Here’s a sermon about the Transfiguration:
A Sermon on Exodus 34:27-35 and Luke 9:28-36
In the Gospel of Luke, things happen when people pray. Remember Zechariah? The news he got while he was praying in the Temple took his voice away: he and his wife Elizabeth, childless into old age were at last going to have a son, John, the forerunner of the Christ.
And in Luke, Jesus regularly takes time to pray. Often the place where he prays is a mountain. That’s what he did when he was getting ready to appoint twelve apostles from among all his disciples. He went to the mountain to pray. The mountain is the place of prayer.
In our gospel lesson today, Luke shows us what happens when Jesus prays. This time, Jesus took the inner circle of apostles, Peter, John and James with him, and they climbed the mountain together for prayer. While Jesus was praying, his appearance began to change, and he shone. Moses and Elijah came to speak with him about the mission Jesus would accomplish on another mountain, Calvary. They talked together in a circle of light: Moses, who symbolized God’s law and Elijah, the greatest of God’s prophets, and Jesus God’s son who fulfills both the law and the prophets. Heaven and earth touched on the mountaintop. Heaven and earth touched during prayer.
We don’t know for certain which mountain Jesus chose for this time of prayer, but one tradition says that it was Mt. Tabor. Mt. Tabor is a very high and steep mountain. At its peak, you can watch the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee in the East in the morning, and in the evening you can watch the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea in the West. (Basil Pennington, “Tabor: Icon of Contemplation” in Weavings (vol. XVI, no. 4, July/August 2001), p. 32.) All the world seems to lie at your feet.
It takes a great deal of effort to get to the top of Mt. Tabor. Maybe that’s why Peter, John and James were so sleepy. Tired from the climb, at first they didn’t notice the meeting of heaven and earth that was occurring as Jesus prayed. They dozed while he prayed. The disciples have a problem staying awake when Jesus asks them to watch and pray with him. Later, on the night of his betrayal, they will fall asleep on him again.
Prayer certainly can be a steep climb for Jesus’ disciples now, and it doesn’t often seem like a meeting of heaven and earth. There are a lot of reasons for that. One that strikes me is that it’s easy for prayer to turn into a wish list like a letter to Santa Claus. There’s not a whole lot of listening, watching, waiting, meditating. Of course we need to make our wants and wishes known to God. But God’s looking for more than that from prayer. God wants it to be a two-way conversation. No wonder a conversation is what happens when Jesus is praying in our lesson.
Then there are doubts about whether prayer is even worth it, and the difficulty of finding time to pray because it doesn’t seem to accomplish things the way “actually literally doing something” does. Glenn Hinson writes about why it is so hard to be still and know that God is God. He says it’s because most of us have a “captivity to activity” and a “bondage to busyness.” (Glenn Hinson, “The Quantity Quotient Behind Busyness,” in Weavings (Vol. XXII, No. 1, January/February 2007). What’s behind that, he suggests, is that so many people tie their worth to how much they can do and accomplish. Prayer seems like wasted time. These same people are devastated when they can’t physically or emotionally do what they once did.
In his commentary on this text, William Barclay says that Peter, John and James’ minds were asleep. What puts minds to sleep? Barclay says prejudice is one thing—a preconceived notion so tightly held that there’s no room for a new idea. Can God get a new thought in edgewise? No! Then there are many who do not want to make the effort to struggle in prayer, struggle with questions, struggle with pain or wrestle with doubt.
Whatever the reason, Peter, John and James were not alert. But something suddenly snapped them awake. Luke doesn’t say just what, but perhaps it was the brilliance of the light, like the flashing light that knocks Paul down in Acts 9. They snapped awake, and they were aware of the presence of Moses and Elijah. They were overwhelmed. Never at a loss for words, Peter was ready to build a memorial to commemorate the place. He didn’t know what else to do. But then they experienced a second manifestation of God’s presence. A cloud enveloped them, and this is the very same pillar of cloud that went before the Israelites during the Exodus, the very same cloud of God that covered Sinai when God gave the covenant to Moses. They heard the very voice of God instructing, “This is my Son, my chosen. Listen to him!”
How will this experience of God’s presence affect these three? Has this time of prayer made any difference? We don’t know yet. That will become clear later. But for the moment, they are simply silent. They follow Jesus back down the mountain and back into mission.
But meeting God on the mountain certainly had a powerful effect on Moses. His face shone because he had been in communion with God. Prayer made his face shine. It had changed him. Moses himself didn’t realize that at first, but everybody else did. Immediately they saw his glowing face when he rejoined them, and it made them move back. His face continued to glow as he met again and again with God, and then spoke to the people. The light in his face was so bright, Exodus says, that Moses had to wear a veil in the in between times.
As we read in today’s call to worship, Paul says that our faces can shine with the brightness of the Lord’s face. Like mirrors, our faces can reflect the light of God. Jesus put it even more directly than that. He said, “You are the light of the world.”
People of prayer do shine with the holy light of God. I’ve been reading about a powerful example of that. Lucy Rose was a greatly loved Presbyterian minister who taught preaching at Columbia Seminary in Atlanta. Her father was Ben Lacy Rose who taught preaching at Union Seminary in Richmond. Many Presbyterians in the South knew them or other members of the Rose family. While she was a student, Lucy lived in Rocky Mount and was the student minister at First Presbyterian Church for a year, 1973 to 74. Perhaps some of you all met her.
I’m sorry I never got to know Lucy, and I’m even more sorry about that now that I am reading her reflections and those of her loved ones as she battled breast cancer. The book is called Songs in the Night, A Witness to God’s Love in Life and in Death.
It’s a strenuous book to read. Lucy did not sweetly and angelically and quietly accept what happened to her. She was an honest struggler who rigorously and vigorously sought the face of God day after day. Her prayers came straight out of her heart: “God, if something happens to me, can I trust you to raise my little girl? Can I trust you to give her another mommy who will love her as I do?” (Rose, p. 12).
Lucy cried a lot, and she didn’t try to hide her tears. The cancer came back in her bones and caused excruciating pain. She wrestled with the scriptures, seeking God’s word. And in meditating on the story of the three men in the fiery furnace, she wrote, “By God’s grace I will be faithful to God even if God does not deliver me from the cancer” (p. 21). Often her prayers were a tearful, “I surrender to your love, God. I surrender to your love.”
“I try to remember that my pain unites me with all those in pain—all those who suffer physically or emotionally. Sometimes I remember” she said (p. 37). So honest! Lucy didn’t pretend to be able to get through it on her own. She called on her loved ones, the community of believers to remind her of the stories and songs of the faith. Of their prayers for her, Lucy wrote, “I have found that I cling to the prayers of those praying for me and let them hold me close to God’s heart” (p. 97). “I find I can relax into your thoughts and prayers” (p.114). Lucy resolved and resolved again that whatever happened, she wanted her life to glorify God. Let even her death glorify God.
The last thing Lucy said about a half hour before she died was, “The important thing to me is that our God is so magnificent…came to walk among us…knows the depths of our suffering…and loves us and loves us and loves us” (p. 121).
Lucy Rose was fifty when she died. I can see now how well her name suited her. The name Lucy means light. Yes, people who pray, people who talk with God do shine. God’s presence makes their faces shine. They give God glory in life and in death.
By prayer we turn to the light. Oh, that our faces might shine with the light of Jesus. Lord, we want to see you. Shine on us, too. Let others see you in us, your face in our faces.
That’s the prayer of the hymn we’re about to sing, “Shine, Jesus, Shine!” “As we gaze on your kingly brightness, so our faces display your likeness;” it says. “Ever changing from glory to glory, mirrored here, may our lives tell your story!”
Yes, Lord, let your story be seen in us. Let your story be seen in this church. Let others see your light here.
A shining church, yes, that Morton church shines. That’s the church where they pray. That’s the church where they practice loving each other and the world through thick and thin. They practice mercy and compassion and forgiveness and reconciliation. That church is reaching to the Lord for healing for themselves and for the world. That Morton church wants to be like Jesus.
Lord Jesus, teach us to pray. Take us up on the mountain to pray. Lord Jesus, shine on us. Make our faces shine.
In Luke, things happen when people pray. They still do.
Thanks be to God!