Luke 9:28-36 (online here)
Imagine that you’re part of a group that’s going on an overseas trip. Over the months you’ve gone to a whole series of preparation sessions. Every time, you get a new handout, and on every one of them you see in giant, bold letters, “Make sure you have a current passport!” Then at the very last meeting your guide reminds everybody one more time ... And somebody says, “Wait a minute, I need a passport? Why didn’t somebody tell me?”
Imagine your exasperation, assuming you’re not the person who said that. I’ll bet you’ve seen something like that happen more than once in your life. Somebody keeps repeating a crucial bit of information, and later the people who most needed the reminder act as if nobody ever said anything. Were they even listening?
Today is the Sunday of the Transfiguration, the last Sunday in Epiphany, the last Sunday before Lent, our last chance to be festive before everything turns somber and we give up saying “alleluia” until the Easter Vigil. So we might be tempted to put all our attention on how fabulous Jesus looks. Just watch him glow! Alleluia!
So in the middle of all this last-gasp festivity, there’s a good chance we won’t have listened carefully enough to a detail Luke adds to his version of the Transfiguration. It’s easy to miss. I’ve missed it most of my life. One reason is that it doesn’t show up in Mark or Matthew, just Luke. Another reason is that the Lectionary plucks this episode out of its setting in a string of linked episodes, so before I tell you what this detail is, let me set things up for us.
Here’s what happened shortly before and shortly after the lesson we just heard: Peter tells Jesus, “You’re the Messiah.” A bit surprisingly, Jesus says, “Shut up! Don’t tell anybody!” Then he predicts his execution in no uncertain terms and calls his followers to take up their own crosses—daily. Then Jesus, Peter, John and James have their mountaintop moment—today’s lesson. Then they come down from the mountain, and Jesus shows up his incompetent disciples and amazes everybody with God’s healing power. And then again he says, “‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But [the disciples] did not understand ... And they were afraid to ask him about this saying” (44-45).
So here’s the link in all these episodes: every time Jesus’ disciples try to turn his ministry into a victory party, they’re called back to reality. They’re told that all their hopes and dreams of triumph are about to be dashed to pieces on a cross. Only they’re not listening. They’re not listening.
Now, back to the Transfiguration, here’s the detail we might miss. Maybe we want to miss it. Like his disciples, here we are picturing Jesus shining away, in the company of such major figures as Moses and Elijah, having a conversation. (By the way, did you ever wonder how the disciples know who these two guys are? I mean, were they wearing name-tags or something? It’s not like they had seen them on the news.) But back to the conversation—just what are these three radiant heavyweights discussing? They’re not talking about how fabulous Jesus looks. They’re talking about his impending execution, his shameful-looking death. Right in the middle of this impromptu festival of light, all they’re talking about is facing death. It’s their Transfiguration Sunday, but it looks as though Lent is already happening.
And Peter, John and James are not listening. They’re actually starting to nod off in the middle of one of the most stupendous events they’ve ever seen. Maybe they’re tuning out because the conversation topic seems out of keeping with this moment of exaltation. So Peter acts like the topic never came up. With all his babbling about making this scene into a permanent tourist attraction, it’s clear he wasn’t listening while they were talking. He apparently hadn’t listened before they came up here, and he didn’t notice anything this time either.
That’s why this voice from the clouds interrupts Peter’s babbling and says, “Listen to him!” In effect the message is, “You haven’t been listening. You’re still not listening. For God’s sake, start listening!” But they’re not listening. They see only what they want to see and hear only what they want to hear. They see Jesus transfigured and assume that from now on it’s going to be one glorious success story after another. Moses, Elijah and Jesus say right in front of their noses that things are not going to go that way, but it doesn’t even register. So when they’ve come down from the mountain Jesus tries to get through one more time: “Let these words sink into your ears.” But his words still don’t sink into their ears. They’re not listening.
So what about us? Are we listening? Actually some of us might be. Just blocks away it’s also Transfiguration Sunday at North United Methodist, and we can be pretty sure that they are not in any danger viewing their life together as one glorious success story after another. They’ve seen their John-Wesley-inspired vision of inclusion dashed to pieces not in Jerusalem but in St. Louis. Yes, I’m sure they were singing alleluias today, but with a more defiant tone as they refused to be overwhelmed by forces aiming to silence them. Jesus doesn’t have to repeat himself there. His words have already sunk into their ears. They didn’t have any trouble listening Jesus’ words of impending rejection.
So yes, sometimes events force us to listen. Jesus’ disciples couldn’t filter out his words once they got to Jerusalem. But that voice from the clouds wants us to listen before these events overtake us. Right now. In the middle of this celebration. It’s fine to have a church year sorted into festive seasons and penitential seasons. It’s not OK to make them into airtight compartments, though that’s what we’ll do if we’re not careful.
It seems as though we’re practically programmed to presume that we can’t rejoice in the midst of devastation, or vice versa. But in fact, people do just that. Imagine again what’s been happening at North. Tears? Of course! Hugs? Probably way too many for this introvert. Courage? Most definitely! Alleluias? Yes, I mentioned those already but definitely alleluias. We can be pretty sure that all of this is happening. We can be pretty sure because we’ve had moments like this ourselves.
I won’t presume to speak for everybody, but when I recall moments like these in my own life, these are the moments that still carry me the most today. I’m not less grateful for moments where I could focus almost 100% on celebration, and it does help to recall them, but they don’t have nearly the power of those moments where laughter and tears, loss and community, mingled inextricably. They call me back to reality. They keep me from shutting my eyes to what I would rather not see. They give courage.
It’s no coincidence that when Episcopalians celebrate the Eucharist, the one place in the prayerbook where the word “alleluia” occurs is when we break Christ’s body. Joy and brokenness mingle there. So why shouldn’t a hint of Ash Wednesday mingle with Transfiguration Sunday?
A voice says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” “Let these words sink into your ears.” Listen. Alleluia.