The Transfiguration begins when Jesus take Peter, James, and John and in a seeming premonition of the scene in the Garden, these three seem oblivious to what is happening around them. In the Garden they will sleep; here Luke tells us that they are heavy with sleep. Not quite asleep maybe, but their heads are nodding. Jesus has come up the mountain to pray and these three probably expect the same sort of non-event as is normal for Jesus when he “goes away to pray.”
An interlude on identity, if you will. Jesus has, a week earlier, asked the disciples who people and they think he is. Various options are offered, John the Baptist (odd since John and Jesus had been baptizing at the same time, but their messages were similar), Elijah, or one of the prophets. But who do the disciples think Jesus is? Peter is quick with, Messiah. Pete gets this one right, but apparently not right enough. Jesus is Messiah, but as we will find out, he is much more than that.
While the Apostles are dozing and nodding, Jesus meanwhile is praying about what is coming up in the not-too-distant future. We already know that he intends to go to Jerusalem where he will be killed by the very people who should have known better, aided by some folks who just don’t really care as long as peace is maintained in the empire. His prayer is conversation and not only with God, but with Elijah and Moses. This reminds those of us who know the larger story that YHWH is not the God of the dead, but of the living. These are not specters, but actually Elijah and Moses and Luke tells us that their conversation is specifically about his impending “departure.” Later in the Garden, Jesus is going to pray that if possible, he might not have to drink that cup. Perhaps this is the conversation now – Elijah and Moses are encouraging him and reminding him of his purpose of living and dying. Elijah who has been known to hide in a cave and being confronted with the embarrassing question, “why are you here;” and Moses who both led the People of Israel through the wilderness, and failed to enter it. Elijah and Moses, two of the most important people in the history of Israel, both took the work of God into their own hands and blew it. Jesus has been given a task that he must fulfill and God is with him.
As these three are talking with each other, the sleepy heads get a glimpse of something rather odd. Jesus, it seems has begun to – glow. Shimmering and bright, apparently, this gets the Apostles’ attention and they don’t quite know what to do about. Peter though – true to form – jumps up and fairly gushes with, “Oh Jesus, let me build three arbors for you three!” Luke tells us in an aside that this is just Pete being Pete, “he doesn’t know what he’s saying.” We don’t know if the other two are starting to collect arbor-making material, but immediately there comes a cloud that engulfs them all – maybe so they can’t find any branches, but more likely this is the presence of God who seems to make a habit of cosmic entrances. It is God, after all, and he speaks to the Apostles. This is the second time YHWH has said these words concerning Jesus. The first was at his baptism, and now here. Both times they serve to separate Jesus from others; from what has gone before. At his baptism, the voice serves to take the focus off of John who has been baptizing folks; it was time to end the parallel work of John and Jesus, and Jesus’s work was to take precedence. Here, in chapter nine, the voice serves the same purpose. Peter has just wanted to make shelters for the three men and so YHWH needs to tell Pete and the other two that the Law and the prophets were for an earlier time; it’s time to separate Jesus from them. The work of God, the world, and the disciples have entered another phase of God’s enterprise for the world. This is a new era, a Jesus Era. Jesus will himself make reference to this shift when he tells his disciples that the greatest command is to 1, love God; and 2, love your neighbor. He then will say that upon these two laws hang all the Law and the Prophets. Jesus will give his followers a “new law,” that they love one another. Just as the Law and the Prophets point to Jesus and are overshadowed and fulfilled by him, so are they and their teachings overshadowed and fulfilled by love.
The Apostles don’t quite know what to make of this and they eventually come down off the mountain. In the flat land there is a crowd that comes to meet Jesus and in this crowd is a man whose only son is tormented by a demon. He had asked Jesus’s disciples to heal his son, but they couldn’t and so the man has brought his son to Jesus for healing. Jesus eventually will heal this boy and return him to his father, but first he makes an observation about a faithless and twisted generation. Jesus is frustrated it seems. We have read of his “who am I” question and Peter’s apparently correct response and the eight days later, Peter is ready to build three shelters and has to be told by no one else than God that it is to Jesus they should paying attention – the Son of God. This vignette is now replayed with a larger crowd and God will speak here too.
Jesus’s disciples couldn’t heal this boy and we are tempted to think that it is because they have made the same mistake the Three have made – Jesus is a great miracle worker, but that’s about all there is. Maybe they are also in the habit of jockeying for position – who’s the teacher’s pet; who is the greatest among the followers of this wonder worker? Faithless and twisted. They don’t know who he is, and they are still interested in who’s Number One. They have not fully embodied God and as a result, they can’t heal this boy. Jesus says, send your son here and as the boy is coming, the demon throws him to the ground.
And then God speaks.
“Leave the boy alone.”
That’s all God has to say and the demon leaves. Jesus then gives the boy back to his father. God has spoken and the sign should be sufficient for all who have eyes to see that it is Jesus – in his complete essence – that should have our attention. Not our own “power” to heal, nor our one-upmanship games in the kingdom of God. They won’t get this either, as the next pericope demonstrates.
The point of both these stories is the identity of Jesus as the Son of God; the Son of Man. God incarnate and living among us. Emmanuel as he is called.
The last part of this section has Jesus saying something. He seemingly has to say this slow and with a deliberate tone because they have yet to figure out who he is. He says, “let this sink into your ears.” The equivalent to a parent’s “listen closely this time,” Jesus tells them that he is going to die. You and I know the story, but these folks don’t. It’s one thing to claim to be a God; quite another to tell them that this God is going to be killed. If the first is fantastic, the second is even more so. God’s don’t die; they certainly don’t get themselves killed by people.
But this one does, and he’s telling them up front what is going to happen.
What are we to make of this story other than the obvious, “this is my Son?”
First, mountain top experiences are really cool, but the work of God is not done in mountain top experiences. Those experiences refresh us and bring us sometimes palpably into the presence of God, but they aren’t the point and ultimately, they aren’t about you. Having been refreshed, it’s time to get to work, and that’s done off the mountain, in the dirty, frustrating, and deadly world of and with other people. Another observation we might make is that while Jesus was on the mountain, he expected his disciples to be doing his work, but they were failing, being faithless and twisted. Does your life not seem to have the power or presence of God in it? Maybe a bit less of me, and a bit more reliance on God would help it flower even more thoroughly in your life. As we approach Lent, a period of self-reflection and yet reassurance, make it a point to focus on Jesus and to live his life in your world.
We can’t end this discussion without mentioning a bit more about glowing as Jesus did. When we are in close communion with God, we glow too. Don’t believe me? Think about those you know who are closest to God; those who have lived long lives toward him; those who are patient, and loving, and compassionate. Their faces and their demeanor do glow; you can see it in their eyes and in their countenances. Everyone who lives that closely with God can’t help but glow.
One last point. Jesus in the second story heals the returns the son to his father. This is what God does and wondrously it is what Jesus does for you. Jesus heals you and returns you to your Father. That’s why he came and that is what his life and his death accomplish for you. Would you be healed, would you be washed, would you be fully alive? Let Jesus give you back to your Father.
Now, go glowing into the world and point people to Jesus.