“Listen to Him!”: A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

The sermon I preached yesterday (Feb. 10, 2013) as the conclusion of the Winter Seminar on Pietism at Bethlehem Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Our text was Luke 9:28-45. (You can listen to the sermon at Bethlehem’s website.)

“Better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” (We’re about to test that famous aphorism…) Whether it comes from Abraham Lincoln or another of the wits with whom it’s associated, it wasn’t around in the 1st century AD. Otherwise, I get the feeling that the evangelist Luke would have slipped it into his account of the Transfiguration, in which only two voices are recorded. One belonged to God; the other should have kept silent…

28Now 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. 32Now 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. 33Just 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. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When 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. (Luke 9:28-36, NRSV)

12th century icon depicting the Transfiguration
12th century icon of the Transfiguration of Christ – Wikimedia

In his account of this strange, powerful event, Matthew adds no commentary to Peter’s suggestion that he build dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Matt 17:4). But Luke tacks on the parenthetical observation that Peter spoke “not knowing what he said” (Luke 17:33b). In his paraphrase of Luke in The Message Eugene Peterson is even more cutting: he has Peter “blurting this out without thinking” and still “babbling on like this” into the next verse.

But let’s consider how Peter’s life has gone recently: Just within this chapter of Luke’s gospel, Peter has been sent out with the twelve to battle demons and cure diseases among total strangers (vv 1-6), attracting the attention of a volatile local ruler who has already beheaded John the Baptist (7-9). Then when he and the other disciples come back (probably a little exhausted) and Jesus tries to get them some privacy at Bethsaida, a huge crowd shows up and Peter watches his own hands help distribute five loaves and two fish to five thousand people (with leftovers) (10-17). Then Peter has one of his shining moments in the Gospels, proclaiming — alone among his colleagues (or, at least, beating them to the answer) — that their rabbi is actually the Messiah (18-20). A little over a week later, he’s singled out with the brothers John and James and taken up a mountain to pray with the Son of Man. Understandably drowsy after a busy few weeks and months (and a hike up a mountain), Peter is half-asleep when he finds himself looking at nothing less than a vision of Heaven: a transfigured Jesus, “in glory,” having a chat with none other than Moses and Elijah! Small wonder that, in his gospel, Mark adds that Peter was “terrified” to the point of not knowing how to respond (Mark 9:6).

God bless him, Peter’s trying to keep it together. (It’s amazing words don’t fail him completely at this point!) But he decides that this transcendent moment is missing something and suggests that it wouldn’t be any trouble for him to build dwellings for Jesus and friends.

Why? It helps if we go back to the King James, which translates “dwellings” as “tabernacles.” Especially given Moses’ presence in this remarkable episode, and the fact that he and the other two were talking about Jesus’ impending exodos (the Greek word here rendered “departure”), I can imagine at least two biblical bells going off in the head of an observant 1st century Jew like Simon Peter.

First, while we Christians associate Exodus primarily with plagues, parting seas, and the Ten Commandments, I’d guess that Peter knew well that a good third of the book deals at least in part with the Tabernacle — the splendidly colored tent in whose sanctuary the Lord said he would “dwell” (Exod 25:8). That same Hebrew verb (shkn) was first used one chapter before to describe how “the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai” (Exod 24:16) then again at the end of the book when Moses couldn’t enter the Tent of Meeting “because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exod 40:35) — scenes echoed in the events of the Transfiguration. The Greek noun that Luke uses here in translating Peter’s exclamation (skene) not only looks like the Hebrew shkn but is used elsewhere in the New Testament to describe both the Tabernacle of the Israelites (Heb 8) and the “greater and perfect tent” (Heb 9:11) by which the high priest Christ replaced it.

And if we’re quick to judge Peter foolish for thinking that he could somehow contain heaven within hastily erected tents, consider how we Christians try to tabernacle the glory of God. The King James translation came to mind this past January while I was in London with a group of Bethel students, studying the history of World War I. Our first Sunday we went to St Paul’s Cathedral for worship. We sat beneath the grandeur of Sir Christopher Wren’s famous dome, stunned into reverence by the beauty of the images that adorn it. As we joined the choir in singing the Epiphany carol “As with gladness men of old,” it was all too easy to imagine the “heavenly country bright” described by the closing verse, whose residents need “no created light.” “There for ever may we sing / Alleluyas to our King,” indeed!

Except that minutes later the service was done and we were being politely hurried out of our seats so that the paying tourists could come through, passing enough monuments to British military and political leaders that I started to wonder just whose glory was being extolled.

It’s as close to heaven as I think I’ve ever felt, but in the end, God’s shekinah glory cannot be confined by human constructions. Even a sanctuary as grand as that of St Paul’s, or as holy as that of the original Tabernacle — or whatever Peter thought he’d throw together on the mountain — is but “a sketch and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary” (Heb 8:5).

The second biblical allusion that seemed to come to Peter’s mind is even more obscure to Christians. It’s not clear just when in the Jewish year the Transfiguration took place, but numerous commentators have suggested that Peter had the Feast of Tabernacles on his mind. Called the “feast of ingathering” in Exodus (23:16, 34:22), it was a largely agricultural festival that Jesus attended at least once (cf. John 7). In Hebrew it was (and is) called Sukkot, after the temporary dwellings — Sukkah — that observant Jews built and inhabited for seven days (following a law issued in Leviticus 23:42 meant to remind them of the Israelites’ years in the wilderness). So if you’ve been wondering how Peter — who wasn’t a carpenter like Jesus or a tentmaker like Paul — thought he’d have the wherewithal to build three dwellings then and there on the mountain… Well, he’d no doubt built a Sukkah or two in his day (most likely out of palm branches, the traditional material), and that probably seemed very appropriate to him as a prophecy from Zechariah possibly ricocheted through his bewildered mind: “And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one…. Then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of [tabernacles]” (Zech 14:9, 16).

Sukkah in Jerusalem
Sukkah in Jerusalem – Creative Commons (Yoninah)

Had Peter been writing the story of salvation, it might have ended at that point: the Messiah had arrived and restored to Zion the glory of the God who gave Moses the law and Elijah his oracles, and he would reign as king of all nations willing to worship him. The end.

But the Christ was not yet the King, and his glory — bright as it was for that fleeting moment on the mountain — had not yet been fully revealed. So even as Peter was drawing up blueprints, “a cloud came and overshadowed them” and from within it came a voice: “This is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him!” (v 35)

What had the Son been trying to say that the disciples hadn’t heard? What was left in the story?

Eight days before, Peter had barely finished professing his belief that Jesus was the Savior when that very Messiah “sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’” (vv 21-22). Listen to him.

But they had not: Peter was ready to skip ahead to the end of the story. So after they descended the mountain and the demon-possessed boy was healed, Jesus reminded the twelve — again, in the middle of what seems a triumphant moment — “‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands’” (vv 43b-44). Listen to him.

They might have heard, but they didn’t seem to listen. They certainly didn’t understand. And again, I wonder if we’re all that different. Wouldn’t we rather pitch our tents and stay in Epiphany, when the darkness recedes as the days lengthen and the light of Christ is revealed? But that season — bookended by the voice of God identifying his Son first at Jesus’ baptism and then again here, at his Transfiguration — is coming to an end, and the shadow of the Cross will start to lengthen as Lent begins this Wednesday.

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself either: that story will come in its good time. Today let me simply suggest that our passage today gives us some advice for how to listen to Jesus, even when he gives an answer that — like the disciples — we don’t understand, or want to.

First, we listen as part of a community of faith, through its traditions and practices. After all, if Peter spoke without thinking, his response was instinctive: the result of a lifetime’s participation in the practices of a religious tradition. Years of Bible study, fixed-hour prayer, and temple worship had formed his religious imagination such that he had could recognize that he was in the presence of the glory of God, so that he could see — however dimly — that history was coming to a defining moment.

As Covenanters, we’ve inherited the Pietist concern for devotional practices, and we should sustain traditions like reading the Bible and praying, as individuals, small groups, and congregations. But not all spiritual disciplines are internal, and service to those in need also helps us to hear Christ. And here, too, we’re building on a strong foundation: from their beginnings, Pietists and Covenanters have been people of compassion, mercy, and justice.

I’ve been relying heavily today on Marva Dawn’s analysis of “tabernacling” in the Scriptures. She concludes by arguing that that biblical theme points to a theology of weakness: God doesn’t dwell in works of human grandiosity, but He reveals himself in human brokenness. Consider the story of the boy possessed by a demon as a second sort of transfiguration: how different that child must have seemed as the shrieking ceased and the life-threatening convulsions vanished; the boy was restored to wholeness, and all in the crowd, given this glimpse of glory, were “astounded at the greatness of God” (v 43). As Dawn would say, the glory of God tabernacled in that healed child, as his father rejoiced and the crowd gaped. And if our ears still refuse to listen to this message, not long after the disciples — arguing again over “which one of them was greatest” — are shown a child by Jesus, an object lesson in teaching them that “the least among you is the greatest” (v. 48).

(And lest we forget, the Messiah will not be named king until he is on the cross, gasping for breath and writhing in pain as he dies in the most humiliating fashion Roman imagination could devise. The least will be greatest… Listen to him.)

So, much as we need the familiar practices of our communities, a third key to listening to Jesus is to remember that his voice will often surprise us — and sound dissonant to ears tuned to tradition. Peter had learned to expect a Messiah like David, a warrior-king, but when the Savior came, he was physically unprepossessing (many medieval Christians believed Christ himself was a leper) and uninterested in military or political might. Much as I’ve celebrated Pietism and the heritage of the Covenant Church this weekend, I hope we too are prepared to hear God speak in new ways in our own time, to disrupt the assumptions and habits we cling to.

Peter came to learn this, but it took time. When confronted with the actual exodos that Jesus had been discussing with Moses and Elijah (another moment when he should have been listening), Peter first tried to interrupt God’s unfolding plan by using violence and then later denied his Christ, forgetting that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

Caravaggio, The Denial of St. Peter
Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter (ca. 1610) – Wikimedia

But in time, that same apostle came to learn what he preached in Acts 3, that “God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer” (v. 18). And when he neared the end of his life — what he called the time of his own exodos (2 Pet 1:15), he told his own account of the Transfiguration: when he had been one of the “eyewitnesses of [Christ’s] majesty” and “heard this voice come from heaven” (vv. 16, 18). Of this “prophetic message,” Peter advised his readers, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart” (v. 19).

So may we be attentive to the prophetic voices that speak for God in our own time —remembering, as Peter continued, that “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (v. 20), that we hear God best when guided by his Word and as part of a listening, discerning community.

Finally, and maybe most practically, the story of Peter’s encounter with the glory of God teaches us another lesson: listening requires silence. Besides his commentary on Peter’s outburst, what strikes me most about Luke’s version of the Transfiguration is how it ends so abruptly, and so quietly: after the voice of God spoke and Jesus stood alone, Peter, James, and John simply “kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen” (v. 36). The next word we have from Peter about this event is the brief mention in the letter written at the end of his life, and John never seems to have written about it: the Transfiguration is absent from his gospel.

At the same time, I don’t doubt that John’s astounding ability to communicate the nature of God was shaped by his long years of reflection on what he had seen and heard that night on the mountain. Clearly, when God tells us to listen, he doesn’t mean it as a momentary activity: it requires us to ponder, at length, what we’ve heard, and so for us to suspend the noises of our own minds and voices, lest they jump to wrong conclusions like Peter’s.

So what does God have to say to you this morning? We’re not on a mountain, nor is a cloud coming up behind me, but is he — right here, right now — telling you, Listen to my Son, the Chosen? Perhaps through this morning’s music, or Scripture, or the fellowship of this congregation… Maybe even in this sermon… But I suspect it’s more likely that my voice is blocking His, so let me close with silence, and invite you to simply be still before your God.

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