A look at the gospel reading for this Sunday, February 14th, 2010:
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.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
For a sermon on this text, click here.
Known simply as The Transfiguration, the above text is so well-known that it’s exceedingly difficult to engage the text without latent preconceptions shaping our interpretation. In fact, it may be next to impossible to hear or read the text with freshness, with the expectation that the text may transfigure us as we encounter the living, transformative Word of God. While our familiarity with the text might not breed contempt exactly, it is liable to breed a certain interpretive numbness in which we make comments on it without truly connecting with it. A major task of Biblical study is discovering new ways to hear old, familiar readings such as this one. With that in mind, I give you Sufjan Stevens’ version of The Transfiguration:
When he took the three disciples
to the mountainside to pray,
his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame.
Two men appeared: Moses and Elijah came;
they were at his side.
The prophecy, the legislation spoke of whenever he would die.
Then there came a word
of what he should accomplish on the day.
Then Peter spoke, to make of them a tabernacle place.
A cloud appeared in glory as an accolade.
They fell on the ground.
A voice arrived, the voice of God,
the face of God, covered in a cloud.
What he said to them,
the voice of God: the most beloved son.
Consider what he says to you, consider what’s to come.
The prophecy was put to death,
was put to death, and so will the Son.
And keep your word, disguise the vision ’till the time has come.
Therein lies the paradox of the Transfiguration. It is a striking vision of both glory and demise, punctuated by the appearance of Moses and Elijah as well as the voice of God. Yet from our earliest experiences with this story, we are drawn toward the dazzling brilliance of Jesus’ transfigured face. We are content to dwell with the disciples in the visual resplendence of it all. They saw his glory. So many contemporary praise songs express a desire to see Jesus, to behold his glory, and I think it would be fair to say that many Christians today long to share in the experience of Peter, James, and John. When we hear Peter announce, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings…”, whether we realize it or not, some part of us whispers a quiet “Amen.”
Recently CNN reported that a number of moviegoers experience an emotional letdown (and in some cases a deeper depression) after seeing the movie Avatar. It seems that many of them, especially those who saw the movie in 3D, were taken with the sheer beauty of the world James Cameron has created and found themselves wishing that the Avatar world of fantasy were real. Thought the movie is some three hours long, I can imagine moviegoers remaining in their seats as the closing credits rolled, not quite ready to make the transition from the beauty and brilliance of Avatar to the chaotic and cluttered world in which we all live. Yet, it always happens: the screen goes black and the house lights come on, jarring us back into the real world. We notice disgustedly that our shoes are sticking to the floor and someone has spilled popcorn in the seats. With one last wistful glance at a dark movie screen we put on our jackets and head for the exits. Is it so strange for us to want to linger in a more beautiful world for just a little bit longer? Can we blame Peter, James, and John for wanting the same thing? The transition from one world to another is a rude awakening to be sure, and it’s something akin to the disappointment the three disciples felt after their mountaintop experience was over. It is good for us to be here. Let’s just bask in the glory of this place. Let’s build our lives around this moment.
The Christian life is full of mountaintop experiences. Rather than consist of movie screen fantasy worlds, our mountaintop experiences are moments of joyful fellowship, heartfelt worship, the beauty of new beginnings, and the splendor of indomitable love. It’s tempting to want our religious journey to be made solely of such moments, bypassing the chaos, the challenge, and the struggle. In our mountaintop moments, something inside us cries out, It is good for us to be here. Let’s just bask in the glory of this place. Let’s build our lives around this moment. A well-known Hallmark-style proverb tells us that “life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.” This may be true to some degree, but it’s also true that life – especially the Christian one – continually calls us down from those breath-taking moments, down from the mountaintop. We are called to descend from our moments of profound glory, celebration, and joy, into the valleys of this world where life is messy, and challenging, and inhospitable.
I don’t think it’s by accident that the three gospel-writers who mention the Transfiguration (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) infuse the story with predictions of Jesus’ death. The distance from the mountaintop to the cross is not so great that Jesus’ disciples should lose sight of either. Rather, in our mountaintop moments we are to recognize that glorifying God leads us to sacrifice. Likewise in our moments of despair we are to remember that God alone triumphs over all things. It is instructive to point out here that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all follow the Transfiguration immediately with the story of a boy who is desperately ill. Here in Luke’s gospel we find a distraught father begging Jesus to look at my son. It is a directive vaguely reminiscent of God’s own words on the mountaintop: This is my son! Listen to Him! Taken together, these two exhortations call us to direct our attention both upward and outward – upward in praise, outward in service. Here the mountaintop experience is inexorably connected with the chaos and clamor of a shrieking, convulsing sickness. It’s a reminder that while the Christian life is full of moments of mountaintop splendor, we are ultimately called to enter the valleys of illness, sorrow, despair, and oppression, that we might minister to those who live there. It is significant here that in one of the few instances in which God speaks aloud in the gospels, God directs the followers of Jesus to listen. This not only entails silencing our own desires and intentions, but additionally striving to do and be as God intends, not as we ourselves intend. Listening is a necessary prelude to following and doing.
On any given Sunday, many of us are surrounded by visions of God’s glory. We worship in resplendent sanctuaries adorned with breathtaking stained glass windows and shining brass candlesticks. We glorify God in the highest, singing hymns of resounding triumph and praise. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they could potentially result in a separation between the visually pleasing world of glory and the extremely challenging and chaotic world of service. The danger is that we might get lost in the clouds, and forget our way down the mountain.
We do tend to get lost in the clouds, I think. There are times when the distance between Sunday and Monday seems to be about a million miles, and the path from mountaintop to dark valley subtly difficult to find. Yet, we follow a Savior who leads us down from the mountaintop, out of the clouds and into the valley to meet those in need. Let us pray that we have the vision, the courage, and the faith to follow. Then we might see the glory – and the greatness – of God.
Lost in the cloud, a voice. Have no fear! We draw near!
Lost in the cloud, a sign. Son of man! Turn your ear.
Lost in the cloud, a voice. Lamb of God! We draw near!
Lost in the cloud, a sign. Son of man! Son of God!
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First Look is a weekly reflection on the upcoming gospel lectionary text, and will usually be posted on Mondays. Be sure to come back next week!