A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on February 10, 2013.
One of my guilty pleasures is watching the Home & Garden TV channel. I enjoy watching shows like “Love It or List It” and “The Property Brothers.” They often feature outdated homes being remodeled, and the climax of the show is usually a “big reveal” at the end that highlights the transformation of a room or house. More often than not, the three most common words expressed by the owners after the big reveal is “Oh my God!”
Well, today in our Gospel Lesson, we have a “big reveal” moment at the midpoint of Jesus’ earthly ministry. During this time of prayer, something amazing, something out of this world, was revealed. While Jesus was praying, while he was communing with his heavenly Father, an epiphany occurred, a “shining forth” that revealed the true glory, the true majesty, the true brilliance of the God of light. It was as if a bright divine spotlight had focused on Jesus together with Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s most important spiritual leaders. I can imagine Peter, James and John being like a homeowner on one of those HGTV shows during the big reveal: eyes popping out, jaws dropping, and the three of them uttering: “Oh my God!”
But, that not what happened. Instead, verse 32 says: “Peter and his companions were very sleepy.” Doesn’t that strike you as odd, if not comical? According to Luke, those three disciples were falling asleep WHILE Jesus was being lit up like a lightning bolt! We all know of people who can sleep through most anything—thunderstorms, alarm clocks, even sermons!—but this?
Now before I’m too harsh on Peter, James and John, I must confess, that while I haven’t fallen asleep during one of my sermons, many times, I too, have literally fallen asleep while trying to pray. Frankly, I struggle with having a regular and sustained time of prayer. When I try to pray, my mind wanders, and more often than not, I end up spending more time making mental “to-do” lists than I do making time to commune with God. Many of us live very fast-paced lives. We are very busy. And when we finally stop long enough to catch a breath, we find ourselves crashing, our minds shutting off, our bodies shutting down. Many times, we choose to live this way; we just accept this way of life as normal. Other times, we have no choice because that’s what our schooling, our job, our family demand of us. But it does make me wonder how many “mountaintop experiences” with God that I have missed because I have either been too busy and distracted or because I literally or figuratively have had my eyes closed while God was revealing God’s majesty and glory. Our hectic pace of life can keep us from thinking very deeply about anything, and it can certainly leave us very little time or energy for any significant spiritual activity, for any genuine experience of God.
Look and listen! I think we are a people who are starving for a genuine experience of God. I think we all would like, at least once in our lifetime, to experience the glory and majesty of God in a way similar to what those three disciples experienced on that mountaintop. For when the disciples finally became fully awake, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters– one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” The disciples knew that they had experienced something special, something wonderful, something good, and Peter wanted to do something—perhaps to capture that Kodak moment, perhaps to stay a while and dwell in it, and perhaps even to do something for God to commemorate this event.
It is a very understandable human reaction, but in verse 33, Luke gives a commentary on Peter’s plan: He did not know what he was saying. Was this another case of Peter putting his foot in his mouth? I don’t think so. Peter did not know what he was saying, but he speaks for all of us. It is often tempting for us to be more devoted to an experience of Jesus than it is to be devoted to Jesus himself. Since that transfiguration, Christians for two thousand years have been trying to recapture and re-create mountaintop experiences of God. Years back, when I was serving as a student minister here, I received hundreds of pieces of mail promoting big conferences where thousands of students were pictured immersed in the ecstasy of a mountaintop experience where big-name bands played under bright lights and pyrotechnics, and big-name speakers give life-changing messages. I’m not against those conferences, for I’ve taken our youth to a number of them, and they’ve changed lives. But there is a danger when we look to those experiences as the only way to experience God and Christian growth. Those events can become a “fix” that we need to get a “high” on in order to make it through the rest of the time in between. When they don’t deliver, we are tempted to look somewhere else to get that fix.
When Jesus asked Peter, James and John to go up on that mountain with him, he didn’t promise them the “most amazing, once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing event.” Jesus and his disciples did not go up the mountain in order to seek a mountaintop experience. Jesus went up to pray, just like all the other times when he had done that alone or with his disciples. That’s encouraging to me even as I struggle with prayer. I’m called just to pray – I’m not promised a transfiguration experience. Communing with God is enough. All those other times, Jesus had communed with God, but this time, the glory of God appeared in a special way. No human being had to organize it, no human being had to promote it, and no human being had to register and pay for it. God in God’s freedom decided to “shine forth,” if only the disciples had the eyes to look.
But there wasn’t much time even for looking. For even while Peter was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them. And the disciples were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him!” God is so big and mysterious that one moment, God is appears in a blinding light, and then the next moment, God is shrouded in a cloud and you can only hear a voice. But this voice was no less a revelation of God than the bright lightning. At the moment of the big reveal, a voice appeared and said, “This my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him!” Do you remember the time that a voice also spoke out from heaven saying: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”? It was during Jesus’ baptism as recorded in Luke 3:22. That confirmation of Jesus’ identity launched his earthly ministry. Now a heavenly voice pronounces again Jesus’ identity, and this confirmation will launch Jesus into a new phase of his ministry. Luke tells us that Jesus spoke to Moses and Elijah about Jesus’ departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. The word for “departure” in the Greek is “exodus,” which means “exit,” but it also means “one’s final fate” or “departure from life.” In the midst of his glorious appearance, Jesus was talking about his final fate as he journeys to Jerusalem to prepare for his death. And just as Moses led his people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus is preparing to lead his people in a new exodus out of slavery to sin and death.
Luke is telling us that the point of the transfiguration was not the reveling in God’s special lighting effects, but the revelation of the true identity of Jesus. The point of the transfiguration was not to provide the disciples a place to dwell on the mountaintop experience, but to provide the strength Jesus needed to depart to Jerusalem. The point of the transfiguration was not to launch a new building campaign, but to launch a new phase in Jesus’ ministry, where he will travel the way of the cross.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, we need this reminder. On this Wednesday, we will begin a forty day journey called Lent, a season in the Church calendar where disciples of Jesus can follow him to the cross. This week, we will have an evening Ash Wednesday service during which ashes will be imposed on our foreheads. It will be a reminder of our mortality and Christ’s costly work to redeem us as we journey through Lent. And along the way, we take the time to pray. We confess our sinfulness. We acknowledge our mortality. We accept our need of a savior. During this time, God calls us to look unflinchingly at the cross, and to listen carefully to the challenging words of Christ. Sure, we would rather have a mountaintop experience that totally lifts us up in ecstasy, that makes us feel good, that overwhelms our senses. But that’s not what Jesus’ transfiguration on that mountaintop was all about. It was about the affirmation of Jesus’ real identity as the Son of God and the revelation of Jesus’ mission on earth.
Perhaps a question for us this morning is “Who is the REAL me?” When the bright light of God shines upon my life and the moment of the “big reveal” arrives, who or what will people see? Will they see in me God glorified, or will they see something else? When the bright light of God shines upon us as a church and exposes the depth of our congregational being, who or what will people see? Will they see the love and grace of God, or will they see something else?
Luke ends this story by saying that after the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen. It sure is a subdued way of ending a mountaintop experience. But as Fred Craddock writes: This is a mountaintop experience but not the kind about which persons write glowingly of sunrises, soft breezes, warm friends, music, and quiet time. On this mountain the subject is death, and the frightening presence of God reduces those present to silence. In due time, after the resurrection, they will remember, understand, and not feel heavy. In fact, they will tell it broadly as good news.” But right now, for the moment, perhaps our best response is to be still and keep silent, to pray and allow the still small voice of God to tell us who we are and where we are headed. Let’s take time out of our busy and hectic lives to look and listen! May God open our eyes to see God’s glory. May God open our ears to listen to God’s voice. Amen.
Michael Cheuk is a leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Baptist Center for Ethics / EthicsDaily.com board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.