February 7, 2016 – Transfiguration Sunday
Introduction: Chapter 9 is a turning point in Luke’s story of Jesus. The beginning of the chapter has Jesus giving to his disciples power and authority over all demons and curing diseases and he sends the disciples out to proclaim the realm of God and to heal. The middle of the chapter is the transfiguration story. Then at the end of the chapter, Jesus will leave his ministry in the area of Galilee and be on his way to Jerusalem where he will meet controversy and conflict, where he will suffer and be killed and at the end be raised from the dead.
There are a lot of overlays in this story with other stories we hear in Luke’s gospel as well as the story of Moses in the Hebrew scripture. So as I read the transfiguration story this morning I will add a few comments along the way to help us hear the text in a larger context.
Read Luke 9.28-43.
v. 28: Begins with a reference to Jesus’ sayings. In verses 24-26. Jesus says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” “What do you gain if you get all sorts of wealth but lose your true self?” and “The one of whom you are ashamed today may be your judge tomorrow.”
v. 31: “Departure” literally is “exodus” – invoking Moses and the exodus. The Exodus, of course, being the people of God leaving enslavement in Egypt through a wilderness journey eventually coming into freedom in the promised land. For Jesus it will be the journey through suffering and death to resurrection.
v. 34: Terrified: The only other place where this same Greek word shows up is chapter 2 when the birth of Jesus is announced to the shepherds. “Then an angel of the Lord stood before [the shepherds], and the glory of the [Holy God] shone around them, and they were terrified.”
v. 35: “My Chosen”: some ancient manuscripts of Luke 9 say “my Beloved.” You might remember a similar voice in a cloud earlier in the gospel when Jesus is baptized. The voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ baptism and those divine words back in chapter 3 mark the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Now, again, similar divine words mark the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. And, also like at his baptism, this experience happens while Jesus is at prayer.
Author Lillian Daniel, writing about the Transfiguration said, “When people tell you that Christianity does not relate to their day-to-day lives, this is generally the kind of story they are referring to.” So we have a challenge this morning! Let’s see if we can make some real-life connection with this story.
One thing that seems significant in this story is that the transfiguration happens in the midst of prayer. Luke says Jesus took Peter and John and James with him, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying the presence of God overshadows them. Jesus came close to God and God came close to him. Luke particularly makes a point that significant events in the life of Jesus happen when he is praying.
Now that word “overshadow” shows up only one other place in Luke’s gospel. It’s back in chapter 1 when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear a child who will be the Son of the Most High. When Mary asks how she will be able to give birth to the child she is asked to bear, the angel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” It’s the same word for Mary as for Jesus, Peter, James and John: overshadow.
Writer Jan Richardson says, “When God shows up, God often appears in and through people: God goes not for architecture” that is, the dwellings Peter wants to make up there on the mountaintop,
“but for anatomy…God seeks to make of us a dwelling, a habitation for the holy” in our bodies.
Mary, Peter, John and James, leave their encounters, their experiences of the Holy, “carrying something they had not previously known.”
In that overshadowing cloud, they hear a voice that says of Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Listen to him; don’t try to control the Holy—making assigned spaces for the Divine.
Peter wanted to memorialize this occasion. Make it something that he and others could come back to. But maybe when God overshadows you, when God dwells in you, there is no going back. Maybe there is only going forward.
Maybe there has been a time in your life where you came close to God and God came close to you. You carry the experience with you. And the Spirit keeps working on you. You don’t always understand it but as you keep living, maybe a little bit of illumination breaks in, bit by bit. You carry it with you, pondering it in your heart, like Mary did after the shepherds came and told her what the angels said about her baby. In the story of the transfiguration, Peter, James and John keep silent about what they have experienced and tell no one. Perhaps they are also pondering. Holding this mysterious experience in their hearts. An experience that will accompany them and lead them in what is to come.
A mysterious experience that begins in prayer.
The transfiguration is a significant turning point in Jesus’ life. If you remember the story of the Exodus—the Hebrew people fleeing Egypt to escape slavery, wandering through the wilderness for 40 years before crossing the Jordan River into the promised land—it was not an easy journey. It was long, it was arduous, it was filled with doubt and frustration and anger. The people turned against their leader Moses. They were so scared they wanted to go back to Egypt—the very place where they had been slaves.
So if you think about how difficult it was for the people of God to leave oppression and move to freedom, Luke is telling us Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem will also be difficult. It will include suffering and grief and anguish before he will be glorified. And in this moment on the mountain, Jesus is reminded who he is and what his life is about. There is no promise of an easy life but there is a confirmation of who God has created him to be—a confirmation for Jesus and for Peter, James and John.
Sometimes we think of “mountaintop experiences” as beautiful sunsets and an escape from the world. That’s not this story. Professor Paul Galbreath says this mountaintop experience was “preparation for and [a] recommitment to the nitty-gritty work of encountering the demonic forces that oppress, subjugate, and hold people captive.”
And the very next day, Jesus and his disciples are met by a crowd of people, including a man whose only child is held captive by an evil spirit. Transfiguration doesn’t take Jesus out of the painful suffering of the world, it puts him right into it. And the disciples too.
We may feel a little funny talking about evil spirits but think about demons we know today: addiction, poverty, racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia. These are certainly demons that “oppress, subjugate, and hold people captive”—they hold individuals and whole communities captive.
Earlier in chapter 9, Jesus has given the disciples power and authority over all demons and to cure disease, but for some reason they are unable to cast out this demon and heal the boy. The story doesn’t tell us why. But it does tell us that Jesus can. “Jesus rebukes the evil spirit, and the demon exits the young boy as a sign of the power of God incarnate in Jesus Christ.” The power of God the three disciples encountered on the mountain: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
So in this story we have a mystery encountered in prayer that prepares us to meet the suffering in the world through the power of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. It was true for the disciples then. May it be true for us today.
Lord God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us. Amen.
* * *
 Fred B. Craddock, Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 131.
 Ibid., 134.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 152.
 Lillian Daniel, “Dazzling and Beloved” in The Lectionary Preaching Planner,” eds. Janna L Childers, Lucy A. Rose, Leonora Tubbs Tisdale and Beverly A. Zink-Sawyer, Nashville: Abingdon, 1996-2004.
 http://paintedprayerbook.com/2009/02/15/transfiguration-sunday-show-and-dont-tell/, accessed 6 February 2016.
 Paul Galbreath, “Homiletical Perspective – Luke 9.28-43a,” Feasting on the Gospels – Luke Vol. 1, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 271.
 Quoted in Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), p274.