The Future Present

Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

He was a fisherman, and not even a very good one, when the Lord showed up and made him into a fisher of people.

And Pete, he’s seen some things, witnessed moments he can’t explain. First it was the teacher calling him to follow. That’s all it took. He and his coworkers, his fellow fishermen, left it all behind on the shore, including nets full of recently caught fish.

Then it was the episode with his mother-in-law. She was busy trying to meet the needs of the Teacher and his new disciples when he touched her and made her well.

And there was the time when the crowds grew so large, and stuck around so long, that they need to eat something and the Teacher turned scarcity into abundance, and everyone left with their bellies full.

And the stories! Mustard seeds and prodigal sons and wayward vineyard workers. That’s what Pete liked best, the stories.

It’s no wonder then, having seen all he’s seen and heard all he heard, that when the Teacher asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Pete was the first to shout, “The Messiah!”

But it’s also why, having confessed the truth of the incarnation, when the Teacher told him and the others that he was going to die, Pete was the first to rebuke him for saying what he said.

“JC, I don’t think you get it. The Messiah can’t die! You’re here to restore all the promises to Israel, which is something you can’t do from the grave.”

And do you know what the Teacher said to Pete? “Get behind me Satan, for your head is stuck on human things, and I’m here for heavenly things.”

And now, 8 days later, they’re walking up a mountain to pray. They arrive at the top, bending in humble adoration, lifting up their prayers to the Holy One, when the Teacher’s appearance changes drastically. His face isn’t the same and his clothes are whiter than the brightest light anyone of them can handle. 

Suddenly, two other figures appear, its Moses and Elijah and they’re talking with the Teacher. They are glorious and they talk about his coming departure in Jerusalem, his exodus for the rest of us. 

Moses and Elijah are making movements as if they’re going to leave and Pete shouts out, “Lord, it is good and right for us to be here! Let’s make dwelling places here on the mountain so that we might never leave.”

As the words leave his mouth, a cloud overshadows them completely, and the disciples are full of terror. But from the cloud comes a voice, a voice unlike any other, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Suddenly they are alone again, and the Teacher says, “Say nothing to anyone about what you have seen and heard.”

The Transfiguration.

Today is a major turning point in the church year. The transfigured Jesus turns his blazing and radiant face toward a violent fate in Jerusalem at the hands of roaring crowds. This week, the church turns away from the light of Epiphany and toward the shadows of Lent.

Not all churches mark this occasion, but to ignore the Transfiguration is to miss out on the future made manifest in the present. It is a moment of transcendence that lifts the veil of all the good, true, and beautiful in the world.

The Transfiguration is part of what makes the strange new world of the Bible so new and so strange.

And it is indeed a strange story, so strange that as I referenced it with and among individuals from our church this week, more than a few confessed that they were unfamiliar with this moment in the Gospel. 

Which makes sense! This story, even among the strangeness of the Bible, is quite bizarre. Jesus has just rebuked his chief disciple for missing the mark, yet again, they go up on top of a mountain during which Jesus is flanked by two of the most important figures from Israel’s history, only to have it all stop just as soon as it started.

And, notably, this is the only instance in any of the Gospels when Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him. 

He completely ignores Pete’s request for a motel franchise on top of the mountain.

There are so many things at stake in this triumph of transfiguration, but most of all it is a preview of the Gospel. It is the future present.

And we can’t really wrap our heads around it! Because, we confess, we don’t know what to make of moments that we can’t explain.

Our default mechanism for living in the world today is living in and by the natural and explainable rather than, and at the expense of, the supernatural.

The challenge of our being is that we are stuck living in an unthought way – we are addicted to certainty in a world that is inherently unstable and uncertain.

Our comprehension of events is such that we are convinced we no longer need a religious or mystical explanation for things that happen, or don’t happen. And yet, we are equally obsessed with self-justification, which is inherently a mystical adventure.

Put simply: We’re all on a journey for meaning in the world and more often than not we derive our sense of meaning out of what we can accomplish. Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, never amounts to much. But we keep trying and trying and trying anyway. We add new habits or we drop bad ones. We set out to create some permanence in a world that works only through impermanence. We try and try and try and find ourselves disappointed whether we work harder or not.

We, in some way, shape, or form, are looking for transcendence, but we can’t find it.

Which is odd when you consider how often, in church of all places, we try to take the strangeness of the gospel and turn it into something practical. We take the impossible possibility of God’s grace and we transform it into a list of three things to do to become a better version of yourself. We take the mount of Transfiguration and turn it into some form of moralism about what we should, or shouldn’t, be doing in the world today.

But the Transfiguration isn’t about what we are supposed to do – it’s about being in the presence of God.

Christian art is an endlessly fascinating phenomenon. And the Transfiguration has, for centuries, commanded the imagination of artists. 

Here is the Transfiguration as portrayed by the Renaissance painter Raphael. It was the last painting he created before his death, and it was conceived as an altar piece for a cathedral in France. 

The top of the painting depicts the scene we encounter in scripture and notably, the bottom half conveys the next part of the story when Jesus and the disciples descend from the mountain to heal a young boy. 

Notice how the light of Christ’s Transfiguration is juxtaposed with the darkness of the lower scene.

And here is a modern and abstract depiction of the Transfiguration by an artist named Jaison Cianelli. Like Raphael’s, the painting conveys a hyper focused change that is wrought with lasting consequences.

And finally, this is a modern icon created by a Ukrainian artist named Ivanka Demchuk. The cowering disciples in the bottom portion stand in for all of us, who when encountered by the One who encounter us, can’t help but tremble in fear. 

The Transfiguration is one of those moments in the Bible that we can never fully wrap our heads around. It’s one that we need art and music and other aspects of expression to help us come to grips with this bewildering proclamation. 

It is beyond our ability to explain and certainly beyond our ability to comprehend because it transcends all modes of our being.

Without the supernatural, without transcendence, without mystery, the church becomes nothing more than a country club, or the next best self-improvement clinic, or a sub par social services agency. 

And to be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking out fellowship, or trying to better one’s self, or providing needs to the last, least, lost, little, and dead. But if that’s all we have, if that’s all the church is, then we have no business calling ourselves the church.

There will always be plenty of other institutions that can bring us better friends, or help us get from where we are to where we want to be, or make substantive changes in the world. But they don’t have the one thing that we do: Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The wonderful and weird witness of the Transfiguration is that the only thing we’re told to do is listen to Jesus. From this point forward, Jesus is going to do what Jesus is going to do. He will still stir up the crowds with stories of treasure in a field, and proclamations about the signs of the times, but when push comes to shove Jesus will mount the hard wood of the cross regardless of all our goodness or lack thereof.

We can point to all these bewildering details on top of the mountain, but it’s important that we don’t miss out on the timelessness of the scene. The Transfiguration, a moment indelibly in the past, shows us a glimpse of the future.

Tell no one what you have seen or heard until the Son of Man is raised from the dead. 

This moment is made indelible only by the ending that the disciples can scarcely imagine, even though Jesus just hit them up over the head with it.

They are sworn to silence because they are not yet ready for the transcending truth. They have not made it from their reality to God’s reality. They witness something remarkable and inexplicable, but it is not yet the resurrection, the great transfiguration of all things.

Today we, like the disciples, are called to live according to the wondrous nature of the Transfiguration – we can stumble around like fools grasping out in fear for comfort – and then we will hear the words, the only words we need to hear: “This is my Son, the chosen; listen to him.”

But, and it’s a big but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to listen to Jesus. We’d rather listen to ourselves. 

We’d rather listen to ourselves because we are downright addicted to control. Or, at least to thinking we’re in control.

Do you know how God responds to those who think they’re in control?

Laughter.

It is humbling to be laughed at by anyone, but when God’s laughs at us it’s another thing entirely. But perhaps we need to hear that laughter, particularly when we wake and sleep believing that it’s up to us to make the world turn out right.

The world has already turned out right. We know the future in the present. The tomb is empty!

We don’t have to be the hope of the world because Jesus already is. The only thing we have to do is live accordingly.

And that’s why Lent beckons us. It’s why Christians, for centuries have marked and observe the season that starts on Ash Wednesday because it reminds us of our inconvenient truth – we can’t make it out of this life alive. But, like the Lord in the tomb, God refuses to leave us that way.

We are a people desperate to be in control of our lives and we’re living in a world in which we are not in control. Moreover, we can scarcely imagine what it would look like to live in the light of Jesus’ transfiguration. It leaves us quaking and bewildered like those three disciples.

But if we do not reflect the glory of the One transfigured, then the world has no light to see that all is not darkness. Amen. 

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