I can readily understand why Peter, John, and James chose not to tell anyone what they had seen on the mountain that day. No one would have believed them. They probably weren’t even sure, themselves, what they had seen. T was really all kind of bizarre. They had gone up the mountain with Jesus to pray, but ended up falling asleep. All of a sudden they were awakened to see Jesus standing before them in some kind of strange translucent light talking with Moses and Elijah. Then Peter said something which really didn’t make much sense. Those of you who have ever heard anyone talk in their sleep will understand the dreamlike scene that is being unfolded here.
Then a large cloud overshadowed them (do you begin to see why no one would believe this?) and a voice (yes a voice) came out of the cloud saying, “This is my son! Listen to him!” Then, all of a sudden, POOF – there was Jesus all alone.
Now, did you ever see – maybe in a Sunday magazine supplement – one of those fun things which was titled, “How many things can you find wrong with this picture?” From a distance, things in the picture look normal. But up close we see that Grandpa’s eyeglasses are on upside down and the clock on the mantel only has one hand. You know what I’m talking about. Well, the account of the transfiguration is sort of a literary “How many things can you find wrong” picture.
How many did you notice? Well, first of all there was the “dazzling rainment.” Jesus didn’t normally go around glowing. The second glitchy thing is Moses and Elijah. These guys had been dead for hundres of years. Then there is a voice from the clouds saying, “This is my chosen son.” Isn’t that scene stolen from Jesus’ baptism? And what about this business of the disciples going off with Jesus to pray but falling asleep? Doesn’t that scene come from the Garden of Gethsemane the night of Jesus’ arrest? What are those things doing in this picture.
They say that our dreams may be nothing more than our unconscious calling forth the events and thought of the day which we simply haven’t had the time or ability to “digest” in our waking hours. Dreams can give us small insight – “glimpses” – into those things we have not fully dealt with during the day.
Personally, I think this is the purpose the Transfiguration serves in Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ life. Bits and pieces of Israel’s history and bits and pieces of Jesus’ life come rushing forth in a dreamlike way – even a part of it which had not happened yet. And, as we would with a dream, we might not want to make too much of this story. But, as with a dream, we might want to deconstruct it a bit. What might it be hinting at? What clues are there?
For instance, there is the interplay between Old Testament images and New Testament images. Jesus’ audience new only the Old Covenant which went something like this, “If you act like my people, I will act like your God.” But the New Covenant is something different. It becomes, “I care enough for the fact that you can’t or won’t act like my children that I will come to you, tech you, and die for you that your sins might go to the grave with me. I will be your God no matter what. Accept that in faith and respond accordingly.”
The New Covenant did not replace the Old Covenant. If it did we would pass out Bibles with the New Teastaments only. Rather, it completed the Old Covenant Jesus said, “I did not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it.”
Flash! The 10 Commandments are still relevant! You can even tell others that secret. But maybe the reason we soft pedal those is because people often fall into the trap of thinking, “God loves me if I don’t break any of those.” But they’re right, though. God does love us if we don’t break any. But God also loves us if we mess up on one. Or two . Or ten. Actually, there are 638 of them in the Old Testament and if you are one of those who hold that all parts of the Bible are equally inspired and are to be taken literally, then I will expect that after you break even one of those 638 you will dutifully follow Leviticus 5:17 and, to atone for your sin, you will present to me, as your pastor, a sheep or a goat – and you better make sure it is a male one, without any defects.
We Lutherans “know” (tap head) that we are saved only by God’s grace, not by commandment keeping or good deed doing. But we Lutherans don’t always “know” that (tap heart.) We haven’t fully integrated that into our consciousness. This happens in congregations. There has developed what I prefer to call the “upstairs/downstairs” dichotomy. Upstairs, in church, would be preached the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. But downstairs, in Sunday School, old Mrs. McCready would hold forth week after week about going to Heaven if you were good and to Hell if you were bad. The upstairs and the downstairs each had its own separate style and, in the old days, its own collections of hymns.
I talked with a pastor who preached the gospel of grace in the same church for thirty years and had the same choir director the entire time. At the reception for his retirement she told him that she was confident of “making it to heaven” because of her long and faithful service in the choir loft. How disheartening that would be for a pastor to hear that. And just once would I like to hear somebody say, at a funeral, “I know that Uncle Jack is with God because I know that God came into the world on behalf of sinners and Uncle Jack sure was one of those!”
Back to Peter, James, and John on the mountain. What these three had not been able to grasp with their waking minds, they were shown in a vision. There were other kinds of undigested thoughts brought forth in the transfiguration dream/vision/experience – all of which could make sermons in-and-of themselves: The earthly Jesus versus the divine Jesus, for instance. The relationship between baptism and death, for instance. Glory and suffering. Both building. That’s an interesting one. Could their desire to build a physical structure and keep Jesus around there foreshadow the institutionalization of Jesus – trying to put him in a box? That didn’t work for them and it doesn’t work for us.
Consider this: After this experience/vision/dream was over, the disciples chose to tell no one. I can guess why they didn’t. I imagine that they were a bit confused and chose to wait until things cleared up a bit before opening their mouths. And, nowhere in scripture does it say that they did ever tell anyone. The gospel writer, Luke, tells us about it, but he wasn’t there. No, it wasn’t until after they saw Jesus in the resurrection that they began to spread the good news. (Read the Book of Acts during Lent)
The Transfiguration was a short glimpse of the resurrection to come. But what a powerful one. Peter, James, and John couldn’t quite grasp what they were seeing. We can’t always quite grasp the incarnation, either. That God became human. That Jesus was divine. Like the disciples, on this Transfiguration Sunday we come down the hill not quite knowing what this is all bout. This next week, on Ash Wednesday, we will confess our mortality and confusion. Throughout Lent we will ponder what it means to have glimpsed glory but to live out life from the bottom of the mountain, not the top. Holy Week will not only be the bottom of the mountain, but the valley of the shadow.
Then, on Easter Sunday, we will sing alleluias to that which the Transfiguration pointed – our resurrected Lord… before us, with us, and for us. But for the next nearly seven weeks we will be in the valley. Let’s travel through it with hope! After all, we have been given a glimpse. A transfiguring glimpse.