“…This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
Have you seen that TV commercial for ChoiceHotels.com? It’s the one where a bunch of ad execs are sitting around a conference table looking at a potential TV spot for Choice Hotels. The video they watch shows a happy couple who are so delighted they have booked through Choice that they give off a radiant glow. A young ad man cynically responds to the video by saying, “Nobody glows.” The boss points to him and replies, “He gets it.”
So, seriously, who glows? The idea that a human being can emit a dazzling light is one of the things which makes the Feast of the Transfiguration a hard sell for a preacher. It’s a weird miracle story, the full cultural significance of which may be lost to time and distance. In Luke’s version (Luke 9:28-36), Jesus is on something of a prayer retreat with Peter, James, and John on a mountain top. As he prays, his face is changed and his clothes appear dazzlingly white. This would be bizarre enough, but the boys with him suddenly see the figures of Moses and Elijah appearing with their teacher, and conversing about Jesus’ “departure” which will happen in Jerusalem. There’s lots of confusing stuff here. Why does Jesus glow? How do the three disciples recognize Moses and Elijah—who have been dead for centuries—in this pre-photographic age? What exactly do they mean by his “departure?” What does it all mean?
Like all good pastors with too little time on my hands to figure all of this out, I’m just going to pick and choose elements of this story and hope to God I have something relevant to say about it. First, I’m not sure that nobody glows. Okay, nobody actually emits light, but we could use the term metaphorically. When someone is seized by great joy, don’t they seem to be giving off a shine? Haven’t we seen a bride glow as she walks down the aisle to her beloved? Or, have you seen the brilliance on the face of a new parent? There are moments which seem so exquisitely lovely, so much like a glimpse of heaven that our faces seem to radiate.
I think that’s what’s happening here. Perhaps what this story is describing is not what Jesus experiences, but rather what Peter, James, and John were experiencing in his presence. The sublime one-ness Jesus has with the Father God was something which became real to those guys on that mountain. They may not have understood Jesus, but they knew when they looked at him that they were having a divine encounter. Of course, the problem with divine encounters on mountaintops is that they don’t last forever. In fact, they’re over almost as soon as we recognize that they’re occurring. Peter is so thrilled with the joy of the Lord that he wants to pitch some tents and just stay with Jesus in that beautiful but isolated moment. Too bad he can’t.
The Revised Common Lectionary marries this story to the story of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 34:29-35. Moses is glowing so much after his mountaintop chat with the Lord that he has to put a veil over his face so he doesn’t blind the other Israelites. By the time of St. Paul, however, this story has been modified. Paul thought the veil was Moses’ tricky way of keeping the others from finding out that the glow quickly wears off. (2 Corinthians 3:13)
That’s why I appreciate that the good ol’ boys who cooked up the RCL have given us the option for Transfiguration to read on to verse 43. This whole section together might just hold a mirror up to who we are as disciples of Jesus. There are a bunch of different characters in this story, and they all know Jesus, but they all have different reactions.
First, we have Peter, James, and John. They’ve had the mountaintop experience. They’ve seen the glow. They want—at least Peter wants—to stay on that mountain alone with Jesus and feel that warm glow of his presence. But they can’t. None of us can. They have to get used to the idea that the world exists below that summit, and they’re just going to have to carry that small moment of bliss with them back into the smelly outhouse of daily life.
Then there are the other disciples who haven’t had the experience. They’re just plodding along, waiting for Jesus to get back. They don’t think they can do anything on their own. They seem to be suffering from a nasty case of low self-esteem or, as the sociologists call it, surplus powerlessness. Jesus actually gets a little pissed off with these boys when he’s told they were unable to cure the epileptic boy in verses 37-42. I can see Jesus saying to them, “Didn’t you guys even try?! You saw how this kid and his dad are suffering. Isn’t this your mission as well as mine?” I guess these disciples, even after witnessing myriad acts of healing by Jesus, even after hearing an authoritative gospel from his lips, still don’t really believe that God will give them the power to make a holy change and declare God’s glory. Jesus is right to be annoyed with them.
Finally, of course, there’s the dad of the epileptic boy himself. He believes Jesus can heal. At least he wants to believe it. He seems pretty desperate. He knows about Jesus, but only comes to him when he’s in real trouble. He’s the guy who proves the old saying, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” I don’t think he has a living faith in Christ. Rather, he’s got a kind of superstitious faith which turns to Jesus in his moment of fear.
There’s just so much rich stuff in the Transfiguration story that I can’t possibly do it justice, even though this is the twenty-first time I’ve been called on to preach about it at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia. So I’ll go with this: the three reactions to Jesus in this story—the ones who want to stay on the mountaintop, the ones who don’t believe they can do God’s work, and the one who stands outside and only comes to Christ out of fear—are pretty lousy examples of people living a faith.
Whether we’ve had the mystical experience or not, we all have to come off the mountain some time and deal with the real world. But we can’t assume that we are powerless in it. Jesus has called us to be people in mission to each other, and that means believing that achieving the mission is possible. Sometimes the cloud overshadows us and we are terrified, but we have the voice of Jesus to guide us as we march toward our own cross and our own resurrection.
Keep the faith, my friend, and drop by again, won’t you?