Like eating a big pile of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, we gorge on glory before we enter the somber season of Lent. The Transfiguration story fills us up with mystery before the Lent’s fare of sacrifice and approaching death.
Read the text here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
Death and glory mingle together in this story, as Jesus moves toward the end of his life. “About eight days after these sayings,” our story begins, making us wonder…what sayings. Before this, Jesus has announced that his death is coming, and that following him involves more sacrifice than anyone really wants. Then he says, “But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” The glory at the top of the mountain foretells the glory to come, but I have to wonder if the disciples thought they were dying right then and there, on the mountain. Looking at the glory of God embodied in Jesus, they do get a taste of death, as promised.
They’re surrounded by the cloud of God’s presence, and it overshadows them. When the angel announces to Mary that she will have a child, the angel uses the same word — the power of God will overshadow her. The word overshadow shows up only four times in the Christians scriptures, and two of the four are in Luke (plus another in Acts.) Each time, there is a sense of power being transferred. The three disciples are being prepared for the sacrifice and death ahead, but they are also being covered by the power of God.
The deep mystery of God’s presence is always fleeting, giving way to the concerns of ordinary life. Just a day after they hear God’s voice, Jesus and the three disciples hear another voice, this time a desperate father, begging for help. With Jesus away, the other disciples haven’t been able to heal the man’s son. The unclean spirit within him has triumphed. Jesus has a strong rebuke before he heals the boy, and we can’t tell if he’s talking to the father, the disciples or the whole crowd gathered around. He announces his coming betrayal again, but the disciples don’t understand. Perhaps they’re still stinging from being called a “faithless and perverse generation,” and they’re afraid to ask Jesus what he means.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all preserve this Transfiguration story, with the healing story following it, but only Luke has the detail about James, John and Peter being sleepy. Their fatigue here evokes their sleepiness with Jesus in the garden at the end of his life. Here they manage to stay awake and see Jesus in his glory, but there in the garden they fall asleep and leave him alone in his distress. On both occasions, Jesus sets out to pray, and from that intention, dramatic things happen.
Just like our own lives, the Transfiguration story holds a mixture of mystery, grandeur and sleepiness, followed by human need and our inability to meet it fully. At the edge of Lent, Jesus calls us to wakefulness and prayer, and we follow him into a way of sacrifice, looking for glimpses of transcendence along the way.
- As Jesus prays on the mountain, some of the disciples are left behind. The drama below starts as they fail in their efforts to heal the boy. Jesus says later that their failure is related to prayer – this kind of work can only be done through prayer. The sermon might look at the connection between prayer and the work we hope to do in God’s name.
- The sermon might explore the theme of being sleepy or awake. To which parts of God are we asleep? Where are we awake to what God is doing? Is God waking us up, or do we need to wake ourselves up?
- In a season of deep personal distress, Pastor and public theologian Jennifer Bailey recalls that the pain was so great that she “folded into myself: my arms wrapped tightly around my knees and found their rest on my heaving chest. Yet, as I opened my mouth to cry out to God, as I often do in moments of hopelessness, no sound emerged…Rocking back and forth on the cool linoleum floor, I finally uttered the only words that I could find, “I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe.” Like a gust of wind, I could suddenly feel the soulful presence of my ancestors surround me, holding me and bearing witness to my pain. Then I heard my mama’s spirit whisper gently, gently in my ear, “Baby, we ain’t never been safe”. In a similar way, in a time when Jesus has announced that there is no safety for those who follow him, Jesus and the disciples experience the presence of Moses and Elijah, their ancestors in faith. The sermon might look at how we find our ancestors’ presence and strength in difficult days.
- Tracy Cochran writes “In Buddhism, a definition of faith is the ability to keep our hearts open in the darkness of the unknown. The root of the word patience is a Latin verb for “suffer,” which in the ancient sense meant to hold, not to grasp but to bear, to tolerate without pushing away. Being patient doesn’t mean being passive. It means being attentive, willing to be available to what is happening, going on seeing, noticing how things change. When we aren’t wishing for something to be over, or when we aren’t freezing around an idea about what it is we are seeing, we see and hear more.” How do the disciples keep their faith at the bottom of the mountain, as well as at the top? How do we?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? Let us know in the comments section below. We look forward to a conversation with you!
Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church, a diverse Presbyterian church in the city of Detroit. Her greatest spiritual lessons come from being the parent of a teenager. She blogs from time to time about her Detroit adventures at Stained Glass in the City. The image above is from the Jesus MAFA series from Cameroon, and is from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition. See more: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/diglib-fulldisplay.pl
RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.