Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-36
March 6, 2011
The Transfiguration. That’s the story we’re looking at today. And this is an important story. It’s what I call a “four Gospel story.” With all the things the Gospel writers had to record about the life of Jesus, if there’s a story that all four of them tell, we’d better take special notice! And one of the most important things about this event, is that it is a confirmation for the disciples of who Jesus was. And it came at a time when those disciples desperately needed just such a confirmation.
Now, I know it’s easy to think about this only from our perspective. We might ask, “Why would they need a confirmation? They were with Jesus!” “If anything, we need a confirmation.” Isn’t that true? Sometimes we have our doubts about Jesus, don’t we? Sometimes we wonder if he really could be who he claimed to be. These guys knew him personally. They were there! They heard what he said. They saw what he did! But don’t forget, this was all new to them. We’ve heard about it all our lives. We’ve had the experience of believers and the words and thoughts of Christian leaders – for the last 2,000 years. It’s hard for us to imagine their point of view. They didn’t know who this man was for sure. They heard him say who he was. They saw him do things that confirmed that, but they also heard him do and say things that made them wonder.
I believe this chapter, chapter 9, is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. I want you to see that there’s a progression here. Jesus is “ramping up” the power of his miracles. He’s making challenges about the people’s belief in him. And it all culminates in this event, the Transfiguration – this “theophany” – this God-like appearance of Jesus. I want you to see this progression. Maybe you want to take out your pew bibles and follow along.
The first thing is actually at the end of chapter 8. He’s in a boat on the lake, and there’s a storm. And it’s so bad, that even the fishermen, who were experienced boaters, say they are about to die. And Jesus calms the sea! And don’t miss verse 25. “They were afraid! They say, ‘Who is this, that even the wind and water obey him?’” “Who is this guy?”
Ok, then there follows two miraculous accounts, one of the man being delivered of a “legion” of demons, and the second which was a “double miracle.” He was on his way to heal the daughter of Jairus, one of the rulers of the synagogue. (You see, he did hang out with the religious leaders!!) And along the way this woman touched him and was healed of a twelve year bleeding problem. Then, when the healing turned out to be a resurrection miracle, I’m sure the disciples were really asking “who is this guy?”
So now, chapter 9. At the beginning, Jesus called together the 12, and “sent them out.” That was a very interesting little interlude! Not all the other gospels tell us about that. And I think it was a precursor to their eventual life after his death, resurrection, and ascension! Later he would send out 70 others, and in each case, they were amazed at what God did through them!
The next thing that happened was that Jesus took his disciples and “withdrew.” And of course, he only could have “withdrawn” if there had been a lot of other people around, right? So it follows that those people must have also heard what the 12 had done. So this was an important moment in his ministry, and the ministry of his disciples!
Well, he didn’t do a very good job of withdrawing, because the crowds followed him – by the thousands! And there he was in a secluded place, with no facilities for a huge crowd. That was the set-up for another big event – another “four Gospel story!” Jesus feeds the 5,000. And Luke sees that as one of the most important things he did. It was a huge miracle! And again, the disciples (and the others!) had to be thinking “Who is this guy?!”
Well, Jesus is about to ask that question himself. Because the next thing that happens is this conversation at Caesarea Philippi – which is also a four Gospel story! (Do you see how important this is yet?) Jesus asks them who the people were saying he is. And look at their answer! People were saying he was the return of Elijah. And remember, that Elijah was not only the greatest of the prophets, he was also the precursor of the Messiah! That was a huge statement right there!! But then he asks them “who do you say that I am.” And that’s when Peter says, “You are the Christ.” In other words, not his precursor, but the very Christ – the Messiah himself! That’s a huge moment in the Gospel story!
But do they understand? Do they know for sure what that means? I think you know the answer to that. And no matter what they were thinking, it was about to be instantly more confusing for them, because Jesus immediately began to tell them that, as Christ, he must suffer many things. As I’m sure you know, that’s not what they were expecting their Messiah to do! “Oh and by the way,” he said, “you’re gonna suffer, too!” “You must deny yourself, take up the cross, (and remember this was pre-crucifixion when he said that!) and follow me.”
The more I read that, the more confusing I’m sure it was to them. It had to have added to the doubts and the uncertainty they were feeling. So they needed this confirmation! But it didn’t happen right away. Luke tells us that Jesus waited – a week. He waited for them to think about it and to struggle with the confusion and doubts in their minds. He waited for them to think about their expectations of the messiah, and how he had changed them. He waited for them to struggle for a week with their question of “who is this guy?” Then he took them to the mountaintop. And there he gave them this extremely important vision we have today.
Jesus knew that they needed to know that they were on the right track! They needed to know who this guy was!! They needed to know he was who he said he was, and that the whole bit about his suffering was right. Because in this vision, not only does he appear with Moses and Elijah – the two greatest men in their history, but what are they talking about? Luke is the one who puts this into perspective with the rest of it. He’s the only one who tells us what Jesus is discussing with Moses and Elijah. They’re talking about his suffering and his “departure in Jerusalem.”
This chapter is about them understanding that truth – a truth that didn’t make sense to them. Luke even has Jesus using this wonderful expression. “Let these words sink into your ears!” “Get this through your heads!” “The son of man must be delivered into the hands of men.” “The Messiah must suffer!” That made no sense to them! It was incongruous! But he stated it plainly. Yet still, they didn’t understand it. It was concealed from them, maybe somewhat intentionally. But “they were afraid to ask him about it!”
Do you see the difficulty of all this? Does this change your image of Jesus? This story of the Transfiguration is a good story for us, too! Because, are there not times when we aren’t sure? Are there not times when Jesus doesn’t fit the image we have for him. And if we’re honest with ourselves, are there not times when we don’t want him to be different from our image! Like our image of God, we want it all neat, understandable, and non-threatening.
This vision of Jesus being “changed” changes us! It forces us to ask the same question the disciples asked, “Who is this guy?” And as unexpected as this event probably was to them, the answer we get may also be unexpected. In fact, it’s probably a good bet that we should expect the unexpected!
So think about this Transfiguration. Let this story challenge you to challenge your understanding. Don’t be so set in your thinking that you leave no room for God to guide your thinking. It was suggested to me recently, and I think it’s true, that the lure of fundamentalism, is the freedom from any struggle of faith. “This is the way it is, and that’s it!” “There’s no other way!!” But it’s never as simple as that! And I wonder if the disciples knew that on that mountaintop!
And what about us? I believe God wants us to know him as he knows us. But that’s not easy. He wants us to struggle with our understanding, and to be open to the way he challenges us and even astonishes us, if only we’ll be open to him and willing to see. And oh the wonders we’ll see if only we will let this “sink into our ears!”
Eternal God, we come to meet you in this sacrament. You already know us better than we can ever know ourselves. Help us to know you better. Help us to be open to your amazing spirit “nudging” us from within. Help us to listen, to wait upon you, and to learn your ways. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.