In the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures or the First Testament, as some people call it, Moses’s face shines brightly after he returns from talking to God; his “face came to radiate the awe-inspiring light”[i]; in short, some of God’s glory had rubbed off on Moses.
In our reading from Luke, Jesus is the one shining brightly. He went up on the mountain with the big three - Peter, John and James - and “while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” and, suddenly, it was no longer just Jesus with three of his disciples up on that mountain, but now Moses and Elijah were there with Jesus, talking about his departure; possibly looking ahead toward his death and resurrection. The disciples however almost missed it, seeing it only through their sleepy eyes, until all that is left is Jesus alone and the lingering words that came from a cloud “This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him!”.
The transfiguration surely is a strange story and I think many of us areunsure what to make of it. And we wonder – is it true? Did it happen? And why does it matter?
The transfiguration - defined in the dictionary as a change in form or appearance, a metamorphosis, or an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change; - is mentioned in all three of the synoptic gospels (The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels because they include many of the same stories, often in a similar sequence and wording. They stand in contrast to the Gospel of John which, in content and wording, is quite distinct.). All three accounts of the transfiguration are similar but not fully the same. Luke adds a few descriptive details. Some theologians and scholars believe that all or at least part of the transfiguration story is true as told, while others believe that it is more symbolic, asserting that rather than giving a true account of what happened, the transfiguration tells us about the nature of Jesus (about who Jesus is).[ii] Regardless of what we believe, however, the account of the transfiguration of Jesus is important enough to be told not once or twice but three times.
IN Luke’s Gospel, we reach the story of the transfiguration at about the halfway point in the Gospel of Luke. Before our reading, we have been learning about Jesus, hearing him teach and watching him perform miracles of healing. Now we are nearing the end of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee. After today, we will be entering Lent and, in our readings, we will follow Jesus as he “sets his face toward Jerusalem.”[iii] We will accompany him at his “departure”, as our Gospel reading called it, and we will walk with him to Good Friday and, finally, Easter. This makes today is a turning point. One writer described Transfiguration Sunday as “the critical pivot of the liturgical year. It transitions the church away from the wonder of Advent and bright hope of Epiphany into the somber, introspective journey through Lent.”
But before Lent, comes this mountaintop moment.
Luke tells us that Jesus and his three disciples went up to the mountain to pray. Luke is the only of the Gospel writers to add this tidbit of information, “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” In the scripture, “mountain generally represents the boundary and meeting place between earth and heaven.” [iv] It was on a mountain that God spoke to Moses; it was on a mountain, that the law was given to Moses, “The mountain of transfiguration is thus the holy mountain of divine-human encounter…”[v]And “The experience of transfiguration happens when these four create an intentional space for an encounter with the Divine” in what Celtics call a thin place;[vi] a place “ where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine”[vii].
Catching glimpses of the divine.
Have you ever done that, caught a glimpse of the divine?
What did you do afterward?
How did you feel?
How did you respond?
Peter’s response is to want to build a house – but just as soon as the words leave his mouth, it is all over and he is brought back to reality and down off that mountain and into the nitty and gritty of daily life. “Master, it is good for us to be here”, Peter said, and I wonder what he thought as he climbed back down from that mountain. All we know is that he didn’t tell anybody anything (although, it made it into the Gospel, so obviously…)
I have to be honest. The entire story puzzles me. What is the message in this for us? As a pastor and preacher, I like to find the message, any one message, because often there are more than one. I like to find the message and somehow put it into clear and easy to understand terms. I like to give examples, maybe find a story or two to underscore the point that the scripture makes. Sunday mornings, we all come here for something to take with us for the rest of the week – even me. And I like to give us marching orders, so to speak, for the week. This week though – what is the take away? What is the story? To not be asleep? To watch for the light? To not put Jesus into some box or house? To remain quiet? I am struck by the fact that the only marching order given are the words coming from the clouds. “This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him”. No “Go and do likewise”, no parable that tells us how we are to be or how we are not to be, just a bright light washing over us as we listen.
Many sermons about the transfiguration talk about mountaintop moments that strengthen us for the journey through the valley; but that assumes that mountaintop moments are what transforms us and strengthens us is our faith. Yet, in just about every other lesson we learn that God finds us in the valleys and deserts, in the nitty gritty of life – like in the story after the transfiguration. When Jesus and the disciples come off that mountain, they are met by a great crowd and a father begging Jesus to heal his son. “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not,” he shouts at Jesus. And Jesus tells him to bring his son and when he does, Jesus “rebukes the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father”. Jesus meets this man and his son and heals them, transforming their life. The man did not need a mountaintop to encounter God. In fact, the mountaintop moment came to him at the foot of the mountain in the healing of his son.
And so, all I am left with is to agree with William Willimon, who wrote: “We come to church to get our explanations, or our rules, or our principles for life. And that’s okay, as far as it goes. But sometimes Jesus takes it to another level. Sometimes he leads us beyond our answers and rules and certainties. It’s as if he takes our hand and leads us up into another realm. He shines before us, mysterious and wonderful, beyond our ability to explain or understand. And maybe that’s when worship, when church, when being a disciple of Jesus is as good as it gets. And we exclaim, as those first disciples exclaimed on the mountaintop, “Master, it’s good that we’re here.” [viii]
Master, it’s good that we’re here.
Lent is around the corner and lent is a time to be retrospective and to listen to what God is telling us, what Christ is telling us. It is a time to ask ourselves who we are and whose we are. It is a time to see Christ, to look at Christ, to draw close to Christ, to follow Christ more deeply. And so, “this mountaintop story is indeed a pinnacle moment and our descent from this story immerses us more deeply into the call to obedience and surrender,”[ix]
How and why and what? I can’t tell you that
All I know are the words that came out of that cloud:
“This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
[i] The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, p.182
[ii] New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, “Transfiguration”
[iii] Luke 9:51)
[iv] The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2019
[v] New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, “Transfiguration”
[vi] Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Volume 1
[viii] Willimon, William H.. Will Willimon’s Lectionary Sermon Resource, Year C Part 1 (p. 177). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
[ix] The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2019