Transfiguration and Worship
A Sermon Preached by Rev. Osy Nuesch at
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church on March 3, 2019 based on Luke 9:28-36
Some years ago researchers at the University of Hertfordshire (in England) surveyed 100,000 people of whom the majority expressed a preference for this story. It involves the famous inspector Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson. Holmes and Watson go camping and pitch their tent under the stars. During the night, Holmes wakes his companion and says: “Watson, look up and tell me what you see.” A sleepy Watson replies: “I see stars, lots of stars.” So Holmes presses him. “And what do you deduce from that, my dear Watson?” Watson says enthusiastically: “Well, with millions of stars, even if a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely that there are some planets like Earth. And if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be some other kind of life in the universe.” To which Holmes replies: “Watson, you idiot. It means that somebody stole our tent!” (Found in Fine Minds at Play Express, issue #1)
Based on those 100,000 people’s responses, that is supposed to be the world’s funniest joke. (At least in the English language and for the British mind.) For Holmes it’s not about brilliant stars; it’s about tents.
Maybe you also found a little humor in our Gospel text today, where we also find some people spending the night outdoors, amazed by the brilliance of a different kind of ‘stars’ – celebrities of a sort – and then starting to talk about tents; when the whole thing is most definitely not about tents.
The Christian community turns to this account every year at this time. And we remember how, on one occasion, Jesus took his closest disciples – Peter, James and John – up to a mountain. It’s not a camping trip; they go to pray. While Jesus is praying, several amazing things happen: the appearance of his face changed; his clothes also shone with a distinct brilliance; and then he is found engaged in a dialogue with great figures of the past: the celebrated lawgiver of Israel, Moses, and the most intrepid and amusing of prophets, Elijah. They are talking about Jesus’ going out, something for which both celebrities were well known (Moses led a slaved people out of Egypt through the wilderness and before entering the Promised Land God himself buried him; and Elijah made his departure from the world in a mysterious and dramatic fashion [see 2 Kings chapter 2]).
Luke wants us to know that Jesus is reflecting on his departure – his “exodus” – the very thing that he had talked about to his disciples a week earlier when he said: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected [by all the factions of Jewish life], and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).
We wonder if Jesus’ ‘chosen path’ through the cross was somehow validated by two of the most influential figures in the history of salvation. And then, when it starts to look like the trio is beginning to wrap things up, confronted by the prospect of having to leave this amazing sight and descend to the commonplace and mundane life below, Peter quickly suggests that it might be a good idea to stay up longer. He volunteers to set up three tents or shelters, one for each of the guests and a similar one for Jesus. And that’s when a cloud descends upon them, which they doubtless recognized as the visual manifestation of the divine presence, and it absorbs them all into its brilliant darkness and a voice confirms that it’s not about tents; it’s about brilliance. It is about the Star of David, the Dawn from on high, the Light of the World, the Son of the Most High, the Beloved and Chosen One. Listen to him!
Every year we seek to understand different aspects of the significance of this event in the life of Jesus. It clearly recalls sentiments expressed at his baptism. It also foreshadows the struggle that our Savior would encounter in Gethsemane where prayer will once again become essential and intense. It announces the eschatological day in which Jesus will be revealed as he is. It’s all that!
Beyond that, is there something that this event is supposed to convey to us now?
The writers of each Gospel are drawn to specific elements of this event that stress their particular interests (that’s why you need to attend Eileen’s Bible Study during Lent!). One of Luke’s major emphases is the liturgical/worship life of the Church. Luke understands that when the Church comes into the presence of God, each worshiper opens themselves up to the transforming grace of God. And this event in Luke chapter 9 strongly supports Luke’s emphasis. The first clue was given to us at the very start of the passage. Did you notice the time indicator? When did this event take place? According to the Gospel of Mark (9:2) [and Matthew] it happened six days after the previous event. Not so in Luke. Why didn’t Luke repeat the same time reference?
This author told us at the beginning of the Gospel that he had “investigated all the reports in close detail” (Luke 1:3, The Message). Luke’s research is meticulous; his record keeping is immaculate.
And for Luke, this happened not six – but eight days later. The time reference would have been crystal clear to early Christians. When a similar reference appears in John 20:26, the translators of our NRSV did not hesitate to interpret that for us: “A week later.” A week later than what? A week after discovery of Jesus’ resurrection “on the first day of the week” (John 20:1), when the disciples began to meet regularly.
This is a clear reference to Sunday, the Day after the Seventh, the eight day, the Lord’s Day, to what became the day of Christian worship, the day that announces the new creation made possible by Jesus’ resurrection. For followers of Jesus, the gathering on this day becomes the weekly mountaintop experience where God comes near us revealing the real, radiant, reigning Christ.
It is in this context that we also pray. Luke often uses the image of Jesus at prayer to signal the approach of some revelatory event. Prayer for Luke is always the premier posture for divine manifestation. When the Master is at prayer, Jesus is clearly caught up into the presence of God. At the Transfiguration event, Jesus’ prayerful vigil brings not only himself, but also his three chosen disciples/companions, into the divine presence, where they receive a special revelation. So it is that on this day of the week, in this sacred place, we gather for prayer: corporate, of confession, of dedication, for illumination, sung, spoken and silent – all kinds! Why? Because prayer transforms. It transforms us. It transforms the community.
It is in this context that we engage and are engaged by the figures and stories of our past. Stories that help us walk faithfully in our time and given our circumstances. Every Sunday we hear at least 3 readings. The First Testament speaks to us through the law, the prophets and sacred poetry. Then we also hear from our own Christian tradition through the New Testament Epistles. And we should always listen to the Gospel. The different sections and genres witness to the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. Christ is the main theme of our scriptures. The Second Person of the Trinity is the One we are told “to listen to.” For, while we appreciate and struggle with the whole of the Bible, its central message is that of God’s reconciling work through God’s Son. As much as we revere Moses, there are laws that clearly do not apply to our lives today. As much as we appreciate the prophets’ emphases, the circumstances of their writings are often difficult for us to conceive. As much as we love the apostle Paul, we must admit that sometimes he overreaches and once in a while his opinions are way off. They all must be heard; their perspectives understood; their lessons taken to heart. But we read them all through the lens of Jesus’ atonement. We listen to the Christ. Christ’s message transforms. It transforms us. It transforms our community.
It is in this context that we are trained to see. Spiritual teachers have been telling us for centuries that there are wonders happening all around us, but we seem asleep to them. There are millions of stars clamoring for our discovery, but we are often just focused on the tent that is gone. Where do we learn to pay attention to the sacred? For every hour in worship, how many hours of news are we exposed to every week? That begs the question: Who is fashioning what we see and how we see it? For every hour of Christian Education our children receive, how many hours of cartoons do they watch? What is shaping their imaginations? For every hour of interaction with adults, how many hours of video games, texting, and electronic stimulus are they exposed to? How are they learning about relationships?
“Awakening sacred vision” is another term for discerning or seeing the sacred in persons, things, and situations (see Len Sperry, Transforming Self and Community, p. 66). The disciples woke up to an amazing sight. They saw Jesus in a new light.
If anything could testify to the power and majesty of the epiphany they had just experienced it is the absolute silence that now descends on the usually bantering, chatting, arguing disciples. The text admits: “They kept silent” and “told no one any of the things they had seen.” They had no way to process what they had seen and heard. Dazed and dazzled as they were, it is no wonder that they could not begin to discuss rationally how they felt. They had encountered “the sacred” in a new way and they were transformed. That is our hope each week as we touch and taste and ingest holy things. The Sacred transforms. It transforms us. It transforms the community.
It is in this context that we are enveloped by the cloud of God’s glory and hear God speak to our hearts. We heard how the cloud descended and the brilliance of God’s glory engulfed them in a deep darkness. God appears and speaks in ways that baffle the senses and defy our preconceptions. Here we learn to appreciate and respect God’s “otherness,” and that transforms. It transforms us. It transforms our community.
It is in this context that we are reminded of who we are. On the mountaintop Jesus heard the voice and it echoed the message that he had heard at his baptism. Jesus is affirmed again as God’s Son, God’s own. The beloved. And so we need to hear that message and be reminded weekly of our belonging to God and of our engrafting into the life and body of Christ.
I hope we never take for granted those words we hear every week and this week you said yourselves. “Believe the good news: In Jesus Christ we are a forgiven people, warmly accepted and eternally beloved.” We are children of God; our names are written in the palms of God’s hands; our lives are hidden in the shadow of God’s wings/being. We belong to God. God is ours and we are God’s.
An often-overlooked result of our worship is that in this context, in this place and in this hour, we are equipped to live out the gospel in those places of need where we live and move. Following this experience Jesus and the disciples go down to the challenges awaiting them. Hear what happens next (Read: Luke 9:37-43). “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” The Gospel of Luke makes it abundantly clear again and again that Jesus was energized, charged, empowered through those moments of worship, meditation and prayer. That is how our Lord was able to confront the evil, sickness, hunger, and attacks described in the stories of his ministry. Apparently, the same goes for Jesus’ disciples (then and now). The other 9 disciples had not been up to the mountain. Jesus had not been with them physically when the distraught father approached them. They found themselves powerless. What’s that verse I often quote at The Lord’s Supper: “Jesus said: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothing’”?
The apostle Paul found the reverse to be also true: “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
Tomorrow morning, you are not expected to go out and start healing people (except for our trained physicians and nurses), but you may have a healing word for someone’s bruised spirit or broken heart. With the perspective of this day, you will have advice, encouragement, strength for others. Tomorrow your resources may be claimed by God’s Spirit to touch another soul. In any case, you will have plenty of smaller challenges in whatever work you are called do, in the relationships you cherish, in the circumstances that you find yourselves in to tap into the power of God’s Spirit and be helpful to someone.
In Worship Is a Verb, Robert Webber wrote: “It is God who is at work in worship…in worship, God is present, speaking to us, and acting upon us. It is in worship that God feeds, nourishes, and cares for us. And it is in worship that [God] gives us grace, surrounds us with love, lifts us up into loving arms, affirms us as members of his community, and sends us forth into the world with a fresh vision of his work and new concern to live for him” (Robert E. Webber, Worship Is a Verb, p. 68).
I am convinced that as this hour and this activity become the normal rhythm of our lives, the Spirit uses it to change us, to transform us, and to prepare us for victorious and faithful living in the world.
So let’s do this: Please turn again to the Call to Worship with which we began this service.
L: We gather in this holy place to celebrate again that the blessing of God rests on our shoulders,
P: that the love of God dwells in our hearts,
L: that the word of God inflames our speech,
P: that the compassion of God stirs us to care,
L: that the wonder of God compels us to sing,
P: that the mystery of God leads us to worship.
L: Let us praise God whose glory is high above the heavens
All: and whose love encompasses all the earth.