One of the fun things I sometimes do as part of my work is to lead a Bible study on a text that is coming up in the life of a congregation, especially when it’s not just me talking but the group is grappling with the text together, when we all come at it with open eyes and we’re willing to wonder out loud together. When the group is small enough and we have appropriate technology, I like to include works of art. After we’ve wrestled with the words on the page for a while, it’s often enlightening to spend time looking closely at a painting or another form of art to see what an artist has discovered about a text and how they have chosen to depict it.
If we were doing a Bible study on today’s text from Luke, for example, I would introduce a painting like this one by Raphael from about 1520 , and this mosaic from a church in St. Petersburg, Russia, that was created in the 19th Century.
This week, my process got reversed as I was getting ready for this sermon. Instead of beginning with the words on the page and spending most of my time there, I found myself sketching scenes in the first part of the reading to help myself actually see what the words were saying. There are a lot of words in this reading, after all. Now I’m not a great artist; I’m not an artist at all, but I can draw stick figures, and they helped me remember the details of the story, which allowed me to ask questions.
I have recently become colleagues with a man by the name of Steve Thomason. He is a pastor and teacher, and he’s also an illustrator, and he creates what he calls a visual commentary. Today I’m going to lean on his work a bit, and I hope you will indulge me as this becomes part Bible study and part sermon. (Refer to this website to imagine some of the slides that were used for the sermon – https://www.stevethomason.net/2017/02/24/visual-commentary-luke-921-45-transfiguration/.)
Jesus goes up to a mountain one day to pray. He takes his three closest disciples with them: Peter, John, and James.
While he is praying, Jesus’ appearance is transfigured. His face changed, and his clothes become dazzling white.
And suddenly there are two others with him – Moses and Elijah, heroes in the faith who had lived long ago. They’re talking to Jesus about his “departure” that will be accomplished in Jerusalem or his “exodus” as they call it. It’s an interesting choice of words because Moses is the one who led the people of God through the water of the Red Sea to freedom. He led the Hebrew slaves to freedom through the Exodus. And Jesus has declared that his own mission is to bring release to all those who are captive.
Peter is blown over by what he’s seeing. It’s Jesus and Moses and Elijah! He says, “It’s good to be here. Let’s make three dwelling places, or three booths – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Scholars don’t quite know what to think about this, but Peter is an observant Jew. He knows about the Festival of Booths. Every year in the fall, the people of God set aside seven days and live in a tent or a booth. It’s a temporary dwelling: one with an open sky, covered only by branches so that there is a connection between us here on earth and the God of the universe, the God who brought the people of God through the water to freedom. Peter knows that tradition because he does it every year, and sensing that this is one of those Epiphany moments when God is near, he says, “Let’s make three dwellings….”
But God is here. God is not confined to our rituals or the theological parameters of which we speak about God. God bursts in and says, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him.”
The moment passes, and they’re alone again. The disciples don’t know what to make of what they have just experienced. They keep silence and tell no one about it.
They come down from the mountain and don’t speak of it for a long time.
When you look closely at today’s reading, you’ll notice that it begins by saying, “Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took the three disciples to the mountain to pray.” These sayings? What sayings are those?
Just before this story, Jesus says to the disciples, “The Son of Man will undergo great suffering. He will be rejected and killed, and on the third day be raised.” “I’m going to die,” he said, “and if you follow me, you will, too.”
To make sure they got it, at the end of today’s reading, he said again, “I’m going to be rejected.” These sayings stand as bookends to the text we read today. We know the story, the big picture. We know how this ends. The mountain top experience got framed by these words: Jesus is going to die. Whoever would follow him would pick up their cross daily.
When I was a young adult and growing in faith, I took these words of Jesus seriously. They are, of course, difficult words, but I believed them to be true and that somehow there was promise connected to them. Hear them again:
23 Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
When I was a new mom some 25 years ago, this text struck a deep chord in me in a quite unexpected way. My daughter Anna was born on a Tuesday morning in October. If ever there was a mountain-top experience, having a baby is one of them. Those early days are filled with “new baby euphoria.” When Anna made her grand entrance in the world, the medical staff got to work. They checked her heart rate and her breathing and made sure her color was right. They stimulated her newborn cry and observed muscle activity in her little limbs. They recorded her APGAR score and then did it again five minutes later to make sure all was well. When they placed her in my arms. I marveled at the miracle of new life, of this precious little being who was so alive and vulnerable, and who was now entrusted to my care.
I said a prayer of thanks. But no sooner had the words formed in my brain than I felt a reflexive action in my shoulders and arms. Like a mother hen who fluffs her feathers and gathers her brood under her wings, I felt the maternal instinct to protect my young. The thing that caught me by surprise was that I felt the need to protect her from God. This God who would ask me to take up my cross daily, to lose my life in order to find it, would ask too much of my newborn child. It was a crisis of faith. So I kept quiet and told no one…for a very long time.
On the day after Jesus and Peter and John and Andrew came down from the mountain, they were met by a great crowd, and in the crowd was a man who shouted to Jesus, “Please, I beg of you, look at my son; he is my only child!” The man describes how a spirit takes hold of his son and the boy shrieks. The spirit throws him into convulsions and the boy foams at the mouth. The spirit attacks the poor child and won’t leave him alone. Desperate, the man says, “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they couldn’t!” We understand how difficult this must be; parents so often struggle when their children suffer.
Jesus’ reply is curt. “How long must I bear with this faithless generation?” We wonder, who is it that lacks the faith? The disciples? The father? The crowd? it feels like an indictment. If only there had been enough faith.
But then Jesus says, “Bring your son here.” Jesus takes what is given to him and heals it and blesses it. And then he gives it back; he gives the boy back to his father. It is a miracle. But here’s the thing, it’s not a miracle of faith. It’s a miracle of compassion. It doesn’t depend on the faith of the father or the faith of the disciples or the crowd that surrounds them. It depends on the compassion of the one who heals. It follows the pattern of blessing that is characteristic of Jesus. He takes what is brought to him, blesses it, and gives it back. Just as he restored the leper, the paralytic, and the man with the withered hand; just as he touched the funeral bier of the young man whose mother was a widow and gave him back to her; just as he took five loaves and two fish, blessed them and gave them back to the people; now Jesus blesses the boy and gives him back to his father.
“Whoever would lose his life for my sake will find it,” he says. It is the pattern of blessing that Jesus practices over and over: He takes what is given to him, he blesses it and gives it back.
Dr. Alan Culpepper says there are two impulses in life: to acquire and to hoard and to protect, or to give and to serve. One is characterized by clenched fists and the other open palms. One assumes that each of us in control of our own lives and that our security and well-being depends solely on how we can provide for ourselves. The other confesses that God is the Lord of life and finds life in being part of God’s redemptive work in the world. It’s God’s salvation project, you know: it’s working for peace and reconciliation, tearing down barriers, speaking out for those who have no voice, advocating for the poor, upholding human dignity, and building community.
I know a man who lives in a high-rise apartment downtown. He walks up and down Nicollet Mall in the morning and again at night, logging 8-11 miles a day. He knows the regular homeless people by name. He knows where they’re from and how many kids they have. He asks how they’re doing. And when his wife was dying last year, they would ask how she was doing. He prays for them as he walks by, and if they’re not in their usual spot, he prays for them anyway. The Mall has been under construction for a long time so some of the construction workers recognize him, and they wave at him; he prays for them, too.
I know people who have been caring for homeless people the last two weeks right here through Families Moving Forward. And I know people who are caregivers who devote themselves to tending to the needs of a loved one. It’s following the impulse to serve and finding life there.
Dear friends, as we travel through this life, we are met with many voices, many perspectives, conflicting messages, all promising to fulfill us. On the mountain that day, there was clarity. God said, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” …the Son who said, “I will be betrayed into human hands, and I will die. But take up your cross and follow me. Find your life in me.” The words are hard, but the one who speaks them is gracious. Jesus is the one, after all, who took the child that day, blessed and healed him, and gave him back to his father – not because the human father was faithful, but because Jesus is compassionate. He is the incarnate love of God, the one who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
“Take up your cross daily and follow me,” are the not the words by which we will be judged. They are the words of which we are blessed. “The one who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
May we be bold is losing our lives for the sake of the one who gave his life for us. Amen.