The previous two Sundays in worship we have been discussing the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Luke. Typical of the lectionary cycle, we seem to be always jumping around to match the liturgical holiday calendar. Last Sunday Jesus was beginning his ministry in a swirl of chaos and anger, this week he is on the mountaintop turning his face to Jerusalem and death, and next week we will jump back to the temptation in the wilderness which occurs even before last week’s readings. It is enough to make one’s head spin, or at least to be very confused.
So, today we are celebrating Transfiguration Sunday. This is one of those odd little church holidays without an accompanying celebration in the secular world. Today we jump to the middle of the story about Jesus’ life. He has admitted to being the Messiah, as well as warned his disciples that the path of the Messiah is a path of suffering rather than glory. He then takes this break in the middle of his ministry, to ascend the mountaintop and to connect with God.
All of the synoptic gospels tell the story of Jesus on the mountaintop, but they all tell it a little differently. In Luke, Jesus ascends the mountain to pray. He is weary from his ministry and is seeking to reconnect with God in a private moment of prayer. It is so interesting that as people intent on following Jesus into ministry, we often neglect our own inner spiritual life. Not only was Jesus out in the world healing folks and spreading the gospel, he also frequently took time away to attend to his own spiritual needs in prayer. Jesus climbs the mountain to get close to God and to get away from the hustle and bustle of the world. It is an example that we should all remember in our own lives of ministry.
Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples up the mountain with him that day. Peter, John, and James are his closest friends, and the ones who will see him through the majority of his ministry. While Jesus is in prayer, his appearance begins to change. He is transfigured. His clothes and face become dazzling white and in a vision Moses and Elijah appear and speak with him for some time. All of this has deep meaning for the writer of the gospel of Luke. For Jesus to appear with Moses and Elijah serves to confirm his status as the Messiah. Both the tradition of the law (represented by Moses) and the tradition of the prophets (represented by Elijah) are seen as giving their seal of approval to Jesus and his ministry based on this appearance.
Peter wants to hold on to the moment and celebrate it in mud and stone. He offers to build dwellings for each figure but before he can even finish his sentence he is interrupted by God. A cloud overshadows the group on the mountain and the voice of God speaks, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Much like the voice at his baptism, God anoints Jesus for mission and ministry. Here he anoints the disciples as well, giving them specific instruction to listen and follow even the most difficult of teachings.
Unique to the story in Luke is the weariness of the disciples. Luke writes that Peter and the disciples were weighed down with sleep, but that they managed to stay awake enough to see the glory. When I was studying the text this week, I came upon a really interesting take on this portion of the reading. Jill Duffield, editor of the Presbyterian Outlook magazine, observes that throughout the scriptures, the idea of sleep is often connected with death. She wonders if perhaps the disciples were weighed down with the heaviness of death rather than literal sleep.
She writes, “By this point in Luke's Gospel the disciples have been up close and personal with lepers, the demon possessed and a massive crowd of hungry people. They have gone toe-to-toe with Pharisees, heard that Herod is asking questions and know that the one who first proclaimed Jesus, John the Baptist, has been beheaded. They've almost drowned at sea and have just been informed that the One they left everything in order to follow will undergo great suffering and rejection. Oh, and by the way, they need to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow. And, yes, they've gone out and preached and healed, but the needs are great, the accomplishments few and the suffering and the death never ending.”
This idea really resonated with me. So much of following Jesus is being exposed to the suffering of our world. This week in particular, I was face to face with literal death in many ways. From the death of Marion, and the death of Louise, to the death of one of my own personal mentors; the aura and weight of death hangs heavy on me these days as it often does. Like many of you, I find myself reminiscing about how many people I loved who have died, and wondering how many more people I will watch die during my own lifetime.
And of course, it is not only literal death. It is also the suffering that we witness in so many shapes and forms. From the brokenness in the lives of individuals, to the brokenness in our world, being followers of Jesus exposes us to a wide range of suffering. I know that if I were not involved in the church, I would not be exposed to suffering in such a way. If I could stay home with my doors and windows shut and the TV turned off, I could hide from the suffering of the world, I could ignore the suffering of others. But of course, that is not the path for the followers of Christ.
We see this in our scripture reading. The next day Jesus and his friends come down from the mountain and once again they enter into the messy brokenness of our world. A crowd has gathered, people have been waiting, and the disciples have been trying but failing to heal a demon possessed boy. The father cries out in anguish to Jesus who consents to heal his son. Even though Jesus seems to curse the crowd that has gathered to gawk at the man’s suffering, the author of Luke tells us that after the miracle, all were astounded at the greatness of God.
So too, our ministry is one of continuing to return to the painful broken places of our world. Again, Jill Duffield writes, “We keep filling up the food bins, but they keep emptying. We start cleaning up after the floods and the record blizzard hits. Things settle down in one part of the world but another is exploding. We reconcile with one family member and darn it if we aren't now at odds with another. The credit card gets paid off and the furnace goes out. Our children seem happy and in a good place, but now our parent's health is failing. We are following Jesus the best we can - visiting the sick, feeding the hungry - and yet there is always more to do. And we are so tired, so stretched, fighting not to give in to a death-like sleep that renders us blind to Jesus' glory and deaf to his Word.”
When we think about it this way, it is easy to understand why the disciples were so tired on that mountaintop. I personally cannot imagine what it would have been like to follow Jesus throughout the world. To truly witness the crowds of suffering humanity in the way he did. No wonder the disciples were so tired. And no wonder we are so tired as well. We keep serving the Lord, we keep giving it our all, and there is still so much to do, there is still so much healing needed in our world. Like the disciples, it is no wonder that we sometimes fall asleep when we are praying.
Such is the nature of our faith and our ministry. The glory of God, witnessed on the mountaintop, cannot be separated from the pain of a broken world down at the bottom of the hill. Jesus ascends the mountain for a few moments away from the pain, a few moments of quiet prayer. He is granted a vision and a message, a renewed sense of the power of God present within his mission and ministry. He then descends the mountain and carries that transfiguration hope and healing down into the brokenness of the world. He carries that light and radiance, down into the dark places of our lives. Such is his mission, as he will now turn his face toward Jerusalem and the impending violent end to his own life.
So too, as followers of Jesus, we are called to witness to hope in a broken world. We must remember to follow his example, to take time away with a supportive community in prayer. We must take that Sabbath time to connect with God and to be once again transformed in faith, renewed in our mission and ministry. And then we must descend the mountain, returning to the brokenness of our world. We must carry the light of faith that we have been given, into the dark places that we see around us. As followers of Christ, this is our ministry and mission in spreading the kingdom of God.
This Wednesday we will officially begin our season of Lent. This is our own forty day journey, our own road to Jerusalem and the cross. This is a time for us to be aware of our own sinfulness and the weight of death that makes us weary and closes our eyes. This is a time for us to hold on to the knowledge of our own beloved state as children of God, and to use that energy and light as a force for good in the world around us. As we follow Jesus on the road to the cross this Lent, may we continue to work in his name in the broken places in our world. We may be weary, but we shall not faint in our service to the Lord. Amen.