This is our final Sunday before we enter the season of Lent, which will kick off this Wednesday with Ash Wednesday. I invite you to begin the coming season on Wednesday with me first thing in the morning at Misha’s for coffee and ashes, and then to join as a community Wednesday evening as we worship together in our 6:30 evening service.
As we look toward the season of Lent, a season of preparation for Easter, there is much to be discerned for each of us. Lent is a season of renewal, a season of rededication, and a time to reflect on our need as individuals, as a community, and as a world that culminates in the celebration on Easter morning.
This text we heard proclaimed this morning, the story of the transfiguration of Christ, is often shared as we look toward the season of Lent. Just prior to their departure up the mountain, Jesus was gathered with all of the disciples. For the first time, he forewarned them of his future to come. In verse 22, he sternly speaks to them, saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He goes on to invite them to continue to stay with him, saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
This invitation by Christ is once more extended to those of us who know the future to come for the Lord. As we enter into a season of renewal, beginning this Wednesday, we are all to well aware of the events that will be discussed and remembered that final week prior to Easter. And just as Christ did with the disciples, we are once more invited to be followers of the one who will be rejected, killed, and raised from the dead. This call, as is extended to us each, is not one of glory – it is a call to deny ourselves, and to take up our cross daily.
This is the final celebration of who we believe Christ to be even prior to his death and resurrection. Following the descent of the disciples and Jesus back down the mountain and a few encounters between Jesus, the disciples, and the local townsfolk, we read shortly in verse 51 that Jesus is setting his face to go to Jerusalem. This story of the transfiguration is perhaps best understand as the beginning of the end – and yet, it is found only in chapter 9 of Luke’s 24 chapters. All that happens henceforth will lead us directly to Jerusalem, to the temple, to the garden, to Golgotha, to the empty tomb.
So let us this morning journey up the mountain to share in the experience of the transfiguration with Peter, James, and John. What do we glean as disciples of this miraculous and mysterious mountain top experience, and how does it teach us to be ever faithful disciples today?
We make our way up the mountain. There is no universal agreement on which mountain this took place. Some believe it to be Mount Tabor – identified as early as the third century to be the correct site. Mt. Tabor is located to the Southeast of the Sea of Galilee. Other scholars believe the transfiguration to have taken place atop Mount Hermon due to it’s height and proximity to Caesarea Philippi, a bit north of the Sea of Galilee. Caesarea Philippi is the location Jesus has been in and around leading up to this story. Mount Hermon, a bit further North than Caesarea Philippi, is located on the border of Lebanon and Syria.
We have ventured up the mountain to provide us with a time to pray. Jesus has, after all, just recently named to us that he will be rejected by the Jewish leaders, killed in fact, and will be raised from the dead. Perhaps Jesus is in as much need of prayer as the disciples. Even you and I find ourselves in need of prayer when we hear or experience such shaking and unsettling news.
As Jesus is praying, the text tells us that his appearance changes, and his clothes become dazzling white. And there with him appear Moses and Elijah. The three of them appear together in glory and together, the three of them are speaking about his departure. The word used here is reminiscent of the word for ‘exodus.’ Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are talking about his impending exodus, which is to be accomplished in Jerusalem.
Perhaps in the top list of questions I ask when I stand at those pearly gates is the content of that conversation.
Moses and Elijah being present is of no small significance. Peter, James and John have been studying and following Jesus for some time now. Along with being faithful Jewish men, they have learned and studied under Jesus, their rabbi. They know who these men are and what they represent. Moses is the one who brought down from the mountain the stone tablets that contained the law. His presence is no doubt representative of the law of God. And Elijah, who we spoke some of last week, is one of the most well known prophets. These two men, present with Christ, represent not just two persons who are representatives of God, they represent all of the law and prophets. They represent the entirety of the word of God at that time – the entirety of the Hebrew Scripture.
For those who questioned Jesus, claiming he stood against the biblical story, this experience confirms that he is not to be understood in opposition of all that God has done – here is seen and accepted as being one with the law and the prophets. His way forward, his impending exodus and departure, is confirmed in this moment as being in accordance with the will of God.
Jesus and his disciples have travelled a long way to get to the pinnacle of the mountain. The disciples, we are told, are weighed down with sleep – they are exhausted. But, they stayed awake – they witnessed the presence of Moses and Elijah – they witnessed the transfiguration of Christ. Peter offers to build dwellings there – tents – for Moses and Elijah. But as he was speaking a great cloud came and overshadowed them.
Have you ever travelled in the heights of the mountains? Do you know what it looks like to be engulfed in a thick cloud? Sometimes, in but a moment’s notice, a cloud falls down upon you so thick you can’t see your hand at the end of your arm. The text says the disciples were terrified – I imagine this is not your gentle and pleasant cloud, but a stormy cloud, so thick you can’t see the end of your nose. I imagine the winds picked up, there was a loss of security felt by the disciples. And terrified there in that moment they hear a voice speak – “This my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
The voice rings out, and it reminds us of the baptism of Christ, that as he came out of the water, the heavens echoed, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him, I am well pleased.” At first, we see God affirming his call to a life in ministry; and here, a second time, we see God becoming him to fulfill his call toward Jerusalem.
And in that moment, as the voice softens out, the clouds clear, and we find the disciples standing with Jesus alone.
I don’t know what the disciples felt in that moment. I try to imagine myself in their shoes – the immense awe … the unspeakable wonder … the chills I must be feeling to find myself having seen and experienced what just transcribed.
And then on the next day.
That’s where the text takes us next – “On the next day,” it reads.
How I long to have had a few more moments to just stand on that mountain top.
All the text tells us is that the disciples kept silent and told no one what they had seen. I’m not a certified counselor, but I’m pretty sure that I would have pushed them to say something. Let’s debrief for a few minutes – give me something? And what about the trip back down the mountain. No side conversations? You don’t think anyone felt like asking Jesus what just happened? We get nothing.
But on the next day, the text says, we find ourselves back down from the mountain.
Before we look at what happens back down the mountain, I want to back up and take a look at the first few verses of this chapter. In verse 1 of this ninth chapter, Luke tells us that Jesus called the twelve and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases. Verse 6 then tells us that they exercised those powers. It says, “They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.”
So, we’re clear on the background info – the disciples have been given the power to heal, and they have shown that they can use the power of God to heal. And yet, we then jump back to our text today in verse 38. A man from the crown shouts, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son …” The child shrieks and seizes, and the text makes it clear to us this is the work of a spirit.
The man continues in his plea, “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
What has happened? Why were the disciples able, and all of a sudden, they can no longer exercise those God given powers?
Jesus seems none too thrilled. Did you catch his reaction, he responds, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”
“You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”
Jesus rebukes the spirit, heals the boy, and gives him back to the father, and all were astounded at the greatness of God.
There is so much to unpack here, I could say I’m just getting started this morning.
It would do us well to acknowledge the importance of descending from the mountain top. The disciples found themselves stuck at the top.
Too often there is among faith communities a desire to remain so inwardly gathered that we fail to acknowledge the need of the greatness that God can seeks to provide outside our walls. The disciples had the greatness of God in Christ affirmed for them while on top of the mountain. There was – as we call it in the modern day world of religious terminology – a mountain top experience. There was a retreat from the norm that encountered a complete atmospheric change – literally – that resulted in a mental and spiritual awe of the work of God.
Only this mountain top experience in Luke 9 isn’t even comparable to modern day mountain top experiences – it was the transfiguration. It was the only time in our written historical records of the concurrent presence of the physical beings of Moses, Elijah, and Christ.
And being so filled with awe and wonder – having had it confirmed by the voice of what can only be defined as the Holy that this man – Jesus of Nazareth – your rabbi and teacher – this is the Son of God … these disciples should have come back down from the mountain so filled with the complete knowledge of the one who had given them the power to heal the infirm that they could have saved the life of any and all. And yet they failed because, while they may have physically come down the mountain, they were stuck in silence at the top of the mountain.
It would do us well to acknowledge the importance of descending from the mountain. If we get so wrapped up in ourselves and in our awe of God that we can not share the good news and the power that God has given us to make a difference in the lives of others – we have failed at being faithful disciples. There is nothing that frustrates the Lord more – we see it in the scriptures time and again – there is nothing that frustrates the Lord more than for faithful disciples to fail to grasp the power they have been given to change the hurting lives of God’s created ones. If we – physically, mentally, or spiritually – are stuck on top of the mountain … it’s time to hit the slopes and make our way down so that we may faithfully participate in the work of God’s love – healing, caring, sharing, and offering hope in this world.
We must come down from the mountain – fully down from the mountain.
Our experience of the transfiguration on top the mountain is a Spirit-filling interaction. It no doubt leaves us feeling robust with the power of God. Yet too often we confuse – intentionally or not – the power of God with the power of our own being.
What could have made the disciples incapable of healing the child? Christ had given them the power to excise demons – yet they could not. The scriptures don’t tell us why – they don’t expound upon the failure of the disciples – but perhaps the experience of the transfiguration left them feeling a bit too inflated. Perhaps when the descended the mountain, they left their spirit of awe and Christ-filled wonder atop the mountain, and brought only their personal egos back down.
When we try to accomplish the work of God without the power of God, when we try to receive the appreciation of others instead of the appreciation of God, or when we seek to make our name known instead of making the name of the Lord known – it becomes apparent that while we may have physically descended the mountain, we have left our knowledge of where our power comes from behind.
We must come down in full – and having come down, we must listen and engage with the community. We must be present with the knowledge and promise that God has given us the power, affirmed it in Christ, sustaining us with the Spirit, to make God’s love known and felt in this world. As we come down the mountain and enter this season of Lent, I call upon you to hear this text not just a reminder of the greatness of God or of the call on Christ to journey toward Jerusalem – may this text serve as our reminder that we are called – each of us called – to be part of the ministry and work of God in this world. Because there is nothing that frustrates the Lord more than hearing and seeing his disciples fail to carry out the ministry to which each of us has been called and empowered.
May we seek and live the will of our Lord.