The images on our screen are horrifying and mesmerizing. The stories, tragic and sinspiring. We are watching war unfold in real time, tanks rolling across the terrain of Ukraine. They are images and events few of us could have imagined in Europe, in 2022. And this morning we learned that Russia has placed its nuclear forces on high alert. All of it seems so unbelievable, so shocking.
Why are we shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Is it the audacity of it, the insanity, the outright rejection of democratic ideals and national self-expression? Is it, on the other hand, the fact that it is taking place in Europe when we thought Europe had seen its last conflict in World War II, with a Cold War eventually giving way to democracy and capitalism? That view, of course, conveniently forgets the violence in the states of the former Yugoslavia in the 90s. Would we be equally shocked if it were war in the Middle East, or Afghanistan? Conveniently forgetting that there has been war there, perpetrated in the first case by the US, since 2001?
But then again, a look closer home to the rise of Christian nationalism, authoritarianism, the attacks on democracy here; and now, the attacks on history, truth, science—and most recently the anti LGBTQ laws and rhetoric, the attacks on trans people coming out of some state houses and governors remind us that whatever is happening in Ukraine is also happening here. And some on the right are still supporting Russia and its dictator in the midst of the horror.
Our hearts are heavy; we may be overwhelmed with fear. Certainly the burdens of the last years, not just COVID but the whole tenor of our nation, our world, weigh heavily on us. Other images, now fainter with the passing of time, remind us of moments of hope and exhilaration—the fall of the Berlin Wall; the election of the first African-American president; the legalization of same-sex marriage. Backlash reminds us that such moments were hard-fought and that the victories we acclaimed were tentative, not secure.
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany and always, on this Sunday we hear this story from the gospels, the otherworldly, eerie story of the Transfiguration. Because Ash Wednesday is fairly late this year, we have lingered longer than usual in stories about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Week by week, the great stories of Christmas and Epiphany have faded in our memories and we feel we are precisely where liturgically we are—Ordinary Time.
But now, suddenly this story breaks in upon us like the light from heaven that illumines Jesus and us, and we are surprised and being prepared for what next is to come. As it breaks in upon us, like this morning’s spectacular sunrise, it’s a reminder of God’s glory in our world,
Breaking in upon our sense of time and reality. It’s a story that in its details invites us to look forward to the resurrection, and back to the Hebrew Bible, to Sinai and to the prophets. Present in all three synoptic gospels, it appears in the very same narrative sequence, occurring just after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, just after Jesus has predicted for the first time that he will be crucified and explains to his followers that to be his disciples, they must also take up their crosses and follow him. So this is a story told under the looming presence of the cross and Jesus’ death.
In Luke’s version, he takes his three closest followers up the mountain to pray. I’ve mentioned it before, it bears repeating, that Jesus’ praying is a significant theme of Luke’s gospel. He mentions it at key moments in the story—at Jesus’ baptism for example, in the lead up to his preaching of the Beatitudes. What takes place here takes place in the context of prayer.
Several details stand out to help us begin to understand this strange story. First, Luke uses the exact same language when describing Jesus’ appearance as he will use to describe the angels who appear at Jesus’ tomb at his resurrection: The clothes are “dazzling white.” Second, the presence of Moses and Elijah is another powerful reminder of the deep connection and continuity between Jesus’ ministry and mission and the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. For Luke, that connection is made concrete in various ways, but it’s important that we understand there is no sharp break between Old and New Testament, between the way God revealed Godself in the past and the way God reveals Godself in the present. Moses and Elijah’s presence are evidence of that continuity.
All of this is meant to be confirmation of Jesus’ identity—the change in appearance of his face, his dazzling clothes, the presence of Moses and Elijah. Peter has just confessed him to be the Messiah. Now this is divine confirmation of that fact. But there’s more. God, too is present here, to confirm Jesus’ identity. The voice that came from heaven in Jesus’ baptism comes again. At the baptism, the voice said, “You are my son, my beloved.” Now the voice is directed not to Jesus but to the disciples. It says, “This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him.” This time, the voice comes not from heaven, not from a far distance, but from close at hand, from the cloud that envelops them, suggesting God’s near presence in this place. And the message directed to the disciples is not about abstract theology, it has to do with Jesus’ message: Listen to him. And suddenly, the event was over. The glory, the dazzling clothes, the cloud, Moses and Elijah, all of it was gone. Left there were Jesus and his three disciples, Peter, James, and John. And they went back down the mountain and didn’t tell anything to anyone.
There is much here for us to ponder. This strange story eludes our grasp, just as God eludes our grasp and comprehension. We can discern traces of other things in it—the connection with Hebrew Scripture, the pointing back toward the past and the pointing forward to the cross and resurrection. We can hear and see in Luke’s vivid description all that takes place, but still, none of it really is comprehensible to our twenty-first century skeptical minds. We want to make sense of it, process it, analyze it, understand it in our terms, on our territory. But this story, like the story of Moses’ shining and veiled face, remain beyond our comprehension, beyond our human understanding.
There’s one other detail worth pondering. Only in Luke do we get a sense of what Jesus and the two biblical prophets discussed: “they were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” It’s curious wording although the intent is clear—that they were talking about Jesus’ crucifixion. The word translated as departure is the Greek word “exodus”—another echo of scripture. But more than that, it connects cross and resurrection with the great saving act of God, delivering God’s people out of slavery in Egypt into a promised land.
Exodus, journey, deliverance. The experience of Exodus for the Hebrew people was fraught with peril, full of conflict and struggle. Along their exodus they encountered God at Mt. Sinai and received the torah, the Law, and eventually, they entered the promised land.
Jesus and his disciples were also on a journey. A little later in the chapter, after they had come down from the mountain, Luke says that “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
The Transfiguration came at a very particular moment in Jesus’ ministry, after his disciples had confessed him to be the Messiah, after he had begun to tell them about his imminent suffering and death, after he had begun to teach them about the cost of discipleship—take up your cross and follow me. Even in the midst of the Transfiguration, Jesus and Moses and Elijah speak about what is to come, Jesus’ suffering and death.
Our relationships with God, our life with Jesus Christ is not just about those moments of perfect bliss and happiness, moments when our faith is sure, our lives are happy, and we rest comfortably in God’s love. Our life in Jesus Christ is a call to discipleship, a call to follow him. It is a call that may come to us in a flash of lightning or a still, small voice. It may make us thirst for more, to build booths where we might rest content with Jesus Christ, without a care in the world.
But discipleship means walking along, following Christ on the journey he leads, And so we, too come down the mountain, with God’s glory at our backs, the cross ahead of us, and Jesus beckoning us forward, teaching us what it means to follow him. Listen to him!