Here we are, once again, at the Transfiguration. Epiphany always ends with this story found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Today we hear Luke’s version.
We know we are not dealing with normal, rational reality when we read about this mountain-top experience. People long dead, Moses and Elijah, show up and talk with Jesus. The disciples, surprisingly, know who they are. How do they know? There were no photographs of Moses and Elijah. Were they wearing name tags? Was there an unrecorded introduction by Jesus? Then there is the glowing face and clothes white enough to make anyone today bleaching their whites jealous.
Some have called this a parable by Luke. Others have said it was a mystical experience. If that is so, trying to explain the unanswerable questions listed above would be irrelevant. I happen to like the fact we can’t explain all the weird details of this story. Mysteries like this provoke silent pondering, like the discisples at the end of this passage. But, since most of you expect to hear a sermon, I’ll say a few words.
I have read this story countless times in my thirty years of ministry. This year a couple of details jumped out at me. They all surround the suggestion of Peter to build three dwellings or booths, one for Elijah, one for Moses and one for Jesus. Luke says Peter did not know what he was saying. Perhaps he was still groggy from sleep. Maybe he was just overpowered by the mystical wonder of this experience and said something stupid, as some of us might respond in a similar situation. Either way, we are led to believe Peter was off base in his suggestion.
He was off base for several reasons. By building dwellings Peter was trying to prolong this mountain-top experience. We can certainly understand that impulse. Many of us went to camp as a teenager and were wowed by the speaker, enjoyed living with our peers away from our parents, and were moved by the beauty of the camp. Staying up late talking to our friends made us a little sleep deprived and more vulnerable or open to a spiritual experience.
We wanted to prolong those wonderful feelings and commitments we had at camp only to come home and get lost in the everydayness of life. We went back to school and were irritated by the same kids or teachers. We got anxious about tests, relating to the opposite sex, and trying to appear cool to our peers. The whole mountain-top experience was forgotten.
Adults are not immune to this experience. We have the same mountain-top experiences at a retreat, hearing a powerful speaker, or reading a book that touches our hearts. We have the same difficulty living into our new commitments or changed perspectives such experiences foster.
There is an old Zen proverb that goes like this: “After enlightenment, the laundry.” We know exactly what that proverb is getting at. So does Luke. Immediately following the Transfiguration the disciples go back down into the valley and find they can’t help this man who has a son plagued by demons.
Life is tough. Life can be boring with numbing routine. It can wear us down with countless obligations that just make us tired and wanting a nap. The spiritual life is all about taking on these valley experiences head on. It is not about avoiding life and trying to prolong mountain-top feelings. Luke helps us see this by his showing how inappropriate it was for Peter to suggest building dwellings.
Peter’s suggestion to build dwellings was also wrong on another level. By building those structures he was trying to hold on to the past symbolized by Moses and Elijah. They represent the best of his Jewish tradition: the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah).
There is nothing wrong with treasuring the past and our most sacred traditions. But if we hold on to them too tightly we cannot experience anything new God’s Spirit is trying to show us. Luke says the voice out of the cloud tells the disciples to listen to Jesus. And then the voices out of the past cease.
We, too, need to let go of the past in order to grow in our faith journey. We talked about this in our lectionary class this past Tuesday. I asked them what do we need to let go of in order to hear God’s voice leading us into our future. They came up with some interesting ideas.
One person said we need to let go of how we thought our life would or should go when we grew up. Many of us had notions of what it would mean to be a success, maybe even famous. We would do something that would make a difference in the world. Some thought we would grow up, get married to the love of our life and live happily ever after.
Then life happens. We don’t end up in the vocation we always thought we would. We get divorced or our spouse dies. We can’t have children or the children we do have make choices we just hate. We don’t become famous. We just join the great masses trying to live our lives and find at least a little happiness. We need to let go of some of those notions about adulthood we had as children so we can see where the Spirit is leading us in the life we have.
Another said we need to let go of the old ways we framed our faith. We need to let go of the judgmental God figure who seemed to hate everything we found pleasurable. We need to let go of the guilt that cripples many of us into adulthood. We need to let go of the narrow parameters we thought were critical to orthodoxy. We need to let go of thinking our way of understanding God is the only right way to understand the Holy Mystery.
Life happens and we need to accept our lives, however imperfect, and try to hear the voice of God where we are now, not where we thought we should be. The past can help us find a path to follow, but if we hold on too tightly and then stumble off that path, we end up being lost. God’s voice is still speaking if we but have ears to hear it where we are.
Finally, Peter’s suggestion to build booths could have been an attempt to contain God. One commentator says there is more to God than we can understand or nail down in any container. Our need to understand all mysteries, to make everything about God fit into our neat, little world view is really all about control.
Peter wanted to be in control when he was wowed by the Transfiguration. Let’s build dwellings so we can contain this experience of God, nail it down on our terms, in our old religious framework or world view. Instead the cloud rolls in and there is no room for control, only fear or awe.
The story ends with the voice affirming Jesus as superior to Moses and Elijah and urging the disciples to listen to him. Don’t let the past filter out the new thing the Spirit is saying in Jesus’ voice. Listen to him. And then the past disappears.
Basically Luke is saying the role of the disciples is to listen up and then shut up. Don’t speak after such an experience or you will cheapen it. Don’t speak until you have let go of those things that distort your hearing the voice of Jesus showing a new way of incorporating the best of the past.
And with that I’ll just shut up.