Luke 9.28-36 (NRSV)
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.
Last summer, as I was working on putting together a memorial service, my Granddad called me. He doesn’t usually call while I am working, it was kind of out the blue. It tuned out to be strange timing. He had a question – would I ever be willing to co-officiate a memorial service? He had been thinking through his memorial service and was thinking about the pastor and associate pastors at church, and wondered if I would be willing to team up with one of his favorite pastors, to officiate his memorial service. I felt honored he would ask me … at the same time … even though I am convinced that one of the most caring and thoughtful things a person can do is think through their last wishes – even just letting someone know a favorite scripture passage can be a huge gift to the people we love, it felt so heavy and sad.
Even though when I spoke with him I was in the middle of thinking about a memorial service … I wasn’t ready for that conversation … I would bet no one is ever ready for that conversation. I probably wasn’t much fun to be around after that. I kept thinking about how much I love him … all the fishing trips … all the times he has completely destroyed me playing Gin Rummy … how much I will miss him when something happens to him … and how I probably won’t be able to keep from bawling like crazy when the time comes to co-officiate his service.
It wasn’t something I wanted to think about.
It took a lot of energy.
I felt sad … things just felt so heavy …
I’m curious if Jesus’ disciples felt something like that.
Eight days before Jesus led Peter, James, and John up that mountain, Jesus had one of those heavy conversations about life and death with his disciples.
It started out innocently enough. Jesus had snuck away from the crowds that seemed to always be hanging around him, it was just Jesus and his disciples.
Jesus had been praying.
“Who do the crowds say that I am?” Jesus asked.
“Some say John the Baptist.”
“Others say Elijah. And still others say one of the ancient prophets has arisen.”
Then Jesus asked the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter piped up first, he answered, “The Messiah of God.”
Jesus sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
I suspect the “Third day be raised part” fell on deaf ears. All the parts that came before must have been jarring and shocking. Who would want to hear about any of that happening to a friend. Great suffering. Rejection. being killed. That is heavy stuff. I wouldn’t want to hear about any of that happening to my friend … I wouldn’t want to hear that stuff coming from someone I hoped would change the world. That would be crushing.
But it wasn’t the end of it. Jesus pushed it further. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me … those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Crosses were ancient forms of capital punishment. Why would Jesus talk about bearing crosses? Crosses were reserved for the absolute worst criminals.
There must have been some serious heaviness following the disciples those eight days. I imagine things looking really gray and sad as the disciples hiked up that mountain to pray with Jesus. Suffering. Rejection. Death. And not just any death – death on a cross, a death Romans invented to be particularly shameful, brutal, and terrifying. No wonder Peter, John, and James were fighting off sleep. Who would have any energy with all this weighing on them.
A strange light breaks into their gloom. As Jesus prays, the appearance of his face changes … his clothes become dazzling white … suddenly … Moses and Elijah, two heroes of biblical faith (two people who have had their own mountain top experiences with God) … are there talking to Jesus.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels all highlight this as a significant event, but different details catch their attention. Matthew and Mark, just say Moses, Elijah, and Jesus were talking. (They aren’t as concerned with what they would have been talking about.) Luke points out that Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus about his “departure” which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. But it is more than a departure – Luke uses the word “exodus,” which means departure, but since we are already thinking of mountain tops and Moses, pushes us to think of the ancient Israelites and their exodus … their departure from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land.
Jesus has mentioned freedom before.
Freedom is central to Jesus’ mission – remember way back, in Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown, when he read the prophet Isaiah’s words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Remember how Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue attendant, sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus has mentioned freedom before. Now it looks like the exodus toward freedom and goodness will have to make its way through dark and heavy things. Suffering. Rejection. Death. And resurrection.
I’m curious if seeing Jesus’ goodness and glory bursting out of him is just what the disciples needed right then. They see this light bursting out of Jesus just when things are looking and sounding so dark and so heavy. Just when fear is crowding in. Just when outrage and anger that someone so good could face something as terrible as a cross sets in. When it seems like each step going forward is going to be harder than the next … when it could be understandable to give up … when the gloom seems so unrelenting … Peter, John, and James see this crazy thing … They see pure goodness … pure love … pure light … they have this amazing experience of God. They experience God’s glory. They are overwhelmed with awe and wonder.
Maybe this picture of Jesus’ goodness and glory unleashed is just what we need to see right now too? Maybe we need to hold this picture of Jesus praying … the appearance of his face changing … his clothes changing dazzling white, closer to our hearts? Maybe we need some awe and wonder?
This awe and wonder drives our convictions and actions as Christians … Awe and wonder remind the church we are different from any other organization working for a communities’ good. Awe and wonder remind us that the things we do … the things we say … the way we make decisions … are because of this God, who gives life and freedom and sent Jesus to us.
This story about Jesus’ transfiguration might be one of the stranger gifts we are given in scripture, but I am becoming more convinced that it is a good gift for us … when the world seems so flat … when everything seems so gloomy and dark … when it would be easy to lose ourselves in outrage and anger … Luke offers us a picture of God’s glory bursting out of Jesus’ human body … Luke reminds us of God’s nature; pure goodness … pure love … pure light … pure freedom … Luke reminds us that worship … that awe and wonder … are essential to the lives of disciples.
Luke 9:28-45 Reflection/Devotional Questions:
- Read Luke 9. What common themes do you see? How do you see Luke raising the question of Jesus’ identity?
- What does Jesus say in chapter 9? How do people respond to Jesus’ statements? In 9:18-20, Jesus asks his disciples questions about his identity. According to the disciples, who do the crowds say Jesus is? Who does
- Peter say Jesus is? Remembering our time in Luke up to this point, what do you think has led Peter to this understanding of Jesus?
- Looking at 9:21-27, how does Jesus define his role as “The Messiah of God?” What does Jesus say it looks like to follow him?
- Read Exodus 24:12-18; 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36. What similarities do you see in these Exodus and Luke passages? What could Luke be emphasizing with these similarities?
- Luke tells us Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus about his “departure.” Departure could also be translated “exodus” which reminds us of the Israelite’s exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in a new land. What might Luke be telling us about Jesus’ mission and purpose by making this connection?
- Read Luke 9:37-62. What do Jesus and his disciples encounter as they come down from the mountain?