This Sunday, much of the church will focus on the Transfiguration text in Matthew 17:1-9. The Transfiguration is a pivotal moment in our life together.
During Epiphany we’ve heard stories of Jesus’ healing, work, and teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. After Transfiguration Sunday comes the beginning of Lent, Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness, and Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.
As you prepare for Transfiguration Sunday and the journey of Lent, take some time to reflect. Go up on the mountain with Jesus, Peter, James, and John, and see if your vision isn’t transfigured when you come down.
This sermon centers on Luke’s account of the Transfiguration (manuscript below for the readers among you):
Greg is fond of saying that worship at All Saints’ is an interactive experience. So, how many of you when I say the word Transfiguration have a clear image in your mind? Can you imagine the scene in all its splendor? Jesus in all his divine glory having his face changed and beginning to glow? If you can’t, you’re not alone. If we’re going to be honest, and we’re in church so we should probably be honest, the transfiguration is a little underwhelming. The focus of most sermons and imagination around the Transfiguration text centers on part of one verse in our passage today: “While Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Any Instagram users out there? With a little help from one of Instagram’s filters, I can make my dog appear to glow. If you don’t have Instagram, then maybe you’ve seen a movie in the last forty years. With computer graphics and animation, movie magic can transform or transfigure anyone.
Before we dismiss Luke completely, we should take in the fullness of this scene. Jesus is transfigured, two guys named Moses and Elijah show up, and a voice speaks from a cloud. Any one of these parts of the scene would be enough to leave the disciples amazed, but Peter, James, and John see all three.
Last week we officially wrapped up our sermon series “What’s in a name?” where we looked closer at who this God is who met us in the manger. Today our question is: Who is this shining Jesus that we find talking with two dead guys? Or more simply: Who is Jesus? If you’re like me, when you hear someone ask a dumb question in church like “Who is Jesus”, you immediately rattle off the generic answers: Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus is the Messiah, maybe Jesus is Savior. Let’s hold off on those quick judgments and see what Luke is trying to tell us about Jesus’ identity.
Up to this point in Luke, people are not quite sure who Jesus is. Last week we heard about Jesus’ teaching at the synagogue, and some of the folks thought “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?” You can almost hear Luke whispering through the text: Yes…but. Even John the Baptist seems to have forgotten who Jesus is. Earlier in Luke, while John the Baptist and Jesus are still in the womb, Mary the mother of Jesus goes to visit Elizabeth, John’s mother. When they meet, John leaps in the womb and Elizabeth calls Mary the mother of my Lord. But just a few scenes before the Transfiguration, John the Baptist sends two messengers to Jesus to ask him: Are you the one who is to come (i.e. Messiah), or should we wait for someone else?” Even John, who was supposed to prepare the way of The Lord, has a hard time identifying Jesus.
Back to our text today. Suddenly, just after Jesus’ transfiguration, two men, Moses and Elijah appear and begin talking to Jesus about his departure that is about to take place at Jerusalem. Spoiler alert, these guys are kind of a big deal.
Elijah was one of those great prophets in Israel. He was a prophet to end all prophets, a prophet’s prophet. Elijah is the prophet who, instead of dying, was taken up to heaven on a chariot. Here’s a quick snip-it of Elijah’s life for those of us who aren’t scholars of the book of 1 Kings. Elijah went to a widow and her son for food. While he was with them, the widow’s son died. Elijah, good prophet that he was, wept and prayed to The Lord that the boy might live. Elijah stretched himself out on the boy three times, and the boy came back to life. Pretty big deal. A couple chapters earlier in Luke, Jesus is on his way into a town called Nain. When he gets to the city gate he sees a funeral procession, a widow’s only son had died and she wept. Jesus was so moved that he told the woman not to cry, touched the coffin and told the young man to rise, and he came back to life. The attentive reader might think, Is this Elijah?…and again you hear Luke whisper, “Yes…but.”
Then there is Moses. The stuttering, reluctant, deliverer who nonetheless confronted pharaoh and led the Israelites on an exodus from slavery in Egypt to worship The Lord at Mt. Sinai on their way to the promised land. Moses received the commandments from God on the mountain and after coming down from the mountain his face shone so bright that he had to wear a veil to protect the people. In Mary’s song, she says about God her savior, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Zechariah prophesied saying, “God has raised up a mighty savior (deliverer) for us.” Jesus went up on the mountain to pray earlier in Luke, and when he came down he taught the people saying things like, “Blessed are you who are poor…Love your enemies…Be merciful just as your Father is Merciful.” The scene looks a lot like Exodus. And today we find Jesus’ face changed and his clothes shining with a miraculous glow. Is this Moses?…Yes…but.
Just before the transfiguration scene we find Jesus alone with the disciples. He takes the opportunity to ask them: “Who do the people, the crowds, think I am? What do they say about me?” The disciples call back, “Some think you’re John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others one of the ancient prophets back from the dead.” Again, you can hear Luke whispering through, Yes…but. Jesus points the questions at the disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, never one to miss the moment responds, “You are the Messiah–the one who has come to redeem Israel–of God.” And Jesus tells them not to tell anyone. Jesus’ identity in Luke is not a simple question.
Why wouldn’t Jesus want the disciples to tell anyone he is the Messiah? Surely this is good news. There may be any number of reasons why Jesus kept the Messiah message hush-hush. Perhaps one reason is that there were as many misunderstandings about the identity of the Messiah as there were about the identity of Jesus. Modern Christianity has domesticated the Messiah-ness of Jesus so much that it is not much of a threat to anyone or anything. Jesus is Messiah, or deliverer, or savior, call him what you will. These names refer to what Jesus does in my life when I pray a prayer asking Jesus to come into my heart. After I pray that prayer I go to church, do some good works, and wait until I die so I can be with Jesus forever. This is a popular narrative in the church today. If that’s the Messiah you’re expecting, then there’s no reason to keep it a secret. Tell everyone, you can be a Christian and live forever and it doesn’t change anything else!
First century-Jewish Messianic expectations were a little different than our own. The Jews and descendants of Israel passed under the reign of one empire after another ever since their exile from the land. The Messiah they hoped for would ride into Jerusalem, throw off the oppressive Roman rule, and re-establish David’s throne. This Messiah’s glory would be on a throne. The angel Gabriel tells Mary, that Jesus will reign on the throne of his ancestor David and his kingdom will have no end. On the road to Emmaus, two disciples lament to Jesus about this very expectation (even though they don’t realize it’s him yet). They thought Jesus was the one who would set Israel free, but now Israel’s freedom seems as dead as Jesus.
Unfortunately for the disciples, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem would take a very different turn. Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about the exodus he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. The exodus was a powerful freeing event for the people of Israel. It marked a dramatic turning point in their life as a people and their life as the people of God. The exodus Jesus is about to accomplish will also be a turning point, but not just for Israel, for the whole world. Luke’s Gospel is full of reversals: the low will be raised up and the powerful rulers will be brought down; blessed to you who are poor, woe to you who are rich, blessed are you who are hungry, woe to you who are full. Jesus’ glory will be marked by a crown of thorns, not gold; he will be exalted on a cross, not a throne; and his death will be a victory, not a defeat. This victory will be good news for the poor, release for the captives, and sight for the blind.
Peter, groggy from sleep offers to build some tents for the visitors and Jesus. But he’s interrupted by a cloud that engulfs the three disciples. And now Peter is in for the biggest surprise of the day: A voice from comes from the cloud, “This is my son, Listen to him!” This sounds like Jesus’ baptism, when a voice spoke directly to Jesus, “You are my son.” But on the mountain the voice speaks to the disciples and to us. God doesn’t mince words here, this is a clear command. This is my Son, Listen to Him! And maybe because we are overwhelmed and reluctant to follow we say in our hearts, “Yes…but…who is your Son? Moses? Elijah?…if any doubts remained in the disciples (or our) minds they are cleared up when the cloud rolls out and Jesus is left alone with the disciples again.
And what is the disciples’ response to the overwhelming mountain experience? “They told no one what they had seen.” Silence. Maybe the proper response to an encounter with the living God is silence. Maybe the disciples were so shocked at the events of the day that words failed them. Or maybe they did not know what to say. Maybe silence is the obedient response. After all, the voice said to listen. But notice, Jesus is silent in this our reading today. What are we supposed to listen to? The last time Jesus spoke was eight days earlier. He told his disciples that he must suffer be rejected, killed and then raised on the third day. He goes on to call anyone who want to become his followers to take up their cross daily and follow him.
But maybe, we’re just not ready for all of this. Maybe we’re not ready for the Messiah to be the Son of God. We’re not ready to listen to the message of this Son of God who must accomplish an exodus, an exit, death. We’re more comfortable with grand entrances and life. Christmas and Easter are high points in our year, but we’d be just as happy without Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But following the Son of God means taking up crosses and a life that looks backwards to anyone not on this path. We might hope to find Jesus’ glorious Transfiguration, the revelation of Jesus as God’s Son in an arena full of paying customers. Instead, it happens on a remote mountain in the presence of three retired fishermen. There is no time for anymore buts. Jesus’ identity has been confirmed by the highest authority. Will we follow this Son of God to the next mountain he will ascend or will we like John’s messengers wait for another?
Part of the degree requirements for the M.Div. includes at least two field education placements or internships. When I came to Duke, and one of the reasons I came to Duke, was to pursue a ph.D after finishing my M.Div. So, I focused all my energy on that goal. I studied hard and tried to foster relationships with professors who would no doubt write a glowing recommendation about my scholarly promise. So you can imagine my disappointment when I received the email about my first field education placement: Efland UMC in Efland, NC. Now, at that point in my education I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be ordained, I was focused on becoming a professor, so really most of the churches I might have been placed at would have been met with indifference. But Efland sounded like the last place I would want to be. Efland is a rural church that averages around 80-100 people in worship, not statistics that energize a student at Duke. I expected to find a backward congregation that was stuck in its ways and unlikely to offer any help in my training.
You can look at that congregation and say yes they are small and rural, but, and this is a big but, they taught me about the kingdom of God and they’re probably the reason I can’t see a future in ministry that doesn’t include the local church. They welcomed me with open arms. I watched them give clothes away to people in the community. I watched their faith in God to meet every budgetary need on their shoestring budget. I watched them surround those who had lost loved ones with love, care, and food. The community rallied to have a huge meal prepared after every funeral service where the church just wrapped their arms around the families. An aside: I wish I could die in a community like Efland because I know my family would be embraced and taken care of. They even let me lead a spiritual formation group, and people showed up! Through conversation over Sunday lunches and community potlucks they helped me further discern my call. By the way, I so enjoyed Efland, that instead of ending my summer internship, I elected to stay the whole academic year too. On my last Sunday, all the men in the church wore bow ties, just like me, and I was blown away. Yes, Efland is a small church and the greater United Methodist Church won’t probably take notice, but it’s also a community where I found the kingdom of God.
And what about the world outside? People look and call it nature. And we say, Yes, but it’s also a beautiful creation sustained by God. A tree isn’t just a tree, but is a fellow creature that is part of God’s good purposes in the world. A delicious meal isn’t just calories to pacify grumbling stomachs, but it’s God’s love made delectable.
And then there’s you Saints. I’m in my third year of divinity school, all my internships are completed, I should just be coasting. But while we were looking for a church home we stumbled onto this congregation through Nick and Greg. And, when we visited I found out that a methodist church plant (a descriptor not high on my list of possible church homes) was a vibrant worshiping community living out the gospel in the middle of Brier Creek. And you’re so darned faithful that I couldn’t resist coming on as an intern and seeing what makes all this happen. Yes, I should be coasting, but…
Most people looking out at this congregation would describe it as a bunch of suburbanites no different from any other suburban community. By all accounts, on Sunday morning you all should be home drinking coffee, watching political talk shows while reading the New York Times on your ipad. But you show up for worship in a cafe-torium. And not only do you show up for worship. You get here early to drive the truck and put out signs on the roadside. You set up chairs, stuff bulletins in hymnals, rehearse the hymns and anthem, set up the nursery, plug in all the a/v equipment. And for a little while every Sunday morning, this cafe-torium turns into a magnificent space to worship the living God. You show up downtown to serve tacos to folks who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. You meet on Wednesday mornings to study Scripture together. You gather at a shopping center and sing carols of good news to people who might not otherwise hear any good news. Yes you’re suburbanites, and yes it’s a cafe-torium…but…
I encourage you to try to practice this kind of transfiguration vision in the weeks ahead. Because the God we worship is alive and active and the glory that broke through on that mountaintop will burst through every paradigm and way of seeing. Even when we think we know it all and have seen it all, God will break through and say yes, but…If you don’t believe me pay attention as we gather at the table around what looks like bread and juice, and if you listen closely you might just hear Jesus say: Yes, but…