Transfiguration Sermon 2022
This transfiguration sermon on Luke 9:28-36 shows how God gives us moments of clarity and peace. In the transfiguration, we see that God is always working through people to stand up against ruthless tyrants.
Mystical Moments of Peace
Sometimes when things are getting tough, you just need a pick-me-up; a dose of encouragement, or a sign. I remember it was not too long before I married Dayna and I was getting cold feet. I went on a long walk and prayed. We had both been divorced and had some baggage, and there were my daughters to consider, how would it work being a clergy couple. All these questions. I went on a long walk in the woods and prayed about it and laid all my misgivings before God—get it all out there. I kept walking and then there was this incredible sense of God-given peace that blossomed from right in my chest and my head all filled with buzzing worries cleared and I just felt that it was going to be okay. It was one of those God moments, a spiritual sense, that gave me the assurance to take the next steps. And it is something I can keep going back to whenever things get tense in the relationship and that peace is always with me.
I wonder if you have ever had something like that happen to you. Something that is hard to describe, but just felt clearer, at calm with it, a God moment.
A Pre-lent pick-me-up
The transfiguration story reminds us that we all need these moments to stick with the things we are called to do. Traditionally, this story is read before the first Sunday of Lent. It uplifts us before the 40-day journey long toward Easter.
It’s a story jam-packed with symbolism and significance that is not immediately apparent to our 21st-century ears. For us to feel the intended impact of the story, and how it can shape our daily walk of faith we need to set it in context and peel back some layers.
The transfiguration signifies a turning point in the gospel narrative. For three years, Jesus had been ping-ponging his way from village to village in the rural areas of the region of Galilee. But after the transfiguration, he sets his course toward Jerusalem where he knows they will crucify him.
Just before the transfiguration, tensions erupted between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus and Peter had an ugly confrontation where they yelled at each other. The nicer biblical word for this is they “rebuked” one another. What were they fighting about? Right after Peter proclaimed his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus announced that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be crucified and rise again on the third day. Crucifixion was only used as punishment for those who stood up against the Roman empire.
Peter would have none of it. He rebukes Jesus. No. Jesus, I don’t think you understand what Messiah is supposed to do. The Messiah is supposed to free the people from foreign occupation and establish God’s kingdom on earth, and your big plan is to go and get yourself killed?
Then Jesus rebukes Peter. He says, “Get behind me Satan!” That is, Um, actually, it’s God’s plan. God’s kingdom doesn’t come through us raising up an army and taking over with violence. It’s the opposite. It comes about through sacrifice, through love, through service. And, Peter, if you or anyone else wants to be my follower, if you want a piece of this kingdom, you also must be willing to stand against the corruption of the kingdom of this world. Even if they crucify you for it.
This clash hung over the whole group in the days that followed. The other disciples were trained to think like Peter. They believed the Messiah would lead a victorious armed revolution. That’s what they signed up for. And Jesus laying on such dark predictions must have troubled them immensely. Get behind me Satan rang in their ears as they walked long lonely roads following Jesus. They must have doubted Jesus’ mission and weighed whether or not to hang in there with him. They reached an inflection point and needed a pick-me-up, a confidence booster.
This is part of the territory that comes with following Jesus. There are going to be periods of doubt. Periods when you wonder if it is worth it. Periods when you are told to sacrifice and persevere when all you really want is for God to wave a magic wand and make your problems disappear. Sometimes the walk of faith is difficult and we yearn for some reassurance. It may be personal, some stress or difficulty, or boredom with faith. It may be discouragement over current events. The news this week about Russia invading Ukraine makes the promises of a non-violent world seem so far away. When we need this we do well to follow our story and go to prayer.
We need to go to our holy places
A few days after the confrontation, Jesus says, Peter, James, and John climb this mountain with me for prayer. I imagine they thought, “Uh, can’t you just pray here without dragging us up a mountain?” Maybe Jesus was like us on Sunday morning. Make an effort to go to a holy place—to connect with God. A place set apart to immerse ourselves in that connection. We set aside time for worship to connect with God’s glory and to find reassurance of faith that we need to keep going on the journey. Maybe Jesus, too, needed some reassurance to do the hard things he was called upon to do.
They climb the mountain. The disciples are exhausted, the urge to sleep overwhelmed them. Then it happened. Jesus’ appearance changed. His face shined. On one level, this suggests that the inner goodness of Jesus manifested in his demeanor. You know how we talk about a glow about a person who is happy (or pregnant)? Some people talk of a person’s aura. They were able to see the holiness of Jesus written all over his appearance.
Recalling Moses’ odd story
This recalls the Old Testament when Moses shined when he saw the glory of God on the mountain where he received the commandments. It’s kind of a weird story where Moses sees the backside of God and the glimpse of glory is so intense that it makes Moses’ face light up. His appearance was so radiant that he had to wear a veil when he came down so the mountain lest it blind everyone. The story symbolizes that Jesus bears the glory of God and that what is happening through him is so important that it is like when Moses received the commandments.
Then we learn about Jesus’ clothes. His clothes transform from dusty brown everyday garments into something dazzlingly white. Mark’s gospel adds a detail that they were whiter than what anyone on earth could bleach. Why this talk of laundry and his clothes? White clothes in a vision symbolized the purity achieved through martyrdom. His white clothes reaffirm the message about his death and resurrection. This spectacle by itself could have given the disciples all the reassurance they needed.
Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all stood up to tyrants
But then we are told that Moses and Elijah suddenly appear and converse with Jesus. On one level, they represent that Jesus stands in great continuity with the whole tradition of Judaism. Moses represents the law and Elijah the prophets. It wasn’t some out-of-the-blue new thing Jesus was doing but he was in continuity with the whole tradition. And Elijah’s appearance checks the box in the book of Malachi that says that Elijah will return with the advent of the Messiah.
Moses, Elijah, and Jesus have a lot in common, especially standing up to tyrants who stole what didn’t belong to them. Moses was the one who stood up to the tyrant Pharaoh, you know, the guy who enslaved the people, not of his race or nationality and tried to break their spirits with impossible tasks. The guy who slaughtered the Hebrew children. Moses went up a mountain and got the commandments—that showed people a better way to live—where no one is exploited and everyone has a fair chance and equality in God’s eyes.
Elijah stood up to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. The all-powerful king stole land that didn’t belong to him just because he had the power to do so and Elijah stood up to him. Sounds a lot like Putin and Ukraine. God’s heart is never with empire and domination and violence.
Our translation says that Moses and Elijah have a discussion with Jesus about his coming departure. The original Greek says they were talking about Jesus’ exodus—a loaded term. Moses led the first Exodus, a transfer of the Hebrews from slavery and oppression to liberation and freedom. Jesus was leading an exodus for people from our bondage to the ways of sin and violence and death into a kingdom of peace, justice, and fairness for all people. They were talking of Jesus’ exodus.
Elijah had something to add, too. Elijah’s exodus from this world was not through his death. He ascended to heaven on a great chariot of fire. After Jesus’ resurrection, we are told that he, too, ascended. That is how his personal exodus from this world would take place.
The next thing that happens is a cloud rolls in and overshadows them and God speaks. This is my son, the chosen one, listen to him. It must have come as a personal reassurance to Jesus that he was on the right track, that the pain he would go through would all be worth it. But the clear audience is for the disciples to get the message. Listen to Jesus. Listen to his teachings, and believe him that the path to a new kingdom, a new way of living in the world is to incorporate his teachings into your life.
I always think of this moment as being like a great big neon sign above Jesus’ head. He’s the one. Listen. Follow. Do as he says. You are on the right path. Give up on your schemes of a revolution and assert power over people. This is something different. Fear not.
Are you listening to the words of Jesus? Of kindness, of forgiveness, of self-sacrifice, of helping those in need? Or are you listening to people with an agenda? Are you listening to the words of peace and forgiveness, or are you listening to the words of those urging retaliation and putting people in their place? Are you more apt to listen to Jesus’ words that tell you that you are capable of doing great things, or are you listening to your inner critic telling you that you can’t, you fail, don’t even try?
When the cloud disappears, Jesus’ clothes turn brown again, bearing the grime from the long trek up the mountain.
Peter, we are told doesn’t know what to say. So, he says something a bit off the mark. Instead of asking about Moses and Elijah, he draws attention to himself. I know you were just talking with the two most important leaders in our faith story, but don’t you think it’s a good thing that I’m here with James and John? He had just seen this mountain summit of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and talks about what a good thing it is that he and his buddies were there.
Peter knows his tradition and that the way his people honor Moses’ exodus was to build booths on top of the mountain. Not bad. But Jesus doesn’t have time for that this is not a time to pay tribute to the past, we are moving forward. No. Let us go back down the mountain, minister to people’s needs, and be about the mission.
So the Transfiguration points to a rhythm that shapes our worship. Go to a place where we pray and connect with God. Experience the glory of God. Listen to God’s word from the law and prophets. Hear the voices of reassurance that tell you that Jesus has the path to our liberation, our better lives. Listen to the words of Jesus, and go back to the world in service. This is the pattern of our worship. On the doors on the way out it says, Go out to serve.
It’s also the pattern we build into our lives.