At the Gateway of Lent (Exod. 34:29-35; 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2; Lk. 9:28-36)
Today is the Last Sunday in Epiphany. Epiphany, as we said when we began it, is the season of the church year when we follow the story of how Jesus was shown to be the Messiah and the Saviour of the World. The Last Sunday of Epiphany is traditionally called Transfiguration Sunday. Next week we begin the Lenten Season, when we trace the steps of Jesus to the cross. Light is a key symbol during Epiphany, and Jesus’ transfiguration uses that symbolism extensively, so it’s a fitting climax.
In my own mind, the scripture lessons for today present some obvious difficulties. Both the Old Testament and the Gospel passages contain written accounts of clearly supernatural events: the so-called transfigurations of Moses and Jesus. A transfiguration is simply “a change in form or aspect, especially so as to elevate or idealize” (The Dictionary on my desk.). In short, Moses’ and Jesus’ appearances were changed as a result of their being in God’s presence. This experience would help disciples know that when we are with Jesus we are touching the transcendent. Now, to make such a point, Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets) were in attendance at Jesus’ transfiguration, and we might conclude that Jesus’ presence is on a par with theirs. We might also conclude that his is of a higher order than Moses’. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 tells us that very thing: that Moses’ transfiguration was temporary, and, really, only pointed to this greater glory of Jesus. Many Christians have concluded and been taught that, perhaps, that Jesus trumps the Law and the Prophets, you know, the Old Testament isn’t quite as good as the New. I have spent most of my adult life to this point trying to undo such teaching, as you know, and I don’t want to chase that rabbit today or we’ll never get to lunch. We work on that issue in TEE quite a bit.
In fact, it’s a little problem beside another one. And that is “So what?” or even “Who cares?” What possible difference does it make in our lives outside of this place that Jesus was transfigured? Couldn’t we get along just as well without it? I don’t experience things like this in my life. You and I live in a world that is all too real. We live in a world of smart bombs and mass killings, terrorism, land mines, and biological weapons. We live in a world of fear and, because we are afraid (and because we can make money from it), we hate and marginalize others. Even if we don’t personally suffer very much violence, we know that it’s never far distant. Our world doesn’t seem to be very glorious, or very transfiguring. Even at the best of times, our lives are often made up of just plain plodding along, a kind of grinding drudgery, with no light at the end of the tunnel. There don’t seem to be any transfigurations here!
So, again, what does the Transfiguration of Jesus have to do with us today? As in many places in our faith, when a problem confronts us a discovery awaits us. Let’s approach this text by putting it in its wider context. In words a bit before this, Simon Peter had confessed Jesus to be “the Messiah of God.” He saw that in Jesus he was in touch with God. Jesus had responded to that great faith-insight by telling Peter that he was right – that’s just who he was. He himself had said it, if you remember, in that sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth that nearly got him tossed off a cliff. So, you’re right, said Jesus, when you’re in touch with me you are in touch with the transcendent, but to grasp that you must grasp that the Messiah must suffer and die. And, as if that weren’t enough, he also said that disciples were those who needed to take up their own kind of sacrificial ministries (he called them “crosses,” and Luke added, “take them up every day”) in order to follow him. Jesus continued that those who held back their lives from such would lose them, and those who gave their lives to serve God in Christ would save them. He asked what good it would it be to gain the whole world and, at the same time, they, somehow, lose themselves?
It seems as if Jesus was talking out of two sides of his mouth at once. What could it mean that to be in God’s presence, one had to engage in service and suffering and all the rest of it? Couldn’t one just enjoy the glory and the beauty of heavenly bliss and forget all that sweaty, difficult, hard, radical work that, in the end led to failure and death rather than success and fame?
And that’s where we come to the story of the Transfiguration. In it Peter, James and John had the skin of the ordinary, workaday, visible world peeled away to reveal a world that is not visible to any but the eye of faith, and, then, only occasionally. And in this visionary faith-place, Jesus stood chatting with Moses, the giver of God’s Torah, and with Elijah the archetypical prophet, as if they were old chums. And they were chatting up Jesus’ “departure…in Jerusalem,” says our pew Bible. The obvious reference is to his death, but the Greek word has also become an English word, it’s exodos, which recalls that whole story of liberation from slavery and death that formed God’s people long before.
All three of these figures, but especially Jesus, shone with divine radiance. Peter wanted to set up three little booths to commemorate this outstanding visual event. (Today, we’d probably charge admission and call it “transfiguration-land”). The text says, that he didn’t know what he was saying – it was unwise, or maybe even silly. Almost immediately after Peter had blurted out his foolishness, a cloud descended and the disciples could see nothing, they only heard “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him.” And, then, it was all over. Jesus stood alone. He looked as he’d always looked. The other Gospels say that Jesus commanded that Peter and his friends say nothing. Luke simply says they didn’t. It’s easier to experience the transcendent than to talk about it.
If we push forward in the Gospel, Jesus, Peter, James and John descended from the mountain into the valley the next day. Away from the mountaintop experience of the glory of the Lord for the few, down on the flatland, there they rediscovered that pain and sickness didn’t go away while they were touching the transcendent, but were acutely real. In short, nothing in the real world had been changed by their religious experience on the mountain. There were still suffering people, children, that only Jesus could tend. The lesson is that disciples must be patient to learn that the transcendent is seen in the world most clearly when it takes hold of our pain and our need, not when it simply lights up the sky with the miraculous, done inside a shrine. After Jesus restored that child to health, Luke notes that “All were astounded at the greatness of God.”
Then, pushing yet forward in the story, Jesus follows that lesson by saying again even more clearly that his mission – and the greatness of God too – is not exhausted by being glorified before the eyes of the few, or even performing difficult exorcisms. Jesus tells them that the divine power and glory is going to be most fully displayed as he is betrayed into human hands. What in the world could that mean? How could anyone’s “greatness” be determined by being put under someone else’s control, by being betrayed, or by being put to death (as Jesus had said earlier)? Luke tells us that they didn’t understand, but were afraid to ask the teacher about it. It’s no wonder. This is hard to grasp. We can probably sympathize with the disciples here. Wouldn’t glory be gotten more easily just by overpowering our enemies and telling everyone how wonderful we are?
Let’s push on even more. To illustrate that his disciples (his best students no less) were thinking just that, Luke next says that these same disciples fell to arguing about which one of them would be the greatest and be closest to Jesus in glory. After all they had been talking about power and greatness, and, as I said, everyone knows that’s about being the boss, isn’t it? It’s about winning the big game, isn’t it? And the story here (as well as the version in Mark’s Gospel) implies that the disciples were arguing about who would “take over” when Jesus was gone. Jesus could tell that they still did not understand the greatness of God. They were still thinking of greatness the way we often do, as a matter of status, as a matter of winning a Super Bowl ring. So Jesus used a visual aid. He put a child in the midst of the disciples. Now, in Jesus’ world, children had no status, but belonged to parents. In essence Jesus says, “Be like this; the least among you is the greatest.” Wow! Really? Is this how I get in touch with God. I thought glory was different than that?
The next story tells about a competitor of Jesus. There was a wonder worker working down the block – or should we say another wonder worker, because that is how Jesus would have been seen by many. The disciples took this as competition and a threat. Jesus said, “Lighten up, you don’t understand. Don’t make enemies where you don’t have to. Even when others are doing things that look like what you’re doing, don’t let that bother you.” Greatness isn’t about being a winner over others. How very backwards this seems to much of our culture.
Now, the next thing that Jesus did, according to Luke 9:51 is that, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up (or be glorified, go to where God is), he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” And the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem takes him and us all the way to the cross, where Jesus would show God’s greatness, by doing what he’d been talking about and giving his life on behalf of others. Most of Jesus’ teaching material, as Luke presents it, is on the road to the cross.
As Christians across the world stand at the gateway of the Lenten Season, it is important to know that the cross is about God’s glory. It clearly shows what we’ve seen Jesus talking about today in actions. Today, before Jesus sets his face to go to the cross, the very place where some people (maybe us) might think that anything but greatness and glory is shown, the so-called “real world” of appearance is peeled back, and we are privileged to see Jesus for who he is, as he is transfigured before our eyes, and brings us into the presence of God with the Law and the Prophets. In today’s broader story Jesus also transfigures our view of discipleship.
Before we attempt to follow the steps of Jesus to the cross this Lent, we need to be reminded just who Jesus is. Thus, the transfiguration, in which God underwrites this way of self-giving love, as the way to glory: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.” And follow him, too.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.