“A Preview of the Resurrection”Dr. James M. Pitts Luke 9:28=36 (37-43a) Year C - Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday before Lent)
Peak experiences form the spiritual references points of life. Within the scripture, many peak experiences are recorded. Some are literally associated with mountaintops. Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. The Risen Christ told his disciples on a mountain in Galilee, “I am with you always.” Another peak experience is the Transfiguration.
Christian tradition places the Transfiguration as occurring on Mount Tabor in lower Galilee. Tabor’s round massive summit, like a round loaf of bread, rises 1900 feet, dominating the landscape in the Plain of Jezreel.
Our tour group, late in the afternoon, packed ourselves into Mercedes Taxies at the village of Dabburiya. We raced up the steep, hair pin-curved road to the top. No amusement park ride could match the thrill and terror of that hill climb.
On the summit, the Franciscans have built over Byzantine and Crusader ruins, a magnificent church and monastery commemorating the Biblical witness to the transfiguration. The Basilica of the Transfiguration has side chapels dedicated to Moses and Elijah. The center sanctuary is in praise of Jesus.
After touring the church, we sat on the western slope of Tabor. Watching the sun set over Nazareth, some six miles away, together we read and contemplated our text. Let’s listen and consider its meaning. I am reading from Clarence Jordan’s “Cotton Patch Version” – (JESUS’ DOINGS) – Luke 9:28-36
He took Rock and Jack and Jim and went into the mountains to pray. It so happened that while he was praying, the whole appearance of his face became different, and his clothes were so white they hurt your eyes. And lo and behold, two men were carrying on a conversation with him! They were Moses and Elijah in their heavenly form and they were talking with him about his EXODUS—which he was soon to get into full swing in Atlanta.
Now Rock and those with him were awfully sleepy, but this got them so wide awake that they saw his wondrous appearance, as well as that of the men standing beside him. And as the two were leaving Jesus, Rock said to him, “Skipper, it’s wonderful for us to be here, perfectly wonderful. So, let’s build three chapels, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—without even realizing what he was saying.
He had hardly finished talking when a cloud came up and enveloped them. They were dreadfully frightened as they entered the cloud, and then out of the cloud came a voice, saying, “This is my dear Son; do what he tells you.” After the voice, no one was there but Jesus. They all kept quiet, and during those days they didn’t tell a soul what they had seen.
(Clarence Jordan’s “Cotton Patch Version”– (JESUS’ DOINGS) – Luke 9:28-36)
SPIRITUAL PEAK EXPERIENCES ARE CLOUDED IN MIST AND MYSTERY.
With the Transfiguration, we observe a critical incident in the life of Jesus that is cloaked in mystery and awe. We can only try to understand what happened. Mark tells us that the garments of Jesus became radiant. They had a glistening gleam like the golden glare of sunlight. When the incident ended, a cloud overshadowed them.
In Jewish religious thought, the presence of God is associated with a cloud. You remember, how in a cloud, Moses met God. A cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, went before the Children of Israel, leading them out of bondage.
Within a cloud of mist and fog, God came to the Tabernacle in the wilderness. A cloud filled Solomon’s Temple, when it was dedicated, demonstrating the presence of God. The Jews dreamed that when Messiah came, the cloud of God’s presence would return to the Temple. The descent of the cloud was a way of symbolizing the presence of God.
William Barclay points out that the Transfiguration had significance both for Jesus and the Disciples.
For Jesus; The Transfiguration confirmed his decision to go on to Jerusalem and accept the Cross of Calvary. On the mountaintop of Transfiguration, he received a double approval for his decision and choice.
Moses and Elijah met with him. Moses appeared. He is the supreme lawgiver of the Nation of Israel; the giver of the laws of God appeared. Elijah was present. Elijah, a spokes person for God, is the first and the greatest of the prophets.
From these two, the greatest of the lawgivers and the greatest of the prophets, Jesus received his “go ahead.” They saw in him, the consummation of all they had dreamed in the past and looked forward to in the future. Their appearance assured Jesus that he was on the right way.
God spoke with Jesus. Not merely following his own wishes, Jesus sought the will of his heavenly Father. He put his plans and intentions before God. On that mountaintop, Jesus received divine approval. Jesus was assured he had chosen the right way. He was assured of the essential rightness of the cross. He had a dread rendezvous to keep on a hilltop in Jerusalem.
For the disciples, who were bewildered, broken hearted and baffled, the Transfiguration helped them: To See the necessity of the cross. The popular expectation was that the Messiah would be an avenging military and political power. Jesus would not fulfill that image. Even though they did not fully understand, the disciples had heard God’s voice acknowledge Jesus as His Son.
Also, this experience permitted the disciples to Witness the glory of Christ. This would prepare them to later share what they had seen and offered them a prelude to resurrection. Some call this passage “a misplaced narrative of a resurrection appearance.” Other scholars interpret this Christophany as a divine affirmation of Peter’s Confession of the Christ. (see Luke 9:20).
The disciples were filled with awe and fear.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, 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 for they were terrified. – Luke 9:33.
Their inordinate fear in the midst of a supernatural phenomenon is understandable. They were terrified! They did not know what to say. In their amazement, they wondered if they should construct three tents to shelter such important persons as Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Such shelters or booths were like those used in the feast of the tabernacles.
Maybe the disciples wanted to “freeze frame” experience. They wanted to stop and preserve it forever and forever. The dynamic was so glorious, let’s stop everything and keep everything just as it is. Let’s create a spiritual still life.
SPIRITUAL PEAK EXPERIENCES ARE EMOTIONALLY CHARGED.
At such times of intense emotion, we fear our own potential. We tend to evade our destiny by running away from our own and best talent. We run way from the responsibilities suggested by God and nature, by fate or by accident, as Jonah tried, in vain, to run away from his mission. This “Jonah Complex” is common to the campus and within the larger community.
We fear our highest possibilities as well as our lowest ones. We are afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under the influence of great courage.
We enjoy and even thrill at the God-like possibilities, we see in ourselves in such peak moments. Yet, we simultaneously shiver with weakness and fear before similar opportunities.
Peak moments both introduce and remind us of our God-given potential. They put us in touch with God and his creative and redemptive forces that both shape and reform our lives.
SPIRITUAL PEAKS EXPERIENCES CONTRAST AND CONNECT LIFE.
Between the top of the mountain and the bottom, we see striking contrast. Above is the beauty of that lofty vision. Below are tragic need and suffering.
Within the Biblical context, immediately following the transfiguration story in the Gospel, we have a very different and difficult scene. A father brings his epileptic son to the disciples for healing. The disciples were impotent. Unable to help the child, the disciples laid the convulsing child at Jesus’ feet. Let’s listen to the rest to the story.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted,
“Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God” – Luke 9:37-43
High up on the mountain – there was spiritual privilege. Below in the valley – there was suffering and confusion. And there is an essential connection between the hour of divine vision with desperate human need. After that mountain top experience, it was a long descent. From the high and secluded places of communion with God, to the level, crowded places of human need, Jesus continued his journey.
Jesus was not a climber in the fine art of upward mobility, seeking new heights of power, prestige, position or advantage. He was not familiar with a “Meet Me at the Top” philosophy. As “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” he was going the other way. He was diving down to the drain in the pool of humanity. Jesus was downwardly mobile.
Remember Philippians 2: 6-8 …
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.
Jesus’ life was a life-long descent
from the place of vision
to the place of deed,
from the hill of privilege
to the plain of need.
Our life, our discipleship and religious experiences do cycle:
up and down,
high and low,
from celebration to service,
from enthusiasm to exhaustion,
from the unique and rarified moments
to the common burden of simply
keeping on, and keeping on.
As Jesus came down the mountain with his disciples, he attempted to put his life and mission in perspective for them. He wanted them to know that after this high, lows would follow. There would be death and then resurrection. For the present, they were not to tell anyone what they had experienced on the mountain. After the resurrection, they could tell what they had seen and heard during that peak experience.
As Isaiah had prophesied and John the Baptist proclaimed…
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his path straight.
Every valley will be filled in,
every mountain and hill be laid low,
winding ways will be straightened
and rough roads made smooth.
And all mankind shall see the salvation of God.
- Isaiah 40:3-5; Luke 3:4-6.
Talking non-stop, her pressured speech rattled on and on, relating visions, miracles and deliverance. Underneath the surface joy there was a long history of sadness, separation and intense sorrow.
Case by case, in continual conflict with the medical profession, she told of how the Lord constantly intervened on her behalf and for her son. If you just believe, all is glorious!
Only scant notice was given to the heartaches, failed marriage, and other physical and emotional tragedies that had overwhelmed her life and family.
Praising the Lord, she lived on a constant high. She was never coming down. Life on the plain, and especially down in the valley of the shadow of doubt, depression and death was not for her. She preferred and fervently grasped the rarified, spiritual high mountain peaks.
My friend could not see and refused to accept that life cycles between mountains and valleys, between the peaks and the canyons, and is filled with highs and lows.
Thank God for those transcendent moments
that inspire and lighten our way through the valley of shadows.
Thank God for those peak experiences
that integrate, harmonize, organize and fuse our life together.
Thank God for those surprises of joy and grace
that help us to recognize God, accept others, and appreciate ourselves.
Mountain top experiences that are spiritually valid
still our storms,
calm our stress
and encourage us onward
in our pilgrimage of faith
across the mountains and through the valleys
to our God ordained destiny.
And so, on this day, whether you be on a high or enduring a low,
remember that in God’s good time …
every valley will be filled in,
every mountain and hill we be laid low,
winding ways will be straightened
and rough roads made smooth.
And all mankind shall see the salvation of God.
(Isaiah 40:3-5 Jerusalem Bible)
About the writer:
Dr. James M. Pitts is university chaplain [retired] and professor of religion emeritus, Furman University. A native of Washington, DC, Jim is a graduate of Furman University in Greenville, SC, Southeastern Seminary at Wake Forest, NC, and Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. An experienced pastoral counselor, he has worked in both congregational and hospital settings. His professional expertise includes crisis counseling, substance abuse intervention, and career guidance for persons in ministry.
His sermons and essays on biblical and pastoral themes are published in books, magazines and on NextSunday.com. One of the founders of Smyth & Helwys, Jim serves as Chairman of the Board.
In addition to serving as the editor of www.NextSundayWorship.com, he is the principal photographer and editor of www.NextSundayGallery.com an educational resource with a comprehensive collection of high-quality photos illustrating the geography and archaeology of the Biblical world.
Jim and his wife Nancy are the parents of two sons and two daughters-in-law: Stewart (deceased) and his wife Kelley, and Jonathan and his wife Jackie. They are the proud grandparents of three grandsons, Will, Jon Walker and Colton, and a granddaughter, Lilli.
Scripture and Music:
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36 (37-43a)
O Wondrous Sight! O Vision Fair
We Have Come at Christ’s Own Bidding
O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright
Open My Eyes, That I May See
I Stand Amazed in the Presence
Christ, Upon the Mountain Peak
Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory
Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
O Glorious Sight (Cherwien)
Shine, Jesus, Shine (Hayes)
Arise, Your Light Has Come (Danner)
Steal Away to Jesus
Arise, Shine, Your Light Has Come (McDonald)
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
Shine, Jesus, Shine
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot