Luke 9: 28-43 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ March 3, 2019
Have you had an experience of God in your life? A deep, powerful, life-changing experience of God’s presence right in the midst of your day. An experience of God’s presence that changed you…in the moment…that may have been a turning point…that may have forever changed your life forever. My most powerful moments of experiencing God would be in the story of my call to ministry, a call to leave one career direction and change paths. It’s interesting timing to speak about this because as we lifted up Doug Lobb and his family following the passing of Chris, it was Doug who was the main person I spoke with about these experiences of God in my life. And what about you? What about the experiences of God you have received? To be sure, it isn’t always a ‘lightning bolt’ experience that we have…sometimes it is more of a feeling of comfort…of presence…of knowing that all things will be well…of knowing that ‘you are not alone’. Sometimes it happens here ~ at the communion table ~ in the sharing of bread and wine, that we truly have a religious experience of Christ in our midst…sometimes it happens in nature ~ on a walk in the woods…sometimes at bedside ~ during prayer. It happens in a myriad of ways…God enters our life and makes God-self known.
For the first disciples, for Peter, James and John, it happened on a mountain top. Mountaintops have always been one place where the holy is encountered. We think about Noah landing on Mt. Ararat after seeing the rainbow promise of God, of God providing for Abraham on Mt. Moriah rather than needing to have his son sacrificed, of Moses receiving the ten commandments on Mt. Sinai and later seeing the Promised Land from Mt. Pisgah, of Elijah on Mt. Carmel proving God’s power to supreme, of the mountain-hill on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus gave his famous sermon on the Mount or Mt. Olivet where Jesus would pray in the Garden of Gethsamane. Mountains have always been that place where we have sensed God’s presence, God’s guidance, God’s grace. And this morning, we read of the story of the disciples ascending Mt. Tabor and having an other-worldly experience of the revelation of Jesus in the Transfiguration.
I was recently in conversation with two young adults whose faith had just come alive. I wonder if this is akin to what is being described in this morning’s text. The young adults described their experience of attending a church service…of who it was like the music ~ spoke to them…as if the words of the minister ~ spoke to them…as if Jesus was right there ~ speaking to them. The three gospel accounts record it around vision ~ Jesus became alive. His clothes “became dazzling white”. And on either side of him, the prophets and the law: Moses ~ the giver of the Law; and Elijah ~ the one who began the prophetic tradition. What a powerful image to behold. Scholars speak of Transfiguration as a composite of the entire gospel tradition. We have Jesus’ baptism recalled as the cloud overshadows them and they hear the words once spoken at Jesus’ baptism “this my Son, my chosen, listen to him”. There is the sense of Jesus being a fulfillment of the law ~ with Moses on one side, and a fulfillment of the prophetical tradition ~ with Elijah on the other. There are the passion predictions of Jesus suffering and death. There is the promise of Jesus’ resurrection, his ascension and his promised coming again. The transfiguration is the ‘gospel in miniature’. It is the entire experience of Jesus, fully revealed, for Peter, James and John. It makes us ponder about our own sacred experiences with the divine…and await the ones that will continue to come. So precious and beautiful…these liminal moments in our lives
The problem with these mountain top experiences with God is that they are not meant to be stand-alone moments. They are designed to inform what comes next…they occur in order to fuel our spirits…to empower the journey that continues. We are called to shine! In short, we can’t just stay on the mountain. The disciples wanted to stay on the mountaintop, didn’t they? Their immediate reaction was to set up camp and stay as long as possible. They offer to build tents, dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. They want to get comfortable, stay and bask in the divine glory and ‘stay put’. This is understandable, isn’t it? We all seek comfort, care and kindness. What better place to bask than in the light of God’s glory and experience this wonderful sight! Wouldn’t you stay as long as you could? Make God comfortable, so God would stay with you at your side in the comfortable isolation of a mountain…far away from your enemies…far away from any worry or fear…the temptation is so strong to stay.
A moment of honesty as we continue. There was an interesting decision that needed to be made with this morning’s reading. The Revised Common Lectionary Committee that prescribed the reading for this year’s text, gave us two options. The reading in Luke is actually in two parts: Luke 9:28-36, with an ‘option’ of reading verses 37-43. The option gives us a choice if we want to really dive deeply into our human desire to bask in the light of God versus the call to, what I would name: “Transfigured Living”. The prescribed section of the text, just gives us the transfiguration narrative. The optional section, verses 37-43 tells the story of what the three disciples do after descending the mountaintop experience. After the mountaintop experience, after they had been filled with the full light of God, they had gone back and were unable to do the work that Jesus had charged them to do. The text says of the disciples that “they kept silent and told no one of the things they had seen”. When Jesus later comes on the scene he finds a father and son who the disciples had not been successful in healing; he heals the boy; and he condemns the disciples for not sharing the light he had cast upon them. “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” Looking at the two options, perhaps you would have preferred that I elected for ‘option A’ and left that part of the reading out? It does sting because those words are directed at all of us. Calling us, in our unique ways, to offer healing, light and hope to others. And we know how deeply hard that truly is, don’t we? We love to have the rare spiritual experience in our lives, and we can recall that, in vivid colour. But, when it comes to sharing that experience, sharing that light, sharing God’s healing with others…that’s not so easy, is it? I suspect that no one here feels adequate about the way we have lived as a disciple of Jesus, and we give thanks for God’s forgiveness and grace. But the challenge…the call in this text is to reflect back the light that we have seen in God back into the world.
The image on the screen is from the 16th Century Italian painter, Raphael. His painting, entitled “Transfiguration” is set out in two distinct sections. In the upper half, it depicts the first half of this morning’s text. Peter, James and John basking in the full light of God’s revelation. Elijah and Moses on either side of Jesus…revealed in dazzling light. The clouds overhead speaking “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”. The lower half of the painting reveals the second part of the reading. We see the chaos in the world that needs our light. Frustration is in the air. We see a father fearing for the life of his son. We see life falling apart. And, the disciples cannot cure. The top is filled with light, yet the bottom is filled with darkness. How can the light find its way from the top to the bottom? Will the disciples find a way to carry that light down the mountain? Will the transfiguration be for naught? Or will that light be carried with those who have seen the light and share it with the father and his son? With all those who need light amidst their challenges? The question remains…
I’d like to close with a story of Transfiguration Luther Church, located in the South Bronx area of New York. In her book, “Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx”, Heidi Neumark offers her memoirs of her ministry as the minister of the church. It reads as a story of a community struggling, located amidst poverty and the myriad of problems that accompany such a demon – the challenges caused from lack of education and opportunity; sad stories of crime and drug use; a heart breaking epic devoid of hope. It is also an epiphany story about a church. A church that became increasingly afraid in its changing neighbourhood. A church that had kept its doors shut tight to the changing world around it. Rev. Neumark writes: “When Peter and the others came down from the mountain, they found a father and a child gasping for life. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And they found transfiguration. And so it is. When the disciples of the Bronx church unlocked the doors of their private shelter and stepped out into their neighbourhood, they met the distress of the community convulsed and mauled by poverty…but they also discovered the transfiguration as a congregation in connection with others”.
I think the real wisdom in the decision of the Lectionary committee to include the story after the transfiguration is found in how that second part of the story becomes the real transfiguration for the disciples. Peter, James and John don’t become disciples after seeing the full revelation of Jesus amidst Moses and Elijah. They become disciples after Jesus calls them to task…hard words, but words spoken in love…that they might do Jesus’ mission of love and light…not just basking in his glory…that they might be ambassadors of Jesus’ glory where Jesus’ light shines through them. If we were to read on in the text, it is from that moment on that they become prepared to receive Jesus’ challenging teaching in living in His Way. At Northwood, we name it ‘embracing the community with the love of Christ’. The way we do it is dynamic, ebbing and flowing from year to year, but the important thing is that we do it, that we live it, that we be Christ’s living body in the ways that we are enabled. May it be so.