Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen;listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
What Happened Up On That Mountain? Luke 9: 28-36
What a difference one small phrase can make. Did you catch the line "Since they stayed awake" in the Gospel reading today? I learned that that line could also be translated "but when they were fully awake." Those two translations seem pretty different to me. People who know Greek better than I do say that both translations are accurate readings. But, I think the difference is important. Were they asleep, or not? Because what they were supposed to have seen up on that mountain was pretty fantastical. What if it was all just a dream? How can we know what to believe if the apostles weren't even awake when it supposedly happened? Something very important happened up there. Jesus was changed. I think his followers were supposed to be changed, too.
This is not the first time that Jesus had gone to a secluded place to pray. He does that often in the book of Luke. He went into the wilderness after his baptism. He went up a mountain to pray before he appointed the apostles. He went to away to pray after feeding 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. In today's reading, he is again in solitude, talking to God, though this time is a little different. In all the other stories, he went alone. This time he asked a couple of his apostles, Peter, James, and John, to come with him. And, it seems obvious that they were struggling. It also seems to be pretty understandable that they would be tired. Following Jesus is hard work. Luke describes a constant crush of people crowding around Jesus and his followers. There are frequent arguments with religious leaders. And, there are so many sick people who need his help. Jesus has even empowered his apostles to heal people and cast out demons. They had begun to travel away from him to go preach and heal people. This story happens shortly after they had first begun making these trips for preaching and healing.
Scholars point out that Jesus went up to the mountain shortly after asking the disciples who the crowds say that he is. He prayed before he asked them. Peter, one whom he invited with him up the mountain, said that he believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus, surprisingly, told them not to tell anyone what they believed. He also said, quite clearly, that anyone who follows him will risk their lives. He said that God's kin-dom will be coming soon. These are heavy words to carry. The Gospel writer tells us that he carried them around for eight days. But, it becomes clear after carrying around all that weight, Jesus needs to go away to pray again. This time, he would ask some people to accompany him.
We can envision the scene. Jesus, head bowed in the dark, begins to change. Reminiscent of Moses' encounter with God on Mount Sinai, Jesus' face begins to glow and his simple, probably dirty, garments begin to glow in dazzling white. Unlike Moses, who's glow was a reflection of God, Jesus' glow seems to be radiating out of his own person. If this weren't fantastical enough, two men appear at his side. The Gospel reports that the men are Moses and Elijah, the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets. They had both received revelation of God on a mountain. Jesus is being revealed as a revelation of God on this mountain. Scholars also remind us that these two were understood to have never died. They were taken straight to heaven. They knew God well. And, they spoke with Jesus about his future.
And, what were the apostles doing at this moment? Well, it appears that they might have been sleeping. Maybe that explains how we got this strange story. Maybe they simply dreamed it all. Maybe all of the previous weeks' miracles and crowds and resurrections bubbled up in their dreams, painting Jesus a glowing, impossible white... bringing back Moses and Elijah... shrouding them in clouds with God's voice ringing in their ears, "This is my Son, My Chosen; Listen to him!" Maybe that's what finally woke them up, the rumble and terror and power of the voice of God in their dreams. They realize that they see Jesus alone. They were so sure that they had just seen two men there. Now, they don't know what to believe. Maybe that's why scripture said they kept silent about what they had seen and told no one. They knew they fell asleep. They didn't know if what they saw... felt... heard was real. They didn't want to look like fools. They were embarrassed that they slept when Jesus really seemed to need them to pray with him. In their dreams, they were faithful. It real life, they had fallen. So, they told no one. They did not know what to say.
Or, maybe they were awake the whole time. Maybe they fought through their exhaustion and saw the grace-filled change come over Jesus. Maybe they actually saw Moses and Elijah, and offered to build them small dwellings to stay in. Maybe they actually felt the mist of the cloud enfold them and heard the voice of God, just like Jesus did at his baptism. And, maybe the two men suddenly disappeared. Perhaps the men were awake, if sleepy, the whole time, and they were just so overwhelmed by what they saw that they simply could not tell anyone else. Maybe, just maybe they have learned that in order to actually listen to Jesus as God commanded them, they might have to be quiet for a while.
Having initially asked the question, now I actually wonder if it really matters whether the apostles were asleep or awake. For modern readers who are uncomfortable with the more miraculous, seemingly impossible parts of scripture, having Jesus' transfiguration be a dream certainly makes this story more accessible. Anybody can have a weird dream and learn something new about the Divine in it. They don't have to struggle so hard to explain how they can believe in the Bible when it tells stories that objectively cannot happen. They can simply say that this great and weird story was a dream. And, many of us have had weird dreams that help us learn something real and true about ourselves and about God. It may be far easier for some people to see themselves in the sleeping apostle than as someone who witnessed the impossible. This story allows for very practical folks to have a chance to dream and be changed by those dreams.
For those who have fewer issues with the mystical and mysterious parts of Scripture, this story holds a place for impossible, indescribable experiences of the Divine that are beyond typical patterns of comprehension. This story shows us examples of people radically and irrevocably changed by their experience with Jesus, people completely terrified and unprepared for the new ways that they've experienced God, people struck silent by the miracle that they have just witnessed. If we read this story as a story of people who are awake and further awakened by this impossible experience, we are leaving room for something radical and far bigger than what we are currently able to describe. We are leaving room for God who still speaks, even in ways that we don't know yet know how to understand.
I think we actually need both of these reading strategies to understand this text. One scholar I read this week compared this story to novels that employ magical realism in their storytelling. He said that magical realism shows us the possibility of multiple realities to be working at the same time. Multiple realities and multiple ways to interpret one text can be in service to the greater messages of the story. I think both of the readings that I've described today show us that Jesus found deep strength in prayer, and prayed in preparation for important events in his ministry. Jesus also needed companionship as he prayed. Just as he invited the apostles to pray with him, we are invited to pray with him and invite others into our own lives of preparation and prayer. I think both of these readings can teach us that God is big, bigger than we can really know. God will always surprise us. We need to really listen when the Holy Spirit is telling us something new, being it through our dreams or through radical, impossible experiences. And, Jesus, well, Jesus is a brand new way to think about God, but a new way steeped in ancient traditions. These two readings help us remember both of those things as we try to follow him.
Something really important happened up on that mountain. Something that changed Jesus and his apostles. As we continue to read through Luke, we're going to see that the Apostles will continue to have a hard time understanding what they see and feel as they travel with Jesus. It seems like Jesus' followers are always seeking more understanding than we have right now. May we continue to follow him, whether we understand what's going on or not. We don't have to have all the answers. But, it helps if we keep asking the questions.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted in writing this sermon:
Cláudio Carvalhaes: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2756
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4284
Scott Schauf: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1572
Arland Hultgren: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=507
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.