On one of the walls of our bedroom hangs a poster from the Art Institute of Chicago. It is Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist.” If you are unfamiliar with this piece, it is from Picasso’s blue period and depicts an old man sitting cross-legged, his head bowed toward the ground, playing a guitar. This is my personal favorite of Picasso’s work. The old man is wearing tattered clothing, his body pulled tight from hunger, yet all of this is contrasted with the beauty of his handling of the instrument, expertly and delicately fingering the strings, coaxing out of its tired frame what I imagine to be a hauntingly beautiful tune.
I love a lot of things about this painting, but perhaps the thing I am most drawn to is the old man’s face. His eyes are closed, his mouth slightly open. The look on his face is simultaneously one of intense concentration and ultimate peace; a look of mourning AND a look of grace.
Our scripture lessons this morning each contain striking face-images, startlingly changed by the presence of God. Moses’ face shines bright enough that the people of Israel are afraid to come near him, prompting him to veil his face in their presence. In Luke, Jesus’ transfiguration makes him radiate dazzling white light from the inside out- particularly from his face.
For those of us who grew up in the church, Jesus’ transfiguration is a story we have heard countless times, which inherently carries with it positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, it is hugely important to recount the stories of our tradition, particularly those major events in the life and ministry of Christ, like this one. These stories reveal much about God’s nature and God’s purpose for our lives. On the other hand, we also have the tendency to tune out those things that are most familiar. Oh yeah, the story of Jesus healing the blind man? I know that one. Yes… it goes… hmmm… I wonder what we should have for dinner…? It’s easy to get lost in the familiar; the routine.
So I want us to refocus this morning. Close your eyes (in a way)… clear your minds… and read this part of the story again:
Now 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.
What do you see? What do you hear? We are up on the mountain. Not “A” mountain, but “THE” mountain. Luke doesn’t give the name of the mountain, and really, it could be ANY mountain, but by using the article “the,” Luke is alluding to Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments and spoke, face to face, with God. So instantly we know that this is no ordinary place we have been brought. This is a holy place. A place where we expect to encounter the living God.
Next, we see Jesus’ entire person bathed in dazzling white light. Is it coming from around him? Is it coming from within him? Yes on both counts! God’s presence in Christ is made achingly visible in this majestic white light.
And then… what is that? Two men have appeared with him… Moses! Elijah! Not dead, but here! Present!
Too often when we read scripture, we don’t engage our senses with the text. We don’t imagine what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. And what a loss, because this text is evidence of how rich the imagery of the gospel writers can be.
We hear Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah. We can’t make out exactly what is being said, but we know it has to do with Jesus’ departure- his exodus. And this is the moment where we, like Peter, would rather stop. This is a moment of joy, of celebration, of majesty and triumph. A moment where Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is verified, a confession that occurred not ten verses ago! The Church… Peter… we… would rather stay right here. Build a dwelling each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and be in this moment forever. Yet time moves forward, and God does not allow us to stay comfortable for too long. Moses and Elijah are speaking of Jesus’ departure- his exodus. Without saying it, they are speaking of his death. Something we would rather ignore.
Soon, a cloud came and enveloped all of them. Now, this cloud accomplished two things. First, it echoes a reminder of the cloud that God used to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. It is God’s presence, a reminder that God is not only with us, but surrounds us, indwells in us, and wraps us in His love.
Second, it provides a stark contrast to the dazzling white light shining forth from Jesus just a moment ago. Imagine this cloud. Thick, soupy, and dark, like a mountain road at dawn, before the sun has risen and had a chance to burn away the mist of night. What is more, God’s presence, manifest as a cloud, says something about God. Clouds don’t bring MORE clarity. They obscure. They hide. And that reminds us of the mystery of God. Everything is distorted; colorless; disoriented.
Hold on to that paradox for a minute. It’s an uncomfortable paradox, and it’s supposed to be, so I’d like us to sit in it for a minute while we consider how we got here.
This story is also told in Matthew and Mark, but Luke adds a very important distinction. They each relate that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a mountain, but it is only in Luke that a reason for going up the mountain is given: to pray. So, in Luke’s version of events, the Transfiguration is given the context of being a prayer event, a point Luke very clearly wants us to notice.
Prayer in the Gospel of Luke is a significant theme. His is the only Gospel to tell us of Jesus praying on other momentous occasions: following his baptism, before his selection of the twelve apostles, in the garden before his arrest, and on the cross. Even Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah occurs in the context of Jesus’ praying.
For Christ, prayer involved, at times, a dramatic encounter with God’s presence. Prayer was not merely speaking words to God, but truly a spiritual experience OF God. And this isn’t just limited to Jesus. We read many times in Acts of the early church’s experience with the divine through communal prayer.
A question that arises from ALL of this: who is changed in the Transfiguration? Obviously Jesus is physically changed, for a moment, and the divinity in him is revealed. And entire books have been dedicated to considering the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Yet if we look at Jesus in the Gospels before this moment and after this moment, has anything really changed? Does he start preaching a radically changed message? Are his words and actions different after they come down from the mountain than before they went up? The answer is a resounding “no.” I would instead argue that it is not so much a change in Christ that is noteworthy, but a change in his disciples… a change in us… that is significant. We go up the mountain tired and afraid; but we come back down the mountain, invigorated and emboldened.
Which brings us back to the paradox we found ourselves in earlier. Perhaps that is why the cloud comes and covers their gathering immediately after: if he had continued to shine the way Moses did, things would have been a lot different.
Barbara Brown Taylor, a famous teacher and preacher, wrote about the Transfiguration in The Christian Century back in 1998. She reflects that “when Jesus’ exodus got under way,” in other words his journey from Palm Sunday through to his death on the cross, “they saw what it meant for him- when they saw that shining face bloodied and spat upon, those dazzling clothes torn into souvenir rags- I’ll bet they had to rethink what that glory was all about. His face did not shine on the cross. No chariot of fire swooped down to spirit him away; and you have to wonder about that. Why did God hide all the glory on the mountain, where no one else could see? Why didn’t God save it for the cross?”
Barbara Brown Taylor’s questions speak right into that paradox between seeing God’s glory and the subsequent obscuring presence of God. She goes on:
“I guess because then it would have been a different kind of death from the kind most of us die, and that would not have worked. To lead our exodus, Jesus had to die like we do: alone, with no particular glory. Otherwise he would have been an anomaly instead of a messiah, and it would have been hard for us to see what he had in common with the rest of us.”
When we talk about or think about change in our world today, we generally respond one of two ways. Sometimes we look for the fastest way to make change happen. Whether it’s searching for things on the internet, or getting a pizza delivered in 30 minutes or less, or trying to lose the weight that pizza adds to our waist-line… we want fast fixes, fast changes. Other times, we face challenges and struggles that threaten to overwhelm us and we respond by checking out of life in order to avoid the pain. But the Transfiguration offers an alternative. First, we are invited to encounter God anew, and be filled with hope and courage as we meditate and pray on the glory of the incarnate Christ. Second, we are invited to open ourselves to our own Transfiguration- to be transformed and to begin to reflect God’s glory ourselves. Of course, as with Christ, embracing God’s glory is also embracing the cross- the suffering of staying awake and meeting our challenges head on.
As we encounter the transfigured Christ again and again in our world, let our prayer be that we refuse the false comfort of quick fixes, and set our minds toward the tough journey of real transformation- in our relationships, our finances, our health, and our community’s uplifting.
Our faces are a window for the world to see our true selves. When people look into ours, will they see the shining, dazzling light of God dancing back at them? Amen.