Sermon on Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36 for Transfiguration Sunday, February 7, 2016
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.
The transfiguration story should strike us as eerie; other-worldly; even weird. And that is, I believe, part of its purpose.
So, I want to begin by another great parable from Peter Rollins. He does not claim it as original, but calls it an “old anecdote” but I first heard it in his book, How (Not) to Speak of God. (I may modify it just a bit).
It goes like this: A mystic, a Presbyterian pastor and a fundamentalist preacher all die on the same day and find themselves at heaven’s pearly gates. Peter greets them there and informs them that they will each need to be interviewed by Jesus as to the state of their doctrine before being allowed to enter heaven. The first to be called in to the interview room is the mystic. After five hours he reappears with a smile, saying, “I thought I had got it all wrong.” The next one Peter calls to be interviewed is the Presbyterian. After a full day he emerges from the room with a frown, saying to himself, “How could I have been so foolish!” Finally Peter ushers the fundamentalist into the room. A few days go by with no sign of him. Finally the door opens and Jesus himself appears, exclaiming, “How could I have gotten it all so wrong?”
The mystic has a real relationship with God, but has never been able to pin it down. It is always like trying to nail smoke to a board. He has never been certain.
The Presbyterian had a system all worked out, he thought, but in the presence of the Divine, he came to see how inadequate his grasp had been.
The fundamentalist clung to his certainty and would not give up his interpretation of God, even in the very presence of God.
Encountering the Divine
I have said before that Jesus himself was a mystic. Some scholars call him a “Spirit man”. This text is a good example. It begins, as so many others do, of Jesus going off to pray. To pray is to encounter the Divine; to be in the presence of God. Jesus’ location is important. Religious people may go to a temple to pray; mystics go to the mountains – or to the forest, or the ocean, or to an inner sacred space they make anywhere.
What is God like? How do you describe an encounter with God? For Moses, at Sinai, we read of a mountain shrouded by a cloud of darkness, and a voice thundering forth, terrifying everyone.
For Elijah, on the same mountain, many years later, after a mighty wind and an earthquake, we read that God was present as a voice, like “the sound of sheer silence.” Whether these descriptions lead towards or away from knowledge is an open question. Whether the Divine is revealed or concealed is not clear. Nevertheless, the Divine is experienced as present and real.
Now, in our New Testament text, we read a new story of an encounter with the Divine, on another mountain. Gathering elements from other mystical encounters, Luke weaves a thick description. Moses and Elijah appear. So does an enveloping cloud. So does the voice. Moses left his mountaintop encounter with God with a face that shone so brightly he needed to veil himself before the people. Here, Jesus’ whole being, clothing and all, radiate God’s glorious presence.
In the Bible’s store-house of stories of God-encounters, some meet God in dreams, as Abraham famously does. That story emphasized the deep terrifying dark sleep that Abraham was in, as he dreamed the vision of God, making a covenant with him and his future family. Jacob dreamed of a ladder to heaven.
Luke includes the sleepy dream element here as well. All four gospels have this story (although in John, only a few elements remain). Luke alone has the disciples floating awkwardly between dreamy sleep and wakefulness as they bear witness to this scene of glory. In Matthew, Jesus himself calls the whole thing a “vision.”
Peter’s 3 Mistakes
In all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Peter makes his famous blunder. His mistake is therefore an important part of the teaching. There are probably three mistakes he makes at once, by suggesting they set up three tent-shrines to mark this moment. All three are crucial mistakes to undo.
The first is that though this mystical moment means something important, it does not mean that making a static place of religious observance is the point. That is what a shrine does. It takes an encounter, and turns it into an object.
One of the huge innovations Jesus makes is that the encounter with God is moved out of the temple, and into the streets. God is experienced, as Jesus’ whole life shows, in the encounter of God in prayer and in the encounter with people, not in temples. There is no need for a new static shrine, but rather a direct experience.
Second, it would be wrong to put Jesus on the same level, giving him a booth along side of Moses and Elijah, as if the three were equally important. Moses and Elijah were people of great significance. Their encounters with God profoundly changed them and shaped the life of the people. But they were experiences of the past. Now God was doing a new thing, and Jesus is it; he should not be on a level with the ones who spoke for God in the past.
Third, the climax and therefore the main point of this mystical experience is the direct word from the voice, directing us to the words of Jesus. The way to live into the Divine was not by shrines and rituals, but by following Jesus.
In Mark, God’s voice calls Jesus his “beloved son.” In Luke, God calls Jesus his “chosen son.” Luke wants the main point to be, not just that Jesus is special to God, but that Jesus is God’s chosen instrument; the one to listen to. A shrine to commemorate the moment would not be the point; the point would be to do what that voice from the cloud said, “listen to him.”
Listening to him
So, our quest is to do just that. To listen so that we can follow Jesus. We imitate Jesus and his practice of prayer, knowing that in silence, in meditation, in contemplative prayer, we encounter the mysterious Divine, just as Jesus did.
But we are humble about defining that encounter. We are reluctant to get dogmatic about a God who is best known by images of concealing clouds and the brightness of glory. We understand the limitations of even speaking words about a Divine presence encountered in visions and dreams.
How do we speak of One who appears as a burning bush, naming himself “I am that I am,” a name that is as close to “Pure Becoming” as can be. The one whom Paul would say, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
So, in this story, instead of staying on the mountain at static shrines, Jesus leads them down the mountain to confront evil, suffering, and injustice. His path will be to Jerusalem, and will, he knows quite well, involve his own great suffering.
Paul once said that we used to know Jesus “according to a human point of view,” but we no longer do. That is what is happening in this story. This story pictures a transition of our vision of Jesus. We move from understanding Jesus as someone who is remarkable, to someone who is compelling.
We get the message: “Listen to him.” We should put a copy of the Sermon on the Mount in our hearts. It should ring in our ears. The words and actions of Jesus should form the shape of all our words and all of our actions, both public and private.
As this story illustrates, we have come to understand that God is best followed, by following Jesus. Whatever we think of God, it has to agree with what we know of Jesus. As a youth pastor said, “God has to be at least as nice as Jesus.”
And God has to be at least as interested in gathering people who will join together and follow Jesus, as Jesus himself was. That is what we are here to do.
We follow him into the spiritual practice of contemplative prayer on the mountain, and then we follow him into ministries of compassion and mercy down with the people. We follow him in a direct encounter and relationship with our mysterious God, and we follow him in a full embrace of hurting humanity.
A Lenten Suggestion
The season of the lengthening of the days, or Lent, is coming, starting this Wednesday. I have made and will repeat a suggestion. Often people give up something they enjoy during lent as a spiritual discipline. My suggestion is that we give up time; time enough to do some intentionally spiritual reading and reflecting. I have a list prepared, mostly of Richard Rohr’s books, which I find so helpful. I would begin with The Immortal Diamond or Falling Upward. For those in recovery, perhaps Breathing Underwater.
Make this Lent count. And prepare to be amazed at what you encounter.