My first impression on reading this story: Things happen when you pray! This is our first insight from reading the story of Jesus' transfiguration on the mountain. He went up onto the mountain to pray, as he often did. Luke is very clear about Jesus' continuous practice of praying. Luke, more than any other gospel writer, tells us that Jesus often went apart to pray and taught his followers to pray. More than this, Luke connects times of prayer with great events in the gospel story. The message is: Things happen when you pray.
Making sense of the stuff of faith continues to be one of the hardest tasks for modern people. Despite all the increase and the wide availability of knowledge, we are unprepared to speak of the connection between the ordinary and the Divine. Any of us can outline Jesus’ humanity and the ancient history surrounding him, but we struggle to give a meaningful explanation of the presence of God in him. More than this, we struggle to give a meaningful explanation of the divine and the Spirit. Oh, we keep a little category in the corner of our minds where we store such convictions, but we have difficulty connecting that “spiritual corner” with the rest of life.
The story of the Transfiguration is important because it comes as an answer to this difficulty. Luke hears those who want to believe struggling to understand and he says:
1. "The spirit and the ordinary meet in Jesus of Nazareth";
2. Then, he says: “Let me tell you what happened to James and John and Peter on the mountain.”
On this occasion, Jesus went up onto the mountain with his disciples, Peter and John and James, to pray, and there, "While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white." Transfiguration!
TASK: Stop to reflect on what this moment of Jesus' transfiguration meant to Jesus and now means to us.
[II.] The Transfiguration of Jesus teaches us that there are thin places in the course of our lives where we stand so close to heaven, that we can sense the near presence and hear the still, small voice of God.//
We live, most of our days, at some distance from all that is holy. The "everyday" is jobs and kids and school; it is doing what we can with what we have in our hands. It is not that we leave our faith behind; we are just busy somewhere else. The truth is that we pray, most days, on a long-distance connection to heaven.
+Only a few of us will ever hear the voice of God when we pray. Mostly, we pray, faithfully, confident that God will hear us when we pray. Still, we mostly pray to the Great Silence.
+Our religion does not require God to jump at our command. We practice our faith daily in the simple conviction that the unseen God is in command; we are always the followers.
+The truth is that, even though we may need to hear the voice of God ANSWERING OR SPEAKING JUSTICE OR WHISPERING HOPE, God most often does not jump just because we are frightened. God does not often speak just because we have started a conversation.
The result is that God can seem very far away sometimes. You may spend your whole life speaking to God over a long-distance connection. // Faith is going forward even though the night is dark. Faith is praying against the Great Silence in the confidence that God does hear. Faith is walking with God without putting obligation on God.
And then, occasionally:
+once in a lifetime,
+once at the point of our greatest confusion,
+once when we are not even looking,
+once, like Jonah, when we are running from God,
we find ourselves in one of the thin places where heaven and earth are so close we can touch the face of God, when we are so close that we can hear the still, small voice of God. Simon, James and John woke up to find Jesus standing with Elijah and Moses. And suddenly, the voice of God broke over them, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
In a way, the Transfiguration is frightening because it is fair warning that through Jesus, the distance between heaven and earth has been bridged. God can lean in to listen as never before. It is also reassuring because it is the assurance that through Jesus, we can reach out to the unseen God of the Universe. In Jesus, the distance between heaven and earth has thinned.
[Marcus Borg] described "thin places" this way:
Thin places are places where two levels of reality meet or intersect. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, experience the One in whom we live, all round us and within us (1).
Many experiences and places can become thin places for us:
+worship is designed to be a thin place for us;
+music has always been able to move us;
+participation in the sacraments offers us a thin place;
+reading the Bible;
+friendships can often become thin places when they make us aware of the holy surrounding us;
+anywhere our hearts are opened.
Ezekiel 36.26 expresses God's desire to meet us at such thin places:
26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28 Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
Mindie Burgoyne in her Celtic article describes "thin places" this way:
A ‘thin place’ is a place where the veil between this world and the Other world is thin, the Other world is more near. Since the times of ancient civilization the fascination with the "Other world" has occupied human minds. To some it is heaven, the kingdom, paradise. To others it may be hell, an abyss, the unknown. Whatever you perceive the Other world to be, a thin place is a place where connection to that world seems effortless, and ephemeral signs of its existence are so intense as to be almost touched or felt (2).
The Transfiguration became one of the "thin places" for the disciples; telling this story again teaches us to watch for such thin places.
III. I do not think we appreciate how difficult it was for the disciples to comprehend the full identity of Jesus. We have known the story of Jesus from beginning to end from the time we were old enough to hear about Christmas and Easter. We grew up knowing how the story of Jesus ends. But, for the disciples coming to know Jesus was more like living a John Grissom novel. They had no idea what was coming next. And they certainly did not know the end of Jesus' earthly ministry until the cross and the resurrection. It took time for the full identity of Jesus to sink in.
+They had to hear it from him;
+they had to watch him at work;
+they had to see what happened when he spoke or acted.
+And, as Peter did in the Great Confession, they had to say aloud the conviction about Jesus that was forming in their own hearts.
My guess is that they easily understood that he was fully human. After all, everyone is fully human. The harder task for them was to comprehend and explain that Jesus was fully God.
At this point, Luke wants to help us. One of the purposes of the story of the Transfiguration was to show the disciples, and now to show us, that Jesus was at the same time fully God. What does that mean, anyway? That Jesus was fully God? We know about super-heroes; we watch them on TV every Saturday morning. But, except for Jesus, we have no models for one person who is fully human and fully God. As I said, Luke wants to show us as he tells the story of Jesus on the day of the Transfiguration.
Scan the story once again. Look for the words and images Luke uses in this familiar story to give us Jesus' identity. There is a time and place for Christians to be Biblical literalists, and this is one of those times. You might take a notepad and just list the words that Luke uses to describe Jesus.
+he was praying;
+his face changed;
+clothes were dazzling white;
+he stood in the company of Moses and Elijah;
+his departure - I'm guessing that this word points to the cross and the resurrection;
+voice of God spoke from the cloud: "This is my Son";
+voice of God spoke from the cloud: "This is my Chosen";
+voice of God spoke from the cloud: "Listen to him!"
Later, at the foot of the mountain,
+the father of the boy addressed Jesus: "teacher";
+Jesus had the power with only a command to heal and make him well.
I do not know, of course, what words you would use to describe the full identity of Jesus as you know about him and believe in him. But, if we are going to take the witness of scripture seriously, then our description of Jesus has to take into account these words from the Transfiguration. Here we can start by taking the words of scripture seriously: noting the words Luke uses to describe this event. Now, you and I might take these words and look for further insights into their meaning for Christians across the ages and for us.
Now, go beyond the literal words and let the story tell us about Jesus. When I was in seminary, my preaching professor got excited about this story one day. It was time for me to preach on the Transfiguration story, and I had chosen just that part of the story that which took place on the mountain. He wouldn't stand for it. He pointed out the second part of the story, which tells how Jesus and the disciples came down to the foot of the mountain to find a large crowd surrounding a father and his sick child. The father hurries to Jesus, points to his son, and tells Jesus that the disciples cannot heal the boy. Whereupon Jesus does a bit of teaching and then casts out the demon, which appears to be epilepsy.
The point of this two-part story, as my seminary professor was so excited to share, is that life, and particularly the Christian life, cannot be lived only at the top of the mountain. Christian life is lived both at the top of the mountain, basking in the glory, AND at the bottom of the mountain in the places of service that demand our attention. This is the life and the example of Jesus.
The next time someone asks you: "Tell me about Jesus," go to this story. Read it or tell it. Let this story teach those who are ready to hear about Jesus.//
V. Now, there is one more step in our study of the story of the Transfiguration. It is never enough to know about Jesus. We are not finished until we allow the story of Jesus to shape us and to change us. You might say: Just as Jesus was Transfigured on that day, so the story of Jesus will transform us. The Bible uses many terms for this:
+from unrighteousness to righteousness,
+from lost like a lost sheep to found by the Good Shepherd,
+from unknowing TO moved to wonder.
I contend that the best I can do is to be a Christ-formed person. This change to becoming a Christian person is transformation. Our transformation takes place
+as we allow the story and the witness of disciples of Jesus Christ to become our story;
+as we learn from Christ what he taught about love, about God, and about living.
+as we do as Jesus did in his time and know that Jesus would do in our time through those who follow him: service, charity, even miracles;
+as we allow the image of Christ to be formed in us more and more each day. This is what we United Methodists call: "Going on to perfection."
[MOVIE] The movie, "The Blind Side," is a story of transformation – based on a true story. It is the story of Michael Oher, an offensive lineman who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL. He began in Memphis as a foster-child being pushed from foster-home to foster-home. He ran away from every placement. As it turns out, one of those foster-families enrolls him in a private Christian school by convincing the football coach that the young teenager is a natural athlete. At school he finds a friend; this friend turns out to be part of the family that will adopt him and turn his life around. Actress Sandra Bullock plays the mother of the family who took a special interest in Michael and, little by little, welcomed him into their home and into her heart. With the support of his adoptive family, he finishes high school and goes on to play at Ole Miss. After a great career in college, he is drafted by the Baltimore Ravens and now plays in the NFL.
The message of the film is that without this transformation, he would have gone nowhere. He would have been just another kid who never got the support he needed to succeed. But, through the love and support of his adoptive family, he has lived a story that is an inspiration to any family and any foster-child (3).
Thus, transfiguration is about changed lives, changed hopes, changed futures.
[CONCL] So, let us be transfigured by the work of Christ in us. We are transformed by the work of Christ when we hear his story and understand that his story opens possibilities for the same story in our stories.
Let me tell you about Jesus. Let me tell you how he was transfigured on the mountain with three disciples who were blown away by what they saw. Let me tell you about Jesus, so you will know about Jesus, too. Let me tell you about Jesus so you too can believe that he was God walking among us in Galilee so long ago. So you will know that Christ calls us to see God through him even today.
1. Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity, pp. 149ff.
2. Bourgoyne, Mindie. "Walking through Thin Places," published online at http://www.thinplaces.net/openingarticle.htm
3. The Blind Side, movie directed by John Lee Hancock, based on the book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis.