Passage: Luke 9:28–9:43
03.03.2019 Transfiguration Lessons
Scripture: Luke 9:28-43
There’s a story in the Gospels that I heard growing up and never understood. And by never understood I don’t mean that I found it weird or didn’t get how it could be true or found challenging. Don’t get me wrong the rest of the Bible is full of stories that in some form or fashion have fit that category for me at one point or another. There’s a story about a talking donkey and another one about a fish that ate a person. And there are sentences that Paul writes that I swear go one for three paragraphs, one sentence three paragraphs. So there’s surprising and there’s confusing. But usually the Gospels are fairly straightforward. It’s why we like them so much, I think. A story about Jesus healing people, well we can get that. I might seem unbelievable and amazing, but we get it. His teachings may be hard for us to practice, like turn the other cheek, but we know what it means.
No, when I say there’s a story in the Gospel that I didn’t understand growing up I mean I literally didn’t understand it. I didn’t know what the words meant. I couldn’t picture it because I didn’t know what it was saying.
That is until I read Harry Potter.
We are going to look at this story and discuss this story this morning. And that story is the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mount.
I heard this story time and time again in Sunday school growing up in the church. I could have told you the basic plot. Jesus goes up on the mountain with his disciples. He’s transfigured. Some other things happen. And then they come down. If you had given me a quiz on the content of this story I would have gotten an A. I knew the facts of this story. I didn’t, thought, get its meaning. Because I didn’t know what the word transfigured meant.
That is until I read Harry Potter.
Because in Harry Potter, mild spoiler warning, one of the classes Harry takes at Hogwarts is transfiguration where he learns how to transform one thing into another thing. You turn a teacup into a toad. And in that moment I understood what transfiguration meant.
Which perhaps I should have been able to figure out. Transfiguration, you can break it down, trans means change and figure means figure and ation the thing we add to a word to indicate it’s the action of. So transfiguration is the action of having your figure changed.
But then all that did was create a whole host of other problems. But to explain those we have to look at the text.
About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
Let’s walk through some of the details of this text because it is a really rich story. Jesus takes three of his disciples with him up a mountain to pray. And while they are up there praying, the disciples become sleepy. This isn’t the only time that Jesus will bring his disciples with him to go to pray on a mountain. That’ll happen again on the night that Jesus is betrayed and arrested. He will be right up against his darkest hour and his friends won’t be able to keep awake, keep watch, keep vigil with him. Here in this moment of glory, Jesus’ friends can’t keep watch, can’t keep awake, can’t keep vigil with him. The disciples sleepiness is an interesting link between this story of glory and an upcoming story of suffering.
I also wonder if Luke isn’t preparing us in some way to read the passion story, to read the story about the arrest and crucifixion, the death, of Jesus properly. Because this story, the Transfiguration, is a story of power and glory. Jesus has his face transfigured, his clothes shine brightly, and God speaks. This is my son. Listen to him. It’s a moment when Jesus’ being is connected to the power and majesty of God. No one could read this story and say this is a sad story or a story of suffering. In linking this story with the passion story through the disciples sleepiness is Luke trying to tell us that when we get to the crucifixion story that story of suffering is somehow also a story of power and glory?
Switching gears for a minute another important feature in this story is the connection to the past. In this story of glory, in the moment of glory, Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus. There’s a common and fallacious notion that the God of the Old Testament is categorically different than the God of the New Testament. That Jesus makes God love us. In the Old Testament God is all about judgement and in the New Testament God is all about love. And it’s just not true. And I’m going to keep taking moments like these in sermons until its gone forever. Moses redeemed the people Israel and brought them into freedom just as Jesus does for us, redeeming us from slavery to sin and death and leading us into the freedom of God’s love. Elijah called the people to be faithful to God in the face of temptation to follow other gods. We too face that temptation. Our gods might not be the idols of Baal but they are the gods of security, wealth, and self-interest. Following Jesus means forsaking all the things we want to put ahead of God in our lives. Moses and Elijah being there with Jesus at the transfiguration links the story of Jesus to the larger story of the people Israel.
This is especially important in Luke’s Gospel because its written to a primarily Greek community. If there was any community who would have rejected the connection of Jesus to the history of Israel it’d be the people to whom Luke writes. But he leans into this connection saying Jesus stands in line with Moses, with Elijah, with the history and story of the people Israel and their God.
The last point I want to highlight is something we’ll develop a lot more in a minute. And it’s the fact that they had to come down from the mountain. The disciples want to stay up there. Let’s build houses here Jesus, let’s just chill up here in your glorious presence with the homies Moses and Elijah. But Jesus says they can’t stay there. They must go down. We’ll talk about mountaintop experiences in a moment but even before we get there we have to say that you never ever go up to the mountain to stay there. You always must come down.
But let’s circle back to that whole transfiguration thing. Because like I said for years I had no idea what that word meant. I couldn’t picture what happened. And then I learned what the word mean, this is a story about how Jesus has his figure change, but that was still confusing to me.
We are great at discerning moments when people change, when the level up. In sports we talk about players who made the leap, players who dramatically improved their performance from one year to the next. In tv we talk about a show improving, the show finding itself, the actors giving better performances. We talk about actors or actresses becoming movie stars. We do this in politics too, how many times have I heard this is the moment so and so became president.
So we might look at this story and think this is the moment Jesus became Christ. Or say Jesus made the leap here. We might say this is the moment where Jesus went from just a teacher, just a moral philosopher, to being the son of God. Where he got really clear on who he was and what his mission was.
But that’s not how we have understood what it means for Jesus to be fully God and fully human.
We might say that this is a story that reveal Jesus’ divinity. This is a story that shows us Jesus has a divine nature. A story where the God side of Jesus shows us. But that’s now how we have understood what it means for Jesus to be fully God and fully human.
In the fifth century leaders in the church gathered together to fight and argue about what it meant for Christ to be fully divine and fully human. And they arrived at the following statement that is taken as the bounds for our discussion of Jesus: Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.
There’s a lot in there but the key phrase about the divine and the human natures, “acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” All four words are key but indivisibly and inseparably mean that we don’t look at passages and say here’s Jesus divine nature and look at others and say here’s his human nature. At once and at all times Jesus is fully divine and fully human. At his transfiguration he is fully divine and fully human. Prior to his transfiguration he is fully divine and fully human. So we can’t say here’s where Jesus became divine because his divine nature is eternally present unchangeably.
So I was still confused. Because if Jesus doesn’t oscillate between divine and human, if it’s not Jesus who is changing, what is changing in this story?
A breakthrough occurred for me when I realized it was the disciples who changed. This is a story of change, but Jesus didn’t change, Jesus always was fully divine and fully human, the change occurred in the disciples who realized what was going on.
Oftentimes Christians will talk about having a mountaintop experience. In this congregation you can talk to folks who went on an Emmaus retreat or as youth went on a Chrysalis retreat and they’ll talk about their mountaintop experience. Or sometimes you hear people talk about going on a mission trip or a conference or another retreat as being a mountaintop experience. And what that means is, like the disciples, they had this transformative experience being closer to the presence of God than they’d ever been before. Some of these involve an actual mountain. Most probably don’t.
A lot of times people of faith will have some sort of transcendent experience of God, where God in Jesus Christ becomes real to them in a special way. I’d never known God like that before. I’d never known what God’s love was. I’d never felt God’s presence before. Something special happens and something changes.
But here’s the thing about mountaintop experiences, like the ones the disciples experience in this story or the ones that some of us have experienced throughout our lives, God doesn’t change. It’s not so much that God becomes different or Jesus becomes different its that we realize who God and Jesus have been all along. And when that happens it is we who are changed. We realize that God has been loving us, has been reaching out to us all our lives. We finally realize who Jesus is and what that means.
What happened on the mountain of transfiguration and what happens on our own spiritual mountains is a transformation, a transfiguration, within us. God and Jesus don’t change, we do.
I’ll also add a quick sidebar for those that haven’t had those experiences: Jesus took 3 of his 12 disciples up to the mountain. That means 75% of the disciples didn’t experience what happened on the mountain. And they followed him all the same. You don’t have to have a mountaintop experience to follow Jesus. But I do think these mountaintop experiences change us and are a part of how God transforms us.
Our Scripture continues with what happens when the disciples come off the mountain and I think perhaps illustrates how these experiences change and transform us.
Luke 9: 37-43
The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.” 41 “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the impure spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God.
This is not the first miracle story in Luke. And miracle stories are not uncommon in Luke’s gospel. Jesus does tons of miracles, does tons of healings in Luke’s gospel. Peter James and John have seen Jesus heal and have seen Jesus perform miracles before.
But I wonder if they saw this miracle in a new light. I wonder if they saw this differently. I wonder if they took this in and reacted as if they’d never seen Jesus do this before. I wonder if the reacted as if they never really knew what Jesus doing a miracle meant.
I wonder if they saw this ordinary miracle from Jesus, this non-descript casting out of a demon, as something so much bigger. I wonder if somehow they saw this act as a part of God’s remaking, recreating, redeeming the universe? I wonder if somehow they saw this act as a part of much more than just one family? I wonder if they saw Jesus working here in this child’s life and at the same time redeeming to cosmos? I wonder if their eyes were being continually opened in light of what happened on the mountain?
That’s what happens in our lives. Discipleship is what happens after and as we are changed by knowing who God is. Discipleship happens as we see random acts in our world as having meaning beyond our comprehensions. Discipleship happens as we see God moving and working in our lives and in our larger world. When we see how we are invited to take part in God’s healing of our world and God’s healing of the lives of the people around us.
But that begins in our being transfigured. The transfiguration on the mount continued as the disciples began to see what these miracles really meant. What the implications of these miracles were. The ultimate change that was coming into the world in Jesus. The disciples minds and understandings continued to change.
Our own discipleship comes in having our minds, our understandings, our thoughts, our attitudes, our hearts changed by the lordship of Jesus Christ. By coming to see what God is doing in Jesus. The disciples came down from the mountain but the transfiguration continued. Our discipleship is precisely found in our continual transfiguration.
We are about to enter into a season of Lent. It’s a season of penitence. It’s a season of preparation. But perhaps it’s mostly a season of discipleship. A season of coming to see how we can continue to be transformed by the Lordship of Jesus. This Lent, what could you take on to bring about your continual transformation? What could you give up to help you listen better to Jesus the Christ? And what could you learn or discover that would help you better see what God is doing in Jesus and what God is doing in our world? Let us pray.