Immediately leading into this story of the Transfiguration is Peter’s confession, followed by Jesus telling the disciples he is going to Jerusalem where he will die, and an important teaching on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: Pick up your cross and follow me.
If we were watching a movie of Luke’s gospel, directed by Luke the evangelist himself, he might come up behind us, tap us on the shoulder and say, “Now pay attention to this next scene! This is the heart of the matter.”
Indeed, this episode on a mountaintop is at the very dividing line of Luke’s gospel. It is nearly dead center. Up until now there has been activity in and around Galilee. From here on, it is a march to the scaffold: the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.
What we find on this mountaintop is a massive appeal to our corporate memory as a people of God. Moses went up to a mountaintop to receive direction and instructions from God and even to argue with God. When he would return to the people, his face would be shining brightly, so brightly he would have to veil it. Elijah hid in a crevice on a mountaintop, withstanding wind, fire and earthquake until he heard the “still, small voice” of God. Whereupon he immediately covered his face as he came out of the crevice to face the Lord, the God of Israel.
So as Jesus heads up a mountain to pray, we are already remembering what goes on up in these regions closer to the heavens, what some refer to as “the thin places”: places where people encounter the Holy and listen to God. And just in case our corporate memory is failing us, Luke paints the picture more precisely by putting Moses and Elijah there with Jesus, all three dazzling in glory, dazzling white, shining like the sun.
If you were Peter, James or John, I suspect at the very least there would be an audible gasp. If up to this point there has been any question at all about who this fellow Jesus is, imagine what is going through their minds now! It is like a return to the 40 years in the wilderness, the defining period of what it means to be a people of God – days of wandering; living in tents; living on manna, bread that is given daily.
It is like a return to the age of prophets such as Elijah who regularly challenged the domestic and foreign policies of the politicians and religious authorities. Elijah, who lived in the wilderness, at the margins of society, who mingled with foreigners and resident aliens, living in tents, booths, accepting the hospitality of total strangers, living on bread that is given daily.
Once a year, every year, for the eight-day Feast of the Tabernacles, Peter and his people would build booths and sleep in them for eight nights to remember the years of tenting on the land. To remember the days of Moses and Elijah. No wonder he wants to build some booths. No wonder he feels the need to do something to celebrate their corporate memory among such revered guests.
Quickly, however, the one in charge of the narrative speaks from off stage to remind one and all that this is not a story about Peter, James and John, and it is not about us or our experiences of the Holy. “This is My Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
It is about the Son. The Chosen. And about listening: listening to God’s Son.
It is worth pondering that when the one in charge of the story speaks and names the dazzling one, we do not hear the words, “Jesus,” “Christ,” “messiah,” “rabbi,” “master” or even “lord.” The primary name given to the dazzling one is “Son.” More specifically, “My Son.”
We are told to listen to “My Son.” My Son says, “Bear your cross and follow me.” And as we follow him down into the valley, what do we find? Another man’s son. The father is bereft. The son is possessed. The son convulses and foams at the mouth. The disciples have been of no use at all.
My Son says, “Bring your son here.” The demon makes one last attempt to conquer the boy, throwing him down on the ground. My Son puts an end to the demon. The boy is restored to his father. The text says that My Son “gave him back to his father.” The demon had taken the boy. Then My Son gave him back. Demons take. My Son gives back.
The crowd is astounded. All were astounded; there was not one person who was not astounded “at the greatness of God.” Do we allow ourselves to be astounded? Astonished? Amazed?
Note how subtly My Son becomes God. One could almost miss it altogether for sake of being so astounded and all. It would take several hundred years for the church to wrestle with this insight.
We cannot even begin to know who Jesus is if we separate these stories out. What happens on the mountaintop is important, and does have meaning. But that meaning is inextricably bound to both the question Jesus puts to the disciples before going up the mountain, “Who do you say that I am?” and to what happens down in the valley.
Jesus will not be known any other way. Not through any clever novelization or cinematic inventiveness. Not through reading and discussing books about him. Not through watching movies and debating the merits of the movies about him. He will be known in our listening to him and following him. And in the breaking of bread that is given.
That’s why we are here. To listen to him, to follow him, and to eat our daily bread, so we might complete his work in the valley of this world. To be those people who do not take, but those who give back. How often do we take the time to be still, be silent, and listen to him?
Perhaps this is what Transfiguration means: listening to him and following him so that we may be transfigured, so that those around us may be transfigured, so that the whole world might one day be transfigured just like God’s Son.
We do this by becoming those people who do not take. We are to become those who give – those who give back.