May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.
“Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” So begins Luke's telling of the story of the Transfiguration of our Lord. In the Christian faith, the eighth day is a symbol of new life, after all the week has seven days, so on the eighth day, something new happens. Jewish boys are circumcised on the eighth day of their lives, and early Christian writers like to refer to a Christian person's baptism as their own personal, “eighth day”. Luke is telling us to pay attention to this, because something new is happening in Jesus and we are going to want to watch closely!
The fact that this happened on the eighth day also tells me that there was plenty of time of think about, talk about, and interpret for themselves what happened since these 8 days passed. Luke 9:26-27 report that Jesus has predicted his own death and resurrection to his disciples, encouraging them to take up their crosses and follow him. The last words we hear from his mouth before our passage this morning is, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God!” Imagine mulling that over for eight days! Imagine talking with your fellow disciples about just what these cryptic words mean! Will Jesus somehow call upon the powers of God to come down and defeat the Romans and everyone else who oppose God's beloved people? How will this all come about? Does this mean that none of us are ever going to die? But Jesus just said that he is to suffer and be killed and resurrected, and that we are to follow him in that death. Which ones of us will be killed and which ones will be spared? Eight days to wrestle with these and other questions.
Unfortunately, many times Jesus' words left more questions than answers, and those questions remain to this very day. The really awesome thing about Jesus' preaching and ministry is that the events in his life reflect perfectly what he is trying to share in his messages. So we have this interesting event on top of the mountain where Jesus is transfigured into a bright, shining figure alongside Moses and Elijah.
On the front of the bulletin, you will see a picture of a beautiful gold mosaic on the inside of a Franciscan church built on the top of Mt. Tabor at the place where the transfiguration of Jesus occurred. You probably notice on that picture, it is a bit washed out – the artists did a wonderful job of depicted the mystery of this event with the detail and clarity of their craft, but also with the bright glowing nature that makes it a little bit difficult to totally take in. Jesus is certainly the focal point, but Moses and Elijah are also prominent, and Peter looks as if he is speaking the words, “Lord, let me build three dwellings…” while James and John just look on in awe. Mt. Tabor was indeed an impressive mountain, sitting in the middle of a plain overlooking the whole Galilean countryside. You can literally see for miles and miles in each direction! And the drive up the hairpin, winding road was a wonderful encouragement for my prayer life, let me tell you! It was an awesome experience to be in the very spot of this event. Indeed, I can understand Peter's desire to remain there, to not want to make that trek down to the plain, to the valley below where their families and fishing nets were waiting for them. Where the things that Jesus told them eight days earlier were about to take place. Where there were crosses waiting for them to take up themselves. But they had to, just as we had to. Just as we all have to when we experience any kind of uplifting or exhilarating experience that can be likened to being on a mountaintop.
There is good reason to come down off those mountaintops, and we see the reason as we continue reading the story as Luke tells it. On the very next day, Jesus runs into a man whose son gets thrown to the ground and convulsed by that they consider a demon – today we would probably say that he suffers from epilepsy, but in their day, it was caused by a demon or evil spirit. This had to affect his life in so many ways – obviously his health suffered, but the social embarrassment and ostracism were equally as devastating to the wellbeing of this young man and his family. He was going to grow up as a freak, one who wouldn't be brought out in public, who was locked away to keep this demon out of the community. This is who Jesus runs into the very next day after he comes down from being transfigured gloriously alongside Moses and Elijah … in other words, he is thrown right into the fire of dealing with the evil of the world! And he responds first by lashing out – calling them a faithless and perverse generation; then he calls on the son to be brought to him and he rebukes the demon and heals him.
We want to celebrate this healing but we are also wondering a little bit at Jesus' attitude before he does it. Why would he say these things? Is this his humanness coming out – a little bit of impatience that his disciples were not able yet to do what he was training them to do, so he had to do it himself? Or maybe he was disappointed at his disciples because he knew that they had the power and ability to do it, but their lack of faith in their own abilities is preventing them from doing it? Or was he angry at the presence of the demon, an agent of the enemy of God his father? In any case, this is one of those cases where Jesus appears to get a little upset at those around him … and yet he still does what he is called to do. The reason he does this is the same reason that he came down off the mountain in the first place.
It is because the enemy of God, the evil one, is present. He recognizes that even as the Kingdom of God is growing and in the process of being revealed, so also is the presence of the evil one. As a matter of fact, the enemy of God will most likely become more active and oppositional the closer God's Kingdom comes to its fulfillment. As the old saying goes, “There's nothing more vicious than a cornered and wounded animal.” The more glory that Jesus shows, the more the evil one will incite evil around him. That is why he came down off that mountain – because there are people who God loves and cares for that are about to be caught in the web of the attempted growth of the kingdom of the evil one. There are people like this young boy who need him because the demons are there to attack and control and infest until they no longer have hope or joy in their lives. And there are people like us who need to realize that we are to be God's hands as the evil one is defeated in the world!
And that is the same reason it is so important for all of us to come down off our mountaintops into the valleys of life, where the reality of everyday survival and thriving happens. The one who is opposed to God's Kingdom is alive and active. Indeed, the more God's Kingdom grows, the more desperate opposing forces will be. So we will abide in Jesus' presence today in this time of worship, hearing his word of love and grace and forgiveness, sitting, standing and fellowshipping alongside God's faithful people, maybe even wanting to stay here long past the time when we should return to our homes. But we must return to our homes so that we can carry our crosses because the presence of the evil one is real. There are people who are in need of hearing and experiencing God's love right outside those doors, and Jesus wants us to carry the glory of the transfigured, crucified AND resurrection Christ with us as we go from this place.
Today is a day with two very different emphases. One involves see a foretaste of the glorified Jesus which keeps us going during the next 40 some days of Lent – the season when we focus on our need for redemption and Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. The other involves the sending forth from the time of glory, enlivened, equipped and filled with joy to confront the powers that oppose God's kingdom with the presence of Jesus. Thanks be to God that every year we have the Transfiguration before we experience Lent. This is a day when the joyful presence of Christ brightens the way back into the world to confront the powers of evil with the love of the savior. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.