What are we to make of this strange story we usually call the Transfiguration? What is it asking of us? With some texts the answer to that last question is pretty clear. When Jesus says, “Let your light so shine before others than others may see it and give thanks to your father in heaven,” we know what Jesus is asking. It is not always easy to let your light shine, to reflect Christ in your life, but the admonition is pretty clear. Or when Jesus offers the parable of the Good Samaritan, there are many nuances in the story, but the central point is as bright and piercing as a diamond: “Go and do likewise.” Be more like the Samaritan.
This story is not like that. The details are shrouded in mystery; the gospel writers don’t agree on the details. Maybe it was a dream, a vision, a supernatural occurrence shrouded by a dense cloud. They aren’t sure. Is there any way to describe what happens to Jesus which makes sense to modern ears? Jesus is praying and suddenly his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white—how do you explain that? The short answer, I think, is “you don’t.” The gospel writers are not so much interested in giving us a quick “life lesson for today” as inviting us to experience a mystery which makes time stand still and causes our normal perceptions of both Jesus and the world fade into the background.
The Psalmist writes, “Be still and know that I am God.” That’s what this story is about, a moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary, when the mundane tasks of life and ministry are literally left at the bottom of the mountain, when like a landscape lit up by a flash of lightning, the disciples’ perception is heightened and they are brought face to face with the majesty of God.
We have analogies to the mystery of this text in our own experience: You are riding your bicycle on the Huckleberry on a late fall afternoon, the sun filtering through the gold and red leaves. Suddenly, you are overcome with a sense that this moment is precious beyond measure, a distillation of delicate beauty which fills you with thanksgiving that you are alive to see it….You’ve seen your hand thousands of times, but on this day you really see it; you contemplate it as the biological marvel it is: millions of bones, neurons, muscles, ligaments, and tendons and blood cells operating in perfect synchronicity so that you can pick up a French fry….You look across the supper table at your spouse or child. You’ve done it daily for years,. But this day you see their life as the precious gift it is to you—and you want to fall on your knees and hold them close in worship and adoration.
Yes, we have analogies to the mystery of the Transfiguration, moments when we see with special clarity, instants when the holy bursts its earthly veneer. But they are only analogies and to call our experiences transfigurations risks trivializing this text, because Luke and the other gospel writers intend this story to communicate that this Jesus is like no other person. It is fashionable in some circles to reduce Jesus to one among many teachers, prophets, mystics, or social reformers—admirable yes, but finally no more than one among many. The gospel writers intend a bolder claim for Jesus of Nazareth.
There is no doubt that Luke wants to place Jesus within the noble tradition of Israel. Many details in the story, most notably the appearance of Moses and Elijah, communicate that the life and ministry of Jesus arise out of the covenant which God made with this chosen people. The best of that tradition—its passion for doing justice and mercy, it’s desire to be a blessing for all peoples, it’s trust in God—all of these Jesus is proud to claim, say the gospel writers. But he is more.
When Peter innocently suggests what amounts to three equal shrines for the three great leaders, God vetoes the idea. A great cloud descends on the scene and a voice says, in essence, “Weren’t you paying attention; what do you think that dazzling radiance was all about? This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” How it happens it not really clear, but what it means is unmistakable—Jesus is set apart from even the greatest of those who have come before.
I said earlier that this text is not so much about our response as it is as about revealing who Jesus is—but it does invite a response: “Listen to him.” At first glance this seems merely an order to pay attention in class. The gospels are filled with Jesus’ pithy and provocative teaching, so sure, we should listen up when Jesus speaks. But the placement of these words is significant—and therefore calls us to hear one thing in particular.
Just preceding today’s text Jesus has told the disciples what they are to expect in the coming days. “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed, and on the third day be raised…If any many would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” This, says Jesus, is what it means to follow me. In today’s lesson, as if to emphasize the point, Luke tells us that the topic of conversation between Jesus, Elijah, and Moses was Jesus’ coming departure, which he would accomplish in Jerusalem.
Do you see what happens? This glorious revelation of Jesus as exalted son of god is jammed up against the brutal reality of his suffering and death. Jesus has told them what it means to follow him and he tells them again in the days ahead. On the top of the mountain the voice urges the disciples—and us—to pay attention, really pay attention to what it means to follow him one who combines authority and humility, power and service.
The Transfiguration story is placed as the hinge between the Epiphany and Lent seasons, the seasons in which we focus on how Jesus is revealed and where that revelation takes him. In this story we see Jesus revealed in all his glory and glimpse what being faithful will cost him. This is a story about Jesus, but it is also about us because it calls us to listen, follow, and be transformed by the journey.
Heidi Neumark was a pastor in the wretchedly poor South Bronx of New York City. When she arrived at Transfiguration Lutheran Church it was on the verge of closing. Like many others it was a church which was just barely holding on in the aftermath of the white flight which had changed the neighborhood. It was bunkered down, trying to keep out the forces of decay at its doors. In her spiritual autobiography, Neumark talks about how the congregation decided to open its doors and be engaged in its community. Slowly, as it embraced ministry to its neighborhood it was itself reenergized. By serving it allowed the glory of God to shine in that dark place, in trying to be an agent of transformation it was itself transformed. Drawing on today’s text Neumark frames the experience this way:
“… living high up in the rarefied air isn't the point of transfiguration…[The glory revealed atop the mountain was] never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level.”
We are on the edge of Lent. Like the disciples we have been given a vision of God’s amazing power in Jesus. The dazzling Christ reminds us of what power is available to us in our struggles, both personal and public. Like them we can look out and see many opportunities for ministry at our door, if we choose. My prayer is that in this Lenten season and the coming days, Luther Memorial will be transformed and the power of Christ will shine out from us into our community.