They Saw His Glory
| Exodus 34:29-35
|Sun, February 22, 2004
Rev. Ed Searcy
|The transfiguration of Jesus is a mysterious episode. It bursts into the story like lightning. And then, in a flash, it is over. In a few sketchy verses, Luke paints the story with vivid images. Yet so much is left unspoken. He takes us up the mountain and lets us glimpse the mystery. And leaves us to figure it out. Luke tells us that Jesus takes his trio of confidants - Peter, James and John - up a mountain to pray “about eight days after these sayings”. After these sayings. What sayings? Crucial sayings. Reading back a few verses we hear Jesus say for the first time that what lies in store for him is great suffering, rejection by the elders, murder and then, on the third day, a raising. As the disciples’ jaws drop Jesus continues: “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.” And these fishermen and tax-collectors thought they were already followers. They have already left everything behind. But this is strange and confusing and troubling news. Followers who follow him to death? About eight days after these troubling sayings Jesus takes the three up a mountain to pray. Whatever the transfiguration of Jesus is about, it is about figuring out what to make of such strange speech.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain to pray twice. First, on this day, eight days after the first mention of a cross on the horizon. And then, once more, on the night of his betrayal. Then Jesus climbs the Mount of Olives, opposite the walls of Jerusalem, to pray as he faces crucifixion. There, on that foreboding Thursday, his disciples cannot stay awake as Jesus sweats drops of blood in anguished prayer: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” And here, on this mount of transfiguration, Jesus prays while his disciples struggle with drowsiness. It foreshadows that final moment when the disciples drift away while Jesus remains constant. Or is this mysterious episode foreshadowing more than just that one drowsy night on the Mount of Olives? Isn’t this regularly the way it is with Jesus’ companions on the journey. Doesn’t his church - don’t we - find it nearly impossible to stay awake when he faces suffering and death? The disciples are glad to be by Jesus’ side when the crowds hail him. But those same disciples, this self-same church, quickly drowses off and is nowhere to be seen when Jesus faces trouble and is counted among the shamed and the illegitimate. Whatever the transfiguration of Jesus is about, it is about recognizing our figures in the groggy threesome whose sleepy eyes nearly miss the mystery.
When Jesus leads them up the Mount of Olives they are met by a mob who carry him off to his death. But when he leads them up this mount of transfiguration they are met by two men who appear in glory: Moses and Elijah. At our Wednesday morning wrestling with the text Margaret wondered how Peter, James and John know that it is Moses and Elijah? Do they have their names stitched onto the backs of their jerseys? But notice - they appear in glory. Glory isn’t just fame or praise. It is the actual, physical presence of God. Glory is something like radiation. It is a tangible sign that God is in the vicinity. Moses didn’t realize it when he clambered down the mountain with the ten commandments, but the glory of the LORD had rubbed off on him and his face shone so brightly that he had to wear a veil to keep from disturbing the neighbours. And Elijah - Elijah who was carried up into the heavens in a chariot of fire - Elijah, the unseen guest who has a seat reserved at every passover meal awaiting his return - Elijah lives with God, and is contaminated with God’s glory from head to toe. This is how they recognize that it is Moses and Elijah. Who else has come in such close contact with the LORD? No one. No one else has been in the presence of God but these two glorious prophets. Whatever the transfiguration of Jesus is about, it is about figuring out that Jesus is the glory of God in flesh.
That is why Luke is so keen to note that Jesus goes up the mountain with his trio of disciples to pray. He goes to pray because, as Luke regularly points out, Jesus draws close to the presence of the LORD in prayer. “While he was praying” Jesus’ appearance changes, his clothes radiate light. The glory of God infuses Jesus because he is in such close relationship with the Holy One. But what he is he praying about? Luke offers tantalizing clues. Moses and Elijah are deep in conversation with Jesus. They are “speaking of his departure” says the New Revised Standard Version. Other translations say that they are talking about his “passing” or his “exodus”. All these are euphemisms for deep wrestling among the glorious trio with the crucifixion that waits on the horizon of Jesus’ life. Perhaps it is on the mount of transfiguration that Jesus first prays the prayer he will later repeat on the Mount of Olives: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Whatever the transfiguration is about, it is about the cross that is at the crux of the gospel.
This awful ending troubles the disciples and offends the church. With them we hope that it will somehow disappear, leaving the way of Jesus a gentle path of green pastures and still waters with no shadowed valley of death to haunt us. But now, says Luke, “Peter and his companions” (notice that John and James have been reduced to bit parts) “saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” The vision begins with the arrival of the glorious figures of Moses and Elijah, perhaps sent in response to Jesus’ prayer that is a cry. Now those hero’s have been reduced to bit parts also - “the two men who stood with him”. Now Peter and the two who stand with him see Jesus in “his glory” alongside the other two on the mountain top. And just as it dawns on them that he is even more glorious than either Moses or Elijah a dark cloud of presence - the glory of the LORD - shrouds them and the voice that spoke at the Jordan river baptism speaks again: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” This is a massive multi-sensory experience. It is the worship service dreamed of by every liturgist and worship committee. And at its heart there is a simple three word sermon, delivered by the ultimate preacher - God - who points to Jesus and says: “Listen to him.” This is, of course, what we preachers are meant to say every Sunday. Too often it sounds like we are saying “Listen to me” or “Listen to this expert” or “Listen to that new idea”. But we are sent to you to point to Jesus and to say three words: “Listen to him”. It is an invitation. It is a call. It is a commandment. And when you accept the invitation, when you answer the call, when you keep the commandment with your lives and with your life together you preach that three word sermon back to the preacher and out into the world that watches and waits and hopes that the church actually believes Jesus and is determined to follow Jesus and really listens to Jesus. Whatever the transfiguration is about, it is about listening to Jesus.
But Peter wants to be useful. He imagines that this moment must be captured, held, kept. He offers to build three shelters, three chapels, three photo albums that will forever preserve this experience. Luke reports that Peter doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He is so flustered by the magnitude of the occasion that he puts both feet in his mouth. Even a child in kindergarten in the Torah school knows that the first definition of the holiness of God is the utter impossibility of capturing God in a place or in an image or in a technique. To call this space the Chapel of the Epiphany is not ever to claim that this is the place where the holiness of God resides. No, this is a place set apart for our worship of the One who, in Christ is revealed to be loose in the world in ways beyond our imagining. Whatever the transfiguration is about, it is about our utter inability to control or to hold or to domesticate God’s glory.
“When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.” Just like that, it is over. No Moses. No Elijah. No cloud. No voice. No difference to his appearance. No glory. Just Jesus. Alone. With the three of them. No lasting evidence that the cross looming on the horizon is the way of God. Just the memory of this mysterious interruption in the journey. “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” It is isn’t just that they’re afraid of what others might say or think. It isn’t just that they don’t really comprehend where this strange story is taking them. Peter and James and John keep silence and tell no one anything because they have not yet received the Holy Spirit. We’ve read the story. We know how it turns out. They still don’t know what lies ahead. Of the four who climb down that mountain only Jesus is, to quote Luke, “full of the Holy Spirit”. The others are still dis-spirited. They don’t speak or tell because they have no language to use that can describe what is happening. That does not come until another mysterious day - fifty days after Easter - when the Holy Spirit blows and burns giving amazing powers of speech to the disciples. Only then do they tell what they have seen and heard and felt on the path to - and through - the cross. Like the church we know well, the disciples climb down from the strange story of Jesus’ transfiguration, still waiting for the Holy Spirit, waiting for the days when speech comes naturally even in the face of threats, when courage bubbles up where before there was only fear, when listening to him has become a daring way of life in the midst of death. Whatever the transfiguration is about, it is about trusting that the path to - and through - the cross on the horizon is also the path to life and breath and speech in Christ who lives and reigns in glory. Amen.