Well, we finally made it. After a season of epiphanies about Jesus: from the Magi with gifts, the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism, the water into wine, the fishes bursting from nets, and lessons about life with Jesus from the Sermon on the Plain, we get to the mother of all epiphanies – Transfiguration Sunday. In this event is everything we need to know about Jesus. Luke tells us everything starts with prayer – life with Jesus is rooted in prayerful relationship with God. Then, Jesus’ divinity is revealed as his entire appearance changes, with everything becoming dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear, which many argue represents the prophets and the law confirming Jesus’ identity and significance. We even hear a conversation between the three figures about Jesus’ pending journey to Jerusalem and ultimate departure. And, as if we needed to know even more about who Jesus is, God comes down in a cloud and says, clear as a bell, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” We can’t get a lesson more epiphanic than this!
This story in Luke is so dramatic, that the lectionary says we can skip the next seven verses. If you notice in your bulletin, those verses are in parenthesis. And if I am really honest, as your preacher, I seriously considered eliminating those verses today. I wanted to stay on that mountaintop with Peter, John, and James. I want to be overwhelmed by the majesty of the moment, I want to gobble up the crystal clarity of this event, I want to breathe in the confidence of that comes from knowing this is the Messiah, the answer. I might even want to build those dwellings or booths Peter is talking about for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. This is a mountain of wonder, of joy, of understanding, of specialness, of the sacred. I want to stay here.
But the text is not having such comfort today. Nope, in Luke, the very next thing that happens after this rich, shocking, full epiphany and the disciples’ stunned silence, is they go back down the mountain and face another person who needs to be healed. And this is not a simple request for healing, but a report that the man begged Jesus’ disciples to cast out the demon first, but they could not. So not only do Jesus and his disciples go back to work, but also we learn that the disciples are not very good at the work. In other words, they have work to do.
Sometimes, when we are tired and weary – and believe me, we have had a lot of tired and weary in the last two years – in those times we slip into the mode of thinking Church is an “escape from” place. We face illness, and death, and war, and suffering, and poverty, and discrimination, and persecution, and brokenness every single day of the week, and we just want our mini-Easter on Sundays. We want to climb a mountain, pray with Jesus, and bask in Jesus’ radiance. And that is okay. Luke would not tell us so many times in his gospel that Jesus escapes to pray if Jesus’ praying (and our praying) were not important. But the danger in thinking of Church as an “escape from” place is that we risk not seeing the brilliance of Jesus in all the other days.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a doctor’s office that serves patients from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds. One such client had arrived for one of the daily walk-in appointments only to be told arriving at 9:00 am meant he had missed the available appointments. The staff very graciously gave him a list of other places he could try and encouraged him to come back earlier next time. The client sat there a bit stunned and dejected and I began to avert my eyes to give him some privacy for his grief. But a minute or so later, an older gentleman came up to him and asked to see the paper the staff had given him. He proceeded to show the younger man which alternatives were best, and then whispered the secret that although the staff said to come at 7:00 am, the real trick was to arrive by 6:00 am. The young man’s face slowly relaxed under the loving tutelage of his elder fellow struggler in life.
Luke does not leave us on the mountaintop because Luke knows the danger the artificial divide between the sacred and the secular. As scholar Debie Thomas warns, “Desperate for the mountain, we miss the God of the valley, the conference room, the pharmacy, the school yard.”[i] The story of the healing in the valley is the “so what?” of this last grand epiphany story before we head into Lent. “The story of the transfiguration of Jesus loses its power if [the transfiguration] does not include that moment when Jesus and the disciples come down from the mountain.” By seeing Jesus differently today, we are enabled to see ourselves and others differently too.[ii] We are able to see God in an elderly struggling man taking a young struggling man under his wings. We are able to see God in the way an older child shepherds a younger child to Children’s Chapel. We are able to see God in our gut-wrenching conversations of the presence of evil in the world and how to navigate war in a way that demonstrates all life is sacred.
This week, our invitation is to take this hour not as an “escape from” but as an “empowerment to” – an empowerment to go out in the world seeing the God of the valley, the God of the medical clinic, the God of the grocery store, the God of the Zoom meeting, and to be agents of God in all those places. We come from a long line of disciples who were not always good at healing the suffering of this world. But we enter a season of intentionality in these coming six weeks that will embolden us to keep trying. We know from this hour of empowerment who Jesus is. Now we get the chance to show Jesus’ face to others in our everyday lives. Amen.
[i] Rohr summary about the sacred and the secular and quote from Debie Thomas, “Down from the Mountain” February 19, 2022, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2944 on February 26, 2022.
[ii] Lori Brandt Hale, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 456.