Up and Down
Up and Down
St. Luke 9:28-36
You might have noticed that the Gospel I read from Luke 9—the story of Jesus’ transfiguration—isn’t the Gospel for today. It’s actually yesterday’s Gospel—the Gospel for the Feast of the Transfiguration. I had been planning to preach on today’s lessons, but—I’ll chalk it up to Providence—I started out this week reading Miroslav Volf’s book “A Public Faith” and it had me thinking about the significance of Jesus’ transfiguration all week. Volf is a theologian. He’s Croatian and grew up in Communist Yugoslavia, the son of a Protestant minister in a country dominated from region to region by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Muslims and coming out of that experience he writes and speaks on how we, as Christians, can and should live out our faith in public in the world, effectively making Jesus and his kingdom known and bringing the transforming power of the Gospel to bear on culture and economics and politics.
Volf begins his book by talking about faith and, more specifically about faith done right verses faith done wrong. He talks about “faith malfunctions”. We might think that sounds odd. How does faith “malfunction”? Volf helpfully puts it in terms of “ascent” and “descent”. We have an encounter with God. That’s the “ascent”. We go up to the mountaintop and we encounter God and that encounter leaves us transformed. But we can’t stay on the mountaintop forever. At some point we have to go back down the mountain to the valley below. God doesn’t come to us for your or my benefit alone. He doesn’t forgive us, he doesn’t heal us, he doesn’t make us new so that we can keep that forgiveness, healing, and newness to ourselves. He transforms us and sends us back down the mountain to share that forgiveness and that healing and that newness—to share the Good News, to manifest the kingdom, to declare that Jesus is Lord—with the people around us. Jesus fills us with his light on the mountaintop and then sends us down into the darkness to share that light with the world. The problem is that it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes we refuse to go back down the mountain at all. Sometimes we go down, but we co-opt what he’s given us for our benefit or for our own agendas. Volf illustrates this with the stories of Moses going up to Mt. Sinai and with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. I want to look at our Gospel in this light.
Just before Luke tells us about the Transfiguration, he tells us about a conversation between Jesus and Peter. Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. And in response Peter answered that Jesus was “The Christ of God”—Jesus was the Messiah whom God had promised to send to his people. Peter was right, but he was also wrong. On the one hand, everyone knew that the Messiah was coming to vindicate faithful Israel. He was going to lead them to victory over their enemies and establish his kingdom once and for all. And this is what Peter had in mind. But Jesus also knew that Peter and the others had a very wrong idea of how the Messiah was going to fulfil this mission. And so Jesus affirms Peter: Yes, I am the Messiah. But he also corrects the wrong ideas he knew Peter and the others had. He tells them that as the Messiah he’s going to “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). Again, that’s not what people expected of the Messiah. Israel had collectively had a “malfunction of faith”. They had the law and the prophets pointing them to their own mission and pointing them to the Messiah, but they’d bent and twisted all of that to fit their own political or nationalistic or religious agendas. And this malfunction had shaped the thinking of Peter and others. But the strangeness of Jesus’ reply didn’t end there. Jesus went on to address his disciples, telling them that they needed to take up their crosses and follow him. They had to be ready to follow him as he faced rejection and death. In fact, he said, being willing to lose one’s life for his sake was the only way to be part of his kingdom.
Jesus had figured out that this was his mission as he realised who he was. He was the Messiah, the Davidic king who would restore the kingdom; but he was also the Son of Man, Israel’s representative; and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, who would bear the sins of the people. Yes, the Messiah was to be King, but the way to victory and the way to his throne was by embodying Israel himself and suffering as the servant of his people. But the disciples hadn’t connected these dots yet. This was mind-boggling to them. But they were still committed to following Jesus. They had seen God working through him. In verse 28 Luke jumps ahead, telling us specifically that the next events happened eight days later. That ties these two passages together. What now follows has everything to do with Jesus’ revelation as the Messiah, as the Son of Man, and as the Suffering Servant and it also has everything to do with his call to his disciples to take up their crosses and to follow him even when it might mean death. Luke writes:
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.
Jesus takes his three closest friends and goes up to a mountain to pray. Luke doesn’t say what Jesus was praying about, but since he connects this passage with the last passage, we can safely assume that Jesus was praying about his mission and ministry—praying about his coming rejection and death and maybe praying for his disciples, that they would have the faith to follow him through all that was to come. And it’s in the midst of this prayer that God reveals himself. Something similar happened at Jesus’ baptism. It was in his baptism that he committed himself to his ministry as Messiah and as he prayed, Luke tells us, “the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ (Luke 3:22)” Jesus had committed himself to his mission and as he prayed, the Father and the Spirit confirmed him in that mission. Look now at verses 29-31. Now it happens again here as Jesus prays on the mountain.
And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Two things happen. First, Jesus’ appearance, his face, his countenance, his clothes change. Everything about him becomes dazzlingly white. Think of it as if Jesus has been turned spiritually inside-out for the benefit of his disciples. In the Old Testament a person’s countenance was considered to be a mirror showing his or her heart and manifesting his or her relationship with the Lord—we’d say the condition of their spirit and their closeness to God. The disciples would, no doubt, have been having trouble taking in the crazy things Jesus had said. “Yes, I’m the Messiah and now, because of that, I have to be rejected and die.” Was he really the Messiah? Was he really God’s representative? Here’s the proof straight from God. The Father manifested himself at Jesus’ baptism to confirm him in his ministry and now, as Jesus calls his disciples to follow him to rejection and death, the Father manifests himself again to confirm for the disciples that Jesus isn’t crazy and that he hasn’t got it all wrong.
The second thing that happens is that Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. Again, this is also for the disciples’ benefit. Luke says, “Behold!” or “Look!” And Moses and Elijah were, he says, in “glory”—the Greek word is the one from which we get our word “doxology” and here it refers to their being bright and dazzling, just as Jesus was. But they’re not just standing there, the disciples realise that Jesus is talking with them about his departure to take place at Jerusalem.
Jesus was talking about this “departure” in his conversation with Peter when he said that he was going to be rejected and executed by the Jewish elders and chief priests. That he’s now talking about it with Moses, the lawgiver, and with Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, confirms for the disciples that this is all part of God’s plan for the Messiah. It’s not crazy after all, no matter how much it doesn’t fit with everyone’s expectations. The whole scene is loaded with symbolism that points to who Jesus is. Moses and Elijah represent and embody the Old Covenant. Moses represents the law. Elijah represents the prophets. And here they both are with Jesus now, confirming him in his mission and ministry. Jesus is the fulfilment of the law. He’s also the fulfilment of the prophets. In Jesus everything the Old Covenant had promised and was working toward is bring fulfilled. Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel’s story and of the Lord’s covenant with her.
And that makes the discussion of his “departure” even more profound. The Greek word Luke uses can take on a number of different meanings: not just “departure”, but it can also be a euphemism for death—as we might say someone is “passing away”. That certainly applies to what Jesus has said will happen at Jerusalem. But the Greek word is one we all recognise: exodos. It’s the word for the Exodus in the Old Testament—God’s release of his people from their bondage in Egypt. When Luke uses the word here it’s loaded with the significance of that event. Jesus isn’t just discussing his death with Moses and Elijah; he’s discussing the exodus in which he’s going to lead his people out of bondage, not from Egypt this time, but from sin and death. The exodus in which Moses led the people is just a type, just a shadow of the exodus in which Jesus will lead the way. And here the disciples get a hint at the big picture. It’s through rejection by the elders and priests and it’s through his death that Jesus will lead this new exodus and in it he will take his place as the Messiah and King. It’s through the exodus-death of the Messiah and as he rises to life again on the third day that he will vindicate his people and establish his kingdom.
And this is why, as Jesus is praying about the awful events to come and about his own rejection and death, he’s suddenly transfigured. It’s in those awful events, that Jesus will show his glory. In giving up himself he will redeem his people once and for all. So in this Transfiguration is a foretaste for the disciples of the glorified Jesus they’ll meet on the other side of the Cross.
Look now at verses 32-33:
Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.
Peter’s always the impetuous one. As we’ll see again in Gethsemane the night before Jesus is crucified, when Jesus prays, his disciples usually fall asleep. This time they’re snapped out of it by the dazzling brightness. They saw Jesus’ glory. And when it looked like Moses and Elijah were leaving Peter burst out, “Master, this is just too good to let pass. Let’s build tents for the three of you so that this never has to end!” Why not? Aside from basking in the amazing glow of glory, who wouldn’t want to spend some time with Moses and Elijah? And in light of this talk about departure and exodus and rejection and being put to death, who wouldn’t want to stay on the mountaintop? Who wants to walk down into the dark valley when you can stay in the visible and obvious presence of God’s glory? But Luke says that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. Peter didn’t understand. We often do the same sort of thing. This is one of those “faith malfunctions” that Miroslav Volf writes about. We have a mountaintop experience of God and we want to build a tent and stay there forever. But that’s not how it’s to be.
Wednesday night our men’s group was watching a video on the Sermon on the Mount by Tom Wright. Bp. Wright was talking about Jesus’ command to be salt and light and he gave the example of a lighthouse. A lighthouse is meant to shine a bright light all around to expose dangerous rocks and headlands and warn ships away so that they don’t wreck. As people of the light we’re to be like that. We shine the light Jesus has given into the darkness for the good of everyone around us. But what if, as people of the light, we chose simply to bask in the beautiful light of Jesus. And we removed the glass windows from the lighthouse and replaced them with mirrors so that we could all sit there basking in that glorious light, keeping it all to ourselves. Meanwhile ships would be crashing onto the rocks outside. No, the lighthouse has windows for a reason and Jesus sends us down from the mountain for a reason: to be light in the darkness. He sends out to transform the world not through violence but with meekness. He sends us out to mourn the world’s wickedness and to expose it with the light. He sends us out to make righteousness and justice known and to be peacemakers in the world. It’s easy to be holy and meek and peaceful when it’s just you and Jesus on the mountaintop, but that’s not the point. Jesus sends us down the mountain to work for righteousness and justice and peace in the midst of a world that hates these things. He sends us down to proclaim that Jesus is Lord to a world that has sold its soul to the false lordships of Caesar and sex and money.
Staying on the mountaintop might have been good for Peter, John, and James, but if they had never left and if they never passed with Jesus through the dark valley, through rejection and death, there would have been no resurrection, no victory over sin and death, and no kingdom. Good for Peter? Sure, at least in the short term. But down in the valley was an even greater good for the entire human race. That’s what Jesus’ transfiguration is about. It points the way to glory. And so in response to Peter, everything suddenly changes.
As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. (Luke 9:34-36)
Suddenly it gets dark as a cloud envelopes Peter, John, and James on the mountain. After all the talk about exodus, they couldn’t have helped but think of the cloud and thunder and lightening that had surrounded Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai when he’d gone up to meet the Lord. Now the cloud envelops them—God’s presence surrounding them. And the Father speaks just as he did at Jesus’ baptism, but this time, instead of speaking to Jesus to confirm his identity and mission, the Father speaks to the disciples: “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”
Jesus knows who he is and now that identity is confirmed for his disciples. He’s God’s Son. He’s God’s Chosen One. That describes Israel. Israel was God’s son. Israel was God’s chosen. And now God confirms for the disciples: Jesus has taken the role of Israel on himself. The covenant and all its obligations, promises, and blessings are now finding their fulfilment in him. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that when the cloud lifts, Moses and Elijah are gone. It’s just Jesus. The law and the prophets got us here, but Jesus is now fulfilling them. The Old Covenant is in the past; through Jesus and through this new exodus, God is establishing a New Covenant and constituting a new Israel, not based on ethnicity, law, diet, or circumcision, but on faith in this Son of Man who embodies Israel himself. Not just freeing the people from bondage in Egypt, but this time freeing us from bondage to sin and death.
This comes as Jesus is about to end his ministry in Galilee. It’s time to start making the trip to Jerusalem. It’s time to leave the mountaintop and walk down into the valley. But they leave the mountaintop in faith knowing that no matter how amazing and stunning the glory they saw there was, Jesus is eventually going to be revealed in even greater glory. They now have the faith to follow Jesus to Jerusalem.
Brothers and Sisters, do we have the faith to follow Jesus down the mountain, through the valley, and even to the cross? It’s not easy. Even after all this the disciples struggled. On the night Jesus was arrested Peter drew his sword and charged into the soldiers. He was still thinking that the Messiah was going to usher in his kingdom through violent revolution and that then and there it was finally going to start. Jesus had to stop him. And Jesus reminded his friends how serious he was about his crazy agenda of meekness and grace and righteousness and peace by healing the soldier Peter had injured—so that those soldiers could then arrest him and carry him off to his death. We too can be so mired in the world’s ways of thinking, so committed to earthly ways of doing things, so sold out to political agendas, so focused on trying to fix things ourselves or even save our own skins that we’re unable to take up our crosses and follow Jesus to Calvary.
I was talking with a friend recently and he said, “But peace doesn’t win wars and meekness doesn’t win elections!” But Friends, Jesus doesn’t call us to win wars or elections. He calls us follow him—to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be peacemakers, to show mercy, and to do justly—to walk humbly with our God. And Jesus promises that in the short-term we will lose—at least in earthly terms. That’s what it means when he tells us that we’ve got to take up our crosses to follow him. But he also promises us: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He warns us asking, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
The light that Jesus has given us isn’t meant to be kept to ourselves for our own benefit. Last week we read St. Paul’s teaching on the gifts of the Spirit. He says in 1 Corinthians that those gifts are given for the common good—to build up the Church and, as we each share our gifts and do our part, to be light in the darkness and to proclaim the Good News. That light has been given to do one thing: to make Jesus known by driving back the darkness. And Jesus doesn’t call us to shine brightly, to seek righteousness and justice, to be peacemakers, to show the fruit of the Spirit when it’s convenient, when it won’t get us into trouble, when it doesn’t involve compromise with worldly agendas. No, we’ve been given the light to shine brightly even when it means going against the flow, getting into trouble, being persecuted, giving up our rights, or losing earthly battles because we know we serve Creation’s true Lord and King. We know that as he has always vindicated those who trust him he will one day vindicate our faithfulness as well.
Brothers and Sisters, we ascend to the mountaintop and we encounter the Lord when read and immerse ourselves in the Scriptures. God speaks to us through these pages. We ascend to the Lord when we come together as Jesus’ body to worship and to serve. And we ascend to the Lord when we come to his Table. Here he meets us in the bread and wine, here he feeds us with grace, here he meets us with forgiveness and with healing. We ascend and the Lord fills us with his light and strengthens our faith. And that faith now sends us down the mountain, into the dark valley to be an uncompromising light. As we were reminded last week, we do not go alone. The Spirit goes with us and we travel together and we work together with the gifts he has given so that we can share the forgiveness, the healing, the freedom, the peace, and the light of Jesus and his kingdom.
Let us pray: Father, in the Collect this morning we asked to be delivered from the disquietude of the world that we might see King Jesus in all his beauty. Give us the grace, Lord, now to descend back into the world’s disquietude, equip us with your Spirit, bind us together as the Body of Christ, that we might be faithful to make known the beauty of the King. Amen.