The Transfiguration, August 6, 2017, Lectionary A, Proper 13
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: Luke 9:28-36
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see Jesus in His glory, so that we might likewise be transformed through Him who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
In today’s gospel from Luke we are introduced to a curious dating—“Now about eight day after these sayings.” Why Luke says eight days, we do not know? Even more curious, it is an inexact eight days—about eight days. Why about? Could it have been seven, nine, or even ten? Even so, eight might be suggestive. As has been said, on the eight day, that is the day of resurrection, God began the recreation of His fallen creation. Is Luke referring to an eighth day of creation? Whether this is how we might understand Luke’s “about eight days,” we don’t know, but it is suggestive.
Regardless, the scene we come upon is where Jesus has taken Peter and John and James, three of His disciples, up on a mountain to pray. In the Old Testament the mountain has often been a place of encountering God or of God encountering humanity. We think of Moses, as heard in this morning’s Old Testament reading. “And it came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses’ hand as he was coming down from the mountain.” On that mountain God had given Moses the Law, the Ten Commandments.
Notice that it was Jesus who did the praying and “While he was praying.” We are not given any indication that three disciples were praying, just Jesus. What the disciples were doing we do not know. Were they watching Jesus, standing guard, or feeling strange about the circumstances? Had they seen Him pray before? Certainly, they had seen Him heal, but was that same as seeing Him in prayer to His heavenly Father.
I recall when Emily and I first went to seminary. As a seminarian I was assigned a faculty adviser. At the close of our first meeting, Dr. Rod Whitacre went to pray, specifically for me, and it was if someone or something had sucked the air right out of the room. Rod in praying had changed the atmosphere of the room. Was it my imagination? It might have been if I had some expectation of that happening, but this was new to me.
In a manner of speaking, this is exactly what happened when Jesus went to pray. He changed the atmosphere, and boy did He ever. “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.” Jesus, being in prayer, opened up an entirely new reality—a spiritual reality beyond anything the three disciples had known or experienced. And, while this might have seemed like a surprise, we have only to back up to the twenty-seventh verse of this same chapter from Luke to hear these words: “But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who shall not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” Was it the kingdom of God that the three disciples were seeing in this incredible vision, this transfiguration of Jesus?
Last Sunday in Matthew’s gospel, we heard Jesus describe the Kingdom of God or heaven as being like a mustard seed, a great treasure, a pearl of great value and so on. Was this the same kingdom of God that the three were now seeing in the Transfiguration or because of the Transfiguration?
Luke tells us that the appearance of Jesus’ face changed while he was praying. We are again reminded of the Old Testament reading. “When Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.” We do not hear, though, that Peter, John, and James were afraid of Jesus’ brilliant illumination. Has something changed? Is there something different going on or about to happen that God should no longer be feared?
As we heard, Moses and Elijah appeared in glory. They are perhaps the foremost representatives of the Law and the Prophets in that they ministered in power of word and deed. Not all the prophets ministered in power, raising the dead or producing an abundance of food from a little, as did Elijah. Of course, Jesus did the same.
Moses and Elijah, however, had not merely showed up for a friend chat. No, what they and Jesus were discussing had long been anticipated. Indeed, Moses during his lifetime had prophesied it. What Jesus was about to accomplish in Jerusalem really would be reality changing, really would advance the kingdom of God. We are speaking of the crucifixion and resurrection, of course.
As we heard, Peter and the other two were weighed down with sleep. If we fast forward, we hear of a similar time when they were weighed down with sleep. “Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray. […] And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping” (Matthew 26:36, 40).
How do we understand or interpret something that is new, beyond anything we might imagine? Where do we get the vocabulary or find the conceptualization to describe it? This is where we find the three disciples. They had witnessed something so extraordinary: Jesus changing color and two Old Testament greats, long since dead, now speaking with Jesus. How does one understand such a thing? This was no everyday occurrence. Actually, given what Peter knows, his previous understanding, knowledge, and education, the suggestion, he made, “let us make three dwellings (or tents), one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” is not half bad, though inaccurate. Where would Peter have gotten such an idea? The Ark of the Covenant was kept in a tent. That, though, was then, and this was now, or soon would be now. Something greater than the law was being discussed by Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. It was announced by none other than God Himself.
Whereas everything had been bright and white, now, as we heard, “a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.”
We might have some sense of this driving along the highway at night when suddenly we find ourselves in a thick mist. We are blinded. Then again, to see God is to die, so the Lord tells Moses.
We have seemingly gone from the brilliant light of the Transfiguration to the darkness of a cloud from which God Himself speaks. The creator of the universe has spoken. Can we imagine? We might reduce this to sound some sonic event, breaking the sound bearer with a loud booming voice, but there is more here than an ear-drum bursting decibel level. This was that same voice in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, which said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” It is the very voice that not only created the universe, but created you and me. Who would not be afraid?
Oh, I know in our modern, enlightened culture such notions as God speaking seem like the fantasy of a childhood imagination or of the uneducated. Perhaps, therein is our dilemma. Even if God spoke to us, if we heard His voice, would we listen, would we hear. Indeed, we hear in John’s gospel (12:28, 29) the following words from Jesus.
“Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour ‘? But for this purpose I came to this hour. 28 “Father, glorify Thy name.” There came therefore a voice out of heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The multitude therefore, who stood by and heard it, were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, “An angel has spoken to Him.” Has God spoken to us, individually and corporately, but we have dismissed His voice as thunder or artillery practice at Ft. Stewart?
This is now twice that we have heard God the Father openly His love for Jesus. At His baptism, similar words were spoken: “And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 13:16, 17).
As parents we know what is like to encourage a child, especially if that child is getting ready to be challenged with an upcoming test. Similarly, God the Father offers words of encouragement to Jesus at the beginning of His ministry, following His baptism and now at the upcoming conclusion of His ministry—the cross. God the Father says to His only begotten Son, “I love you; I love you without condition or reservation.” The human side of Jesus needed to hear this. We likewise need to hear this from God the Father.
After God spoke, after the grand finale of the fireworks display, suddenly the four of them were alone. Moses, Elijah, the bright lights, and the cloud had dissipated into the clear light of day. Whew! What an experience, right, a once in a lifetime experience! This, though, was different. We will remember on previous occasions where Jesus had healed an individual that He told them to tell no one, but here on the occasion of the Transfiguration Jesus gave no instruction. Apparently, it was not necessary. We heard, “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” What was going on?
I have known, perhaps you have too, in fact you may be one of them, individuals who have had these incredible encounters with God, these incredible God experiences, but they have not or have been reluctant to tell anyone. Why? Could they have been afraid that people might think they were crazy? God did what or said what to you?
Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus light up light like a Christmas tree and along with that they had seen two dead guys, Moses and Elijah. Then, there was this cloud and God spoke. Who would believe that? What had those three guys been smoking? We know, though, as we heard in this morning’s epistle, that Peter would later share the Transfiguration experience.
“We were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased “– 18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.”
The bottom line here for Peter, James, and John is that they, too, as was Jesus, were encouraged by what they saw and heard at the Transfiguration. Granted that they all would later desert Jesus, but what would have happened if they had not had that experience of the Transfiguration? Not only would they have deserted, they might never have returned. You see, it was not just Jesus, who was transfigured, but the three disciples as well. This brings us to the personal message to you and me about the transfiguration.
Until we see Jesus transfigured, until we see that He is divine, we will only see Him as just another human being, a moral leader, a Jew long ago, but nothing more. So, how do we get to that place where we are given the opportunity to see Him transfigured? What does scripture tell us?
First of all, we have to follow Him, be willing to go where He asks us to go. Obviously, this means something a little different for us than it did for Peter, John, and James. He is not here in His body, as He was for them, but He is here in the bodily form of His church. St. Paul tells us, “So we, who are many, are one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5). As with the three disciples, we have access to His teachings as much as they did. They are written down for us. What though of being present when Jesus prays? How do we afford ourselves that opportunity?
To understand that question, we need to reflect on what the gospel meant when it said, “(He) went up on the mountain to pray.” In other words, what is prayer? Simply put, prayer is conversation with God the Father where we both speak and listen to Him. More simply put, it is communion with God. So, when we hear that Jesus was in prayer, we are to understand that He was in communion with His heavily Father. He was in such communion with that He was transfigured as was the atmosphere around Him, opening the kingdom of God to be seen by Peter, James, and John.
So then, where is Jesus now? He is in heaven in communion with God the Father. Call that communion prayer if you like, meaning that He is constantly in a state of transfiguration. We can see Jesus transfigured, but we have to be following Him; we have to be familiar with His life and teachings, as presented in scripture. This is not so much a matter of us being informed as it is a matter of us being open, of being tuned to the proper channel so to speak. In other words, we have to have some notion of what we are looking for and where. If we are traveling to a new destination, we need a map or a GPS in order to get there. The same is true if we are to see Jesus. He even gives us some guidance in that respect.
He tells us that He is to be known, revealed in the breaking of the bread or Holy Communion. He tells us that whenever two or three are gathered in His name He is in the midst of them. He tells us that what we do unto the least of them we do unto Him. And, the list goes on.
In other words, we need to desire to see Him, know Him. Then at some unexpected time we will suddenly seem Him transfigured before us. No longer will He be some historical figure in a dusty old Bible. He will be seen as the God and savior that He is. And we, (Perhaps, this is where our resistance is.) we will be transfigured, we will be transformed. Our lives will be changed. We will be different and do differently. That can be scary, but immensely rewarding, giving our lives more purpose, more meaning than we ever imagined.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.