Mountaintop Experience

High Expectations

Luke 9:28-43a

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.”


Undeniably Holy

Exodus 24:12-182 Peter 1:16-21Matthew 17:1-9

The idea of the transfiguration, depicted in our Matthew text and attested to in our 2 Peter verses, can seem more complicated than it is. Let me begin with a couple of very simple principles that will help.

I first needed eyeglasses in my early twenties, and wore them all through my thirties, until my vision went the other direction and the eye doctor told me to stop wearing them. It was a light prescription; without glasses I could see across a room pretty well, but things would get blurry at about road sign distance.

I never got used to keeping track of my glasses. I suppose this was because I didn’t have them as a child, so I didn’t have my parents’ voices in my head threatening me with the end of the world if I lost or broke them. In fact, I was always putting them down somewhere I shouldn’t, and then I would have to hunt for them.

One morning, I was frantically trying to leave for work, but I could not find my glasses. I looked in the bedroom. I looked in the bathroom. I looked in the living room and the dining room. Finally, I made one of those “aaargh” sounds designed to attract my wife’s assistance. Connie walked into the room and said, “What’s wrong?”

I said, “I’ve got to go to work, and I cannot find my glasses!”

She found them very quickly. “They’re on your face,” she replied.

Principle 1: Sometimes you’re so close to something, it’s hard to see it.

Mentioning my wife reminds me of another story. Connie and I have known each other a very long time, since we were 14.

I still remember the first day she walked into my homeroom class. After the school year had already begun, she was transferred from one homeroom to another. Mostly, I remember how terrified she looked when the teacher led her in and introduced her.

There stood this very tall, awkward girl. Remember, at 14, the girls are often taller than the boys, and she was one of the tall girls. She clutched her books tightly and ran to an empty seat in the back of the room as fast as she could.

“Poor kid,” I thought. And I guess I was right—she did eventually marry a guy who didn’t know whether his glasses were on his face. Love and marriage were to come much later, however.

I also suspect we crossed paths a lot earlier than middle school. We were comparing notes on childhood experiences, and we realized we had a common one. Our stay-at-home mothers both shopped regularly at the Johnson City Publix from the time we were babies. She’s just 41 days older than me, and you know how babies and toddlers notice each other.

How many times did we see each other from our shopping cart perches? Did we wave or smile, not realizing God intended us for each other?

And there we have principle 2: Seeing, even for a long period of time, is not always knowing and understanding.

Now, on to the transfiguration. Jesus took three very close disciples up a mountain. They had been with him from the start of his earthly ministry. They thought they knew him.

He seemed to them like a holy man already; that is, he seemed to reflect the same holy light Moses had brought down from the mountain thousands of years earlier after encountering God. But come to find out, Jesus was the light, the source rather than the mirror.

There even was testimony direct from heaven, the same kind of testimony some had heard at Jesus’ baptism. On the mountain, Jesus’ status was made clear: As Son of God, this man was God among us, holiness amid brokenness and sin.

They wanted to dwell in that light—Peter surely did—but they had to come down from the mountain so Jesus could do his work on the cross. And through that work, even we are made holy.

We may not always see that holiness in each other, even when it’s right in front of us. But it’s there. And it’s powerful.