Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 7, 2016
Luke 9:28-36 Commentary
Not for nothing are they called “Mountaintop Experiences”! In the Bible, when a story takes us up to a mountaintop, it’s a fair bet that something dramatic is going to happen—indeed, it’s a fair bet that something deeply revelatory is going to happen. Luke 9 is no exception. But the drama up there on that mountain seems to have been only partly intended to make an impression on the disciples. The rest of the event seems to have taken place for Jesus’ edification.
Consider the wider context of Luke here. As Jesus prepares to make his final trek toward Jerusalem (see Luke 9:51), he is talking increasingly about suffering, betrayal, and death. It’s weighing heavily on his mind. But the disciples seem lost in a fog of cluelessness. They are not really tracking all of what Jesus is saying, and so when Jesus speaks openly about his impending death, the disciples sometimes say nothing at all (note what happens after Luke 9:27: we fast-forward 8 whole days with no reported reactions whatsoever of the disciples to what Jesus had said). Or they find Jesus’ rhetoric merely baffling and bewildering (see what happens in Luke 9:45 after another direct prediction of betrayal). Or they respond to Jesus’ talk about sacrifice and humility by incarnating its opposite in a wrangling over and jockeying for power and privilege in Jesus’ coming kingdom (see Luke 9:46-50).
In other words, long about the time Jesus could use all the support he could get, the disciples are simply unavailable to him in any meaningful way. They cannot encourage Jesus to stick with what they don’t understand (and would resist if they did understand it). Indeed, by their very demeanor and words, they are actually tugging Jesus another direction! Every time they respond to Jesus’ predictions about suffering with indifference or with actions that tug another direction, Jesus must surely have heard the tempter’s voice whispering into his ear, “See, even your friends don’t buy it! Go another way! Seize the day! Go on and at least try to establish an earthly kingdom. For THAT your friends will follow you to the bitter end!”
With no human or earthly voices available to encourage Jesus, his Father steps in to provide new voices in the conversation. Commentators have long pointed out that Moses represented the Sinai Covenant/Law (as well as the Exodus) and that Elijah represented the prophetic voice of the Old Testament as well as God’s covenant faithfulness in sending servants to continue speaking to and ministering to even a wayward Israel.
Having both of them appear on the Mount of Transfiguration seems to be a neat way of coalescing the whole Old Testament into Jesus’ ministry. Probably there is something to all that, but it does not appear that Moses and Elijah spent their time with Jesus reflecting on the ins and outs of the Law and Prophets. Instead we are told only that they “discussed his departure.” That’s why they were there. These recognized giants of the faith come to point Jesus in the direction he needs to go and to encourage him that down that path lies the salvation of the world. If they were not there to encourage Jesus in the direction he had to go, I cannot think of what else they would have had to say about that departure.
But on a different note: it’s always been a mystery to me how the disciples recognized Moses and Elijah. It goes without saying they had no way to recognize them physically. It’s not like Moses had gotten his face onto the $1 bill or that Elijah had had his visage plastered all over the place in Israel the way we Americans do with Abraham Lincoln’s face. We are so familiar with Lincoln that we recognize even his silhouetted profile in an instant. But the disciples could have had no such visual associations with either Moses or Elijah. (In more cheeky moments I’ve wondered about these two men sporting “Hello! My Name Is _____” stick-on name badges. This, however, also seems unlikely.)
However it all happened, Luke alone tells us that these two showed up to encourage Jesus, to remind him that they, too, along with all the hosts of heaven were gearing up for the fulfillment of everything God had been aiming to accomplish ever since sin and evil showed up in this creation to sully God’s good intentions. The way Luke frames it, the whole dazzling event ends up being kind of sweet in its own way, as though the Father—sensing the apprehension of the Son—sent down some reinforcements to buck him up and help him make it across the finish line. It’s the kind of thing a loving Father does for his beloved Son. That Jesus perhaps needed this boost is testament to his true humanity. That Jesus did indeed go on to suffer and die is testament to his true divinity. That he will eventually be raised again bodily gets at both and assures us that the salvation about which Moses and Elijah showed up to discuss with Jesus is just the truest and grandest thing you could ever imagine!
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
Since this part of my sermon commentary is about “Questions,” I’ll just ask a few of the ones that come to my mind in this startlingly odd passage.
First, how in the world did the disciples come close to sleeping through this thing? We are told that the appearance of Jesus was as bright as “lightning.” Now lightning is pretty bright. A bolt of lightning is one of the most powerful forces on planet earth, discharging 1,000,000,000,000,000 watts of electricity (that’s 1 trillion if you don’t want to count up all the zeroes) at a temperature of 20,000 degrees centigrade (which is considerably hotter than even the surface of the sun). Anybody who manages to radiate the energy and light of a lightning bolt is mighty powerful and mighty bright.
Yet we are told that for a time during this epiphany of glory, the disciples were sleepy! It took a bit, apparently, before they even fully woke up (and then saw something so odd they must have wondered if they were not, in fact, still asleep and seeing a dream). But how could anyone be drowsy, even briefly, when such a spectacle was right in front of them?
Second, how could these disciples walk away from this event and yet, as verse 36 informs us, tell no one what they saw and experienced? In parallel accounts of this we are told that Jesus tells them to keep it under wraps but not here: they just don’t say anything. From the looks of the text, it would not be an unwarranted leap to think these three did not tell even the other nine disciples what had taken place. So what’s up with that?
Third, how can it be, following on one of the most dazzling visual spectacles that ever took place on this planet, that the bottom line from God the Father is “Listen to him.” Listen? Listen, and not “Look”? Why go through all this razzle-dazzle, bright-as-lightning stuff if the whole incident ends up being more about ears than eyes? It’s not what I expected to hear the Father say!
So often we read incidents like this one in the Bible and we rarify them, put them up on a pedestal, and assume that if such a thing were to happen today and to us, it would change the world and shake up everything. Yet in the Bible events like these sometimes play out rather differently than we think. In this case this stunning revelation of glory took place well out of the public eye and then, even for those human eyes that did take it in, there was a mixture of confusion, sleepiness, and then reticence to speak of it in the future.
It is not what you would expect. But maybe behind these questions something of the core truth of the gospel starts to come out. Maybe the sleepiness of the disciples is emblematic for how often they had missed the glory of Jesus when it shined right in front of them day in and day out throughout Jesus’ ministry. The truth is that Jesus did not need visibly to glow to display glory. His glory shined—for those with eyes to see—just as brightly when he talked to lonely prostitutes and outcast lepers, when he saved wayward tax collectors and offered forgiveness to people who had never heard a forgiving syllable their whole lives long up to that point. The glory was there. It’s still there today in the church if only we don’t just sleep through it.
And if we find it odd that the disciples kept mum about this then perhaps we can turn the camera around to ourselves to wonder how often we keep silent about the great and glorious truths of the Gospel that we celebrate in church on Sundays but then fail to mention in the week that follows.
And if it seems odd to hear God the Father follow up this visual display with advice that has to do with listening and not looking, maybe that’s because we, too, are often overly fixated on outward fame and power and glory as the world defines all those things and maybe that gets in the way of our truly listening to what Jesus says about humility and sacrifice and being servants of the lowest of the low in also our societies yet today.
Maybe this reminds us, as we in this Year C Lectionary cycle are on the cusp of the Season of Lent, that we need to listen really closely to what Jesus says from the cross when—having given the last full measure of his own devotion to this broken world—he cries out, “It is accomplished!”
We need to listen to him. Really carefully.
Luke says that this epiphany on the mountaintop took place “eight days” after Peter’s famous confession of Jesus as the Christ. The other gospels suggest that this took place six days later. Either expression, as Stephen Farris points out in “The Lectionary Commentary,” could be the loose equivalent of saying “about a week later.” Yet, as Farris also suggests, in Luke’s context “the eighth day” could be a prefigurement of the resurrection as well. Luke is mindful of that eighth day significance, after all (he is the only evangelist to give us the Emmaus Road story, replete with Jesus’ being made known to the disciples “in the breaking of the bread”). So it is possible that this little detail on the timing of the Transfiguration could be a hint pointing toward Easter and the glory that awaited Jesus also then.
Frederick Buechner once mused that maybe the oddness of the Transfiguration is not so odd after all. It is interesting to note that although Luke tells us that Jesus’ garments shone as bright as a flash of lightning, we are not told that Jesus’ face shone, only that it “changed.” In the Greek this is literally that the EIDOS of his face changed, the image, the appearance, of his face was altered. How so? We’re not told, but it seems that maybe the true image of God, the image of the Son, the spittin’ image of the Son who was his Father all over again—maybe this is what shone through in a way the disciples managed to miss seeing most days. But then we all often miss seeing this in each other as often as not. Scripture assures us that we were all created in the image of God, but as we hustle past people in the malls, as we jostle next to them on the train, as we get annoyed with them when they crowd us in our airplane seat, we miss it. But as Buechner says, there are moments of transfiguration in all our lives. No, not exactly on a par with what happened to Jesus but still . . . Or as Buechner put it, “Even with us something like this happens once in a while. The face of the man walking with his child in the park, of a woman baking bread, of sometimes even the most unlikely person listen to a concert or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just have a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.” (From “Beyond Words” by Frederick Buechner, Harper San Francisco 2004).
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