Last Sunday we learned that a lot of churches have started the season of Lent, which is the six weeks before Easter. Just like during Advent, during Lent there’s a whole series of traditional Scripture readings. Last week we started off with Jesus being tempted in the desert. This morning we have another reading which traditionally comes on the second Sunday.
It’s a very different story. But it’s found in three of the four gospels, so they all think it’s important. But it’s very different from some of the other stories we usually read.
Jesus took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Peter didn’t know what he was saying.)
While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.– Luke 9:28-36
That is a pretty weird story. And I think it’s intended to be.
In the rest of the gospel, Jesus teaches. He does miracles. He does a lot of things. But he always looks the same.
In the other parts of the gospel, we think of Jesus as a friend, as a brother, as a leader to follow. But he’s one of us.
Here, Peter and the others are terrified, because they don’t really know who Jesus is any more. I mean, we call him Lord and savior, but this is like a glimpse of what it really means for Jesus to be who he really is.
All through the gospel, we keep getting hints about what Jesus’ mission is, where he came from and where he’s going. Jesus was born in a special way. He grew up as a special kid. He was different from all the other teachers people knew.
Jesus’ words had a special weight, as though he had more authority than any of the other teachers who came before him. Where other teachers talked about God’s power, Jesus demonstrated God’s power, right before their very eyes.
But all the same, people still saw Jesus as a regular human being, just like them. A little special, they’d say, but not like – different.
Today is a turning point. The world doesn’t realize it yet, but Jesus is more than just another wandering preacher.
Jesus takes his three closest friends up a mountain. This isn’t something he usually does. In most of the stories, Jesus goes off by himself to pray. That’s where Jesus gets his strength from. That’s where Jesus goes to renew his vision, and to spend time with the Spirit. He goes off by himself.
But this time, he takes his three closest friends along, and they climb a mountain together.
Now, if you grew up Jewish, and you grew up hearing all those stories from the Hebrew Bible all the time, when the story talks about going up a mountain, it would be like, LIGHT BULB! Because in all the other stories in the Hebrew Bible where someone goes up a mountain, they meet God.
The big story, of course, is Moses. Moses goes to Mount Sinai, and it’s too dangerous for anyone to go up there with him. Moses tells people to put a fence around the mountain, so that no one else can go up there. Everybody knows that nobody can see the face of God and live. The experience would destroy them!
So Moses goes up, and when God comes down to the mountain top to meet Moses, the earth shakes. Clouds cover the mountain, and through the clouds they can see lightning and fire. Moses stays up there for days and days, and finally he comes down the mountain, and he’s got the Ten Commandments, written with the finger of God on tablets of stone.
It says that when Moses came down the mountain, his face was shining. People couldn’t bear to look at Moses, because his face had been changed by seeing the brilliant light of the Lord Most High. Moses had to pull a hood down over his face, because people couldn’t bear the sight. Even when the light was reflected second-hand, they couldn’t handle it.
Shift forward a few hundred years, you get another of these mountain top stories. Elijah, who is one of the most famous prophets in the Hebrew Bible, goes up to the mountain top, all by himself. He’s running away. He’s being hunted by his enemies. His friends have all been killed. Elijah is all alone, with no food to eat. He’s starving. He’s got nothing to keep him going. He’s hiding in a cave.
But some things are more important than food. Outside, on the mountain top, there’s a big earthquake. But Elijah stays in his cave. Then, it says there was a mighty wind, like a hurricane or a tornado, that broke the rocks and threatened to collapse the cave on top of him. But Elijah still stays in his cave.
Then, the mountain top is swept by fire, like one of those wild fires we saw last summer, out west. The fire burns up the whole mountain. There’s nothing left. But Elijah still stays in his cave.
Finally, after the earthquake, wind and fire are all gone, there was silence. And Elijah knew that God was there. God wasn’t there in all the destruction that had taken place. God was there in the quiet, in the silence. Only in the quiet had God finally showed up. Elijah heard God’s voice. And Elijah did what Moses did – he pulled his hood down over his face, because he knew how dangerous it was to look at God’s face. God’s light was so brilliant that it would have blinded him.
So, in today’s story, Jesus goes up to the top of the mountain with three of his friends.
I don’t know – have any of you ever done any serious mountain climbing? I did, when I was young. I climbed most of the Presidential mountains in the Northeast. Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson, Mount Adams, and all the rest. And I can tell you, it’s physically exhausting. The air is thinner. The path seems like it will never end. Most days, clouds come in, so you can hardly see three steps ahead of you.
It doesn’t give us the details of the climb in today’s story, but Peter, James and John were exhausted. They were gasping for breath. They hardly knew if they were conscious or not.
And all of a sudden, they saw something they had never even imagined. Jesus knelt down to pray, and suddenly, he was changed. His face shone, and his clothes were white. They could hardly bear to look at Jesus.
And then, suddenly, they saw Moses and Elijah standing there, talking to Jesus. It was like they were giving Jesus their blessing, or maybe it was like they were bowing down to him.
Again, if you grew up Jewish and heard this story, it would have been instantly obvious. LIGHT BULB! all over again. Not just the mountain top scene, but Moses and Elijah. Moses brought the Law, the Commandments, the Torah. Elijah brought prophecy, the living word of God, God’s guidance for today. The Law and the prophets. Both of them were there, to confirm who Jesus was. It could not have been more obvious.
In Luke’s version of the story, which is the one we read today, there’s a detail which the other gospels don’t include. It says that Moses and Elijah appeared in glorious splendor – it’s like they were shining themselves.
And it says that “they were talking with Jesus about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.”
The other two gospels don’t say that. They don’t give any details. But the version we read today says that they knew, and Jesus knew, that Jesus would soon be leaving.
What Jesus was going to do in Jerusalem at Passover, wasn’t the end of everything. It was the fulfillment of everything. Jesus had a beginning, which started way before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Jesus’ beginning went way back, before anything we know got started.
Before the world was made, before the stars were put in their places, before any life that we know took shape, God already knew that one day, things would break down. The world would need a savior, to come and set things right.
So, when Jesus came into the world, that was part of God’s plan. When Jesus taught people and fed the hungry and healed the sick, that was part of God’s plan, too. When Jesus turned toward Jerusalem, he knew what might happen to him.
It’s interesting to hear the reaction of the disciples. Remember, they were completely exhausted by the trip up the mountain. They hardly knew if they were awake or asleep. It was a vision thing.
Peter said, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. What should we do? Should we put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah?” Peter hardly knew what do say. I don’t know if Peter wanted to build three shelters, or three shrines, or three historic markers. Maybe he wanted to put up three churches. It was like he wanted to preserve the moment and keep it forever.
We can’t do that, of course. One of the things we all know, is that God doesn’t stay still. God moves on, and finds new ways to appear, new people to reach, in every generation. God isn’t something we can tie down or tame.
In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “The wind blows wherever it wills. You hear the sound of the wind, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. It’s the same way with everything that is born of the Spirit. . .” (John 3:8)
There are some experiences which are too powerful to capture. You’ve heard me say before that the church isn’t a building. The church is people. It’s people who listen to what God is saying. It’s people who leave their old life behind, and follow Jesus. The church is a fellowship of listeners, of people who listen to the Spirit, and share what they feel the Spirit is saying in their hearts. The church is a group of people who are trying out what Jesus said, to see if it’s true.
But back to this morning’s story. Peter was going to try to put up a building. Before he could make any other mistakes, a cloud covered the mountain top, and they were scared all over again. What was going to happen? Were they all going to die? Remember, they believe that no one could see the face of God and live.
And out of the cloud, they heard a voice. Doesn’t say if the voice was loud or soft. But it was unmistakeable. The voice said, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
And then the cloud cleared away, or moved on. And all they saw with them, was Jesus. Just the same as always. The same Jesus who walked with them, who got dusty and tired. The same Jesus, but now they knew. And, it says, they didn’t tell anyone.That is one of the stories that help us get ready for Easter.
- Do we see Jesus differently? Do we only see Jesus the way we’re used to him, or do we see Jesus as he really is?
- Do we see Jesus as only human, or do we see him the way Peter and the others saw him, as the Son of God?
- Do we see Jesus defeated, dying on the cross? Or do we see Jesus radiant, shining so they could hardly face him?
It’s as though Jesus is fully in this world, but also fully in heaven. Was his face shining because he was already in heaven, the place where he came from? Was this where Jesus got the confidence to face those last few days in Jerusalem?
In the other gospels, where it tells this story, it says that when the vision went away, Jesus came over and touched his friends and said, “Don’t be afraid. . .”
That has so many parallels. When the angel came and spoke to Mary, and told her that she was going to be the mother of Jesus, the angel said, “Don’t be afraid.” When the angel came and spoke to the shepherds, the angel said, “Don’t be afraid.”
When Jesus rose from the dead, and he came and met his friends, he said “Don’t be afraid. It’s me! Come on, touch me! Feel my wounds. Feel my side. Don’t be afraid!”
Even in today’s story, Jesus says the same thing. “Don’t be afraid of Me. I know what you saw. You saw me as I really am. But don’t be afraid. It’s Me.”
It’s like a glimpse of Heaven. It’s like a trailer for the life that never ends. Jesus died. But he rose again, and he’s still alive. That’s what the story is all about.