When I’ve previously preached about this mysterious event called the transfiguration, I have tended to focus on the incomprehensible glory of the moment. And frankly, it is a challenge to preach about things incomprehensible.
I am struck this year by the importance of reading this story in the context of how Jesus reacted to his first encounter with the world once he came down from the mountain. Life is rough and dirty down below. No wonder Peter wanted to go camping on the mountain, lingering as long as possible in the true vision of Christ’s holiness.
Down below remained confusing for Jesus’ closest followers, the ones he had just given “power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases” (Luke 9:1). They were to use that power to declare the presence of the Kingdom of God. But out of the clamoring crowd came a frustrated father whose son the disciples had not been able to help. The boy suffered from what the father described as demon possession, the symptoms looking remarkably like modern-day epilepsy.
Whether the boy’s problem was demonic or simply physical hardly matters. I suspect that once we see in full, we’ll understand that both science and religion were right—the world’s problems have rationally explainable causes, but simultaneously there’s a spiritual world able to pluck the strings of physics and biology.
More to the point, the disciples had been given power to deal with both demons and disease. They couldn’t figure this case out, however.
Jesus’ response to their failure had to sting: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” He called the sick boy to him and performed the healing-exorcism himself.
Well, yeah. He is the Son of God. The transfiguration had just proven that point again. And as Christians, we understand Christ ultimately has to do the work. At the moment of the transfiguration, Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, to crush the power of Satan and his demons, to heal the fractures in creation causing sickness and death, to break the power sin has over us.
We were and are trapped without Jesus. On our own, there’s no way out of the misery at the foot of the mountain.
But here’s what’s remarkable about Jesus’ critique of his disciples. The savior of the universe seems to have high expectations for humanity. Despite our need for him, we are not to be passive recipients of his love and grace. Somehow, in all the mess, we are supposed to find a way to participate in this great work of healing.
I think this is why so many people, when they come to Christ either as serious seekers or new converts, want to know, “What can I do?” They sense there is a new power available. They want to lay a brick or two in the streets of the coming kingdom.
Like the disciples, we can get frustrated when our efforts on behalf of Christ do not go perfectly. We may even sense the sting of rebuke, the feeling we have more in common with a faithless and perverse generation than with the kingdom of God.
But let’s remember the full and complete answer to Jesus’ frustrated question, “How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” At the end of Luke and the beginning of its companion document, Acts, we see the promise and arrival of a companion, the Holy Spirit, and we know Jesus never leaves us, even as we struggle.
Jesus also answered the question in another story found at the end of the gospel of Matthew. “I am with you always,” he said, “to the end of the age.”