Week of Sunday February 10 - Transfiguration
Gospel: Luke 9:28-43
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ 4142While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
I love the saying, currently popular in the media, “he has a tin ear.” It evokes so well the person who is not deaf, not completely unaware, but does not understand what they are hearing and seeing. If we have a tin ear , we are only hearing a part of the story, and we are definitely not hearing the important part of the story.
Years ago two aboriginal farmers came south for a week as guests of a research facility. Relaxed and generous, they got on famously with their hosts. I went to visit midweek, and as we walked a long dusty path back to the main centre they chatted about what they had been learning. They also noted the footprints of everyone who had been on the path that morning, and the evening before. Such is the skill of the aboriginal hunter; they note the signs of the ground with the ease with which we note the make of a passing car.
I repeated this experience to one of the staff later in the day, receiving a quickly covered startled expression. I realised my friends had inadvertently reported evidence of an inappropriate liaison “down behind the cow shed.”
I have a “tin ear” for human subtlety. It was not until years later that I understood my friends knew exactly what the tracks signified, and were enjoying setting a little boat of information afloat, to see where it would wash up. I think I had, in my innocence, sailed it right on to the beach they intended!
A tin ear hears fantastical stories in this week’s reading. Visions occur on a mountain top, and unlikely healings happen down in the valley below. It is all obviously a fable, and cannot be true.
The first cleaning of wax from our tin ear, is to understand the purpose of story. I did not tell my story to teach you about aboriginal tracking skills; I could tell far better stories to do that. The story was designed to evoke and draw out your remembrance of your own tin ear, whatever it may be.
In the same way, Luke is not telling us a story to give us scientific facts. History is never this. History is to understand the significance of what happened. Luke is telling us a story to help us see who this Jesus was. His story is designed to evoke our remembrance.
The event happens on a mountain. Mountains are “thin places,” close to the Divine. The tradition of the “high places” in the Hebrew Scriptures bears witness to our human seeking of the Divine, albeit often a wrongly directed wrong searching. Moses, the great prophet, went up onto the mountain to listen to God. We are to understand that this is a time of Epiphany.
In the epiphany we see Moses and Elijah. Elijah must come before the Messiah. (Luke 1:17, Luke 9:8, 19 Matthew develops this in 17:5-17. ) These are two of the great heroes of the faith. They come to talk to Jesus, who has been transfigured into a person who talks to God. It was said of Moses that when he came down from Mount Sinai “ with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, [he] did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:9)
This happens to Jesus, and then Moses and Elijah come to talk to him. Jesus is superior to them. As they were leaving him
“Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. “ (9.33)
We tend to read this as Peter being inappropriate, tin eared, and stupid. I suspect that “not knowing what he said” is irony. You see, Peter says the right thing! The feast of booths (or shelters) was a great celebration of the faithfulness of God. It is “intended as a reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt,” and were nonetheless brought to the Promised Land. In Zechariah the prophet, “in the messianic era Sukkot [the feast of booths] will become a universal festival and all nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast there.”
16 Then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year by year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths.
17If any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain upon them. 18And if the family of Egypt do not go up and present themselves, then on them shall come the plague that the Lord inflicts on the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths. 19Such shall be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths.
20 On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ And the cooking-pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; 21and every cooking-pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil the flesh of the sacrifice. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day. (Zech 14:16-20)
Peter has understood exactly what is going on! He realises he is seeing a foretaste of the Messianic coming. Booths are the appropriate response.
Then God speaks:
34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’
Peter was being shown that the presence of God that the Messiah brings, is much more than human celebration, and the nationalistic triumph and pride that might be derived from reading Zechariah.
He is still tin eared. The context of the transfiguration is hugely important. Now about eight days after these sayings... demands that we look back for the context to interpret the story. The story follows Peter’s recognition and confession of the Messiah. Although Peter is spared the drubbing of “Get behind me, Satan” that he receives in Mark 8:33, Jesus is still beginning the long task of converting people to see what “Messiah” really means. We see his frustration in our reading: Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? (9:41)
The words beginning at 9:22 were far from people’s expectations.
‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’
23 Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
The transfiguration immediately follows this event, and is then followed by two more teaching episodes. The first is that of the boy at the base of the mountain. Despite the glory of the mountain sickness and evil still exists. High experiences are not enough. And we are nothing without Jesus. In this telling, only he can remove the spirit.
Instantly Jesus repeats the cost of being Messiah, and in the argument about true greatness and the competing exorcist we see how much people fail to understand. Luke sneaks in a refusal to condemn the Samaritan village, (9:51ff) a hint of a gospel going beyond the Jews, and then repeats the cost of discipleship. (9:57ff)
So, with the wax washed out of our ears, we are being called to remember the great stories of our faith, and to see that Luke is convinced this man is the Messiah. He is “my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
“So what? You have shown that Luke was making a theological point. It is still wrong. It still didn’t happen. And even if he thought it was somehow ‘true,’ what relevance can it have to me?”
Here is where we need to tune our ear further. Luke is not merely making a point. He is making an offer. He is setting a challenge.
The story of the crucifixion is well known for disciples who cannot stay awake. Sleeping because of grief (22:45) they are blind and deaf to the drama that is happening all around them. We disciples are warned to be alert. (12:37, 21:34)
Luke drops a tiny detail into his story.
32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. (9:32)
Stay awake, and you will see this. You will see the Messiah in his glory! Is this too much to claim?
There is another detail.
See how the story begins: Now about eight days after these sayings.... We worship on the eighth day. Luke is instructing us to consider the transfiguration story in the light of our weekly worship.(cf John 20 especially verse 26, where the NRSV obscures the words “after 8 days”)
I wonder if, even with my tin ear, I am hearing a call, a challenge, and a promise about being able to see the glory of the Messiah, if only I will stay awake for the eighth day; that is, if I will live the life of a disciple with all the challenges that will come down in the valleys.
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