Sermon Ideas For Luke 9:28-36 Part 1
Theology is anchored in the invisible world of the Holy which interpenetrates the world we see daily. Yet, moments occur when our usual blindness lifts, and we envision creation differently. The transfiguration was such a moment, a parting of the veil which hides the infinite from our normal perception. It does not matter whether this event took place within the lifetime of Jesus or was an appearance of the Risen Christ retrojected by the early church. Moments when the infinite becomes plain to our eyes are eternal, icons of the spirit that abide forever--reconfiguring the past, architecting the future, and emblazing the present.
Did Jesus invite Peter, James and John to go with him, knowing he was about to be transfigured? We cannot answer that question. Luke, however, characteristically notes Jesus' habit of prayer; readers may suppose that Jesus followed his routine of devotion on this day, and simply included his innermost circle. The Holy transforms us through habits of the heart, which the psalmist called "ruts of righteousness" (Ps 23:4). While we may chase here and there after extraordinary mystical experiences, God frequents places worn and dingy from constant use. Thomas Merton refers to the monastic experience of oratio ignita, "fiery prayer," in which the "mind is illumined by the infusion of heavenly light."1 This remarkable form of prayer overtakes the prayer in the monotony of the liturgy rather than in some esoteric devotional practice. The liturgical year is adorned not only by the once-in-history events of Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection, but also by the recurring rhythms of ordinary time, when the spirit like a long distance runner hits her stride and runs her course with joy.
Avoiding the verb used by Hellenistic writers to describe the many metamorphoses of the gods, Luke records that Jesus' face was changed, but makes no attempt to describe the change. With similar reserve, the revelation describes the throne in heaven, but gives no detail about the one seated on it. Despite our passion to capture the Holy in literal terms, we would do well to hesitate, as the evangelist doe, before attempting a verbal photograph of one who "dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see" (1 Tim 6:16). Rather, Luke reports that Jesus' clothes became dazzlingly bright. The blinding light of the Holy is not God, but God's robe.
Moses, symbolic of the Law, and Elijah, of the Prophets, appeared, talking with Jesus. Only Luke reports the substance of their conversation: Jesus' exodus, a reference to the cross, resurrection, and ascension. In these details Luke identifies a characteristic of peak experiences: Their unitive power. In this single moment the mighty acts of God who brought Israel out of Egypt, the gift of the Torah, the ecstatic and ethical charisma of the prophets--all were collected and transformed in the person and mission of the Messiah.
The response of the disciples epitomizes human response to glory. The text of verse 32 leaves unclear whether they went to sleep or remained drowsy but awake; it does echo their sleep at Gethsemane (Mk 14:40). Spiritual turning points often resemble awakenings. We nod and dream, unaware of the splendor and the mystery which God has hidden in the world. Necessary sleep of the body refreshes, but sleep of the spirit dulls our senses and deadens our hearts to the glory around us.
As he rouses, Peter endears himself to every preacher by speaking, though he did not know what to say. Like Job's comforters, whose silence was healing but whose words got them in trouble, Peter babbles his way into the Holy. He suggests that they pitch three tents and linger on the mountaintop. Not even the Christ can control the Holy, however. Seeking to prolong or trap ecstacy leads us into frenzy or addiction. While he was speaking, the cloud of God's glory overshadowed them, as it overshadowed Moses on Sinai, a cloud of thick darkness (Ex 19:16; 20:21).
Typically, in preaching this text I have made much of the light and little of the cloud. Yet, the cloud holds immense significance. The pronouns of verse 34 leave unclear whether the disciples as well as Jesus, Moses and Elijah were taken into the cloud. Whichever is the case, the disciples felt terror--always a hallmark of the Holy. The mystics speak of The Cloud of Unknowing. By this they mean that God's light is so bright that it appears to the human mind as darkness. In part St. John of the Cross' famous work The Dark Night of the Soul concerns this phenomenon.
In Original Blessing Matthew Fox identifies Path II, the via negativa, as a way of darkness. He notes that as children of the Enlightenment Western people are imprisoned in the light, fearful of the dark. Yet in darkness lies creativity; in deep darkness lie the roots of life; beneath and beyond all that is, beneath and beyond every word or image we use as much to conceal as to reveal the truth, is God beyond God. All of us are tempted to choose our images rather than the imageless reality of God, the Mount of Transfiguration rather than the mount of crucifixion. The image of the sun in a puddle is not the sun, but only sunlight reflected. If the transfiguration afforded the disciples a momentary glimpse of Christ's glory, the cloud prevented them from erecting an emotional or literal shrine on the site. The via negativa is a letting go, a transcending, of reality, even a reality as near to heaven as the transfiguration.
The voice from the cloud provided the corrective, pointing the disciples beyond both the ecstacy and the terror of the moment to Jesus. In probably using the term "Chosen," rather than the baptismal formula "Beloved," Luke may refer to the way of the Suffering Servant (Is 42:1). The crowds at the cross taunted Jesus, "Let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one" (Lk 23:35).
The disciples' long-term response was silence. Perhaps in days that followed, they obeyed the command of the voice and listened to Jesus as he explained the meaning of their experience. Also time helped them sift the eternal significance of that holy moment. The disciples, and we, could begin to understand the meaning of what they had seen, felt, and heard only from the far side of the cross.