A reflection on "Transfiguration," (Luke 9:28-43a).
Peter, James and John follow Jesus up a mountain to pray this week, and to escape the crowds that were hounding them. Sadly the disciples just can't keep up; their prayers soon have them snoring. When they come to, they discover Jesus glowing like a candle and conversing with the two biggies of Israel's history — Moses the law-giver and Elijah, the greatest prophet.
It's one of the two moments of startling clarity that serve as bookends to the season of Epiphany that is ending this week. The Epiphany season opens with Jesus' baptism; it ends with this story of Jesus' transfiguration; and in both cases the voice of God thunders out of the clouds to say that Jesus is someone to pay attention to.
I've always thought both of these were stories about Jesus' status — moments when the disciples realized with startling clarity that when they stood in the presence of Jesus they were also standing in the presence of God. In and of themselves, they've never seemed to have a lot of content to me. Jesus doesn't say a word in either one... if you're going to "listen to him" (as the voice of God commands), you've got to read the other stories in the Gospel. There's nothing to listen to in this one.
Or is there?
Someone in our study group last night asked the deceptively simple question "Why does Jesus need to go up to the mountain to pray? What's he praying for?"
It launched us into a fascinating conversation about prayer — why we pray, and what we think we're getting out of it. We realized that as Jesus got increasingly popular, he would have had to go to more and more remote places just to find enough peace to concentrate. In the frenzy of 24/7 demands on our time, lots of us around the table could relate!
We talked about how often our prayers turn into "gimmes" — "gimme strength," "gimme relief," "gimme health for myself," or my loved one. We wondered whether God gets as tired of hearing our gimmes as Jesus did, and whether escaping to a remote location to recharge was a pretty reasonable thing for Jesus to do. Some of us thought that sounded like heaven!
We talked about how building relationship is so more than a "gimme," and that if prayer is about building relationship with God, maybe we need to re-think what we're doing when we pray.
We talked about how mountain tops are traditional places in scripture where people connect with God. From a mountain top you see the world differently; you rise above the petty conflicts that steal our time and consume our focus; you see the world without borders; you see the beauty that's easy to miss when you're in the midst of it all. You see expanse, and future, and patterns which change how you live when you come back into the push and shove of everyday life. Is that why Jesus climbed the mountain? Is that some of what he discovered from that vantage point?
From the story, it sounds like Jesus also was touching base with all of Israel's history. It sounds like he was consulting the great leaders of the past — Moses and Elijah. Was that because he was wondering how to ensure that his ministry was consistent with everything God had done before? Was that because grounding oneself in the whole history of God's love of the world means we gain clarity about what to do next? Is prayer as much about connecting to what God has done before, as it is about connecting to the Divine?
As soon as he returns from the mountain top, Jesus immediately jumps back into confronting the evils of the world. It's likely not an accident that the first thing he does is an exorcism — the time on the mountain wrestling with the big picture led him to engage with evil even more forcefully and confidently.
Instead of just marveling at the light shining out of Jesus in this vision, should we be using him as a model? Should we be following his example in finding places to reconnect with God's love, God's leaders, and God's history with the world? When we do that, how will that change how we end up engaging with the evil down here in the mountain valley where we live the rest of our lives?
— Stephen Fetter is the minister at Forest Hill United Church, an intercultural congregation in Toronto. He’s also the coordinator of United-in-Learning, the General Council’s online continuing education program.