Today is Transfiguration Sunday—as with many annual feast days, the passages associated with the transfiguration are well known to many of us. But before we go into the story itself, I want to offer a few contextual notes. Our story begins eight days “after these sayings”. Luke is referring here to one of Jesus’ many discourse on discipleship, a discourse that includes such gems as:
- “The Son of Man must undergo great sufferings” and
- “If any want to become my followers they must deny themselves” and
- “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
One more thing: that this encounter takes place on a mountain is hugely meaningful. Mountains are the place where earth touches heaven. Moses went up on the mountain to see God and he came down face aglow. When he went up again he received the commandments. Mountains are a place where one goes to meet God, an encounter that will always end in transfiguration of one type or another.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!‘ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.‘ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
Two scenes come to mind when I think of the transfiguration—and remember, these have no correspondence to reality, this is pure word association. The first? The Shining. There’s something that terrifies me about Jesus up on that mountain (Luke gets it, too). Jack Nicholson’s character is slowly transformed by the haunted hotel where he finds himself living. His metamorphosis gives that most climactic and iconic scene of American cinema: Jack chopping through a locked door, his wife shrieking in horror, and then, in the small frame of hollowed wood: Here’s Johnny! Up on the mountain one world meets another, and the first image I have is of a manic, dressed-in-white teacher: Here’s Jesus!
Ditto Oprah, though with considerably less terror. I imagine the glory and radiance of Oprah’s set, the anticipation that all there have of the incredible thing that’s probably about to happen. Up on the mountain it’s Oprah’s week of favorites. And then Oprah comes out and it’s all look under your seats! You get a Moses! And an Elijah! And everyone gets a Jesus! Jesus for You! And You!
So I oscillate between an ingrained sense of terror at meeting Jesus in glory and a sense of warm-and-fuzzy-Oprah-glory, glory whitewashed of discomfort, struggle or, well, reality (not that such an Oprah actually exists, after all, she’s spent much time in the trenches—in her own life and the lives of others).
But the picture Luke paints is rather more dull, at least initially. One imagines the disciples, “weighed down with sleep” dragged up the mountain by their ears. They’ve just heard about sufferings that the Son of Man must undergo and the cross that disciples will bear and the glory that some might see. And their heads hurt. And they’re ready for a good sleep. But Jesus has taken these three up some mountain. Once there, as if further inviting Peter and James and John to sleep, Jesus simply begins to pray. Reading about the poor disciples I was reminded of Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Pip is a good, simple soul, a hardworking orphan who dreams of becoming a gentleman. One day a lawyer appears in his life and announces that he has been sponsored by a generous benefactor, that Pip will be educated and monied, but that such privileges come with “great expectations”. Thrilled, dumbfounded, Pip steps outside and “found that I had slumberously got to the turnpike without having taken any account of the road.”
I like that: “I had slumberously got to the turnpike without having taken any account of the road.” The disciples have got up this mountain without having any sense of the going. And now Jesus is praying, and…weighed down with sleep. But this is an essential moment, a turning point in the gospels. And before they can slip into unconsciousness, they see Jesus’ glory—his clothes are dazzling. And his face looks somehow different. And, if that’s not enough: it’s Moses! and Elijah!
Peter and James and John are good and awake by now. They’re awake enough to hear the strange chatter passed between Moses and Elijah. Something about an Exodus, but not that one those many years ago. This one has yet to be accomplished, but it’s on the verge. And Jesus, who will remain silent throughout the scene, is the man for the job. Jesus, it seems, has some great expectations of his own. Expectations for him, expectations for his disciples. It sounds rather ominous for being rather glorious.
And Peter, poor, sleepy, Peter, he doesn’t want to think about great expectations. Peter wants to stay. It’s a good party! Why not keep on for the next few days? Peter will set up the tents—he doesn’t even need one—and the honored guests can sleep there with Jesus.
Have pity for poor Peter! Look at this scene—it’s an incredible one. Who wouldn’t want to stay, to contain this moment in time and space, to hold the great figures of one of the great world religions in tents forever and ever and ever? Or at least until tomorrow?
Peter, he was looking. He couldn’t think past his eyes and he closed up his ears. Because that “Exodus” that Moses and Elijah spoke of, that liberation, it was lot more than a token reminder of things past. As with Moses, Exodus will mean suffering. Exodus will mean death. And it’s hard to hear the reaper when you’re staring at a glorious gaping hole in heaven.
In the midst of all this glory the reminder of the Exodus-to-be-Accomplished calls our attention to Jesus’ very real future sufferings. This is the man who will be tortured, betrayed, flogged, beaten and suffocated. This man of such beauty, of impossible light-beyond-light, he will bleed. And weep.
But Exodus isn’t all about the wilderness, that’s a means. Liberation is the end, Canaan’s future land will burst open from an empty tomb, and the mantle of sin Jesus took on in his baptism will suffer its death blow.
And from this moment of glory, Peter and James and John are given a glimpse of glory further still. With Elijah, Moses and Jesus they are taken up into the cloud where a voice from heaven announces the incredible news: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Peter was looking. He couldn’t think past his eyes and he closed up his ears. But he was meant to listen. What Jesus heard in the Jordan is now confirmed before these witnesses—in this man we have to do with none other than the Son of God. At the baptism he was proclaimed beloved, and now he is proclaimed as the one chosen. Chosen. For this. For the road. For the suffering and the rejection. For all that he said and for all that Moses and Elijah feared.
He was chosen to live as one of us and now must die like one of us, not in glory, but in anonymity. In disgrace.
Transfiguration over. Roll the credits, pull the curtains.
The four descend the mountain and the first thing they hear is the tortured cry of a a father “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
They could not. Now at the beginning of chapter 9, before Jesus said all those sayings, he commissioned his disciples. Jesus gave them “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.” — They could not. “Don’t you wish we’d built those tents now, Jesus?”
I remember very clearly learning to tie my shoes. It was a sunny summer day, not oppressively hot, but steamy nonetheless. My mother was tanning in the yard (she claimed to be doing yard work). I asked her to teach me and she bent down patiently and showed me the pattern. I could not figure it out. So, shoes untied, I asked to be excused to the restroom. Inside, I found my father, from whom I promptly requested help in tying my shoes. I ran outside to my mother. Good news! While in the bathroom I figured it out!
The disciples, as long as they have Jesus, don’t need to worry about their shoes. Their inability to preform miracles bespeaks not faithlessness, but rather despair: how could Jesus leave us? Their inability to preform miracles was their own tabernacle: their own attempt to hang on to a world where Jesus doesn’t have to suffer and die, to a world where Jesus lives in perpetuity teaching and preaching and healing. A world where they can hold him and grasp him and keep him.
And Jesus is angry. Despite his patient instruction, despite the mantle of power he has passed on to them, the disciples are unprepared for the dirty work of the kingdom. The covet the glory of presence. “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I carry this alone?” It’s anger, to be sure. Exasperation. But Jesus will act. Full of compassion, he calls for the boy. He rebukes the spirit that ails him and returns him to his rightful place.
The nine back in the village are stand-ins for us. We have not seen the mount of Transfiguration, but we have been given the mantle of power with which we carry out the work of the kingdom. We have been called to bind up this broken world and to exorcise demons and to heal the sick. We have been called to fight for equality and justice, to fight for the poor and the despised. But we can’t get it. We can’t figure it out. We trip over our untied shoes and fail time and again to act. And we may say it’s because we’re waiting to see the glory. We’re waiting for our Johnny moment, we’re waiting for Oprah or Moses or Elijah.
In coveting after sight we’ve stopped up our ears to the hearing. Because the Spirit that descends on Jesus in baptism, the Spirit that speaks in the cloud of transfiguration, that sends the angel of comfort in Gethsemane, that same Spirit speaks to we who eagerly await transfiguration. God’s transfiguration does not depend on us—God will work wonders before our sleepy eyes! God will redeem and transform this broken world, not from the tabernacles of safety on high holy perches, not from acts of sheer power or blasts of glory, but from places of suffering. God will break open our tabernacles, will pierce the darkness with blinding light and with a voice: this is my Son, listen to him.
“And what if the kingdom of Christ had been confined in this way to the narrow limits of twenty or thirty feet?”, writes John Calvin, “Where would have been the redemption of the whole world? Where would have been the communication of eternal salvation?”
Jesus has told us where he’s going. He’s got his eyes fixed on Jerusalem. We’ll follow him there. Through the suffering, past our places of comfort, outside of our parties and affiliations. Listen for him. The world may not always recognize him, but we’re here, and while we await another transfiguration we’ve got work to do. Amen.