Sermon - Transfiguration (3/3/2019)
Ex. 34:29-35, Ps. 99; 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2; Lk. 9:28-43a
For the last two weeks, we have been reading from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. If you remember, Jesus had gone up on to a mountain to pray and to discern those he would call to be the Twelve. And then he came down the mountain, God descending to be in the midst of the crowd seeking healing and the disciples seeking understanding.
Today we have another story about Jesus going up onto a mountain with his closest followers for a unique experience of the divine, and then Jesus coming down from the mountain once again to someone in need of healing, and disciples in need of understanding. A man comes to Jesus, and his child is troubled by an unclean spirit. “I begged your disciples to cast it out,” the man says, “but they could not.” “Oh, you faithless and perverse generation!” Jesus says. “How much longer do I have to put up with you?” Ouch. But then Jesus calls for the child, who is healed and restored to his father.
I never used to like this story about the boy the disciples of Jesus couldn’t heal. Because we have all had the experience of praying for something that didn’t happen. Praying for someone we love to be healed, praying for someone to be delivered. And maybe we heard someone say, or even we said to ourselves: Well, if you asked and you didn’t receive, it’s your fault – you just didn’t have enough faith! You can just hear the accusation in the father’s words to Jesus: I begged your disciples, but they failed. And the accusation in the words of Jesus: O ye of little faith! How long to I have to put up with you? I never liked this story.
Until someone pointed out to me that there is a consistent pattern in Luke’s gospel of stories where Jesus goes up the mountain with a chosen few, they experience the divine together, and then Jesus comes down the mountain to put that experience into practice in the real world. Just like the story of the call of the Twelve on the mountain followed by the story of the Sermon on the Plain, Luke means for us to read the two stories together. What happens at the top of the mountain is meant to teach us about what happens at the bottom of the mountain, and vice versa.
So. Let’s start at the beginning. “About eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John and went up on the mountain to pray.” Eight days after what sayings? Well, I’m glad you asked. Luke tells us that it was eight days before this story, when Jesus told his disciples for the first time that he will go to Jerusalem, but not to be crowned as king and overthrow the Romans. He will be rejected, crucified, and raised on the third day. And his disciples did not understand what Jesus meant.
Then Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James, and John, in order to pray. And as Jesus prays, they see his face and clothes suddenly change, and two men appear alongside him – Moses and Elijah. Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the first of the great prophets. The three of them talk together and they emanate a radiance that sets them apart from ordinary human beings. And what they are talking about is the “departure” that Jesus is about to “accomplish” in Jerusalem. Peter, James, and John have no idea what that means. It must have been like those conversations that we overheard as children, when the grownups were talking in the next room and you could pick out a word or two but you really didn’t understand what they were talking about.
But Luke writes this text for us because we know what Jesus and Moses and Elijah meant by the “departure” Jesus was about to “accomplish” in Jerusalem. Because we know the end of the story. They were talking about the same thing Jesus had spent the previous week trying to tell his disciples: about how Jesus will accomplish the renewal of all creation through rejection and crucifixion followed by God’s resurrection.
And then the voice from heaven comes to top it off: This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him. Listen to what he is telling you about how salvation works. Listen to Jesus when he tells us that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, that God would rather die than kill to accomplish God’s purposes. Listen to Jesus when he tells us to love our enemies, and if we listen long enough we will discover that we are the enemy Jesus loves. Listen to Jesus when he tells you that the power and glory of God are visible only when we stop trying to be God and follow Jesus in giving up power and glory and trusting in God alone.
But at the time, Peter, James, and John understand none of what is happening. We can hardly blame them – at that point in time they had had only a week to even begin to process these ideas. Christians have had two thousand years to accept the God revealed to us in the cross of Jesus, and most of the time we still get it wrong. We keep trying to follow the way of Moses, the way of the Law, the way of trying to do works worthy of earning God’s favor. We keep trying to follow the way of Elijah, calling down God’s wrath on those whom we suppose to be less holy than we are. Christians have done a remarkable job resisting God’s love revealed in the cross of Jesus.
But it is only by going to Jerusalem with Jesus that Peter and James and John came to understand how Jesus shows us what God is really like. Only by actually seeing Jesus as he approaches Jerusalem, only by listening to his word and sharing at his table, only by seeing him arrested, condemned, humiliated, crucified, only by seeing him raised from the dead, only by receiving his Spirit at Pentecost and beginning to try to live the gospel together and to share it with people very different from themselves, only then did they begin to figure out the meaning of what they had heard and seen on the mountain.
That’s why we read the story of the Transfiguration every year on the Sunday before Lent. In the season of Lent we reflect on why the cross is necessary and how it works. We come to see how God is revealed most fully in Jesus crucified, and how what Jesus does reveals the deepest truths about ourselves and our world.
And that’s why the story of the Transfiguration illuminates the story of the possessed boy that the disciples of Jesus could not cure. It’s not that the disciples of Jesus didn’t want to heal the child. It’s that the disciples of Jesus didn’t yet understand how the power of God works. The power of God in Jesus drives out the evil spirit that throws our world into convulsions, but not by commanding good works or pouring forth divine judgment. The power of God drives out evil spirits by bearing suffering and forgiving until the end. The disciples needed to walk to the cross with Jesus to really understand how God’s power and glory work.
In the first reading today, Moses saw God on Mount Sinai – and remember, he didn’t see God face to face, only God’s backside as God passes by. Moses was so changed by that experience that the people could see it in his face, and it was so disturbing to them that Moses had to veil his face from them. But Paul says in the second reading today that, whenever someone turns to Jesus, the veil is removed. The crucifixion removes the veil that was hiding how the power of God defeats the powers of this world.
Our world is looking for healing and peace but knows only confusion and convulsions, and Christians who are afraid to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and the cross are not in a position to help. May God remove the veil from our faces, may we see the truth of God’s glory. May God teach us the way of the cross that leads to life, show us the presence of Jesus in bread and wine and our neighbor. May God make us channels of peace by conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.