TRANSFIGURATIONC16 – 02.07.16
Certain areas of the United States – parts of the Appalachian Mountains, northern California and the Pacific Northwest – are very susceptible to fog which can appear very suddenly. You can leave for a quick morning hike up a mountain in clear skies, and as you go up, you suddenly become surrounded by a dense cloud. It is an eerie experience. The cloud is made up of moisture, so the air around you is damp. There is little visibility and any sound seems to be amplified all around you, yet you cannot visually identify the source. Even if you have never had that kind of mountaintop experience, you have probably driven through fog or a severe snowstorm. The effect is much the same. No wonder the disciples became terrified. They thought they had accompanied Jesus up the mountain for some quiet time to pray, but instead they witnessed his transformation, they saw the long dead prophets Moses and Elijah seemingly come to life and then ended up in the middle of a dense cloud with God’s voice speaking to them.
Today is the day we celebrate that event, the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Although we hear this story every year, we should not be surprised to learn that each gospel author tells the story just a little differently. Luke tells a version that is directed more towards the disciples, and therefore, to us. Just to put things into perspective, the “sayings” that are mentioned in the very beginning of the story refer to when Jesus spoke to his disciples about the end of his journey to Jerusalem and all that would happen to him there. He warned them of his death and also challenged them – “if any of you would be my followers, then you must take up your cross and follow me.”
Peter, James and John were probably pondering those words as they went with Jesus that day. This is another story in Luke’s gospel that begins as an opportunity to spend time with God in prayer and ends with a dramatic conclusion. Moses and Elijah, the most revered prophets in Judaism, appear in all the accounts of the Transfiguration. Only Luke tells us what Jesus was speaking with them about. We are told they appeared in glory – which means the saving presence of God – and they spoke with Jesus about his “departure, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The word for departure is “exodus,” and the exodus of Jesus will take place when he leaves this world, through his death and resurrection. We don’t know if the disciples could hear what Jesus, Moses and Elijah were saying, but they became very tired. No doubt they felt safe up on that mountain with Jesus, away from the crowds. Even though they probably wanted to doze off, Luke tells us that they stayed awake, and because they did, they witnessed the glory of Jesus, they saw Moses and Elijah and they heard the voice of God.
It is obvious that God intended for those three disciples to witness this amazing event of the transfiguration, and that God also had something important to say to them. The voice in the cloud speaks directly to them, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” God certainly has a way of getting our attention and leaving us transformed by our encounters with the divine. In our first lesson, Moses returned from his time on Mount Sinai not just with the Ten Commandments, but transformed, with his face glowing, a sign that he had encountered God directly. From that time on, Moses retained his authority with the people as God intended.
We have probably all had transforming moments in our lives. Sometimes they are dramatic but sometimes they take place very quietly. Over twenty years ago, when I was a chaplain at NUMC, I served the patients on the AIDS unit. Kenny was a gracious young man who was dying from the ravages of the disease. He had worked in the fashion industry in Paris for several years, and had some lively stories to tell about his experienced. Kenny also had a strong faith, and had sung in his church choir for many years. The lighting in his room was kept dim because bright light hurt his eyes. I would sit and read psalms to him, and then he would sing favorite hymns and spirituals. It was a transformative and bittersweet experience, enjoying his sweet tenor voice while knowing it would soon be silenced when he left us to be with God.
For Jesus, his dramatic transfiguration emphasized his divinity. Clearly God wanted those disciples to understand exactly who Jesus was. Just as the story of the Transfiguration is slightly different in Mark, Matthew and Luke, so the events that immediately follow are different. In Luke’s account, Jesus and the disciples descend the mountain and are met by a crowd of people, all clamoring for Jesus’ attention. It seems that the atmosphere in the crowds could get pretty intense. People had heard about Jesus’ power to heal, they liked to hear him teach and they were just plain fascinated with him. There often seems to be one person in the crowd who stands out from the rest, one who needs healing either for themselves or a loved one.
In this story Jesus is confronted by a father desperate for his son to be cured of the demon who possesses him. We know that there is no advocate as fierce as a parent for their child. Jesus is attentive to the man, but before he heals the boy he has a strange response. His humanity is clearly on display when he exclaims, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” That remark is not directed at the father, who is clearly demonstrating faith in Jesus’ ability to heal his son. Maybe he is frustrated with his disciples who failed to cure the boy because they did not have enough faith in the power of God to work through them. Or perhaps he is just expressing his impatience with people in general. It is difficult to come back down to real life after such a transforming experience has taken place. In any case, his outburst is brief. Jesus directs the man to bring his son to him and he orders the demon to come out of the child. The child’s life was transformed and the crowd was astounded at the power and grace of God.
By pairing these stories, Luke compares and contrasts the divine and human aspects that were present in Jesus. Peter, James and John would have little doubt about his divinity after what they witnessed on the mountain. It was important that they kept it to themselves until after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when it became part of the proof as to who Jesus really was. First they were lulled into a wonderful sense of security with Jesus, and then they were awed by the presence of God. But now they are back in the real world, surrounded by the crowds who they were often not pleased to deal with. They probably had some anxious moments about Jesus’ security as the crowds pressed in on him, and there was the drama that often accompanied exorcisms and miraculous healing.
Having had a powerful and mystical life-altering experience, they were being reminded of the reason God came to earth in the person of Jesus – to share the message of God’s compassion, mercy and justice with the world. We come to worship to experience God in a mystical and sacred way, but then we respond by going out into the world to proclaim that experience by our words and actions. This message that God conveys to us through the transfiguration of Jesus is meant to prepare us for our journey through Lent which begins on Wednesday. It is a time when we contemplate the mystery of the fulfillment of God made human in Jesus, yet we are also asked to put a renewed emphasis on the disciplines of prayer, fasting and giving to those in need. Just as the disciples were being prepared to accompany Jesus for the end of his earthly journey, so we are being prepared to begin the journey of Lent which leads to the ultimate glory of Christ as revealed through the cross and resurrection. Amen.