February 14, 2010, Last Sunday after Epiphany, Transfiguration of Our Lord

February 14, 2010
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Exodus 34:29-35, Ps 99, 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-43a

This is one of those passages from Scripture where we encounter Luke as a master storyteller. In a few verses he draws on themes, images and ideas woven throughout his Gospel and even into the Book of Acts. He connects us to the entire span of Jesus’ ministry. And he leaves us with a powerful passage to ponder, one that is mysterious, transcendental, and not necessarily easily applicable to our daily lives.

In this passage we hear echoes of Jesus’ baptism when the voice is heard from the cloud naming Jesus again as God’s son. We are again aware of a period of silence and assimilation. After Jesus’ baptism he went into the desert for 40 days before beginning his ministry. Here they keep silent about what is said, probably because the disciples themselves still didn’t know what this all meant or where it was going. We are reminded again of the early followers of Jesus understanding him to be both a prophet and a giver and interpreter of the law as symbolized by his meeting with Moses, the foundational leader of the Hebrew people and the giver of the law, and Elijah, one of the greatest prophets of their past. Like Moses, Jesus encounters the holy on the top of a mountain and is transfigured by this event: their faces change, they shine as the stories say. And we are given hints of what is to come.

We hear hints of the end of Jesus’ life. As at Gethsemane, the disciples are sleepy and trying to stay awake while Jesus is occupied with prayer. They are in a more remote place, out in nature. We are told that Jesus is hearing of his coming departure from Elijah and Moses. It is critical to understand that the word for departure is the word we also translate as exodus. The exodus of the Hebrews from captivity in Egypt was their founding event as a people. Jesus is told he will taking his own exodus from Jerusalem, another unfolding of the work of God’s liberating action in the world. This exodus though is through his solitary death on a cross, an execution at the hands of power in the center of his homeland. It is a different view on the path through to freedom, and it will involve tremendous suffering and abandonment. It is a leaving and a breaking of the bondage of sin through sacrifice and transformative love; it is about the nature of liberation in the deepest ontological sense, that is, of our being. Yet somehow through this we will see and know God’s glory. It is the founding event of those who follow Jesus and form a community of faith based on his life.

What follows this passage of Luke is a story of healing, of casting out evil, which we heard today. The next eight verses include Jesus telling of his betrayal into human hands, in other words, his coming death. Luke is clear that those hearing it could not understand the meaning of his words—its meaning was concealed from them, which is a nice echo of the words of Paul to the Corinthians we heard. Until it is accomplished it is unintelligible. Then there is a fight among the disciples, something they seem to do a lot, over who is greatest and Jesus promptly puts them in their place by giving them a child as an example, a stark reminder that worldly power climbing and status have no place in the kingdom. Lastly, we hear Jesus give a radically inclusive definition of those who are his followers. John tells him that they had seen someone who wasn’t in their group casting out demons in Jesus’ name and that they tried to stop his unsanctioned behavior. Jesus replies that all who are not against them are for them. Period.

Then the pivotal moment of the Gospel arrives in Luke 9:51. The future revealed in the moment on the mountain is engaged. As the text says: When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. It is decided. The die has been cast. Jesus turns towards his exodus with resolve and goes towards it. There is no stopping; there is no sidetracking; there is no reversal. From now on the entire rest of Luke is aiming straight towards the cross.

What do we do with a passage like this? Luke is trying to tell us something about who and what Jesus is. The event that he describes whether we take it as a depiction of actual events or a divine vision that was true within Jesus’ inner life is something for him and him alone. You and I will not have a comparable experience as we are not the Son of God in the way we profess Jesus to be. Luke wants us I suspect to use this story as a point of prayer and reflection. What does this story reveal about Jesus and who he is for us, what his life accomplishes for us?

The idea came to me that this is really quite a suitable story to hear just days before Lent starts. Lent for us is meant to be a period of reflection and transfiguration. It is a time in which we delve into our hearts and souls with intention. We set our own faces towards Jerusalem and the events that are to take place. We are invited year after year to live into the story of Jesus’ life and death and what it reveals to us about the way God is in the world, indeed what the very nature of God is. As Christians we hold that in Jesus we encounter God deeply and surely. His life is revelatory of God’s life and nature. This is deep and rich soil to till. It is not subject to blithe and easy answers, though God knows many are out there. It invites us into complex thought and thoughtful contemplation of eternal and essential questions and realities. What understandings may open for us if we sit on the mountain and gaze on the transfigured Jesus? What transformation within in us might it bring to birth? For surely that is part of this story’s purpose. And if we let this story work upon us what changes will be wrought in us? How will it mark us forever even as the Risen Jesus bore the marks of his crucifixion?

And perhaps part of this is helping us grow to see the transfiguring work of God in our lives on a daily basis and how everyday events, people and situations can be places of transformation. Perhaps this is part of why we hear the story of the cure of the boy right after they come down from the mountain. It is a transfiguring event in the lives of the boy and his family. It is also that to his followers who Jesus accuses of have too little faith. Maybe they are still keeping God small, within too familiar bounds and hindering God’s ability to work through them. Here is a story I heard that may capture some of what I am getting at.

A young and successful executive was traveling down a neighborhood street, going a bit too fast in his new Jaguar. He was watching for kids darting out from between parked cars and slowed down when he thought he saw something. As his car passed, no children appeared. Instead, a brick smashed into the Jag’s side door. He slammed on the brakes and backed up to the spot where the brick had been thrown. The angry driver jumped out of the car, grabbed the nearest kid and pushed him up against a parked car shouting, “What was that all about and who are you? Just what the heck are you doing? That’s a new car and that brick you threw is going to cost a lot of money. Why did you do it?”

The young boy was apologetic. “Please, mister…please, I’m sorry but I didn’t know what else to do,” he pleaded. “I threw the brick because no one else would stop…” With tears rolling down his face he pointed to a spot just around a parked car. “It’s my brother,” he said. “He rolled off the curb and fell out of his wheelchair and I can’t lift him up.” Now sobbing, the boy asked the stunned executive, “Would you please help me get him back into his wheelchair? He’s hurt and he’s too heavy for me.”

The driver hurriedly lifted the boy back into his wheelchair, then took a handkerchief and dabbed at the fresh scrapes. A quick look told him everything was going to be okay.

“Thank you and may God bless you,” the grateful brother told the driver. Too shook up for words, the man simply watched the boy push his wheelchair-bound brother down the sidewalk toward their home. It was a long, slow walk back to the Jaguar. The damage was very noticeable, but the driver never bothered to repair the dented side door.”

For this man, the dented door was the mark of his transfiguration. He was not the same man after this encounter as he was before. His world was rearranged and his vantage point reordered. What was once more important became less so. I suspect some veils were lifted from his eyes and his way of seeing things was never the same again. In a simple way and in the day-to-day working of life he encountered God through these two brothers and was changed. It was a beginning. And while I don’t like to use sentimental, chicken-soupy-for-the-soul stories like this to make a point, this is one that seemed suitable. It seemed to be akin to the healing story and that moments in which we meet God mark us indelibly. They are meant to transfigure us. We need to discover how to be aware to the transfiguring work of God. We need to be attentive as Jesus was in prayer. We are asked to live into the meaning of Christ’s life and death so profoundly that it leaves marks on us, marks that remind us of what we are and what we are meant to be. Proclaiming Jesus as our Lord does not leave us unchanged. Rather, it ought to change us profoundly. It is not a fact we accept in our heads and then file away, going on with our lives as usual. It is an understanding and awareness that molds us in new ways and invites us into new paths.

So as we set our faces towards Jerusalem this Lent, we are also invited to ponder the transfigured Jesus on the mountain. We can use it as a point of prayer to help us enter into Lent in a deeper way. And in pondering his transfiguration we can begin to see where we are being asked to encounter God in the sphere of our own lives and how that meeting will mark and alter us forever.