In today’s gospel (Luke 9:28-36), the cloud is what first grabs my attention. While Peter was speaking, “a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, My Chosen; listen to him!”
In the Cloud
I’ve only had one brief experience of being enveloped in a cloud, although it pales in comparison to today’s story. Years ago, my husband David, my daughter Kristen, and I had parked at a high elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park. We were taking a walk on a grassland area just above tree line, when we literally could see a cloud, at our height, coming toward us. Quickly, that cloud enveloped us. For a life-long Midwesterner like me, being overtaken by a cloud, raised my anxiety level through the roof! I didn’t like that sensation at all – there was something eerie about being taken up in a cloud like that.
Today’s cloud is different, of course. But when our gospel tells us that Jesus and the disciples enter a cloud, it’s something we immediately should recognize from other major stories we’ve read in our Bibles. During very significant times, God’s Presence appears in a cloud. Think about that! When the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness. God’s Presence led them visibly in a pillar of fire by night, and a pillar of cloud by day. Consider also our OT reading. Moses face shone brightly when he came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments given to him from God. While he had been up on the Mountain, God’s people couldn’t see Mount Sinai completely, because a cloud had descended upon it while God met with Moses. And did you know that when King Solomon built the Temple, a cloud filled the sanctuary – God’s presence settled in the place of worship, in the temple, in the form of a cloud.
So today, Peter, James and John find themselves enveloped in a cloud with Jesus – and God is actually present in the cloud and speaks to them. God’s Presence is mysteriously manifested once again in a cloud. Before the cloud, a different mysterious thing happens. There is something like a spotlight that shines. Jesus’ face changes and his clothes become dazzling. In this strange light, Moses and Elijah, who are Biblical greats who haven’t lived on earth for hundreds of years, show up.
An Upcoming Departure
Our gospel makes it crystal clear that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah discuss something. Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about his “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”. The Greek word for ‘departure’ here is actually “exodus”. That’s no coincidence. Just 8 days before this mountaintop moment, Jesus has, for the first time, told his disciples that he’s headed toward Jerusalem and his death. By Jesus’ death and resurrection, he will become OUR EXODUS. JESUS WILL SET US FREE – FROM OUR CAPTIVITY – TO SIN AND DEATH.
So, we have the disciples enveloped in a mysterious cloud of God’s Presence, with God’s voice saying that Jesus IS God’s beloved Son and the disciples are to listen to him. And we have the spotlight on Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah about his journey towards his death. Cloud and light. Mystery and clarity.
Why are the disciples given this experience? Why are we given this experience? Ultimately, the transfiguration gives us a vision to remember. And it’s a revelation that is intended to change how we view what Jesus does for us. First, Jesus’ transfiguration gives us a vision to remember forever. Jesus’ transfiguration shows the disciples, in a once-in-a-lifetime way, who Jesus is. Prior to this moment on the mountain, the disciples have followed this remarkable person, Jesus. He’s done cool things – like teaching remarkable lessons, healing people, and performing some impressive miracles.
Jesus is not always who we want to make him to be
But now the disciples have heard God’s own voice tell them that Jesus IS God’s Son and they are to listen to him. With that glorious and mysterious news, also comes some ominous information. Jesus is headed toward his death. We’re learning here, along with the disciples, that Jesus is NOT who WE always expect him to be! Jesus isn’t just this cool man of God who will do remarkable things to impress us and comfort us. Jesus is someone more than this! Here’s a real challenge for us. Jesus is NOT always who we WANT to make him to be. And Jesus is going to take us in directions in our faith where we won’t always want to go. We’re to remember this point, always.
Years ago, Albert Schwitzer noted that whenever he read a book about Jesus, Jesus always ended up sounding just like the book’s author. Schwitzer said it was as though those who attempted to write about Jesus looked down a dark well, hoping to see Jesus down at the bottom. Instead, they saw only a reflected image of themselves. (“They Saw His Glory”, William Willimon, PULPIT RESOURCE, VO. 35.NO1,YEAR C, 2007, p.30)
Changing our Viewpoint
When we think of Jesus, most often we want to think of the Jesus who loves us, affirms us, befriends us, and comforts us. But Jesus’ role towards us is far greater than those lovely qualities. Jesus has come to bring the even more powerful gifts in our lives – of his forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. We are to hold on to this vision – that Jesus’ mission is so much bigger than our own small view of him. God’s vision is that Jesus will save us by losing his life for us. The transfigured Jesus reveals that he’s headed on a difficult way for our salvation. We are to remember this vision of what Jesus will accomplish for us, to give us strength and hope!Which leads to a second point. The transfiguration changed the disciples’ viewpoint. It changes ours as well.
Once the disciples saw Jesus transfigured, they would never un-see Jesus’ mystery and glory. In light of this new awareness, it would change everything for the disciples in how they’d live into the future.
There are times in our lives when one event happens, or one word is spoken, and it changes forever how we view everything else. I received a thank you letter last week from a man in his early 40’s. He and his family are former members of our church. He wrote me a thank you letter to tell me a personal faith story. It seems that something I preached, in one sentence, in one sermon years ago, changed his life. He wrote to tell me that.
Now that’s quite a compliment, and I appreciate his thank you. But what I appreciate even more, and his story told it well – was that this sentence in a sermon came just at the right time when his life was extremely hard, though no one else knew it. But his ears were open, and as preacher, I made one statement that got grafted into his life totally by the work of the Holy Spirit. It changed his faith life and redirected how he sees things now. That’s what we mean when we Lutheran Christians say that the Word of God is alive. When it’s read or preached, it changes people’s lives – every day!
In a far more extraordinary way, the disciples experienced the transfiguration of Jesus. The things they saw and the actual words spoken in light and cloud that day – would eventually forever change what the disciples believed. It would inform how they would act on their faith in the future. They’d come to understand later, the remarkable exodus, or freedom, from death and sin that Jesus would achieve for us on the cross. After Jesus died and rose again, then the disciples would remember that this WAS God’s Son, whom they had listened to, who accomplished these things!
The same is true for us. Jesus’ transfiguration is not just an event we witness, but an experience meant to shape us.
Stepping into our Faith
C.S. Lewis, in an essay entitled, “Meditation in a Toolshed”, tells of finding himself in a dark toolshed with a beam of light streaming through a small crack in the roof. Lewis noted that when he looked AT the beam of light, he saw one thing, but when he changed his position to enter into the beam of light and looked ALONG WITH IT, he saw something different. He saw the results of the light.
For Lewis, this becomes a metaphor for two different ways of knowing. We can observe from the outside. Or we can participate from the inside. Regarding Christianity, we might know it by “looking at” Christianity. On the other hand, we might know it by stepping inside and “looking with” Christianity. (Cited in Stephen R. Haynes, Professing in the Post Modern Academy, Baylor University Press, 2002, pp. 100-101.)
Today, we are to step inside the transfiguration story of Jesus. We’re to stand in its mystery and light. Our vision of Christ has been magnified. We’ve discovered that Christ once again that Christ is not limited by who we think he should be. The veil of God’s mysteries in Jesus are lifted even further. On this transfiguration day, this is the mystery and clarity, we’ll now carry with us as we enter into Lent. Thanks be to God! AMEN.