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 came 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..
Pastor Marc's sermon on Transfiguration Sunday (February 7, 2016) on Luke 9:28-36. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
I’d like to start today with a question: what’s the most memorable experience you’ve ever had while in a cloud? What happened?
Well, for me, I was about twelve. I was in a car and my dad, brother, uncle and I were in Rocky Mountain National Park, heading up Trail Ridge Road. Trail Ridge Road is a mountain road. It starts around 9000 feet up and then goes up, up, and up the side of a mountain. At 12,183 feet, it turns, flattens out, and heads back down the otherside. The road is narrow, a single lane on each side and, like many Colorado Mountain roads - there isn’t much of a shoulder between the road and the edge below. So there we were, heading up the road, and it wasn’t too long before we were in a cloud. At first, it resembled fog. The air was misty and light. But then the fog got thicker. And thicker. And thicker. Even before we got to the timberline, the point on a mountain where trees can no longer grow, the trees and bushes along the edge of the road simply disappeared. The high wooden poles used to tell the snowplows where the edge of the road is during springtime vanished. We couldn’t see the edge. We couldn’t really see the road. And I I remember looking out the window, straining my eyes with all my strength, trying to see something, anything, that was out there. But I couldn’t. Everything, including the edge, was gone. I knew that edge was out there. I knew, if we weren’t careful, we would end up finding a spot where there was no road. So up and up we went - and there was nothing to see but this brilliant cloud all around us.
I imagine that’s what talking to God in a cloud looks and feels like.
And that’s what the apostles, I think, experienced in our gospel reading today. They are enveloped by the cloud of God - a cloud that shows up over and over again in the early books of the bible. This cloud descends onto mountains, leads the people as they march in the wilderness and lights their way at night. This cloud engulfs Moses when he’s on Mt. Sinai and given the ten commandments - and this cloud also covers Moses when he’s in the tabernacle, standing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, inside this giant moveable temple designed by God to be a place where the people can talk to God, no matter where they go. It’s in this cloud, in this experience, when the teachings in Exodus and Leviticus are given. And it’s also this cloud that comes down to cover the apostles’ after they finally get confirmation of just who this Jesus is.
Now when Jesus is up on that mountaintop, praying, and Moses and Elijah come to speak with him - Jesus is lit up. He’s transfigured, changed, so that he shines - like some cosmic disco ball or really intense neon sign. This is the Special Effects kind of Jesus Jesus - a Jesus from a Michael Bay movie - who looks awesome. There’s no one who could see this - and not realize that Jesus is exactly who he says he is. It’s no wonder, when Peter sees this, that he wants to grab onto it - capture it - hold onto what he is seeing. They don’t have cameras - there’s no iPhone in Peter’s pocket to snap a picture, sending that image and experience into another cloud - the cloud of the internet - where it can be posted, shared, and seen. Peter, instead, tries to capture the truth that he’s seeing in the only way he knows how. And so he wants to build a dwelling, a monument, a temple to mark this event and hold what he sees. He wants to capture Jesus as he is, right there, lit up like Times Square. In Peter’s mind, this is the proof the world needs that Jesus is the Messiah. This is confirmation that Jesus is able to do the impossible. This is evidence that Jesus is like some superhero, with nice threads, special abilities, and the power to make their nation great again by tossing the occupying Roman army into the sea. Peter wants to keep what he sees. And that’s when the cloud descends.
It’s when Peter praises this Jesus - praises the special effects, the glory, the bright lights, and the neon signs - it’s after that when God moves. The words Peter uses might seem odd but they’re really not. They’re our words too. We want this kind of Jesus. We want a Jesus who is easy to see, powerful, who looks like some cosmic Silver Surfer who will do our impossible things. And so when Peter speaks, giving voice to our desire to trap Jesus in what we think God’s power, hope, and love actually looks like - that’s when the cloud descends. That’s when everything is covered up. The disciples are hidden. The night sky is blotted out. The trees and bushes and edges that marked the boundary for this mountaintop - that’s all gone. They’re engulfed, surrounded, and terrified. Peter, James, and John grow silent. Their words stop. So God speaks instead, saying, “this is my Son - listen to him.”
With those words, the cloud vanishes. Moses and Elijah are gone. Jesus’ fancy robes, his changed face, and his discoball appearance disappears. The disciples find themselves left with this plain and ordinary Jesus they always knew. Now I imagine that the disciples looked at Jesus differently after this. They probably wondered where those white robes went. But when this Super Bowl kind of Jesus vanishes and only an ordinary Jesus remains, Peter, James, and John don’t know what to do. Jesus could be with them like some cartoon action hero, but he’s not. Jesus could have the fancy clothes, but he doesn’t. This Jesus meets them in ordinary ways, in their ordinary lives, turning them so they can live out God’s extraordinary love. It’s this ordinary Jesus who called each of them by name, brought them together to form a new community, and to do new things, together. It’s this ordinary Jesus who cast out demons and cured the sick - which is pretty extraordinary really - but he also ate and drank with them, sharing in their meals, and promising to be their bread and drink. This is a Jesus who can wear the white of the angels - but who promises to walk with the disciples wherever they go. This is a Jesus who is going to walk down that mountain, knowing that his upcoming departure is about to come. He knows his journey - his Exodus - is leading him to another mountain just a few chapters from now. And that mountain, we call Cavalry.
After the transfiguration - after the powwow with Moses and Elijah - after the cloud engulfs the disciples, replacing their vision of God with what God has in mind, we’re left with just one thing: Jesus. No fireworks. No special effects. No brilliant clothes. Just a Jesus who heads to the only place now where he can go - and that’s down, over the edge, into the valley, into the world, and into our lives. Jesus goes down because our mountain tops are few and far between - but our valleys are long, deep, and hard. The Jesus we get isn’t the summer blockbuster movie version of the Jesus that we want. The Jesus we get is the Jesus we need - a Jesus who lives for us - a Jesus who lives in us - and who dies for us - because that’s what the great I AM does. The Jesus we want can’t force us to love our neighbor like ourselves - but the Jesus we get, in our baptism, in our communion, in our community, changes us so we can. It’s on a mountain top that Jesus is transfigured - but it’s only through the Cross that Jesus can truly transfigure us.
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