Sunday, February 18, 2007
Beyond: A Sermon on Luke 9:28-36
February 18, 2007
We have a strange and intriguing story about Jesus in today’s lectionary, a story set side by side with another intriguing one about Moses. An account of what is called the transfiguration appears in three of the four gospels, and in many respects it baffles readers. What is happening, exactly, in this eerie mountaintop moment, complete with changed face and dazzling garments, sleepy disciples and special guest appearances by august Old Testament figures? Is this a story that reflects an actual event in Jesus’ life, preserved for us by those who witnessed it—Peter, John and James? Is this a resurrection story—and it sure has the feel of a resurrection story—that Luke for some reason has replanted in Jesus’ earthly ministry, like a garden of lilies in full bloom in the middle of February? Or is this a story told by the early church to reflect their eventual evolved understanding of who and what Jesus was?
This is a story that generates a lot of questions. It is also a story about someone who, himself, generated a lot of questions. These are some of the questions asked about Jesus up until this moment in the gospel…
The religious lawmakers and bookkeepers, upon hearing Jesus tell a man that his sins are forgiven, ask, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies?” (5:21)
John, cousin of Jesus, baptizer of penitents, threat to the powers that be, sends disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come?” (7:19)
Fellow guests in the home of Simon the Pharisee, after watching the sensuous and scandalous spectacle of Jesus being anointed by a woman who bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair, ask, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (7:49)
The disciples, windblown and with hearts still racing after their near-miss with the notoriously unpredictable waters of Lake Gennesaret, ask, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (8:25)
And just a few verses before our story, Herod Antipas, Rome’s puppet-ruler in Galilee, who has been hearing Jesus compared with ancient prophets as well as the now beheaded John, and who has much to lose depending upon the answer to his question, asks, “Who is this about whom I hear such things?”
Who is this? Speaking blasphemies, healing, restoring sight, releasing the imprisoned, who is this? Forgiving sins and exhibiting mastery over the elements of earth, air and water, even over life and death: who is this?
Jesus has been tooling around Galilee with his disciples for some time now, adding impressively to his resume. He began, as you know, with healings—a demon exorcised, a fever eased. He has taught and preached, and nearly got himself thrown off a cliff for the impudence of claiming the words of the prophet Isaiah were fulfilled in him, and that people had best not be depending on the small-town ancient near-eastern equivalent of country club membership to get them by any longer. He has healed everyone in need whose path crossed with his. One gets the feeling a kind of heady exhilaration has been building among the disciples, the kind of emotion that makes some sorts of individuals begin to plan redecorating the corner office (as soon as they get in there). Jesus caps all this with the kind of miracle that draws the press like flies to honey, the feeding of the multitudes with a few loaves and fish. It is just after this that Jesus apparently feels the need to stop and tell the disciples precisely what they are in for, and proceeds to say all manner of appalling things, things that include words like “suffering” and “rejection” and “cross” and “death.”
This is where our story picks up—eight days, the evangelist tells us, after “these [appalling] sayings.” Jesus takes three disciples and goes up a mountain to pray. Take some time to notice the kinds of things that happen in Luke’s gospel when Jesus prays. In fact, take time to notice that Jesus prays. Sometimes I think our theology gets in the way of what can be good and important instruction for us, living our lives, writing our papers and sermons and negotiating our living situations. Jesus works, he performs his ministry, he heals and he teaches. And then he takes time out to renew his connection with God. Jesus does this thing—he prays. Because he needs to. Because even Jesus cannot run on empty.
Something is happening while Jesus is praying. His appearance changes, his clothes become dazzlingly white. And it is almost as if a foretaste of the resurrection has come to visit this mundane moment, this moment when Jesus has gone off to recharge his battery. And then the disciples see Moses and Elijah—we might ask how they knew the men were Moses and Elijah. Well, much the same way you and I know someone is an officer in the military or a clergyperson or an auto mechanic. Tools of the trade, readily identifiable symbols. We might imagine Moses holding the tablets of the Covenant, for example. And Elijah, wearing his distinctive cloak. At any rate, the disciples knew who they were, and early readers or hearers of the gospel would have known why they were, would have seen beyond them to the obvious significance. Jesus has “demonstrated his mastery over the sea and fed the multitude in the wilderness” (like Moses, representing the “law”); and Jesus “has multiplied loaves, cleansed lepers and raised the dead” (like Elijah, representing the prophets). These two are chatting with Jesus, the fulfillment of what they have been all about. They are chatting about what in English is departure, and what in Greek is “exodus.” Jesus is talking again about one of those appalling things: his exodus.
There is a brief interlude in which Peter—the one who is always willing to speak without engaging his editing mechanism—offers to build three tents, or “Sukkoth” for Jesus and his companions, an offer, really, to freeze-frame the moment… Jesus with Moses and Elijah makes for so much more picturesque a memory than Jesus suffering, dying, on a cross. As soon as the offer is made a cloud intervenes. The cloud, which in the book of Exodus serves to both reveal and conceal the presence of God, here conceals Jesus and the scene Peter had hoped to freeze forever, or at least for a while. Fear seizes the disciples, just as a voice comes from the cloud, the voice of God saying who this is, what this is. And what is to be done about it. “This is my Son, my Chosen, my Beloved. Listen to him!” And poof. It is over. Everything is back to normal.
Except, I’m not sure there is a “normal” to which one can return after seeing the face of God shine through the face of someone you know intimately, someone who is standing right in front of you. The Israelites knew this. They saw the glow on Moses’ face and it terrified them because they knew very well the reality to which it pointed, the reality of God, so far beyond any of our experience or ability to process. And they knew instinctively they needed to be shielded from it. So much wiser, really, than the disciples, ready to light off for Home Depot so that they can begin their misguided building project.
Maybe I am being too hard on the disciples. I mean, why wouldn’t you want your peak experience, your moment of greatest spiritual transcendence, to go on and on… why wouldn’t you want to remain basking in the glow? I believe this is why so many really committed Christians hesitate to pray, avoid having real prayer lives… they are secretly afraid that they will never want to come down from the mountaintop of communion with God. But here’s the thing: God’s response when Peter makes his move is to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen one: listen to him!” The reality beyond the present moment, beyond the dazzling clothes and unlikely visitors, is God. The message from God is “Listen.” Listen.
I assume many of you have seen or perhaps even own a red-letter bible. The editor of a Christian magazine got the idea back in 1899 that it would be an interesting and potentially beneficial thing to have an edition of the bible in which all the words spoken by Jesus are printed in red. In our own day, there is a movement called “Red-letter Christianity,” which suggest that perhaps what Christians really ought to be all about is contained, right there, in all the words Jesus spoke. What would happen, I wonder, if we went back and red-lettered the words of Jesus from the gospel of Luke? God says, “listen.” OK, let’s listen, to some of the words spoken by Jesus in chapters 1-9 of Luke’s gospel.
“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (2:49)
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (4:18)
“Be silent, and come out of him!” (4:35)
“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God … for I was sent for this purpose.” (4:43)
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (5:4)
“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (5:10)
“I do choose. Be made clean.” (5:13)
“Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” (5:20)
“Follow me.” (5:27)
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (5:31)
“…new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.” (5:38)
“The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (6:5)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (6:20)
“…love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (6:35)
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” (6:37-38)
“Do not weep…Young man, I say to you, rise!” (7:13-14)
“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (7:50)
“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (8:21)
“Where is your faith?” (8:25)
“What is your name?” (8:30)
“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” (8:39)
“Who touched me?” (8:45)
“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” (8:48)
“Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.” (8:50)
“Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” (8:52)
“Child, get up!” (8:54)
“You give them something to eat.” (9:13)
“Who do the crowds say that I am?” (9:18)
“But who do you say that I am?” (9:20)