Who Is This Man? A Glimpse of Glory

This week I am preaching on a strange story in Jesus' life called "The Transfiguration":

28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.  37On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astounded at the greatness of God... - Luke 9:28-43
I know.  It's a long passage.

And it's very strange, to boot.

Let's recap:

Jesus and three disciples go on top of a mountain to pray.  The disciples get sleepy---but don't fall asleep. Suddenly Jesus appearance is transformed, including his clothes and two men who the author identifies as Moses and Elijah materialize and start talking with Jesus about what he was going to have to go through in Jerusalem (i.e. the Passion).  The disciples are suddenly wide awake and see the whole thing.  As soon as the men disappear and Jesus is back to normal, Peter speaks up and essentially says,

"That. Was. AWESOME.  Seriously?  Did you guys see that?  Jesus, it is so good that we are here.  I think this is a good spot to just post up and make camp, you know?  Let's build some tabernacles, some little temples, right here on this mountain and make this a holy place.  One for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah---you feeling me?  Then---EVERYONE will want to come up here and experience this awesomeness with us.  Come on!  Who's with me?"

At that moment the voice of God sort of booms in everyone's ears, but especially Peter's and God says, "This is my Son, my Chosen, LISTEN TO HIM."  It was the spiritual equivalent of a back of the head slap to Peter.  So they all go down the mountain and they discover a huge crowd waiting for them.  The remaining disciples had been trying really hard to cure a boy who was possessed by a demon, but they hadn't been able to do it.  The man cries out to Jesus to help him, and throws the disciples under the bus for not being able to make it happen.  Jesus then says,

"Oh for crying out loud.  How long do I have to put up with you guys---you really just don't get it, do you?  And after all of this time you don't have any faith and you keep perverting the whole message."  

At that moment the boy falls to the ground and begins to have convulsions so Jesus rebukes the evil spirit inside of him and the boy is healed.  The last line sort of sums the whole story up.  "And all were astounded at the greatness of God."


What does all of this mean?

Here's what I think:  Avatar.  Sunday Mornings.  Coming down the Mountain.

In that order.

First, Avatar.  Avatar was the blockbuster movie by James Cameron from a couple of years ago that basically blew everyone's mind with it's unbelievable cinematography, revolutionary use of computer graphics and three hour length.

Here's the move trailer if you forgot what it was about or were among the three people in the world who haven't seen it:

CNN did a report some time after the movie was released that many moviegoers who were watching Avatar in 3D, experienced an emotional letdown after the movie ended, and in some cases suffered deeper forms of depression.


It seems that the brilliant color, beautiful environs of the amazing and completely imaginary world of Pandora in the movie was so compelling that when people were forced to take off their 3D glasses and realize their feet were stuck to the floor in a dingy movie theater, in a dingy mall, in a dingy sort of world... they were bummed.

Some of you might be thinking to yourself, "Are you serious?  Who are these jackwagons that deserve a trip to Namby-Pamby land?"

According to the CNN study---ordinary people, just like you and me.

I sort of get this.  I lived in Chicago for four years, and I remember after a particularly long winter where it had been weeks since I'd seen sunlight, I found myself driving through the downtown streets, staring at the dirty piles of snow on the sidewalk and dreaming of Key West.

I have a question.

What does this Avatar depression phenomenon have in common with Sunday mornings.  A lot.

What words do we usually use to describe our reasons for going to church---if you are into that sort of thing?   I'll tell you what people usually tell me, if that's helpful.

"To get fed/filled up/fill up my tank"  or "I need this to get through the week."  "It's a great way to begin the week." "I needed to hear that sermon/worship to that music/pray that prayer."

Honestly, I think I've said every single one of those things, too.  But when you think about the reasons---the real reasons we show up on Sunday mornings, doesn't it sound a little like we are looking for a spiritual "high?"

And what's wrong with that, really?  I mean when church is good---and I mean really good---we don't want it to end.  Time passes so quickly that we almost forget that the pastor preached a little long and the service lasted more than an hour.  (wink)

That's all that Peter wanted when he was up on the mountain.  He wanted the moment to last.  Do you blame him?

It's too easy to get sidetracked and try to explain what happened to Jesus in that moment.  Far too many highbrow scholars have tried to explain it away, to be truthful.  But when we do, we miss the reason it happened, which I believe was to show the disciples a straight up truth about who Jesus was and is.

As soon as Peter starts spouting off about how they should build a holy place on the mountain and start building a mega church, God's voice sets him (and us) straight.  "This is my Son... LISTEN TO HIM."

And here's what the disciples (and us) were supposed to learn from that moment.  Forget the symbolism of Moses and Elijah and the prefiguring of Jesus being transformed into what would resemble his resurrected self.   The Transfiguration was a heavenly event with earthly ramifications.  

No matter how much the disciples might have wanted to stay there on the mountaintop, they needed to go back down the mountain.  In fact, if they had not returned from the mountaintop, the truth of the moment would not have been revealed.

As soon as they saw the crowds, the anguish of the man, the lack of faith of their fellow disciples, and the power of God through Jesus when he healed the boy, it all made sense to them.  The mountaintop was full of glory, to be sure.  It would be easy to withdraw from the pain and trouble of the world and stay there.  But then the pain and trouble in the world would never have the chance to experience the glory.

The disciples (and us) learned a pretty profound lesson:

You can't stay on the mountaintop, but when you're in the valley, your memory of the mountaintop gives you strength to persevere in the valley.

Just a few blocks south of the South Loop of Chicago stands an historic landmark:  The 2nd Presbyterian Church of Chicago.  It's historic because it's like 140 years old, and contains honest-to-god Tiffany stained glass windows.   At one point, it was the church home to the affluent folk who lived in that neck of the city, but over the decades, the area fell on hard times, and became nothing more than a ghetto full of empty buildings, crime and whatnot.

And the church died.

It's still there.  And it still has a pastor.  Mostly because 140 years ago some affluent folk set up some hefty endowments to keep the place open for a couple of centuries.

Only there's no one there.  When I lived there, the only regular members came from other places, and returned there when they left the worship service.

This is a case study in misunderstanding the transfiguration.  The truth of the mountaintop is that if you decide you want to stay there, thinking that's the only place where the glory of God is, you are in for a long, slow shock.  If the affluent folk from 2nd Presbyterian Church had figured that out long ago, there might be some life in the place today.  They did not reach out to their changing neighborhood.  They held it at bay---at arms length.

Instead, they decided to stay inside where it was pleasant, enjoying the sunlight shining through their historic windows.

And God was outside ready for them to experience his glory.

I have another question.

Has the reality of what's at the bottom of the mountain overwhelmed you?  I admit, there's a big difference between the euphoria of a dazzling heavenly vision and the earthiness of a kid wallowing on the ground having a demon-seizure.  Maybe what you're facing feels a whole lot worse.

I don't blame you if you don't want to go down there.  Maybe you are wanting nothing more than to stay on the mountain.

As soon as that temptation begins to drift into your mind, however, remember that the truth of the Transfiguration could have never been known on the mountaintop.  Only at the foot of the mountain was the effects of the great power of God ultimately revealed.

What will it take for you to truly hear the voice of the Son, to really listen to him?  Because to listen to him means that you are willing to obey him, and to obey him means that you can't stay on the mountaintop forever.

So.. How will you take what you experience in those mountaintop moments into the valley?  Remember the vision of glory that you experience.  Recall the word of God that you receive.  Let your heart be transformed by your experience so that you leave the mountaintop ready to face anything.

Because it's the memory of the mountaintop that gives you the strength to persevere in the valley.
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