He'll be coming down the mountain

Luke 9:28-36

It was a typical childhood food aversion experience. It just happened to

take place at my Grandma’s and Pap’s house. I think it was a family Christmas

dinner, but can’t remember for certain. I don’t even remember exactly how old I

was, but I think I was about the age that Maya is today – around 8 years old. The

table at Grandma’s house was filled with food. It needed to be, considering the

numbers of adults and children who were there. I had already gone through the

line once, but as I walked by the table a second time, there was a food item that

caught my eye. Red grapes. At least, I thought they were red grapes. I grabbed

one and popped it into my mouth. Not a red grape. A black olive.

As an adult, I love black olives. Can’t get enough of them. But as a kid, I

didn’t like them. I especially didn’t like them when I had my mind set on red

grapes – when you put something in your mouth, expecting one flavor, and

discover, to your horror, something completely different and a flavor almost

exactly the opposite. That type of experience is not foreign to many of us. In fact,

I imagine many of us have a childhood story like that. But ‘now, for the rest of the

story.’

After my red grape/black olive fiasco, somehow my Grandma found out

about it. I’m not sure how she did. I’m pretty sure I didn’t tell her. Maybe she saw

it. Maybe another adult saw it and reported to her. In any case, the next time

there was a big family meal, Grandma pulled me aside and handed me a little

bowl. What was in the bowl? Red grapes. Of course. The Myers Christmas

gatherings at Grandma’s and Pap’s were always full of activity and busyness, so I

expected my food experience to escape notice. But in her house, nothing escaped

Grandma’s notice. Not even black olives thought to be red grapes.

I told that story at my grandmother’s funeral service last weekend. I told it

in the context of the behind the scenes, unconditional love that she shared with

us, and tied into the expansive types of unconditional love that God shares with

us. As I thought about the story in the context of our scripture for today, I also

thought there was kinship between the two. Not that I’m comparing my Grandma

to Jesus on the Transfiguration Mount. That’s an unfair comparison. More in the

context of the actions in both stories, at the big picture and at the detail level, and

what those actions demonstrate about the people at the center.

So what’s happening in this text? At the macro, big picture level, this text

marks an important shift in the direction of Jesus’ ministry. This story appears in

three of the four gospels, in those called the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark,

and Luke, which use much of the same material to tell their stories. In each of

these gospels, prior to the Transfiguration, the focus of Jesus’ message and

ministry is on the region around the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus spends a short and memorable amount of time in his hometown of

Nazareth, but much of the focus of where he teaches, calls the disciples, heals,

and performs miracles is in towns and cities like Bethsaida, Capernaum, Tiberias,

and others around Lake Tiberias, also known at the Sea of Galilee. His focus is on

the people in these places, trying to help them understand the scriptures they

have heard their whole lives in the synagogue and how God has sent him to clarify

those lessons for them. Jerusalem, the Romans, King Herod, and the temple elite

are seemingly nowhere on his radar screen at this point. In the first part of Jesus’

adult life and ministry, the focus is all local.

That changes with the Transfiguration. We don’t know exactly why it

changes, but there is a clear and demonstrable shift in his focus before this event

and afterwards. Before, it’s all local. Afterwards, it’s more universal. Jesus still

focuses on the people and the needs in front of him, but there’s no question that

the endgame has entered into his thinking. He begins to make references to the

Jerusalem establishment as part of his parables and teachings. Ultimately, he

knows that is where he is headed. We do not know how much he knows. But we

know that he is heading towards a confrontation with the powers that be in

Jerusalem, the city of peace.

Let’s take a look at this text from the micro, detail perspective for a bit. It’s

no coincidence that Jesus would take Peter, James, and John with him, as they

seem to have emerged as three of his most known, most trusted disciples. But it’s

no coincidence that he only took three disciples, instead of twelve, for another

reason. In Hebrew culture, three is a holy number, just as it became for

Christianity through the trinity. God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. Peter, James, John. Jesus,

Moses, Elijah. The fact that there are three disciples and three figures in the

Transfiguration would have been a clear sign to Luke’s readers that something

incredibly important would be taking place here – not just in the symbolism of

what happened, but also in the details.

Also interesting are the details we know. We know that Jesus took the

three disciples up on a mountain – another place that symbolizes holiness and

encounters with God. Our text from Exodus underscores that point. In this story,

Moses was the one emerging from the mountaintop to share God’s wisdom. The

face of Moses was under a veil, due to his facial brilliance after encounters with

God. His visage was so bright, the Israelites around him couldn’t see his face. This

dynamic is reflective of the Hebrew scripture texts where humanity was unable to

gaze upon the face of God, or else they would be blinded. For Moses, even being

in God’s presence, even if he didn’t look upon God’s face with his own eyes, was

enough to extent the power of God onto himself.

In the Luke text, we find a similar event. We read that once they arrived on

the mountain, Jesus was transfigured. We don’t know exactly what that means,

but Mark describes Jesus’ clothes as becoming ‘dazzling white.’ It’s likely this was

understood as another sign of holiness, not the white as much as the dazzling

brilliance of Jesus’ clothing and body. We also know that Jesus appears with

Moses, who represents the law, and Elijah, who represents the prophets. These

two Hebrew figures are also significant, as the first five books of the Hebrew bible

are attributed to Moses, and Elijah is arguably the best known example of a

Hebrew prophet. So, the details of the story remind us over and over again of its

importance.

These details offer a brilliance in that matches the brilliance of the

Transfiguration. The beauty of that moment must have been so awe inspiring that

the disciples were overwhelmed by it. In other gospels, there is a phrase that

indicates that the disciples fell asleep during the bulk of the event. But in Mark’s

version, the disciples are fully alive, alert, awake, and terrified, not enthusiastic.

They are focused on the events unfolding before them, so much so that the

unnecessary details of the story fall away and we’re left with what’s most

important.

At the same time, so often in this telling, we ridicule Peter for breaking into

this divine moment with his humanity. The inference is that Peter should have

kept silent, not interrupted the Transfiguration and focused solely on what was

happening before him. While the text seems to indicate that Peter is talking but

doesn’t really know what he is saying, I believe there is a deeper meaning to

Peter’s suggestion.

Repeatedly, in the Hebrew scriptures, when there is a divine encounter

between God and a human, the human marks the exact site with a structure.

Sometimes, it’s a well. Sometimes, it’s like a memorial. Sometimes, it’s a shrine.

And sometimes, it’s a dwelling. While terrified, I also think it’s clear that Peter

recognizes the significance of what is happening before his eyes, and his only

mistake is assuming that the proper way to honor it was the traditional Hebrew

way of doing so. It is telling that God responds to Peter, by telling him to listen to

Jesus and then the divine event concludes.

Unlike Mark’s version of this story, Luke says that ‘they’ kept silent. The

text doesn’t identify, but presumably the ‘they’ included Jesus. The silence here

says as much as the miracle. Silence is an important tool used in moments of

reflection and prayer and meditation. Often we read the silence through the

context of the frequent prohibitions by Jesus in Mark’s gospel. But the silence

among these four as they came down the mountain may have been awe inspired,

divinely inspired, rather than dictated by any practical concerns.

The Japanese word for silence, roughly translated into English, means ‘the

positive beauty in the in between.’ The positive beauty in the in between. The

silence of the Transfiguration event itself marks the positive beauty in the in

between, where the in between marks the transition of Jesus’ ministry from

Galilee to Jerusalem based. The positive beauty of the in between marks the point

where the Transfiguration ends and the descent down the mountain begins. The

positive beauty of the in between silence provides the disciples time and space to

ponder the meaning of the Transfiguration and to truly listen to Jesus’ words,

actions, and behaviors.

That’s an important, often overlooked part of this text that holds deep

meaning for us, especially as we frequently engage a noise-based society where

silence is in shorter and shorter supply. Yet it is often the silence that we crave

and also fear, because it forces us to stop and ponder the depth of our own spirits

and the impacts of God’s presence within it. So perhaps that is the biggest

takeaway from this text for us – to notice, marvel, and deeply ponder the silence

in our lives, and to encounter the positive beauty of the in-between within it.

Amen.