One of the disadvantages to using a lectionary for preaching is that it tends to skip over significant portions of Scripture in order to highlight certain texts for preaching. The problem is that no text exists in isolation from that which comes before and after it. As I have often said, context is everything!
Today’s reading is a classic example of that principle. We have just read the story of Jesus’ transfiguration (and it is Transfiguration Sunday on the Church Calendar), and it’s tempting to read that story in isolation. I have heard sermons (and even preached them early in my career) about this being a “mountaintop experience” for the disciples of Jesus followed by the “reality of service in the valley.” We would like to remain on the mountain top (always a temptation here in Colorado) but, darn it, we have to follow Jesus back down to the real world where wrestling with demons is a dirty business.
In one sense, that still preaches a significant truth—we can’t stay on the mountain, the spiritual “high,” forever—anyone who has any amount of time at the summit of a 14er knows this! Eventually, you have to get to work. But there’s something more going on here. Many people who read Scripture and listen to sermons (or preach them) are always asking the question, “How does this passage apply to my life?” We like to think that the Bible can be fit into our lives, but when that is the case it often means that we can pick and choose what will fit into our preconceived notions. The reality, however, the text begs us to ask the question in the opposite direction—“How do I apply my life to this text?” or, “How am I going to alter my life, my thoughts, my actions, my expectations in light of what God is saying here?”
Today’s text is a prime example of the latter question because it’s a text about who Jesus really is—and once you understand who he is, then it’s not about applying his teaching to your life, it’s about altering your life in order to follow him where he leads—even if it’s someplace you really don’t want to go.
To understand this we have to review where we’ve been so far. The first part of the Gospel of Luke is really designed around the question of Jesus’ identity: “Who is this?” is the repeated question. We heard from the angels and from Simeon in chapter 2 and at Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3, but it’s clear that others weren’t getting the message. In chapter 4, Satan tempts Jesus by questioning his identity: “If you are the Son of God…” and the people of his hometown of Nazareth hear him preach and ask, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” In chapter 5 we hear the Pharisees ask, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies?” and, in chapter 6, ask, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath?” In chapter 7, we heard John the Baptist ask the question through his own disciples, “Are you the one to come or should we look for another?” In chapter 8, the disciples see Jesus calm a raging storm and ask, “Who is this that commands even the wind and waves and they obey him?” And now, here in chapter 9, it seems that even Herod Antipas has heard about Jesus, saying, “John the Baptist I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” (9:9)
Who do you say that I am?
In 9:18, Jesus finally picks up that question and asks the disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answer as Herod had answered—some think you’re John the Baptist resurrected from the dead (Herod had beheaded him), some think you’re Elijah or one of the ancient prophets. “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks them. “The Christ, the Messiah sent from God,” Peter answers. For the first time, someone other than a divine voice has identified who Jesus really is—he is the Messiah.
We think, “Well done, Peter! You got it!” But we will see that he really doesn’t—at least not yet. There were a myriad of understandings of who or what the Messiah would be in ancient Israel—no one-size-fits-all expectation. But what Jesus says next about the is not something anyone would have expected of a Messiah: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected—by the elders, the chief priests, and the legal experts—and be killed and be raised on the third day.”
Suffering. Rejection. Death. These are not generally considered to be the formula for success, especially for one whom people hoped would be their long-awaited king. It’s no wonder that Matthew and Mark have Peter blurt out at this point, “May it never be!” These are signs of accursedness.
But then Jesus doubles down (9:23-27). Not only is this Messiah destined for suffering, rejection, and death, so are those who would follow after him. The insertion of the word “cross” here would have been shocking to the disciples because it wasn’t a figurative expression. Jesus is not saying, “You’ll each have some hardships, your own cross to bear.” No, he is talking about the ultimate instrument of suffering, rejection, humiliation, and death. This Messiah is on his way to a throne, but by way of a cross. His kingdom will come at a price.
It’s in this context that “eight days later,” Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain to pray. There are echoes here in the text if we remember the whole story of Scripture. “Eight days” means that it happens on the first day of a new week—a sign that something new is happening. The mountain and the small cluster of Jesus’ closest disciples are an echo of another story from Israel’s history—the story of Moses going up on Mount Sinai with some of his closest associates to receive the commandments, which we read in Exodus 24. In the Scriptures, mountains are places of revelation or “theophany”—a direct encounter with God—and here we see Jesus transformed, the appearance of his face and clothes are charged with light, much like Moses after his encounter with God. He shines with divine glory.
Appearing with him are two others—Moses and Elijah. My question has always been, “How did the disciples know it was them?” There weren’t pictures, obviously. But here again, it’s about expectations and connections with the Old Testament. Some commentators have said that Moses and Elijah simply represent the Law and the Prophets and, in one sense, that’s true. But the context here is more specific than that. Remember that in the Old Testament, Elijah wasn’t thought to have died but was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Deuteronomy tells us that Moses died after viewing the Promised Land from a distance and was buried by God in an unmarked grave in the wilderness. Some Jews, however, took that to mean that he hadn’t really died. As a result, some believed that both Elijah and Moses would appear before the end time as forerunners of the Messiah. We can then understand why some of the crowd that either John the Baptist or Jesus were Elijah, or why he also seemed like a new Moses with authority over the Law.
In verse 31, however, we hear what Moses and Elijah are talking with Jesus about—about his “departure,” which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. The word in Greek is actually “exodus”—a word often used at the time to describe death but, moreover, an allusion to Israel’s salvation in the past and in the future. Many saw the Messiah as being the one to lead this new “exodus,” but here we understand that it is an exodus that will begin, much like the first one, with the shedding of blood.
A groggy Peter witnesses this staggering event and, as he is wont to do, blurts out the first thing that pops into his mind. “It’s good for us to be here! We should construct three shrines (or booths, or tabernacles)—one for each of you!” Luke adds that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. What was he saying? Let’s build three monuments because, clearly, this is the company you belong in, Jesus! He wants to mark the spot there on the mountain where he saw Jesus as equal to the greatest men in Israel’s history. He still doesn’t get who Jesus really is.
The Father will set him straight. A cloud overshadows them—clouds being a sign of God’s presence (just like on Mount Sinai). And the voice of the Father, the same voice Jesus heard at his baptism, is now heard by his disciples. “This is my son, my chosen one. Listen to him!”
Moses and Elijah depart and Jesus stands alone. The disciples (and we) now have no question who Jesus is. He is not just another in a line of prophets and biblical heroes. He is not just another king or would-be Messiah. He is God’s preeminent Son. It’s not that his coming negates the work of Moses and Elijah, nor does it render the Law and the prophets irrelevant. Instead, Jesus is the proper interpreter and fulfillment of all that had been said in the Scriptures. As Luke will tell us later on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus interpreted his mission to his disciples “beginning with Moses and all the prophets.” If we want to know who he really is, we need the whole Bible to understand him, his teaching, his death, and his resurrection!
It’s no coincidence that this text appears right before the season of Lent begins. On Wednesday, we will read that Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” but, before we start down the road, the transfiguration causes us to pause before we begin the journey. Taking all of this in, we see that there on the mountain, the Father who could rescue the Son from the mission of suffering instead confirms for Jesus and his followers that the way to Jerusalem, the way of the new exodus, is the way of the cross.
The implications of that way were so staggering for the first disciples that they couldn’t imagine it. The next scene has them trying to cast out a demon, which they couldn’t do even though Jesus had given them authority. They have still failed to grasp who Jesus is and to embody his message and authority in their ministry. It will take more reminding. In fact, look at verse 44: “Take these words to heart (literally, “let them sink into your ears”), the Son of Man will be betrayed into human hands.” But they still didn’t get it. In fact, their response is to argue about who among them was the greatest (v. 46-48).
It’s easy for us to blame the disciples for their ignorance, but the more I read this the more I understand it. How could you fathom a suffering Messiah? Why would you willingly pick up a cross? Why would I sign up for suffering, rejection, and death? It’s no wonder preachers try to trivialize the text into what it means for my life. This text actually invites us to conform our lives to a suffering Messiah and follow him to the humiliation, rejection, and suffering of a cross. That’s a tough sell on any Sunday morning, as it was a tough sell for Jesus. Such a message doesn’t grow large crowds—for that, you need to interpret the text in a way that keeps people up on the mountain and sharing in Christ’s glory. You need to tell people that faith in Jesus is the road to prosperity, to being well-liked, to being respectable. You need to created an environment where people feel actualized, comfortable, and have their every need cared for. You need to take away every semblance of suffering and focus on self-esteem instead.
But that’s not the way of the cross. To live that way means to live in a series of paradoxes: those who want to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for the sake of Christ will find them; power is only found in powerlessness; glory only comes through suffering; prosperity only comes through giving up everything; greatness only comes through making yourself nothing; acceptance in the kingdom involves rejection by the world; real life only comes when you’re willing to die.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s the same question that Luke wants us to confront as well. If we only say, “You are the Christ” and it does not alter our lives, then we have spoken a truth, but our belief is only equal to that of the demons who knew his true identity. And if we, like Peter, see Jesus as another in a long line of religious heroes, we’ve only gone as far as the rest of the culture, even a Christian culture, that admires Jesus but doesn’t follow him.
No, to know who Jesus truly is we have to be willing to pick up a cross—to move from mere belief to obedience—obedience to the point of death. What kind of death? Well, it may be of the literal sort—martyrdom, death in the public square. That was the literal end of most of Jesus’ first disciples and it is still the cost of discipleship for many in our world today. It is hard for us to imagine it in our comfortable “Christian” culture, but it is not out of the realm of possibility. As a culture grows increasingly hostile and rejects the way of Jesus and the cross, we should not be surprised when our faith in Christ leads to our rejection, suffering, and death. Are we willing to take our belief to that level of obedience?
But while that may be the result for some, there is a different sort of death that is endemic to everyone who would follow Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis in 1945, wrote his book The Cost of Discipleship in 1937 when the Nazi regime was gaining power. He knew then that the times were coming that would test the confession of the church that Christ is Lord and his words ring prophetic today. He writes about cross-bearing discipleship in this way:
“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every [person] must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is the dying of the old [person] which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give our lives over to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ bids a man, he bids him come and die…But it is the same death every time—death in Christ Jesus, the death of the old [person] at this call.”
This is where Lent will take us—to examine our death in Christ, putting to death that which keeps us from following him, putting our belief into action, suffering with Christ on behalf of others and the world. He bids us to come and die.
The mountain on which Jesus was transfigured isn’t named in the Scriptures. Tradition says it is Mount Tabor, but there is no other evidence in the text. I think that’s intentional. Luke doesn’t want us to rest here on this mountain of glory, remembering Jesus standing between two of the towering figures of the Bible. He doesn’t want us making monuments to our own version of Jesus—the Jesus we construct out of our own desires—a Jesus whom we can apply to our lives.
Rather, Luke is pointing us forward to a different hill—one in which Jesus will again be lifted up and exalted, but this time between two criminals. There will be no shining cloud of glory, only dark clouds that obscure the sun. This is where the beloved Son will demonstrate who he really is. This is where the new exodus begins.
This is the mountaintop that matters. This is the Son of God who gives his life for the world and calls his disciples to do the same.
Listen to him!