February 7, 2016
I have a confession to make. I have not yet seen the new Star Wars movie. I will probably loose my membership in MennoNerds if this gets out, but I’m actually not that interested in seeing it. Partly that’s because I’m not really familiar with the whole story. I mean, sure, I’ve seen the original movie and I think probably the second and third ones—a long time ago. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the prequels. I just don’t have a sense of the full scope of the story. So I could watch the new movie and probably enjoy the contained narrative well enough, but I’d be missing out on a lot.
That’s sort of where we are with our story this morning. With Jesus and Peter and John and James on the mountaintop. It’s a good enough story in and of itself. Pretty spectacular really. (I had suggested Elinor might want to use a fog machine and laser lights for the table display, but she went in a different direction.) Still, if you don’t know the full scope of the story that comes before—and after—this moment, you can’t really appreciate the story of the Transfiguration.
The second Moses and Elijah show up on that mountain, the entire Jewish tradition of the Exodus and the prophets is brought to bear on this story—and on Jesus’ life and ministry. It’s not enough to know just this story. You have to know all of The Story. One of my friends argued in a blog post this week that contemporary congregations are not Biblically literate enough to even deal with the Transfiguration. It’s too complicated, requires too much knowledge of Exodus, of 1 and 2 Kings.
Fortunately, you all are highly intelligent people. Many of you sang “Pharaoh, Pharaoh” at camp—which covers the Exodus. And we just did an entire sermon series on Elijah and Elisha last fall—which I’m sure you all remember every detail of. I trust that most of you know the Biblical story better than I know the Star Wars saga–so we’re going to jump in and try this.
The story of the Transfiguration. Our story takes place, according to Luke’s gospel, eight days after Jesus said “these things.” “These things” being things like: “The son of man must undergo great suffering . . . and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
At this point in the Gospel, Jesus is moving closer to Jerusalem, speaking of his upcoming death more and more, dealing with his oblivious disciples and the hostile religious authorities and the needy, needy crowds. He is worn out. And so he goes up on the mountain to pray, taking his inner circle—James, John, and Peter—with him.
I don’t know if you have ever prayed yourself to sleep or not, but that’s what I imagine going on with the three disciples. They are physically and emotionally exhausted, talking to God and slipping into that space where conscious prayer and wandering mind melt together and your heavy eyelids start to slide closed . . . just on the cusp of prayer giving way to dreams when Moses and Elijah show up.
Moses, who had survived a death sentence, who had confronted an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew slave, who had told Pharaoh to let God’s people go, who had called forth the plagues and led an often ungrateful people through the harsh wilderness. Moses who met God on Mount Horeb and received the ten commandments. Moses is on the mountain.
And Elijah, who had also survived a death sentence, also confronted a king—and queen, who fed the widow and raised her son, who took on the prophets of Baal. Elijah who also met God on Mount Horeb, not in the earthquake or the whirlwind or the fire, but in the still small voice. Elijah is on the mountain.
And Jesus, who also confronted powerful leaders; who also fed the hungry and healed the sick; who also led confused people through a type of wilderness; who also confronted false gods. Jesus who also comes to a mountain to pray. Jesus who will also, in his own way, survive a death sentence.
In thinking about these three particular men, I realize that all of them were called by God to do difficult things: to free enslaved people, to confront a corrupt government, to redeem the world. Difficult tasks, to be sure.
It is the difficult task to which Jesus has been called that the three men discuss on the mountain: his “departure.” When I read in this week’s passage that they were speaking of Jesus’ “departure,” I was caught off guard, because for all of the times I have read and heard this story, I’d never noticed that detail before. I think I never noticed because it’s really easy to skim over, and because it is only in Luke’s version—Matthew and Mark don’t mention what exactly the men are talking about.
Moses and Elijah have done hard things—impossible things—for God, and now they are talking with Jesus about the hard thing that God is calling him to do. They are speaking with him of his “departure”–not his departure to Jerusalem, but the departure that he will accomplish in Jerusalem. His crucifixion.
Jesus must be relieved to have someone to talk to about his death, because his disciples have proved less-than-helpful conversation partners. The disciples continue to cling to their image of a triumphant messiah, even as Jesus brings up his impending death more and more frequently. They don’t want to accept the fact that Jesus will be killed. I say “they” because I assume that most of the disciples felt this way, but it is Peter, of course, who is the primary spokesperson. In Matthew 16, when Jesus tells the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and die, Peter yells out, “Never, Lord! These things must never happen to you!”
So it should not surprise us that, while Moses and Elijah are talking with Jesus about his departure, Peter is suggesting that he build three dwelling places right there on the mountain—so everyone can stay put.
Jesus needs this time with Moses and Elijah; he needs this conversation with people who know what it is to do hard things for God; people who will encourage him to follow God’s path even though it is unpopular and uncomfortable and terrifying. Just as God came to Moses and Elijah on Mount Horeb to encourage and guide them in their work, God also comes to Jesus on this mountain of Transfiguration.
That’s another thing the three men have in common: not just that they did hard things for God, but also that God came to them in some pretty astounding ways in the midst of their hard work and struggle.
Moses had the burning bush, and the miracles before Pharaoh, and the water from the rock, and manna from heaven, and the voice on Mt. Horeb.
Elijah had the ravens bringing him food, and the replenishing oil and flour, and the fire from heaven, and the chariot of fire, and the voice on Mt. Horeb.
Jesus had the baptismal blessing, and the angels in the wilderness, and the multiplying food, and the miraculous healings, and the voice on the mountain.
God had called these men to hard tasks, yes. But God also provided the encouragement they needed to carry out their calls. God provided physical and spiritual nourishment to them at their times of need so that they could, ultimately, carry out the difficult tasks God had entrusted to them.
And that is a comforting thought, right? To know that if God calls us to some difficult task, God will walk with us, God will provide for us so that we can accomplish that task. Especially as the problems that face our world seem so overwhelming: poverty and racism and gun violence and sexism and heterosexism and materialism and . . . and . . . and . . . We know that there are a lot of things that need to be done for God’s will to come on earth. What if God calls us to a difficult task?
The story of the Transfiguration—the stories of Moses and Elijah and Jesus—provides comfort. This story assures us that if God calls us to a difficult task, we will be allowed to hear God’s voice and experience God’s encouragement.
Of course, we can also read this story in a slightly less comforting way. What if we have it backwards? What if it’s not that those who are called to a hard task get to hear the voice of God?
What if it is that any of us foolish enough to listen for God’s voice will be given a hard task?
What if Moses had seen that burning bush and walked in the opposite direction? He would never have had to confront Pharaoh.
The only thing we know about Elijah’s background is that his name means “my God is Yahweh.” What if he had just decided that his God was not Yahweh? He could have been a regular person instead of a prophet.
What if Jesus had spent less time in prayer listening to God and more time listening to Peter?
Was God present with these men because they were called to do hard things?
Or were they called to do hard things because they paid attention to God’s presence?
If it’s the latter, then I would say we are all pretty brave to show up here week after week.