TEXT: Luke 9:28-36, Deuteronomy 18:15-22
By now in the Daily Walk, you have read through all of Matthew and Mark and the first nine chapters of Luke. In doing that, you may have noticed that while Jesus performs a lot of miracles, he often finishes up by warning people not to tell anybody what they’ve seen. Nobody seems to take his warning very seriously, but he issues it nonetheless…especially in Mark, where it happens so frequently that scholars have dubbed it the “Markan secret.”
Here in Luke, Jesus has done it again at the end of chapter eight, right after he raised Jairus daughter from the dead. It’s probably pretty silly to think that parents who have just witnessed the resurrection of their daughter are not going to say anything. It’s awkward to be in the midst of funeral preparations and then say to your neighbors, “Sorry, our mistake. She seems to be alive after all,” without a word of explanation.
Of course at some point, Jesus has to begin telling people who he is and why he has come. Maybe it was the pressure of trying to keep the resurrection of children secret or the difficulties of trying to stay in the shadows when you have just miraculously fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish; but finally, Jesus begins to talk about his identity with his disciples.
He doesn’t come right out and say who he is…he asks what the polls are saying. “Who do the crowds say I am?” he asks the disciples. He gets a mixed bag of answers. Some think he’s John the Baptist come back from the dead. Others think he’s Elijah, the great Hebrew prophet who was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot, fueling the expectation that he would come back to earth again.
Then Jesus narrows the polling sample. “But what about you?” he asks the disciples. “Who do you say I am?” Peter wins big as he answers, “The Messiah of God.” Just as an aside, that’s what the word “Christ” means. It is the Greek word for “Messiah.”
Now the disciples are sitting on the biggest news of all. Jesus is indeed the Messiah, but again, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone. In part because they don’t understand what sort of Messiah Jesus is. They’ve been led to expect that the Messiah would be someone like Moses or Elijah who would take on the political and military powers of the day. So immediately Jesus tries to squash that thinking. Once Peter guesses Jesus’ identity, Jesus is quick to lay out the plan:
“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Perhaps knowing that his disciples might think that following the Messiah was going to bring accolades and honor, Jesus goes on to squash that, too. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus tells them, “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.”
The disciples’ brains must have been spinning, but Jesus gives them a week to digest it all. Then, just before they all head to Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus takes his three closest buddies…Peter, James, and John…and they go up a mountain to pray. If you remember from the stories of Moses, when Moses had been with God, his face glowed so brightly that he had to wear a veil so he wouldn’t frighten the people. We see up here on the mountain how that might have happened.
While Jesus is praying, he starts to glow… “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” We call it the “transfiguration.” The Greek word is the one that gives us the English word metamorphosis. Jesus is changed, transformed. He morphs into a glorified form. Not only that, but he is not alone. The disciples see the changes in Jesus, but they also see that Jesus is joined by the figures of both Moses and Elijah and the three of them are engaging in conversation.
For heavens sake, why didn’t someone have a pen and some paper! I would love to know what those three were saying. But Peter left his laptop at the bottom of the mountain and Jesus probably told them not to tell anybody anyway. So we don’t know. But the transformation of Jesus there on the mountain helped to enforce visually what Peter had guessed verbally. And in case they were auditory rather than visual learners, God shows up in a cloud and verbally confirms, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
There certainly was no questioning Jesus’ identity now. They had seen the transformation. They had seen two types of Messiah figures standing with Jesus: Elijah and Moses. God’s words “listen to him” would bring listeners back to the passage in Deuteronomy 18 read earlier, where it was predicted that another prophet like Moses would come. With Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the prophets, Jesus in that moment is seen as the fulfillment of both.
Then, after dallying with the idea of hanging out on top of the mountain forever and never leaving the experience of glory, they get real and head back down to the others. And it is back down there in the valley that we see why Jesus wanted his identity a secret, and why he held off telling even his closest disciples for so long.
The very next day, Jesus is confronted with a frustrated father. His son has an evil spirit, and he brought it to the disciples, but the disciples couldn’t cast it out. Back at the beginning of chapter nine they were doing that quite successfully, and now suddenly they can’t. Here in Luke, Jesus just calls the disciples faithless and perverse. In the Matthew account, the disciples actually ask Jesus why they had failed and Jesus tells them because they don’t have even a mustard-seed-sized faith. In Mark, Jesus elaborates even more and tells them they didn’t pray.
I think that’s related to having learned that Jesus was the Messiah. After that revelation, the disciples start to get cocky. They are the chosen disciples of the Messiah. They have been given power, but they have forgotten its source. They try to drive out demons without prayer…on their own steam…and they fail. The very next verses have Jesus trying to explain it again…”Let these words sink into your ears,” Jesus says, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” But they don’t get it.
The proof is in the next verses, where the disciples are starting to argue about who is the greatest. Next the disciples are getting miffed because someone outside of their group was casting out demons. Then, when a Samaritan village won’t take them in, the disciples ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
The chapter closes out with other disciples wanting to get on the bandwagon and Jesus pretty harshly stating that discipleship is not about glory and gain, but about giving up everything. “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” “Let the dead bury their own dead.” “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I’ve spent so much time laying this out because I think that we fall into the same trap as the disciples. Except in times and places where Christians have been actively persecuted, we discover that we serve the Son of God and start to think we’re pretty special. We forget the source of our salvation and power. We leave prayer in the dust and wonder why things aren’t working. We get miffed that people who aren’t Christians are doing the same work we’re supposed to be doing. We argue about who is the greatest among us. We want to call down God’s wrath on those who won’t accept us.
There is a wonderful moment…a mountaintop experience in our Christian lives, when it dawns on us who this Jesus person is and the awesome gift we have been given in being called as his disciples. But even in the midst of listening to Jesus’ teaching, we forget that the Kingdom of God turns any human government on its head. In the government of God, you receive through giving, you live through dying, you are saved by letting go of control.
It’s not about being the only chosen ones and calling down fire on everybody else. It’s not about glory and fame, wealth and power. It’s about a willingness to be homeless for the sake of Jesus. It’s about putting God above even family. It’s about sticking with the task we’ve been given, even when it’s hard and painful and leads to a cross. It’s about a willingness to enter this wilderness time called Lent…to face our fears and our sins and our desire to be exalted to the right hand of God. It’s about giving it all up to save our souls.
In our beautiful buildings and comfortable pews as we come to church whenever nothing more important asks for our time, it can be difficult to remember that. Except for one thing. Despite all its corruption and misguided fantasies, the Church still manages to lay out before its people, the strange, violent symbols of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood. When we are tempted to think that faith is about status or power, when we are tempted to think that following Jesus means an easy and stress-free life, we look at the altar. Broken body. Shed blood. He died. He was executed in a manner so brutal that it was forbidden to crucify Roman citizens. It was reserved for the riff raff. For the barbarian. For the outsider. For the criminal.
And when we come to the table, we take that into ourselves. We eat it. It becomes part of us, and we remember. At the communion table, Jesus is transfigured again. From the glorious Jesus we think about, Jesus morphs into bread and wine. Symbols of what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
The glory is real, but Jesus has always been afraid of our misunderstanding…and rightly so. The glory of the Kingdom of God is achieved in a different way. It is the way of the child, not the power broker. It is the way of the cross, not the throne. It is the way of prayer, not command. Come to the table, repent, and remember. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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