dies only to be subsequently resurrected just as He prophetically said He would. Afterwards, He is gloriously ascended into Heaven bodily, just as Elijah had been. Subsequently, His Church then goes in the Spirit and strength of the third person of the Trinity to continue His mission. Seasonally, the text forms a bridge to the ascent of Jesus to Mount Tabor and ultimately to Calvary so we can receive the Gospel of God which saves us.
In terms of a helpful sermon structure to get toward the Gospel in a typological way for this text, I suggest a “Dynamic Structure” which is “Imagistic” and primarily uses the design of “The Central Image.”
“This sermon structure uses a single image throughout the sermon and fosters devotional contemplation of an image. In the opening of the sermon, the preacher describes the image for the hearers (which in our case would be the image of the Mountain; Carmel/Sinai for Elijah, Sinai/Nebo for Moses, and Tabor/Calvary for Jesus). The preacher then uses that image as a source for continuing devotional contemplation throughout the sermon. The image serves as a lens through which one views the textual exposition, the theological confession, the evangelical proclamation, and the hearer interpretation of the sermon. Having a single image lends coherence to the sermon.”
This means, in the sermon you would start in Exodus 24, just ten chapters earlier than our reading in Exodus 34, to establish the image of Mount Sinai. Here, God’s people have access to Him with the blood and God is gracious and invites Moses and the elders to commune with Him on the Mountain. God, in His mercy, does not strike them down for being in His presence. In Exodus 34, we then see Moses shining with the brightness of God after communing with Him, ready to go down into the valley where they need to continue to trust in God when everything is not all shiny.
Here, God’s people have access to Him with the blood and God is gracious and invites Moses and the elders to commune with Him on the Mountain.
Homiletically, this bridge between these two spots in the narrative provides us an opportunity to talk about communing with God or even Holy Communion. The development of the image from the text is helpful here for the theological confession of the sermon. The sermon then progresses as you go to Mount Nebo in the Pisgah Valley (Deuteronomy 34:1-12), which is developed with a story from George Periman (see below). Follow that image as it brings us to Mount Tabor from our assigned Gospel lesson in Mark 9:2-9.
The way you develop that moment, again, is anchored in the narrative of George Periman. The illustration of my visit with George brings us finally to Mount Calvary and the conclusion of the sermon. So, as you return to the image of the Mountain periodically throughout the sermon, you could possibly approach the image of a mountain in one of two ways: Through a single focus or a multiple focus. I am suggesting a multiple focus, so that:
“Each time the preacher returns to the image, he focuses upon a different aspect/place and time in the Bible of that image. The preacher may begin by looking at the whole image and then focus upon one detail and then another. Or he may look at smaller details and, in the conclusion of the sermon, consider the image as a whole. If the image is displayed, the preacher may crop the image so that only a small detail is revealed, helping the hearers focus upon that particular aspect at that point in the sermon. In terms of the progression of the sermon, the image itself serves as a map of the ideas of the sermon, each portion meditated upon at different points in the sermon.”
In this case, we will be using Mount Sinai (for both Elijah and Moses) as the central image. To set the frame, we use the liturgical context and the story of George Periman to walk the hearers through the text, slowing down the progression of the biblical story and alongside George’s story to meditate upon Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and even ourselves and their experience of the event which all took place on a mountain.
As an aside, stories are the best way to take people through thoughtful experiences of images. I also always like to leave you a story, so you have something to use or connect the concepts for the sermon. Here is the account of George Periman:
His name is George Periman and with his permission I would like to share with you, his story. George is a north Idaho, jack-of-all-trades, all American tough guy. There was no job he would not be willing to tackle, and he loved hard work. However, in the wintery years of his life, his body betrayed him with something the doctors could only describe as “Parkinson’s like” symptoms. What that means is he was “all there” in his mind, but his body had a habit of betraying him. You see, he would stall out. He would either have the hardest time getting started or he would be going along and, if he were interrupted or distracted, he would stall out and have the hardest time starting up again. The only thing these doctors could think of doing for his situation was to give him a walker (the idea of which made him furious) that would project a thin red laser line on the ground every time he hit the brakes. So, when he would stall out, he was instructed to hit the brakes, simply focus on the thin red line, and keep telling himself to just step over the line. It kind of worked... and it kind of drove him crazy. After a while, he just did not want to go out anymore.
Since this included church, I would bring church to George and his wife in their assisted living facility. I remember this one particular time I was visiting them, and the Transfiguration was my text for the Sunday sermon. Being an active preacher, I would often share my sermon devotionally with those who could not make it to church. When I came to visit George with this text, I realized I did not have any good news to share with him. For sure it was a solid sermon theologically because it had the requisite amount of Law and Gospel and the correct teaching that the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) testify to Jesus. But for that reason, it did not really speak into George’s life. Cut to the quick, realizing I would be guilty of “singing songs to a heavy heart,” I prayed that God would help me to find a way to share this with George.
After Confession and before Communion, George shared that he had a struggle he just could not shake. One day he got so frustrated with his body not doing what God had made it to do, that he actually swore right in front of his grandson! The sincere shame he felt prevented me from trying to minimize his guilt. He knew he wanted to be a better role model for his grandson. He felt like he failed. To this, I shared with him that there was someone in the Gospel lesson from the Transfiguration to whom he could really relate. To his surprise, he asked who? “Moses,” I said.
To this, I shared with him that there was someone in the Gospel lesson from the Transfiguration to whom he could really relate. To his surprise, he asked who? “Moses,” I said.
Moses was a man who knew what it was like to get frustrated with his situation. He felt like he could not get Israel going through the desert. All he wanted to do was get to the Promised Land, but they kept stalling out. Moses even called down a curse one time at the waters of Meribah (Exodus 17) when the people complained about the water and Moses struck the rock and said, “I’ll give you water,” and for that failure to properly revere God as holy, Moses at the end of his life did not get to cross-over into the Promised Land. Moses felt like a failure at the end of his life. So, as he stood there at the top of Mount Nebo in the Pisgah Valley, he looked out and saw the Promised Land. All Moses wanted to do was to cross that thin blue line called the Jordan. But this was not to be. He died there believing that failure is how his final days of ministry would be remembered. Then I told George: “But you know, Moses made it to the promised land!” He looked at me with confusion as to what I could mean. I asked him to remember who was present with Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration. We both talked about how Moses was there. The phrase I wanted him to focus on was: “Yeah, Moses was there... because Jesus got him there.”
We talked about Elijah as well. At the end of Elijah’s ministry, he actually believed he had failed as well (1 Kings 19:4). Elijah left the Promised Land (2 Kings 2:8) and, like a wounded soldier on the field of battle, he gets a CASEVAC out of there. Elijah only wanted to see God in His glory (1 Kings 18). So, he fled Carmel into the depressing valley which was the lowest point of his life (1 Kings 19). Sustained in the meal (communion connection) left by an angel, he made it all the way to Sinai expecting to find God in the glory that Moses found there. Instead, God sent him into the valley again to find his replacement. After he found Elisha, he could not get out of the Promised Land fast enough. Fleeing on spiders’ legs and skittering across the Jordan, he left the Promised Land behind and re-entered the desert that Israel was forced to wander in with Moses for their failures. It is a pretty grim end to the story of Elijah. I assured George, though, that even Elijah made it back to the Promised Land. By this time, he had caught on and said it with me: “Yeah, because Jesus got him there.”
I told George that Moses and Elijah made it to the Promised Land, not because of what Jesus did on Mount Tabor though, but because of another mountain Jesus went up on later. The reason anybody makes it to the “big, promised land” in Heaven is because of what Jesus did in shedding his blood on the mountain called Calvary and because of what He did on the third day in rising from the grave. Because of Him, God invites us to hear and believe the best news, which I got to share with George. I told him that even though I was uncertain as to whether or not George was going to keep having this frustrating illness, and even if George died with this illness, he too would make it to the Promised Land. And with conviction in his eyes, he said, “Yeah, because Jesus will get me there.”
To be honest, I cannot think of the Mount of Transfiguration the same ever again. There is hope for people who have highs and lows in life with the Lord. Anyone who has struggled or suffered or experienced failure has good news in Jesus Christ. Those who know Jesus by grace through faith will make it to the Promised Land because Jesus will get us there.
This is fair Gospel to preach to those who are leaving Epiphany on a mountaintop in Tabor and are about to travel to Mount Calvary through the penitential valley of Lent. Before we set out for that Lenten journey, though, we meet with God on many mountains with Elijah and Moses, and through the same number of valleys with them as well. The sacred journeys between mountains and valleys are a holy gathering where our vision is transformed, looking forward to Jesus, and knowing He will lead us all on the way from death, to life, to a new life now, and a life in the Promised Land of Heaven forever.
Craft of Preaching-Check out 1517’s resources on 2 Kings 2:1-12.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching 2 Kings 2:1-12.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 2 Kings 2:1-12.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!
 Bergant, Dianne. Exegetical Perspective on 2 Kings 2:1–12, in “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B,” edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, volume 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 435.
 CASEVAC is a military term for casualty evacuation from a combat zone, usually done by helicopter.