A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God


Rev. Dr. Les Martin

Transfiguration 2023
Rev. Dr. Les Martin
Luke 9:28–36

I have resolved to know nothing among you except Christ Jesus and him crucified in the name of the living God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’ll try and remember this. In Nigeria, I had to preach with a microphone all the time and I couldn’t stand it because it cuts me in half in terms of my gestures, so if I set it down, bear with me. Today is the Feast of Transfiguration. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that we already had these readings at the end of Epiphany. It’s not the only Sunday where that happens. In the old lectionary and I mean, the really old lectionary, 1928, you had the entry into Jerusalem, both on Palm Sunday and on first Advent. The reality here is a liturgical hint. If you hear something twice on a Sunday, it’s probably important. Pay attention. Pay attention.

What’s so important about the transfiguration? I want to start in a counterintuitive place, and that’s in the Collect. We ask God today to deliver us from the disquietude of the world. That’s an expensive word, disquietude. That’s a fancy word, but I think we know what disquietude is. It can be serious like what’s going on globally or nationally. It can be something in our work, or Kate and I had some disquietude last night when at about 9:10, Isaiah decided to be terribly upset about something for over an hour. And I’ll tell you, about 20 minutes into that, I was praying that I would be delivered from the disquietude of this world.

It’s a good thing. It’s something whether small and insignificant like a crying baby, or large and serious like the state of our nation or the experience in Ukraine, we have a longing to be delivered from disquietude. There’s that old story that the Chinese saying may you live in interesting times is actually not a blessing, it’s a curse. And the older I get, the more I feel that in my soul and in my bones. I don’t particularly want to live in an interesting time because interesting is not always what it’s cracked up to be. The truth is, and I don’t think it’s just because I have an infant, we’re tired, aren’t we? We’re bone tired. We’re soul tired. We want peace and security, safety, maybe even some predictability, not disquietude.

That’s what I want to look at today because what I want to focus on today is this, that desire to be delivered from Disquietude is so strong. It drives us so profoundly that that’s something we pursue, and in our pursuit of it, we can either be transfigured or disfigured. Transfiguration, another expensive word, is a change that glorifies or exalts. Disfiguration is a change that defaces or deforms. So when we’re trying to get away from disquietude, when we’re trying to pursue a better life, the real question is are we doing so in a way that has the possibility to glorify, or is the way that we pursue peace and quiet unintentionally leading to disfigurement and deformation?

Now if you want to talk about that in the world of the Bible, you have to talk about mountains. Why mountains? Well, to be delivered from anything, particularly disquietude, in the ancient near East, well, everyone knows you have to go up. You have to go up because the heights are where God is. The heights are where power is. The heights are the place where maybe just maybe you’ll find the way and the means for that peace and quiet. We see it in the Bible again and again symbolically, don’t we? Mount Mariah and Abraham’s sacrifice. Mount Arak and Noah and the Ark. Mount Carmel and Elijah fighting the prophets of Baal.

Today the Mount of Transfiguration, the Mount of Olives, Mount Zion. We also see it in the pagan religions. Ball is worshiped on the mountains, the chief competitor to the God of Israel. Also in the high places. We see it leftover archeologically. What do you think those pyramids and ziggurats are? Mountains. Artificial mountains. If you don’t know what a ziggurat is, they’re like the pyramids down in Central America or in the ancient ear niece that are stair stamped. They’re not smooth. They’re the original stairway to heaven. The idea is I’m going to climb up and get what I need. That’s the Tower of Babel.

So when we talk about transfiguration and disfigurement, we really need to contradict or contrast Babel and the Mount of Transfiguration because in these two stories we’ll see the fundamental difference between how we approach the pursuit of peace and quiet, and how God would have us approach it. Let’s look first at Babel. It’s hilarious. First of all, it’s an artificial location. They built the mountain on the plane of Shinar. Human ingenuity is a wonderful thing, but it also kind of leaves you scratching your head sometimes. If you want to go up, why do you start on a plane? No climbing the mountains for us, we will build a mountain. And of course, that requires technology. It’s just kind of thrown in as an afterthought, but you have to pay attention to it. As far as we know, this is the first time that human beings began to realize that if you burned brick, it was stronger.

So we’ve got two technologies going on here. We’ve got a plane and we’re going to build a mountain. We’re going to use the best of our scientific knowledge and burn brick and use mortar. No more stacking up mud bricks on each other. And of course, the whole project is a technology of a sort too. Not engineering, but religion. It’s a religious technology too. We’re going to climb up and see what God has for us. Maybe we’ll even take his place. Well, to build a mountain on a plane with technology requires common work, doesn’t it? A core of engineers. But the funny thing, if we look closely at the story is the perverse nature of the common work. It starts out with some words that should sound so familiar, let us build the tower.

Back in chapter one of Genesis, who is it that says let us? The trinity. And what are they creating? Everything. But they’re creating everything in unity and love. Now I don’t know about you, but let me tell you how it’s worked in my work life. There are two groups of people in any project that I’ve ever been involved in. There are those who stand at a podium like this and say let us, and then there are the people out there who go and do it. Common work is almost never common. Leadership is important, yes, but far too often the building that is named for a family or a person, well, that family or person may have stood at the podium, but they didn’t mix the brick.

So common work always involves division, division of labor, division of people. And again, in the earthly sense, I don’t know that that’s a bad thing, but when we’re talking about a technology to reach heaven, how can we start with division? God creates everything and it’s let us in mutuality and love. We try and reach heaven and it’s let us, only it’s a guy in robes like this telling people like you to do the work. What’s the desire? What’s the desire in Babel? Well, deliverance from disquietude, yes, but the verses put it clearly. Let us make a name for ourselves. Again, I wonder whose name, but it’s a name for ourselves that we will be important and let’s stay permanently together. Let’s batten down the hatches. Let’s exercise control so that we’re not dispersed, and so they build this technology and notice what those steps of a ziggurat for, that man may ascend to the place that belongs to God.

God will not have any of that, and so this desire for unity, let’s not be scattered. Let’s make a name for ourselves. Let’s go up to heaven. Let’s build something that will last. Now humans being humans with a little help from God’s judgment, what happens is the exact opposite. Destruction and scattering. The well-meaning attempt, perhaps well-meaning. I’ll say well-meaning. The well-meaning attempt to secure something that will last through the use of human ingenuity, through the use of human religious nature, through the use of technology, both spiritual and scientific, to build something that we can just hold onto because we’re so tired, results in the exact opposite. Destruction and scattering.

It’s a spiritual principle we understand, isn’t it? The tighter I hold on to something, the more apt I am to break it. Contrast that with the Mount of Transfiguration. First of all, the location is natural. It’s God-given. Want a mountain? Why not go to where a mountain is? And it requires waiting. It requires waiting. Waiting on the mountain, yes, but also waiting in the narrative of event of God’s plan. This is Luke chapter nine, not Luke chapter one. Something has gone before, and then if we consider the Old Testament, it’s gone before and before and before until this very moment. Urgency does not do so well in God’s kingdom.

The Mount of Transfiguration is also God’s work, the miracle there, God accomplishes it. The only construction endeavor on the top of the mountain scripture kind of pats Peter on his head and says well, he didn’t know what he was saying. There’s no room for a human construction project in the act of God because this is not the movement of man up step by step. The transfiguration is ultimately the movement of God down. God down. And what happens to the disquietude? Well, not quite what we hoped. It’s not so much that the disquietude is stopped by us hanging together and battening down the hatches, it’s rather that the disquietude is transformed.

Some really cool things happen. Jesus appears as he is, fully God and fully man. Jesus appears as one day we shall see him when the veils are lifted. Jesus appears in continuity with, in dialogue with, and yet, surpassing the law and the prophets, but you are not allowed to stay there. The very conversation Moses and Elijah are having with Jesus is about, I prefer the older translation, his exodus. Because see, a miraculous thing happens in the midst of the disquietude of this world, but the next step is to go back down the mountain, across the valley, and ultimately up the cross. It’s not that suffering is negated, it’s that there’s light in the middle of it. The result, resurrection, ultimately for Jesus, for us. The result, unity. We don’t so much see the unity at this point, we see the unity of the Old Testament with the new. The unity won’t ultimately come until the day of Pentecost, when the gift of tongues fully undoes the scattering of people.

Now this isn’t just an interesting piece of biblical trivia and symbolism, although I hope it’s that. See, in my life, in yours, in our society, our Babel projects are always ongoing. When I force an artificial time and place for deliverance from disquietude, I actually make it worse. Those bad choices lead to bad results. When I engage in scientism or spiritualism rather than scientific inquiry or proper religious piety. When I grant technology or the occult messianic powers, I actually make it worse. Simple example of this, I’m old enough to remember, are you? When the promise was that the internet would bring the world together. How’d that work out?

When we accept the labels of division of various leaders, political, religious, cultural, when we accept the labels put upon us, we may find some short-term sense of security and belonging in an us versus them world, but ultimately, we will descend deeper into tribalism and disunity. We work out Babel again and again in our flirting with animosity. When we try and preempt pain through man made attempts at permanence, trying to seize heaven in our grubby hands, ultimately the pain increases and there’s nothing left. I see it week in and week out in my work where well-meaning patients, well-meaning families faced with an end of life situation, try again and again, greater and greater interventions with diminishing and diminishing results to no end. When we try and preempt pain, when we try and grasp permanence, we are no better than Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem. We are ruined and ruins are all that’s left.

Now the path we are given, note given, it’s something we receive is different. It’s a top down rescue mission from God as opposed to bottom up striving. We wait for God’s time and place. As I said, Luke nine comes way after Luke one, way after Genesis 11. In Luke two, we’re told of old Simeon who waited long for the redemption of Israel, walking on worn out knees into the temple for that day, that day when the clouds would break and the disquietude would begin to recede. So we wait, and like the disciples, sometimes in our waiting we fall asleep. But then in verse 32, it tells us that they woke up. In fact, it says the disciples became fully awake and they saw the greatness of God, the same man that they’d been traveling with, who they’d shared rooms with, who they shared meals with, who they knew there was something unique about, but when they became fully awake, they saw that it wasn’t just that he was a really special guy, a great moral teacher, a wandering Jewish sage, but that he was God himself.

In our case, could it be time again and again and again we’re never done with it? Could it be time yet again that we need to wake up from the nightmare dream of our own Babel projects? They wake up in verse 32 and in verse 35, they see God’s chosen one. He’s shiny, he’s bright. In his light everything else gives way. His light does not just reveal the darkness as sometimes we’re taught when we worry about our secret sins. It’s not just that God’s light reveals the darkness, it dispels the darkness. The transfiguration of Jesus is not the excuse to get your life in order, his holy light is itself the cure. Everything finds its proper place in that light, our disquietude, our questions, our work, our frustrations, even good things like the law and the prophets like Moses and Elijah are relativized. We see the God man in that light. We see God’s love in that light. We see our future in that light.

Verse 35 says having seen, they then get instructions, listen to him. Coming back to this world of America from where Kate and I had been, a lot of my life right now involves turning off voices. In the 10 years I was away, I did not realize how many voices appeared in this world. There are voices that tell me where to get my car serviced, where to get my dry cleaning done, how to get the best interest rate on my home refinance, or to talk to me about my auto warranty. And then there are voices who tell me who my enemies are and who my friends are and what God really means and what I should like and above all what I should purchase.

And through that, through that cacophony of noise, a voice from Heave says listen to him. Listen to him. Our ears form our hearts, which form our lives. Paul says how can people believe if they have not heard? And so in listening to God, through the Eucharist, through prayers, through the daily office, through Bible reading, in listening to God, we learn how to form our lives in the midst of this disquietude. More than that, we learn how to not make false choices in an attempt to make the pain go away quickly.

Lastly, we recognize that full deliverance is not here for us yet. As I said, even in his glory, Jesus is talking about his exodus as the people of Israel went through the Red Sea from slavery into freedom so one day we will go where Jesus went, through the grave and gate of death, only it’s not the bad thing we thought it was. His transcendent glory will still go down the mountain, will still go up the cross, his glory will be revealed there too, but in a different way. And so it is with our lives of disquietude following him, whether in a moment where we shine, where everything’s just perfect, or a moment where we hang naked, abused, and alone. The morning star arises in our hearts.

Two things are true, the peace that Jesus gives us is not as the world gives. The mistake of Babel and all our Babel projects is to get away from the trouble. Jesus promises peace in the trouble. Jesus says in John 16, quite clearly in this world you will have trouble, but take heart for I have overcome the world. Overcome the world. That’s another way of saying transfiguration. In the midst of our disquietude, our Babel projects, here we are gathered around this table with a meager light, waiting, falling asleep, hoping that Jesus will reveal himself as he always does in forms of bread and wine. Like Peter, we can say truly it is good to be here, not because it’s permanent, but because its effects are. The bad news, my friends, is that disquietude rages. The good news is its days are numbered.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.