Lk 9.28-36 Transfiguration Sunday
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
“Who do the crowds say that I am”, Jesus asks in the passage Ruth read a moment ago. The disciples tell him what they have been hearing. Some are saying he is John the Baptist, who was only recently beheaded by Herod. Obviously, John was held in very high regard by the people.
Others are saying he is the Old Testament prophet Elijah. This, too, makes some sense. The very last words of the very last prophet of Israel, Malachi, promise the return of Elijah “before the great and terrible day of the Lord” when, as Malachi also promised, the enemies of Israel would be overthrown and justice would be given to God’s people. Elijah would come just before the Messiah and just before the Judgment Day that would set God’s people free.
“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Peter confesses what they all were thinking—or at least hoping—“You are the Messiah of God.
Surprisingly, Peter isn’t given a gold star for the right answer. Instead, Jesus seems to change the subject. He is about to be subjected to great suffering, he tells them, rejection by the religious leaders of his own people followed by his death—and then be raised on the third day.
The disciples are baffled, of course. None of this is what Messiahs do. And the “raised on the third day” part makes no sense at all.
It gets worse. Anyone who wants to follow him, Jesus says, better prepare for the same treatment. Then, right after he tells them they are about to die, he makes this cryptic promise—“There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God”.
It might be that what happens next—that strange and wonderful night on the mountaintop, fulfills this promise. Jesus climbs the mountain with Peter, James and John—only those three. Why the others are left behind, we aren’t told. Likely they were none too pleased.
They travel up the mountain to pray. And, in a pattern that will repeat itself later, Jesus prays, the disciples sleep—until the light comes on. While he was praying, “The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white”. Moses and Elijah appear and begin talking with Jesus.
This would have made some strange sense to the disciples. Centuries before Moses had promised that one day a prophet like him would appear, someone they would need to listen to. His presence signals that Jesus is that prophet.
And Elijah, as Malachi had said, comes to declare the Day of the Lord. They would take this to mean the Day of Judgment and freedom for God’s people is very, very near.
Peter, being Peter, tries to take control and bring some order to the mystery. “Let us make three tents”, he says to Jesus. “One for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah”. Peter wants to camp out for a while. He want to domesticate the situation, turn it into something familiar and manageable.
And then there is the cloud, and the voice—frightening in its strangeness, overwhelming in its force. “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!” The disciples are terrified.
Everything goes silent, and dark. They look up and see only Jesus.
What just happened, they wonder. Did anything happen? A vision? Their overworked imaginations? They don’t know.
They come down from the mountain in the morning and right away Jesus does battle with the devil. A boy who has long suffered from terrible seizures—possessed by a demon, his father says, is waiting for him. Jesus banishes the demon and restores the boy to his father.
And then, while everybody, including the disciples I imagine, are expressing great astonishment at his power, Jesus turns to his friends and says, “Let these words sink into your ears (meaning he could not be more serious). Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.”
So what’s going on here? If we take a step back, what we see is Luke crafting a story. Something happened on that mountain. Peter, James and John agree that it was indescribable. But Mark, Matthew and Luke do their best to describe it anyway.
On one side of the mountain Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus responds with, “Yes, but—the Messiah must suffer rejection and death”. On the other side of the mountain is the demonstration of the power of the Messiah—the devil himself can’t stand before Jesus. And Jesus says again to his disciples, “Yes, but—the Messiah must suffer rejection and death.
In between is this glorious, mysterious, and completely baffling night on the mountain. The voice of God booms out of the cloud, “This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him!” While in brilliant, blinding light Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus about his “exodus”—his departure; the same suffering, death and rejection he has been telling his disciples about.
So—what is the point? That’s the question we always seem to come to with these stories. What does it mean to me today. I’ll say two things about that.
First—in this case, at least, I’m not sure that’s the right question. The focus is really on Jesus and the story is about him. There isn’t much here about how you and I should live day to day. And that’s true for most of the Bible, isn’t it. The story isn’t about us. The story is about who God is and what God gives. Maybe we aren’t characters. Maybe we are just recipients.
And second—if there is a point here, I’m not at all sure I know what it is. I told a fellow pastor this week, when we were talking about the text for today, that I have never really liked this story. It has always mystified me. I have never been able to figure it out—and I like to figure things out.
Then I read a commentary on this passage where the author said the same thing, only he added—“and that is the point”. The mystery, all by itself, is what the story is about.
Think about it. Up until this point in the story Jesus is pretty much just a man—an extraordinary human being, to be sure, and an incisive, articulate teacher, but simply a man none the less.
Until the day he climbs the mountain with Peter, James and John. The mountain top erupts with blinding light that seems to be shining out of him. This is the light that, everyplace else in Scripture, signals the presence of God. Moses and Elijah, possibly the two greatest saints of the Hebrew Bible, drop by for a chat. And clearly, they have come to serve him, not to be served by him. Then the voice of God rings out, “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!”
What could anyone possibly say about all this? Well, maybe nothing. Maybe you shut up and watch the jaw dropping majesty and the mind numbing mystery because this one of those times when words just fail you. Luke says, about Peter, James and John, “They kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen”.
And don’t think the others didn’t ask. Once they got over their disappointment at being left behind, they would have wanted to know what happened, peppering Peter, James and John with questions. The best the three could have said is something like, “You wouldn’t understand. I can’t explain it. I don’t really know what happened”.
It’s telling, it seems to me, that the Gospel of John, presumably written by the same John who was there on the mountain, is the only one of the four gospels that does not tell this story. Even many decades after the fact, John could not find the words to describe what happened that night.
The closest he came is in his introduction where he wrote this: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”
There are experiences of God that cannot be rendered in words—or so I’m told, anyway. I’ve never seen anything like this.
But that’s why we have the story, you see. And for now, the story will have to do. For now, the mystery will have to be enough.
We’re going to need it, too.
Here we are once again at leading edge of another Lenten season. Forty days, from Ash Wednesday on, for us to open ourselves to the Divine mystery. Forty days to ponder and to wander and to wait. Forty days of a mostly downhill journey into the gathering darkness of Good Friday and the deafening silence of that Saturday after.
Forty days till we see the even more mysterious, more miraculous, brighter light of Easter morning.
If we are willing, there is work to do in these forty days. Things to remember; things to forgive; things to do better. Things that may feel like taking up a cross and following after Jesus.
That’s why we start out on the mountain top. We need that light. When it starts getting darker, this light will serve us well.
“This is my Son, my Chosen”, the voice from the cloud said. “Listen to him”.
Hold this light high. It will keep you company from here all to the way Resurrection. Amen.
Sermon - Brad Brookins
Here are the texts and questions to consider for this Sunday's adult Bible Study class and sermon.
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Luke 9. 27-38
27But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure (“exodus”), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Exodus 24. 12-18
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’ 13So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.’
15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.18Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Many Bible scholars conclude that Mark drew on the story from Exodus 24 for his account of the Transfiguration and that Matthew and Luke borrowed and enhanced Mark’s story. List the details that are common to both Exodus and the gospel accounts. How do the similarities between Exodus and the gospels help you understand the Transfiguration account?
What does the word “transfiguration” mean? (The Greek word here is “metamorphosis” as in caterpillar to butterfly). A metamorphosis is a permanent, one way change. What permanent changes do you think occurred in Jesus and/or Peter, James and John?
Power up your imagination for this one: Numbers in Bible stories are generally used for a reason. In Exodus the cloud covers the mountain for 6 days. On the 7th day God speaks to Moses, who is then on the mountain with God for 40 days. Mark and Matthew place their story 6 days (1 short of the 7th day) after Jesus predicts the coming of the kingdom. Luke places the story “about 8 days” (or 1 day after the 7th day) after his prediction. What can you learn from how these numbers are used? What do these numbers add to the telling of the story?
Why Moses and Elijah? Think about the kind of work each one of them did what they each represented in the vision. Considering what was about to happen in Jesus’ life, what encouragement could these two have offered him?
Mark says “Elijah with Moses”. Matthew and Luke say “Moses and Elijah. Can you think of a reason for the difference in order for the names?
Luke alone gives some hint at the topic of the conversation that occurs among Jesus, Moses and Elijah. They talk to him about his “departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”. The Greek word translated “departure” is “exodus”. This is not coincidental. Recall the original Exodus—Moses leading Israel out of Egypt. How is Jesus’ exodus like the one Moses led? Who is Jesus leading out? Out from where? Out to where?
Why does Peter want to “make three dwellings”?
The voice from the cloud says, “This is my son…” Where have you heard that before? What happened to Jesus after the last time? How is that like what is about to happen to him in Jerusalem?