Some of you may have noticed that I am wearing an orange tie with paw prints on it today. When Clemson beat my team to win the national championship I told Doug Stewart I was disappointed in him that he had not brought me a Clemson tie to wear, so he told me he would take care of it. He brought it last week but I thought the more appropriate Sunday to wear it would be Transfiguration Sunday. Doug made it clear that he wanted the tie back, which is fine. Even the transfiguration of Jesus only lasted a brief time.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a key event in the Gospels, a hinge moment which marks a definite transition. The ministry of Jesus begins at his baptism, when the heavens open to Jesus and he sees the Spirit descending upon him like a dove and hears God saying, “You are my beloved Son.” The transfiguration comes midway through the ministry of Jesus, and at this point three of the disciples hear the voice of God affirming, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah about his departure – the actual Greek word used is “exodus” – which will take place in Jerusalem. After this, Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and begins the journey there, towards the place of his exodus. At the ending, when humans have done their worst by crucifying and burying Jesus, God speaks again through earthquake and through resurrection, saying to the world, “This is my Son, and he still lives. Listen to him and follow him!”
Today’s reading actually has three vignettes in it, and the progression in the story is important. I’ve chosen to focus on the sights and sounds of the passage as there is a great deal of sensory experience described.
The first story is about the transfiguration itself, and to try to talk too concretely about this story is pointless. There is brightness, there are extra people, there are clouds, there is a thundering voice, then everything is back to normal. It was all so incredible and ephemeral that Luke says that in those days Peter, James, and John kept silent and told no one anything about it, nor did Jesus. Only later when everything had played out were they confident enough about the reality of what they had seen to tell others about it. What they remembered seeing was Jesus, changed into an otherworldly appearance, meeting with Moses and Elijah, who represent the Law and the Prophets from the Old Testament, about fulfilling the purpose towards which all of Scripture has led through his death in Jerusalem.
The scene is very different when they get back down from the top of the mountain. A great crowd is impatiently waiting, undoubtedly with all sorts of needs: healing, spiritual hunger, physical hunger, blindness, who knows what all. One man is shouting above the crowd, though, demanding the attention of Jesus. “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.” He went on to describe the problem of seizures, crying out, foaming at the mouth, doing violence to himself. He had begged the disciples to cure him, but they could not.
The description sounds similar to some forms of mental illness that we are familiar with today. Think about the desperation of families you know which deal with extreme mental illness. It is so hard to find help, so hard to find anyone who can or will give the time and energy to try to help, so hard to diagnose and treat some illnesses. Many cases are so difficult that these people end up on the streets, or packed into our jails. Our tendency when we walk past someone who is acting or talking suspiciously is to look the other direction and ignore the person. And admittedly, unless we have training and expertise, walking down the street is neither the time nor the place to try to find a solution to the problem.
But just being willing to have your eyes open enough to see that there is a real problem that needs a serious solution is a good start. The man said to Jesus, “I beg you to look at my son…” Don’t just walk by without seeing him, without feeling our pain and seeing our plight. His request makes me think of the question Jesus asked the Pharisee in last week’s story. While the woman was wiping and anointing his feet and the Pharisee was judging her silently as a sinner, Jesus asked him, “Simon, do you see this woman?” Do you see a human being here, not just a category – a sinner?
Teacher, look at my son. If you truly look at him and see the torturous existence he lives, perhaps you will be moved to do something. As long as we close our eyes to pain and suffering we can pretend it does not exist. As long as we close our ears to stories of homeless children whose parents are in jail or women who have been to the emergency room numerous times not because they have been jumped by a stranger but because their husbands have a habit of hitting them when angry, we can pretend that those kinds of things couldn’t possibly happen in Anderson.
Jesus, of course, not only looked at the man’s son but healed him. And he was angry with the people. While he doesn’t say exactly why, maybe it is because they never truly looked at this boy, never took the risk of reaching out to him and his father in compassion and in hope and in prayer.
We are beginning our annual mission drive today, with the goal of raising $25,000 over and above regular giving for Mission agencies that we support at home and abroad. It is a good time to make a difference for these agencies that are attempting to see the problems people deal with and provide help and hope. It is also a good time for us to open our eyes to what those problems are and consider ways to become involved personally as well as financially.
Hundreds of hot meals are served every day by Meals on Wheels to people who might not have one otherwise. Medicines and medical and dental care are provided to those who cannot afford them by the Free Clinic. New Foundations and the Thornwell Children’s Home attempt to help young people whose families or lives are off track get back on a good path. Safe Harbor provides safe housing and fresh starts for abused women and their children. AIM provides food, heat assistance, wheelchair ramps, assistance for single mothers wanting to get a degree and better themselves. We support missionaries who provide medical and spiritual care for people in Brazil and in South Sudan. Tonight at 5:00 you have the opportunity to hear a presentation about the plight of Rwandan refugee children and a ministry which helps them and consider being a part of it. Allow this mission season to be a time not only of opening your wallet but opening your eyes and ears to see and to hear the needs around us.
The third vignette in this morning’s reading seems out of place at first glance, but it is the completion of this hinge at the middle of the story. “While everyone was amazed at all that Jesus was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears…’” What a vivid expression to finish our sensory journey this morning. Against the background of the praise and astonishment of the crowd at what they have just witnessed, “let these words sink into your ears.” Don’t just hear them, let them go all the way in so that you comprehend them. The words? “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” They heard the words but it made no sense to them and they were afraid to ask him more. Two verses later Luke writes, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” “Set his face” means he was determined and would not be sidetracked from this purpose. The countdown had begun and it was time to go to Jerusalem.
The first part of his ministry was characterized by moving around from place to place, calling followers, healing the sick, preaching and teaching the good news of the gospel. Now Jesus turns purposefully toward Jerusalem. There are some healings and some encounters along the way, but much of the time is spent in teaching and preparing the disciples for ministry. In the next few Sundays we will look at the well known parables and stories from this phase of the journey that are found only in Luke. These will frame our Lenten journey towards Holy Week this year.
The season of Lent begins this Wednesday, which is Ash Wednesday. We will have an Ash Wednesday service, as usual, following the Bridge meal at 6:15 in the sanctuary. We will hear from Luke about the beginning of the journey towards Jerusalem and the cross and we will reflect on what it might mean for us to begin the journey towards Holy Week this year.
Next Sunday we will be looking at a powerful pairing of stories: the encounter with the lawyer which led to the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the visit in the home of Mary and Martha. I encourage you to keep up with the daily Bible readings because there is much material that we will not be covering in this section.
The two hymns we will be singing in the rest of the service are part of our sensory experience of the transfiguration in their words and music. The first one in particular is a very creative use of an old tune which alternates between major and minor keys to reflect the radical difference between mundane life and the glory of the transfiguration, between putting the orange tie on and taking it off, between the exaltation from the crowd and the shouts to crucify him that will come soon.
The final stanza says, “Lord, transfigure our perception with the purest light that shines, and recast our life’s intentions to the shape of your designs, till we seek no other glory than what lies past Calvary’s hill and our living and our dying and our rising by your will.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 26, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church