Sermon of 03 March 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton VA. I drew upon a handful of resources from Judaism, to help unpack the dynamics of Jesus’ prayer life and credit where credit is due – those resources are listed at end of sermon. I am blessed to have my Dad’s thick copy of the Mishnah, and have enjoyed reading Days of Awe and Wonder as I’ve always found Christianity to have a mystic element. Obviously, in a sermon, much is left unsaid as usual, but hey… every year there is a Transfiguration Sunday!
GOSPEL OF LUKE 9:28-36 (New Revised Standard Version)
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.
Beginning with a benediction may seem an odd way to start a sermon, but I would like us to sit for a moment with these words from the Reform Jewish prayer book:
“Days pass, and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing. Let there be moments when your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns, unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder ‘How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it!’”
The rabbi who penned those words drew upon the encounters within the pages of the Old Testament, when the people of God found themselves surprised by encounters with the Holy One. There was Moses, whose first experience was with the burning bush that was not consumed, only to discover he was upon holy ground. There was Elisha who suddenly realized that the host of the Lord was indeed encamped round them, just as Elijah had pointed out. There was Jacob, at Bethel, experiencing a disturbed and transcendental night where he camped. So when we come to this evening scene recorded by Luke, one we speak of as the “Transfiguration,” and which is on the heels of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ… it is a place and experience in which the disciples could well have said “…we, clay touched by God, (reached) out for holiness and exclaim(ed) in wonder ‘How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it!’”
WHY I BRING THIS UP
So, as those also of clay, touched by God ourselves, how do we view this passage of scripture from Luke as to what it has to say to us about us, and what it has to say about Jesus?
In a review of the literature in preparation for today, I admit I resonated with what one wrote of how
“It’s often tempting, when thinking about the Transfiguration to talk about ‘mountain top’ experiences with God and hope that we will all get to experience God in a dramatic thunder and lightning way and regularly. Some Christians spend their whole time wishing for a dramatic experience of God and then wonder why they’re disappointed. Dramatic encounters of God are rare – even for saints such as St Peter.”
This reminds me of my first week in seminary, when all of us first year students were brought together and queried about how we had found ourselves led into ministry. In short, what had been our “call” experience? We were all over. For some, it had been a logical path in their spiritual evolution, reminding me of Timothy, of whom Paul wrote, and how he had come up in the faith – and eventually the ministry. For others, it was a definitive experience, and even there, it was clear there was a range with some closer to the Apostle Paul and his Damascus Road encounter with the Risen Lord that blinded him and made him dependent for care by the very ones he had once been en route to persecute, while others much less less dramatic.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given how within American Christianity, all the way back to the Pilgrims, there remains an internal expectation among many that they must all somehow have something akin to the Damascus Road experience – if they are to have an authentic conversion experience and therefore be marked out as loved by God. Anything short of that, leaves them questioning if they are saved by the grace of our Lord. Crowded out can be the other end of the dichotomy, that Timothy experience with its growth and gradual awakening of revelation over time. Comparisons can, which I know from the conversations I’ve had over the decades, elicit a sense of spiritual inadequacy – the very kind summarized as: “Some Christians spend their whole time wishing for a dramatic experience of God and then wonder why they’re disappointed.”
Maybe because we’re going about this all wrong.
In his book, Days of Awe and Wonder, Marcus Borg notes that “among the reasons that we in the modern world have difficulty giving credence to the reality of Spirit is the disappearance of the deeper forms of prayer from our experience.” It is “in this state, (of prayer that) one enters into deeper levels of consciousness; ordinary consciousness is stilled, and one sits quietly in the presence of God.” [p.52]
If we look to the century after Christ, when the Temple in Jerusalem lay in ruins, the oral traditions among the Jewish rabbis began to be written down in the Mishnah as to what had been practiced. I would note of what is written as to deeper prayer, that it isn’t so much about conveying one’s request to God, or even of the worship of God – but being BOTH in a state of communion with God. This is something of which both the early and later Christian mystics wrote. Such prayer itself is rooted in the ancient institutionalized liturgy formulated during the Babylonian captivity when the younger generation of the time sought out the words they had heard their fathers and mothers once speak, of this prayer life structured to carry one up a spiritual ladder in a state of awe and love, as one focuses one’s mind, heart and soul upon words spoken and upon God.
This kind of prayer, which I would suggest took its most sublime form in Jesus, one noted by the disciples and thus resulting in what we refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer,” is spoken of in the Mishnah where it is written: “None may stand up to say the Teffilah save in a sober mood. The pious men of old used to wait an hour before they said the Tefillah, that they might direct their heart toward God.” This attention to God, the Mishnah states, is such that “Even if the king salutes a man he may not return the greeting; and even if a snake was twisted around his heel he may not interrupt his prayer.” Imagine ignoring a snake! This prayer is a labor of awakening the love hidden within one’s heart until one is in a state of intimate union with God. In short, the world was tuned out and the self – opened to and focused upon God.
It is such a life of intimate prayer that we would seek, and in this, the Gospel points us toward a way of being as much as doing. Is it a “mountaintop experience” like recorded in Luke? No.
But, here in Luke there is something far more than this level of intimate prayer which we would indeed seek after – it is the identity and mission of Jesus. It is written that “…while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they (the disciples) 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” [Luke 9:29-31].
This wasn’t simply a communion of spirits, but the pointing toward the Cross AND the Resurrection; the essential Jesus – beyond the miracles, the proverbs, the gathering of the marginalized and cast off – in what Jesus would ultimately offer in himself, an exodus from death.
Even now, that can be a lot to absorb, but poor Peter, stumbling awake with the others, and not having an iPhone or Android to capture the moment with a selfie of him, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus as he might have done(!) – misses the point. Peter offers to build shelters. He saw the glory of the transfiguration and missed that it was the next step toward Jerusalem, not an endpoint on a mountain of bliss echoing the Festival of Tents and the commemoration of God’s protection during the Wilderness – but a stopping point on the way to Golgotha and to Gethsemane. Who wouldn’t want to avoid tragedy? Yet it cannot be bypassed. Moses and Elijah confirm this is the will of God for Jesus.
“While (Peter) 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.”
Jesus had confirmed this is the path he must journey. Now the disciples must listen to him. If the Transfiguration is a foreshadowing of the glory of Easter, it stands as a reminder that it happens through the Cross. In a short span of verses, it will be said that Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem.”
In a few days we will begin the journey which is Lent, the path that leads from this mountaintop to Jerusalem.
It is a journey of transformation that takes us from being marked with death in the sign of the cross smeared on foreheads with the words “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” as written in Genesis 3:19 – to being marked with life in the empty tomb. We don’t get to build tents on the mountain where glory shines, but we do consider what should die in our lives – beliefs that are harmful to ourselves, to others, to God, as much as behaviors that are destructive or dysfunctional.
It is a journey of transformation that moves us to be “compassion in the world of the everyday. Slightly more fully, it means a life of compassion and a passion for justice.” It has been noted that “The word for ‘compassionate’ in both Hebrew and Aramaic is to be womblike, to be like a womb. God is womblike, Jesus says, therefore you be womblike. …It means to be life-giving, nourishing. It means to feel what a mother feels for the children of her womb: tenderness, willing their well-being, finding her children precious and beautiful. It can also mean a fierceness, for a mother can be fierce when she sees the children of her womb being threatened or treated destructively” [see Borg, pp. 135-136].
It is a journey with a string of endings. A string of beginnings. An encounter with death. An encounter with resurrection where “the tomb becomes the womb,” for the “God-intoxicated” Jesus whose prayer life is his way of being open to and centered in the Spirit of God. As such, it was the source of his compassion for people and justice for society – in everything, a care for the least of these. It was that which got him executed. Christ did not just simply die. Lent, this period of introspection regarding what it truly means to live our lives as Christians, which we begin anew this week, is the forty days long reminder of that fact.
Chaim Stern, in Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur. Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2017
Marcus J. Borg. Days of Awe and Wonder. NY: Harper One, 2017 (pp. 52,135-138)
Tzvi Freeman, “What is Tefillah? A Labor of the Heart.” Accessed 27 February 2019 at: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1452805/jewish/Tefillah.htm
“Berakoth 5:1,” in The Mishnah: Translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Explanatory Notes. Herbert Danby. London: Oxford University Press, 1967 (p.7)
Bryony Taylor. “Sermon on the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) – Sunday before Lent.” 10 February 2013. Accessed on 01 March 2019, at: https://bryonytaylor.com/2013/02/10/sermon-on-the-transfiguration-luke-928-36-sunday-before-lent/
©2010 by Vinson W. Miller, Hampton VA.