Ever have one of those weeks? Where you just think, “Man, this week should be a walk in the park. But you quickly realize that the park looks something like this? You know, like one of those weeks? I feel like I kind of had one of those weeks. I spent the first couple days of this past week watching the proceedings of the Special General Conference, where our most powerful lawmaking body weighed in on how we as a denomination should proceed in relation to our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. I watched as our delegates battled it out over legislation. I watched our conservative delegates talk about the problems of an inclusive church: the way they understand the bible, the way they understand their theology, they didn’t think rainbow flags would match their sanctuary’s carpet very well. That was most of it. And, as I watched all this happening – as I struggled with the outcome of the conference and spoke with journalists and tried to write a sermon and do all these things, I just thought “how appropriate is it that we’re celebrating the Transfiguration this Sunday?” This story of the Transfiguration is weird and we’re not really sure what to do with it all the time, but, if we dig into it, it actually tells us some really important things about who we are and who God is. That’s what we’re going to be spending some time doing this morning.
So, our first verse says “about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Now, what “sayings” are we talking about? In order to find out, we have to back up a little bit and we actually see a lot of stuff packed into the preceding 10 verses or so. We see, 1) Jesus ask his disciples who they think he is, to which Peter responded, “the Messiah of God”; We see 2) Jesus telling the disciples he’s going to have to suffer and die and be raised on the third day; and finally, we seen Jesus give this amalgamation of statements: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste dead before they see the kingdom of God.”
So, just to recap, in the span of 10 verses, Jesus went from “who do you think I am?” to “the kingdom of God is going to be here any minute.” Now, I’m speaking only for myself here, but it feels like this escalated very quickly. I mean, it at least feels like this really got out of hand fast. But that’s kind of Jesus’ style, right? He doesn’t beat around the bush. Anyway, this morning’s passage is supposed to come 8 days after Jesus says all this, and he goes up the mountain to pray, probably about all the things that he mentioned in the previous 10 verses. But while they’re on the mountain, something really strange is supposed to have happened: “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
Now, there’s a lot going on here. Jesus’ face changes – we don’t really know what that is supposed to mean. His clothes become “dazzling white” – the Greek actually says something to the extent of “white like lightning”. But then we’re told Jesus is talking with Elijah and Moses. Now, back when Jesus asked the disciples who they think he is, one of them said that a lot of people think he’s Elijah. So, with Elijah being here, that theory is obviously debunked. But what’s really interesting about this, once we get beyond the crazy, supernaturalism of it, is what they’re talking about, namely, Jesus’ “departure”. Now, the Greek work for “departure” here is ἔξοδος. This is a compound word of ἐκ and ὁδός -- ἐκ meaning “out” and ὁδός meaning road or journey. So, when we talk about an “exodus” we’re talking about a “journeying out.” We obviously know this best from the OT book of the same name which talks about the Israelites “journeying out” of slavery in Egypt.
Now, this is significant. They’re talking about Jesus’ “exodus,” but what kind of exodus is it? This word can sometimes mean “death” in a figurative sense, as in the “journeying out” of this life. But if they’re merely talking about Jesus’ death, there are other, much more common words, for “death.” How many people here saw the newest Avengers movie? Yeah, I didn’t see it, because I was busy having friends and a social life and stuff like that. But I understand the villain in that movie is named Thanos, right? And, as far as I know, he basically worships death. Well, the Greek word meaning “to do” is θάνω, clearly the root word from which Thanos gets his name! Now, remember this, and the next time you find yourself at a party full of people who have equally strong interests in both ancient Greek linguistics and the Marvel superhero movies, you’ll have an awesome conversation starter.
Anyway, all that is to say, Moses and Elijah and Jesus can’t just be talking about Jesus’ death. The gospel authors chose their words very carefully; nothing is arbitrary. There has to be something else packed in here. And for the first century readers of Luke’s gospel, this word “exodus” would have obviously invoked the story of the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt, and herein lies the key, I think. Jesus’ “exodus”, his “departure,” isn’t just a journeying out of this world; it’s a journeying out of this world where he takes all of creation with him. It’s the event which does for the entire cosmos what YHWH did for the Israelites in Egypt. It’s the event that sets creation free, that gives meaning to the meaningless, that eternalizes the fight for liberation of all those who find themselves enslaved. This is the “departure” they’re talking about here; this is the “exodus” we’re turning towards in a few days when we celebrate the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
This is why I’m not intimidated by the outcome of the General Conference this past week. Am I disappointed? Yes. Am I angry? Yes. But the vote of a bunch of random people in a random place at a random time in history can never undo what was done on the cross. And it can never change the glory we’re rushing headlong into. At the end of the day, that’s what the transfiguration is all about. It’s a glimpse into the final reality of all things. This becomes a little clearer as we move forward a bit in the story.
Now, Peter says that they should stay on the mountain and build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. This would have been immediately recognizable for Luke’s Jewish audience as reminiscent of the “Festival of Booths.” This is a festival observed every year to commemorate the forty years Israel wandered through the desert and dwelled in temporary booths or tents. We see the commandment to do so in Leviticus: “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” So, Peter is saying they should continue doing this and should do it for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But when he says this, we’re told “a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
There are times when we’re thrown into situations or seasons of unknowing. Times when we’re unsure of the Lord’s leading; times when we can’t quite put our finger on where we’re going or what’s about to happen and the only sure foundation we have is Jesus. This happened to me when I discerned a call into the parish. For several years I thought parish ministry sounded awful. I would have rather done anything else. But then I entered into a season like this, and a few years later, here I am. When we go through change, when we deal with illness, when we experience loss, it’s as if this cloud has descended upon us and we’re stricken with fear because we can’t see what’s beyond. But what we don’t often realize is that the cloud that has descended on us is the cloud of God’s glory. It’s the cloud telling us that God is in Jesus and, if we listen to him, there’s something so much better ahead than anything that we’ve left behind.
But we often don’t like it when it happens because it shields from view everything but Jesus. And when we can’t see beyond Jesus, it’s hard to see beyond our limits and our frailty and our sin. But we’re also confronted with the end goal. We’re confronted with the perfect love and hope and grace that comes when there’s nothing else to see but Jesus. Imagine what would happen if people actually saw Jesus when they looked at the church. Imagine how much more of an impact we could have on peoples’ bodies and souls if we stopped picking and choosing who we should love. There’s a reason we start the service with the same words of welcome every week. Because God loves the Christian and the atheist. God loves the LGBTQ person and the straight person. God loves the democrat and the republican. That’s the future we’re running headlong into. That’s the glory revealed in this cloud during Jesus’ transfiguration – that one day, all manner of thing will be well.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, they do something really interesting when it comes to the Transfiguration. They usually preach on this verse from Peter’s second letter: For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. When the Eastern Orthodox church preaches on this text, they’ll talk about this very last line, “while we were with him on the mountain.” And when they talk about this, they’ll talk about how we, all of us, the entire cosmos and all of creation, was on the mountain that day. The entire cosmos has become encircled in the cloud of God’s glory. If we really buy into that, then the only conclusion we’re led to is that all of this is a temple. Everything and everyone around us are temples, is something holy, is something created and sustained and loved by God.
It’s important that you hear that. Because we’re all going through something. It’s easy to come hang out here on a Sunday morning and put on a nice face and go through the motions but this isn’t the place for that. Maybe you’ve been demonized for doubting. Maybe your self-worth has been knocked to the ground. Maybe you’re one of the people whom the United Methodist Church has officially declared as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” I want you to know that that is all bogus. I don’t care who says it. I don’t care if a General Conference says it or a family member says it or whatever. In the eyes of your maker, you’re everything. And not a day goes by that you’re not being transfigured along with Christ. Not a day goes by that you’re not on the mountain with the rest of the cosmos, surrounded by the cloud of glory, and in the presence of God.
So, here’s your homework: I would be willing to bet that there is someone in your life that you’ve pushed off the mountain. Maybe it’s a relationship that fell apart; maybe it’s a coworker that drives you crazy. Maybe it’s a pastor that tries way too hard to be #HipAndRelevant. Whoever it is, I want you to take this week, go and find that person, and bring them back up the mountain with you. If we really believe that all of this is a temple, if we really believe that there’s enough room at the table, then we can’t be the ones keeping the world out. All’s we can do is bring the world in. Pick up the phone; take someone to coffee. Show the world your love in a real and tangible way. Because when you do, you welcome them into the cloud of God’s glory.