What are we to make of the weird “transfiguration” retold in the middle of Matthew, Mark and Luke? Jesus’ clothes shimmer with white light? Moses and Elijah chatting with Jesus.
Pastor Roger Barkley guides through the imagery and message of this pivotal event from Luke 9.
Transfiguration Sunday 2019
Hallmark cards may be missing a big opportunity by not publishing greeting cards for today’s church holiday.
What church holiday? you may be asking.
Well, it is Transfiguration Sunday.
As you heard David read the scripture, maybe thought of some catchy Hallmark greetings.
“You light up my life” is a little too obvious, but “My heart is aglow for you,” also comes to mind.
Each of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – places this mystical event near the center of their narrative, so as weird as the scene may seem, it’s got to be pretty important.
As soon as we heard that they were heading up a mountain we assumed there would be an encounter with the divine.
When Martin Luther King said “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” even people living in the valleys knew what he was referring to.
The ancients understood two forms of time.
In Greek, chronos, which is the steady, ticking, linear time that we know in life.
Kairos, however, is more like the light switch in an unfamiliar dark room.
You don’t know where you are until the light turns on, and then in a flash, everything is revealed at once.
Kairos is divine time.
Moses and Elijah appear through kairos … as if time were nothing but a mist to be stepped through.
Together, they represented the Law and the prophets, the substance of the Hebrew Bible, assuring us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew faith.
Moses led the exodus from Egyptian slavery, as Jesus will lead the people from bondage to sin and even death.
Luke underscores that symbolism in verse 31– which is poorly translated in the NIV – by saying
Luke 9:31 They spoke about his departure exodus, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.
Elijah is the most celebrated prophet of Hebrew history.
He had ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot, and Malachi – the final book of the prophets – prophesied that Elijah would appear ahead of the long-awaited Messiah.
Malachi 4:5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”
Luke does not specify that this is a night journey, so we assume that the fatigue of Peter and the others comes from being weighed down with worries and distractions.
On the church’s liturgical calendar, this text appears each year as we head into Lent – a reminder to stay awake to what God is up to.
If it took the dazzling transfiguration of Jesus to wake these apostles up, what will it take for us to see God’s presence in our lives?
Luke 9:32a Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
Whatever was going on with Peter, John and James, they were then awestruck when the presence of God burst-forth right in front of them.
The word awe has lost its original meaning.
We say the new Samsung Galaxy 10 phone or the new iPad is “awesome”.
We even call our pizzas awesome.
But originally, “awe” was a spiritual term reserved for the indescribable, unsolicited, in-breaking of the divine.
Language fails to describe these moments of transparency between heaven and ordinary life – all we’re left with is awe.
These intense moments remind us of our connection to the divine beyond ourselves … and they may be our soul’s deepest craving.
But of course, the divine can breakthrough anytime and anywhere.
Maybe you’ve been awestruck as you beheld the immensity of the stars stretching across the sky.
Or maybe you were left speechless when a newborn grasped your finger.
Our soul longs for God.
Abraham Heschel said, “I didn’t ask for success, I asked for wonder”.
The ancients saw God at work all around them … but since the coming of the Enlightenment, we learned that there are physical explanations for most of the phenomena we see in life.
It turns out that lightning bolts are not spears from God, and that not all illnesses are demon possession.
For three centuries we’ve bought in the idea with enough training and rationality we can dissect, explain and harness all natural phenomenon so that the very notion of God eventually got pushed into the dustbin of quaint mythologies.
The hubris and false optimism of the Enlightenment left our souls parched for a taste of the divine, but since the Enlightenment, we’ve been unable to shake ourselves from the idea that we are the center of things.
So, our post-modern spiritualties tend to be individualistic, to be all about “my experience,” “my truth,” “my understanding of God.”
But an encounter with the divine relying on “me and my experience” is too limited to be holy.
The holy cannot be so controlled or contained.
And without holiness, there is no awe.
And without awe, our souls continue to wither.
As Moses and Elijah were departing from Jesus, Peter jumped in.
Luke 9:33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
Peter may have wanted to build a shrine to preserve this moment of epiphany.
Or, as a faithful Jew, he may have wanted to build a shelter known as a Sukkot as is prescribed in the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot.
This is when Jewish men are to build and live in simple shelters for seven days during this spring holiday.
Shavuot is to recognize that God has fulfilled His promises.
For example, when Jacob returned home and was welcomed by his brother Esau – as God had promised would happen – he built such a shelter, called a Sukkot.
Tradition also holds that Shavuot was celebrated as the slaves were delivered from Egyptian slavery.
Luke is quick to add that Peter didn’t know what he was saying because the mission of Jesus is not about worshipping at shrines or even the practice of religion.
At that moment, a cloud appeared and covered them … also reminiscent of the exodus when God spoke from the cloud that led the people to freedom.
Luke 9:35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
The Transfiguration reveals the strange intersection of the temporal world where the disciples lived, the eternal world where Moses and Elijah are, and the reality that Jesus was and is still living in both worlds at the same time.
But Peter does not get to hold it.
They’re given the experience and insight needed to fortify them for the days ahead, and in the next scene Jesus is back to work casting out demons.
We may yearn for holy, but we are easily preoccupied with the ordinary, stuck in our routines and distracted by our busyness.
Helen Keller (who could neither hear nor see) said, “The greatest tragedy in life is people who have sight but no vision.”
When we rush through our morning routine, slog our way through our workday, gulp our dinner and zone-out in front of TV, we don’t leave much space for the holy our heart craves.
Anne Cohen was our associate minister twenty-five years ago and she will be preaching here on March 24th.
About ten years ago she posted on Facebook an exchange she had with her son, Peter, who was then in kindergarten:
“Last night, Peter watching Rugrats, me on laptop right next to him, sharing a blanket.
P: I miss you, mommy.
A: I’m right here honey.
P: But you’re not home.
A: Yes I am, I’m right here.
P: You’re not home, you’re on the computer.
A: Shut laptop, arms around my kid. I go home.”
Vivienne and I have half-fun and half-serious feud going at home.
She loves to plant flowers … flowers in every corner of the yard.
The problem is that once she plops them into the ground they pop out of her mind, leaving me responsible for watering them each morning.
I’m often in a hurry in the morning – usually running a few minutes late and always having a few unexpected things come up at the last minute.
Then, just as I am about to get out the door, I remember that I still have to water all those plants.
So, I drop my laptop at the front door, briskly walk to the backyard, focused on spraying just the right amount of water to each plant in quick succession, and – now ten minutes behind schedule – hustle off to work.
Often my mind grouses about being saddled with the chore I never wanted in the first place.
Then one day last year I was stopped cold by this scene.
And it was more than just the bright color of this flower … it was a “God smack” moment when the Holy Spirit reminded me – actually, the Holy Spirit shamed me into remembering – of the gift of life and the beauty of creation.
When Moses was tending his father in law’s sheep, God came to him through a radiant bush and said,
Exodus 3:5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
In all three synoptic gospels, the scene immediately preceding the Transfiguration tells of Peter announcing that Jesus is the Christ.
Peter thinks he’s got the whole Jesus thing all figured out, but we soon learn that he hasn’t a clue … Jesus will prove himself to be radically different and infinitely more.
It is after this encounter near the midpoint of the gospel, on the cloud-shrouded mountaintop that we start to wake-up to the true meaning of the Messiah.
This week I invite you to be awake.
You don’t have to read your bible more, you don’t have to pray more … but every day this week stop at some point, look around and see how you may be standing on holy ground.
I remember my minister, Dr. Peggy Bassett, telling us to do that many years ago.
That week I was commuting up the Long Beach Freeway in smoggy, stop-and-go traffic.
Where was God, I wondered, in the midst of these fumes and my anxious feeling of running late for a sales appointment?
Then I looked out my window and saw something I hope to never forget: A little green plant sprouting to life through a crack in the concrete.
Our parched souls thirst for the Holy.
This week, take time to notice that, indeed, the world is ablaze with the glory of God.
The Congregational Church of Northridge, where every member is a minister.