Lesson: Luke 9:28-43
If you try to understand this morning’s story in Luke gospel as though it were a carburetor or a Latin verb, you will most certainly be disappointed. Up until now this Jesus story in Luke hasn’t been all that hard to swallow. As a teacher, as a preacher, even as a healer, Jesus has inspired us. We may have been challenged by his Sermon on the Plain, all that stuff about loving your enemies and doing good to those who persecute you. But it’s fair to say we haven’t been mystified. Until today – we hit a brick wall of the supernatural.
This highly symbolic story, called the Transfiguration, is thick with meaning. It occurs in Matthew and Mark, as well as Luke, and all three versions connect the event with Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, followed by Jesus’ shocking response that to be the Messiah means taking up one’s cross. We’re to view all of what happens in light of Jesus’ decision to come back down the mountain and “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
But first, he goes up the mountain to pray, taking Peter, James and John with him. The mountain is a biblical signal that something important is about to happen; it’s the border zone between earth and heaven, telling us God is near. The disciples see their teacher transformed before their eyes. Moses and Elijah appear, connecting Jesus with the long history of God’s deliverance and God’s word to a sometimes unfaithful, but always beloved, people. In Matthew and Mark, we aren’t told the topic on conversation, but in Luke, we’re told they speak about Jesus’ “departure,” which in Greek is literally, “exodus.” This is not a random word. It points to the meaning of the cross waiting for Jesus; it is about release and freedom, as was the exodus from slavery in Egypt. Do you remember his first sermon in Nazareth, back in Chapter 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”? Freedom was the overarching theme. It’s easy to forget that the cross is not simply, or perhaps even primarily, about making forgiveness possible – Jesus has already been doing a lot of forgiving up to this point – much less about paying God off for our sin, which is a traditional and highly problematic way of talking about the cross. Rather, it is about freedom, release from captivity, the possibility of an open future. Jesus, Moses and Elijah talk about what Jesus will “accomplish.” He will fulfill God’s desire that God’s people live in freedom.
Why are the disciples falling asleep? We don’t know. But all that “glory” wakes them up and Peter gets busy – maybe it’s a way to control things, as people often do when they’re confronted with the unexplainable. But he’s interrupted by a voice. It is God’s voice, and though the words are familiar – we heard similar words at Jesus’ baptism – this time, they’re spoken to the disciples. Then God adds a further instruction. “Listen to him.”
Listen to what? Jesus doesn’t say anything at this point, so that makes me think God means that the disciples are to listen to all Jesus says, and, particularly, to the message he proclaims through his accomplishment at Jerusalem. Which is what? That God desires freedom and life for God’s people. That God is with us and for us through all things. That God loves us and all of God’s children more than we can imagine. That God will do absolutely anything – including dying on the cross – to communicate this love and accomplish our freedom.
Jesus’ appearance is transfigured, but it isn’t Jesus, alone, who’s changed. The disciples understand who Jesus is in a whole new way, and it changes everything. It is, as the saying goes, a mountaintop experience. Encounters with the real Jesus are always transforming – and in fact that is our job, as Christians. One pastor writes, “The person who knows Jesus becomes a different person. A person who has not changed has not met Jesus. It is that simple.”
That transformation has to do with possibility and freedom. As I said last week, the Good News of the Gospel is that we are not stuck with the way things are. We are not stuck with who we are, or with war, unsustainable economies, ecological destruction, extreme poverty, drug addiction, racism, mass incarceration, or any of the other ways we are enslaved or enslave others – any of the ways that keep you and me and every other person on this planet from living a healthy, fulfilling, abundant life. We are not stuck. We can be transformed, God can transfigure us, and as transformed people we can be about the work that Jesus left us of cooperating with God as God transforms the world.
“Okay,” I can hear you thinking, “I’ll take a little of that transformation. Or maybe a lot.” My friends, while a few of us encounter Jesus in a “Ready or not, here I come,” kind of way – in a dramatic conversion or an epic moment, most of us do not. I’m reading Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoirs. She reports that when she was a child, many adults asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she’d answer, “A pediatrician,” mostly because of the approving nods she’d get from the grownups. But now, she thinks “it’s one of the most useless questions you can ask a child. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ as if growing up was finite, as if at some point you become something, and that’s the end.” As the title of the book suggests, making oneself a fully human being is a process with no finish line. We are all, always, becoming.
I heard a story on NPR on my way to church this morning about a woman had been part of a very conservative Christian church. She went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, went to Bible study, and then when her son was in 8th grade, he came out as gay. That transformed her, and over time she left her conservative church and became a Methodist, because it was more welcoming to people like her son – although her son left church all together. Last week our friends in the Methodist Church voted to affirm that, as a denomination, they will not to allow marriage between people of the same gender, and they will not ordain as clergy LGBTQ people. Please hold the Methodists in your prayers. The woman telling this story on NPR this morning was devastated. Her pastor called a gathering Monday night, the night of the vote, and handed out boxes of Kleenex. Everyone assumed it would be a time of grieving. But it wasn’t. It was, the woman said, a celebration. A celebration of the support they found there, of the journey ahead, and of hope – hope for more transformation. Here in the Presbyterian Church, we faced these same questions of inclusion for decades before we finally voted to allow same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination 5 years ago. We know that feeling of wondering if people can ever change, and of finding both joyful and tearful solidarity in community. The mother said the most amazing part was that her son, who had scorned church for years, came to the Monday night gathering with his mother. And when it was over, he said, “I want to be a part of this.”
Transformation. We are becoming. In worship, in prayer, in study, in spiritual practices, in service, in grief and loss and in celebration, in everyday encounters. Which is why the next scene in this week’s passage is so important. It seems to be a totally unconnected episode when Jesus leads the disciples down from the mountain to a crowd, a frantic father, and a desperately sick boy convulsing in the dirt. But as one writer observes, “There is something in that rhythm of the very heart of Christianity: the mysterious holiness of the mountain and the blunt reality of human life and human need and human suffering. …” It is “a metaphor, a picture of what the church is for: to bring us into the awesome presence of God, to remind us that we live our lives in the presence of God, to point to the sacred, the holy, the Godly in everyday life. And to lead us, in the name of God, into the crowd, the city, the valley of human need where little children are sick and frantic parents cry out for help. Both – And.”
Transfiguration Sunday always arrives on the Sunday before we begin Lent, the season of preparation for Easter, the season when we show up, ready to be transformed. This Ash Wednesday, we will gather here in worship, and set our own ash-smeared faces toward Jerusalem, keeping in mind that the goal is freedom, possibility, the good news that there is another way. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”  We are changed from glory into glory, as one of our hymns puts it, moving from less freedom to more freedom, less hope to more hope, less love to more love, to more possibility and to more joy for all of creation. Ash Wednesday’s ashes are not intended to make us feel guilt or shame but to remind us of the ways that death leads to life – or if you prefer, the ways that loss leads to renewal. But the end is life.
I love Peter in this story because in many ways, we are all like Peter. We speak with great insight one minute and we make complete fools of ourselves the next. We don’t know how little we know, and we have no idea how many of our ideas are wrong. Like Peter, we may use the right words to describe Jesus – Christ, Messiah, son of the living God. But we still don’t fully understand his heart, his wisdom, his way. But that’s okay. Peter was still learning, and so are we. After all, life with Jesus is one big adventure, an adventure we take together, the journey of being changed from glory into glory.
I’m going to close with parts of a prayer by Ted Loder from his book, Guerillas of Grace:
Please join me in prayer.
O God, let something essential happen to us,
something more than interesting or entertaining, or thoughtful.
O God, let something essential happen to us,
something awesome, something real.
Speak to our condition, Lord, and change us somewhere inside where it matters,
a change that will burn and tremble and heal and explode us into tears or laughter
or love that throbs or screams or keeps a terrible, cleansing silence
and dares the dangerous deeds.
Let something happen in us which is our real selves, God.
Let something essential and joyful happen in us now,
something like the blooming of hope and faith, like a grateful heart,
like a surge of awareness of how precious each moment is,
that now, not next time, now is the occasion to take off our shoes,
to see every bush afire, to leap and whirl with neighbor,
to gulp the air as sweet as wine until we’ve drunk enough to dare to speak the tender word: “Thank you”; “I love you”; “You’re beautiful”; “Let’s live forever beginning now”;
and “I’m a fool for Christ’s sake.”
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.
 David Lose, “Transfiguration C: Listen to Him,” March 1, 2019, http://www.davidlose.net/2019/03/transfiguration-c-listen-to-him/.
 Lose, ibid.
 Howard E. Butt, Jr., “Confessions of a Skeptic,” in The Library of Distinctive Sermons, Vol. 8 (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishing, 1998), 187.
 John Buchanan, “Speechless,” February 18, 2007, http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2007/021807.html?print=true.
 Verse 4 of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” #366 in Glory to God, the Presbyterian Hymnal. Text by Charles Wesley, 1747; music by Rowland Hugh Pritchard, 1831.
 Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 119.
 Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle (Minneapolis, MN: Augsberg Press, 1981), 92-93. The pronouns are first person singular in the original.