Sermon on The Transfiguration According to the Gospel of Luke
“The beauty that emerges from woundedness is a beauty infused with feeling; a beauty different from the beauty of landscape and the cold perfect form. This is a beauty that has suffered its way through the ache of desolation until the words or music emerged to equal the hunger and desperation at its heart. It must also be said that not all woundedness succeeds in finding its way through to beauty of form. Most woundedness remains hidden, lost inside forgotten silence. Indeed, in every life there is some wound that continues to weep secretly, even after years of attempted healing. Where woundedness can be refined into beauty a wonderful transfiguration takes place.”
Every year after the season of Epiphany and before the season of Lent, we have a significant holy day called Transfiguration Sunday. Now the stores do not carry special merchandise for Transfiguration Sunday, and we do not all go out and buy special clothes for the day. There is not a market for this day in the liturgical year, but it’s an important day, a festival that the Greek Orthodox Church says some in second after Easter in importance.
Mike Pietranczyk and I were saying that there isn’t even a bunch of hymns in the hymnal for the day, and I would imagine very few of you sprang out of your bed this morning, ran down the stairs and jumped with glee because Transfiguration Sunday has finally arrived.
Maybe it’s the word – Transfiguration. It’s a big word, five syllables. It’s not really a pretty word like “Easter” or “Christmas.” I would say it’s the strange miracle story that goes with it that trips us up. Maybe we just can’t imagine the miracle, but we take in the miracle of a virgin birth and resurrection without much intellectual pause. This story is found in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and it is told almost the exact same say with a few nuances brought in depending on the author. In all three versions, the story takes place on a mountain. Now hearing mountain stories as a Jew or a Gentile, you would know that people went up on mountains to get closer to God. Remember the story of Moses when he went up the mountain and came down all glowing white? Or Elijah when he went up on Mt. Horeb? Big things happen on mountains – things called Theophanies – God moments. There are moments when people encounter the divine and are forever changed.
The location of the story in the larger context is important too. It’s sandwiched between two other stories and what happens before and after this story helps us understand a bit more. Just before the story takes pace, Jesus tells his disciples that four things are going to happen: he is going to suffer, he is going to be rejected, he is going to die, and he is going to be resurrected. Peter, acting as the spokesman for the group, does not like this plan. This is not how he wants to see Jesus. This is not the direction he wants Jesus to take them and this is not his expectation of who Jesus is. Peter tells him as much, to which Jesus replies, “Get behind me Satan.”
Jesus then takes Peter, James and John away from the group and they go up on the mountain. These disciples see Jesus in yet a different way that they did not expect. He is lifted in the clouds and they hear a voice, understood to be the Holy Spirit, that echoes the same voice of God that we heard at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Here, though, the voice adds a firm instruction: “Listen to Him!” as if telling Peter to stop what he’s going, be quiet for a minute and listen to what Jesus is saying. He’s just told Peter what comes next! Suffering, rejection, death and then the glory of resurrection of which this is just a foretaste. Listen to what he’s said to you about what awaits him, the bad news and the good. Listen to what he said about taking up your own cross. Yes, experience this bright and shining moment, but know that it’s not for keeps. You’ve got to listen and keep listening to him as you follow him back down the mountain where the rest of humanity lives and where the glory of the mountaintop meets the guts of the valley.
What happens after this experience is equally important. They come down from the mountain and they are faced with a demonic boy and father and the inability for the disciples to cure the boy from the demon. It’s a quick move from the glorious moment that the disciples just experienced to the chaotic reality of the people to are suffering at the base of the mountain.
So before this story is reality and after this story is reality, but in the middle is a miracle that the disciples do not understand. This is a miracle that happens so that the disciples will see Jesus differently and maybe some to understand who he is. Here is how I simplify this story so I understand it.
Sometimes we tell kids to pray and that God will hear their prayers. We encourage them to believe that God hears prayers. Sounds like a good this to tell kids. So kids are taught to believe that God is on their side, that God loves then and won’t let anything bad happen to them. Then one day there’s a competition or a test or something they really, really want and so they decide to pray. If they believe that if they pray really hard that good things will happen to them because that is what they have been taught. And when they win or get the award, they assume that God answered their prayer and the God likes them. But when they lose or fail, they assume that God wasn’t listening and must be angry with them. This kind of thing doesn’t just happen with kids. Adults do it too. We see Jesus as a personal savior who came to keep our lives from getting too messy. We have an expectation, like Peter did, a belief in who Jesus is and that belief limits our relationship.
Think for a second about all of the beliefs you have about who Jesus is – maybe for you Jesus is in the sky somewhere, sort of distant and abstract, not personal, but more of a judge or celestial caregiver. Or maybe for you Jesus is very personal, like your own personal Jiminy Cricket who sits on your shoulder and helps you make right decisions. And then one day, something unexpected happens, something you weren’t expecting, something hard. Something that changes your whole world view. Maybe you face the reality of mortality. Maybe you face the reality of your vulnerability. Maybe you face the reality of injustice and sin in our society and as a result you can no longer see Jesus or your religion in the same way. These are hard moments. They are raw and painful, but also honest, and they can blow up your whole belief system. They are those moments when you think, this isn’t how I thought my life would turn out, or how parenting would be, or how retirement would feel, or what my marriage would be like, or how my health would be. It’s whose really hard moments that you can’t pretend aren’t happening, like Peter did. It’s the experience that you have as a demarcation that changes your perspective. This is what I think the disciples are facing when Jesus tells them he will get put on trial, suffer and be crucified. This is not what they expect to hear or ever wanted to happen. They don’t want Jesus or them to go through any of that.
It is in that context, in that dark reality, Jesus takes them to a mountain where he’s transfigured. He’s taken up into the clouds where a bright light shines all around him. Elijah and Moses are there, but then the only thing they can see, the only thing you want to see is Jesus. Then they hear a voice that says, “This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him.”
After this experience, they see Jesus in a different way. They no longer see him as the savior they thought he was, but the savior that he truly is. When they come down off the mountain, they enter a chaotic scene of humanity at its most vulnerable and messy.
So before the transfiguration story, the predominant feeling is fear and chaos. After the story is fear and chaos, and in the middle is this miraculous story of light and assurance. All around them is chaos and in the center is Jesus Christ.
Desmond Tutu has said that” God places us in the world as his fellow workers, agents of transfiguration. We work with God so that injustice is transfigured into justice, so there will be more compassion and caring, there will be more laughter and joy, there will be more togetherness in God’s world.”
We all have hard days, dark moments, times so hard we can’t imagine that it will come to an end, and it is those times when we need to whistle in the dark. We want to whisper in God’s ear and say, “God, we know that you are in charge, but can’t you make it more obvious?”
You will find those obvious moments of transfiguration when the brown grace becomes green, when winter gives way to spring. Transfiguration happens when you realize that you are completely loved, and you are precious in the sight of God. Can you hold that image for just one second, allow yourself to be held in the hand of God and let God just look at what he created and see what a beautiful thing it is? Can you be transformed by that love and lifted up in that love? What would happen if you disciplined yourself every day in this upcoming 40 days of Lent to spend 3 minutes silently being held in the hands of God, letting God’s love pour over you, shaking away all of the chatter and negativity?
Lastly, I want to ask just how great is the God you believe in? Do we believe that nothing, no one and no situation is ‘untransfigurable?’ “Do we believe that the whole creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration when it will be release from its bondage and share in the glorious lives of the children of God, when it will not be just dry inert matter, but translucent with divine glory.” (Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream, p.3) Do we believe that God can cast out the demons in us? Do we believe that God transfigures the horrible into the beautiful?
God can take our woundedness and refine it into beauty. It is at that moment when God’s world and ours meet, where heaven and earth are being wed, and where God’s matter — God’s highly original creation within us and within our world – begins to take on the beautiful shape and form of possibility and comes to light.
Just how big is God’s love?
Just how much do you think God loves you?
Just how much light do you think shines in you?
Just how much hope are you called to give
Just how much justice are you called to speak
Just how much love is in you to offer the world?
Seek these questions, go up in the mountains, into the chaos of our lives, stay centered on the light of Christ, and be transfigured. Amen.