Exodus 34:29-35 – Luke 9:28-36
The Rev. Helen Havlik – Transfiguration – March 3, 2019
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is at a turning point in his public ministry. He’s chosen disciples and drawn the attention of religious authorities. The crowds have grown and he has taught and healed many. The time has come for Jesus to head to Jerusalem to fulfill the purpose for which he had come, but before that he takes some disciples up a mountain to pray. Listen to these words from the book that we love: Luke, Ch. 9, beginning with vs. 28.
Jesus went apart to pray—he was always doing that, sometimes alone, some-times with his disciples. This time he went up on a mountain, taking Peter and James and John with him. Luke implies it was night and Jesus prayed while the disciples stayed awake—or did they? It’s unclear whether they were awake or slept and then woke up—the footnote in my Bible says it could be either. It probably wasn’t the first time they slept while Jesus prayed—and we know they fell asleep while he prayed in Gethsemane. It’s easy to imagine them lulled by the sound of his voice praying in the singsong way of the synagogue. Wind creaking the trees. Wild animals howling in the distance. Dim starlight becoming brighter as the hours lengthened and the velvet dark surrounded them.
How can we explain what happened then? A vision in the night—a dream—or something more? It’s not always how it looks. Was it really Moses and Elijah on the mountain? In the starlight, the disciples stirred, hearing voices, soft at first, in that time just before waking. “More than one voice, who’s he talking to?” James thought and then John and then Peter thought and suddenly their eyes opened to see who was talking, catching just the end of a phrase one of the speakers, not Jesus, spoke, “Yes, it is good that you go to Jerusalem.” Peter and James and John studied the light that no longer came from the stars but from the speakers themselves—such brilliance, they might have been chatting at the village well in full daylight: “Oh, yes, the family is fine,” or “It’s especially dry for this time of year.” And yet as they woke fully, the disciples knew the light was no ordinary light and the talk no ordinary talk and the speakers no ordinary speakers. Later, Peter would say to people, “If I had a denarius for every time I put my foot in my mouth.” Later Peter would say to people, “When he asked and I said he was the Messiah, I didn’t expect to meet Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. I did not expect to meet God.”
Listen. The wind blows. Voices, first one in prayer, then others join in and the ordinary becomes awesome. Listen. The night’s events didn’t end there. As they spoke to each other, still foggy with sleep, clouds rolled in thick as cotton batting. Too much: the mountain, the prophets, the clouds coming together. Their hearts pounding in the eerie cloud-light; hairs standing on the backs of their necks. Now what? Too frightened to move, feet like lead, knees locked in place. Now what? Is nothing how it looks—is it something more? God came to them on that mountain with a message, words so terrifying even Peter was silenced. “Listen to him” meant, as Jesus had told them eight days earlier, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” But it was something more than that: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it…. Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”
Much later, Peter and James and John knew, like Jesus, that the road to Jerusalem was the right one; the one God had appointed for him. “My Chosen One, my Beloved Son.” Jesus heard and knew exactly what that meant—as he had been telling his disciples, their Messiah as national hero was the real dream here. Jesus heard but the disciples could not hear—not while they were so afraid. Not while they were caught up in their own needs and expectations, their misunderstanding about Jesus and what he was going to do. Messiah, Peter had said, but the picture in his mind didn’t include suffering and death—only glory, the here-on-earth kind of glory he envisioned sitting on a ruler’s throne. God’s glory shone in Jesus’ face and Moses’ face and Elijah’s face and yet Peter couldn’t understand that the way of glory for Jesus lay only in humility and obedience, as it had for Moses and Elijah.
So what would you do if you came face to face with glory? The Israelites lost their minds—coming down from Mt. Sinai, Moses’ face was glowing like a nuclear reactor and they didn’t know what to think or do. To calm them down, he covered his face with a veil. God’s brilliance was too much for them, the demands of the covenant written out in the Ten Commandments too scary, because then they could see clearly how they fell so short of the glory that was God. Later Jesus’ disciples also faltered in the face of that awesome glory. Confused, afraid, self-promoting, they settled for so much less than Jesus offered. And when the chips were down, they ran away.
So what would you do in the face of glory? All those Lake Michigan sunsets? All the graduation applause? Standing on a winner’s platform? Hearing that baby cry that first cry? Maybe it’s more subtle, coming to you in smaller, daily ways—a child’s laughter, a prayer answered, something falling into place. All these things that aren’t what they seem to be, but something more. Were you awed? Silent? Did you chatter nervously? Did you take pictures to share with your friends on Facebook or Instagram? Did you wish someone special were there to share it with you—did you thank God someone special was there? Did you want it to last forever? Did it bring you to your knees? Did you finally, inevitably falter?
It’s time to turn with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Like little moons, we’re created to reflect the glory of the Lord. Remembering Jesus’ transfiguration reminds us we are the reflection, not the light. As Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday, we may find ourselves sleeping like those disciples—too afraid or too weary to reflect much light into the world. Has your faith dulled? Has your light dimmed? Even a mirror needs polishing now and then! A suggestion? Spending more time in prayer the next few weeks, simply asking how you can better reflect the glory of God. We’re sharing communion here again on Wednesday night—that would be a good start. Fasting from something—like television or complaining—anything that takes too much of your time and attention would help. Giving more—like volunteering your time or filling a fish box with coins—would make a difference. Praying more, laughing more, giving more—all these things help us reflect God’s light.
The road to Jerusalem was long and hard—don’t get hung up on the details and miss the point. It’s easy to forget the awesome glory that not only waited at the end of the journey but gave light to Jesus and his disciples every step of the way. What would you do if you came face to face with such glory? I hope you and I would bow in awe—and then follow the light wherever it leads.