On this final Sunday before Lent begins, we tell the story of the Transfiguration. The books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include some version of this story. Christians around the world are telling this story today, on this Sunday as we transition from the season of Epiphany to the season of Lent. This is a turning point in the story. We all know that transitions and turning points in our own lives are significant. But often we don’t recognize that we were in a transition, that things were changing, until we look back on it. In hindsight, we recognize it because we can clearly see what came before and what takes place afterwards. So in order for us to really appreciate this turning point, we need to know what came before it.
A lot has happened since last week when we heard the stories of Jesus honoring old traditions in new ways. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, and that made the Pharisees and teachers of the law very angry. It was threatening for them. That was chapter 6 and this morning we are in chapter 9 so here’s what has happened in between, leading up to this morning’s turning point story.
Jesus names 12 apostles out of all his followers. These 12 men form his inner circle.
Jesus preaches about the Kingdom of God. We get Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, plus some parables, and Jesus reassuring the followers of John the Baptist that Jesus is the one they have been waiting for; he is the one John expected.
Jesus heals diseases and casts out demons.
Jesus declares sins are forgiven.
Jesus calms a storm on the lake.
Jesus send the 12 apostles to preach, and heal, and cast out demons. They have seen the demonstrations and heard the teaching and so Jesus gives them authority and power to do what he has been doing.
When they come back, Jesus feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. Luke very deliberately uses the same language to tell this story that he will use when he tells the story of the Last Supper. In both cases, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to people.
And then he and the disciples go on a prayer retreat. While they are away, something important happens. This is Luke chapter 9, verses 18 through 25. I’m reading mostly from the Common English Bible.
Once when Jesus was praying by himself, the disciples joined him, and he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
They answered, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others that one of the ancient prophets has come back to life.”
He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered, “The Christ, which is Greek for the Messiah, sent from God.”
Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell this to anyone. He said, “The Human One (the Son of Man) must suffer many things and be rejected—by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts—and be killed and be raised on the third day.”
Jesus said to everyone, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them. For what benefit is there for a human being who gains the whole world but loses or forfeits their own self?Luke 9:18-25
The apostles have been traveling with Jesus. They have heard his teaching. They have witnessed his healings. They have received his authority and power and have had some success in their own preaching and healing. They have participated in his feeding a multitude of people. And now, finally Jesus asks them the all-important question. “Who do you say I am? With all that you have seen and done, what do you recognize? What do you profess?” On behalf of all of them, Simon Peter, the one who originally left his fishing boat and everything else to follow Jesus, he declares that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the Christ, the hope of Israel, the one who will release them from everything that holds them back. Yes!
And how does Jesus respond? He says, “Don’t tell anyone. And here’s what you need to know about the Messiah.” Jesus will suffer. He will be killed. And he will be resurrected. That is NOT what everything expects to happen to the Messiah. The Messiah is supposed to be a glorious conqueror who will put the Jewish people back on top, politically and economically and religiously. And also, the Messiah’s followers have to deny themselves, sacrifice their safety and their comfort and their power and even lose their lives for the sake of the Messiah. That is NOT what everyone expects to happen to the Messiah’s followers. These guys signed up for miracles and healing and power. Maybe some sacrifice right now in the meantime, but that’s because power and prestige are coming later. They did not sign up for carrying crosses and dying. This does not sound right.
OK. That’s what sets the stage for this morning’s story, the story of the Transfiguration. This is the turning point, and now we understand what came before it. So let’s keep reading. This morning’s story comes in two parts. The first part is about what we want. And the second part is about what Jesus wants. Here’s the first part.
About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’
departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem. Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him.
As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying. Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.
Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen.Luke 9:28-36
On either end of Lent there are two mountains. Before Lent begins we have this mountain, the mountain of transfiguration. And at the end of Lent, we have Golgotha, the hill of the cross. Here at this mountain of transfiguration we get the Jesus we want. This is how we want it to be. We want to be on the mountain with Jesus, basking in his holy glow. Mostly sleeping but waking up just in time to see the good stuff. Here we are spectators. We have no responsibility; we just watch the holy show. Bright and shiny Jesus, not bothering anybody, not asking anything from us, just putting on a really great display of glory. This is what we want.
And the way we know we want it is because of what Peter says. “Oh it’s so good that we’re here. Let’s build some shrines.” Let’s build some shrines. This is the experience we want so let’s put some structure around it so that we can recreate it. If we create some ritual and some rules and some programs and do them the right way, this awesome experience will happen again. Let’s pitch some tents and set up camp right here on this mountaintop, where it’s safe and comfy and holy and we are with our best friends and Jesus. Let’s stay here. This is the Jesus we want. This is the religion we want. This is what we want.
This is what I want. No demands for justice. Nobody who thinks differently from me. No debates about masks and vaccines and curfews and schools. No impeachment trial. No sweet baby waking up in the middle of the night. No broken hot water heaters or flat tires. Just me and a glorious Jesus. If I am honest, this is what I want.
But. Did you notice what happened right at the end? God interrupts us. God cuts us off mid-sentence and tells us that we need to listen to Jesus. So let’s read part two and see what Jesus wants. We’ve heard what we want; now let’s hear what Jesus wants.
The next day, when Jesus, Peter, John, and James had come down from the mountain, a large crowd met Jesus. A man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to take a look at my son, my only child. Look, a spirit seizes him and, without any warning, he screams. It shakes him and causes him to foam at the mouth. It tortures him and rarely leaves him alone. I begged your disciples to throw it out, but they couldn’t.”
Jesus answered, “You untrusting and corrupt generation, how long will I be with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon threw him down and shook him violently. Jesus spoke harshly to the unclean spirit, healed the child, and gave him back to his father. Everyone was overwhelmed by God’s greatness.
While everyone was marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, “Take these words to heart: the Human One is about to be delivered into human hands.” They didn’t understand this statement. Its meaning was hidden from them so they couldn’t grasp it. And they were afraid to ask him about it.Luke 9:37–43
We want to be on the mountain basking in the glow of transfigured Jesus. But Jesus wants to be in the world beside us as we do what he’s empowered us to do. We want to be on the mountain basking in the glow of transfigured Jesus. But Jesus wants to be in the world beside us as we do what he’s empowered us to do.
Jesus’ had given the apostles his power and authority specifically to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, to heal, and to cast out demons. And here we have a demon that they can’t cast out. Why not? Well, Jesus says it’s because they are untrusting and corrupt, or misled, or crooked. They don’t trust Jesus and they are thoroughly turned around. They don’t trust that the authority and power that Jesus has given them will come through when things get really hard. And they are thoroughly turned around, which I think means they are still expecting a glorious, glowing, triumphant Messiah. Not a suffering savior.
What Jesus wants is for them to trust: to trust him, to trust in what he’s given them, to trust in what he’s revealing to them about God’s plan. What Jesus wants for them is to step up because he’s not going to be around forever. From this point forward he’s headed towards Jerusalem and crucifixion. On the mount of transfiguration God the Father told them to listen to the Son. The son has told them how things are going to be, but they don’t want to hear it. And so he tells them again. At the very end of our story he said: “Take this to heart, get this into your head, literally let these words sink into your ears: I am going to suffer and be betrayed.” But they still don’t get it.
What Jesus wants is for us to understand the plan for suffering and get on board. At the beginning of Lent we get the Jesus we want on the mount of Transfiguration. And at the end of Lent we we get the Jesus we need on the hill of crucifixion. If we don’t accept what Jesus is telling us about the plan, we will not be able to accept the reality of the crucified Jesus. If we are only prepared to recognize shiny transfigured Jesus we will not understand the point of the suffering Jesus. If we think Jesus is only useful if he’s doing something we want, we will not be able to feel his presence as he comes along side us in our suffering. If we are only interested in having mountaintop religious experiences, we will forfeit the blessing of being used by Jesus to heal the mess of the world’s suffering.
The question for us in the turning point this morning, as we transition from Epiphany to Lent, the question for us is are we listening to Jesus? Not just are we hearing his words, but are we listening to them? Are we taking them to heart? Are we letting them sink into our ears? Are we allowing what Jesus says to shape our view of the world and our expectation of what God is doing?
That’s what Lent is for. Lent is the season in which we prepare ourselves to fully take in what happens in the crucifixion. Resurrection, yes, but we can’t rush there, because we have to fully contemplate death before we appreciate rebirth. So we take advantage of Lent as a season set apart to give us time to deepen our spiritual practices. There’s a reason that the practices of Lent involve things that like self-denial, charity, repentance, things that feel like little deaths. Because if we can’t enter into the plan of the suffering Jesus we won’t be able to fully utilize the power and authority that he gives us for the healing of the world.
As we come down from the mountaintop this morning, let’s be willing to let go of the Jesus we want so that we can experience the Jesus we need. Amen.