3/3/2019: Shadow and Light, Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-43
Shadows and Light
First Lesson: Exodus 34:29-35
Second Lesson: Luke 9:28-43
We stand here as we do each year on the Sunday before Lent with Jesus and his disciples upon the mountain, where he is transfigured before them, marking a kind of halfway point between his baptism and his resurrection and ascension. It’s a story that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell and that we know well. It’s almost the definition of a “mountaintop experience,” where the disciples behold the glory of God, standing in awesome of the light, having almost to be forced to go back down into the valley where the real world awaits them, where the world needs them.
At least, this is how you’ve heard me preach this story before, and for Matthew and Mark’s telling of it, it works. But Luke is up to something different here. As Justo González points out in his wonderful commentary that’s been my companion through theses sermons in Luke, for Luke this is less a “mountaintop experience,” and more a witness to the murky middle of discipleship.
While Jesus was praying there up on the mountain, “The appearance of his face was changed,” Luke tells us, “and his clothes became a dazzling white.” Suddenly there are two men standing with him, Moses and Elijah there talking to him—how we or the disciples know it was them, as the group asked at Bible study Wednesday night, I’m not sure. I doubt they had name tags, we’re simply told it was them and they were there appearing “in glory” and talking to Jesus “of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” A strange note there, which only Luke includes, of these two pillars of Judaism talking to Jesus about his travel plans to come and be with them in heaven. It literally says they were discussing “his exodus.” Just verses before this story in Luke, Jesus had warned his disciples about his coming suffering and death. Now he speaks of it with Moses and Elijah—it’s clearly weighing on him, and why wouldn’t it?
And the disciples, we’re told in another detail unique to Luke, are “weighed down with sleep,” and through their groggy eyes see all of this unfold before them. Peter, of course, does what he always does and says something, anything, and offers to building dwellings for all of them—“not knowing what he said,” Luke tells us. When all of the sudden a cloud sweeps across the mountain and overshadows them and, terrified, they enter the cloud, and from this cloud is a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And then in the length of time between the end of one verse and the start of another, all of this is gone, Jesus is found alone. “And they kept silent,” we’re told, “and…told no one any of the things they had seen.”
For a story about seeing the light, there sure are a lot of shadows up there on the mountain.
A lot of questions, a lot of fog and clouds obscuring our vision.
A lot of confusion, a lot of mystery, all of which ends with an extended silence. Did you notice this other odd detail, again, that only Luke provides: that Peter, John and James told no one what they saw up there on the mountain. No one. How is that possible?
When they come down the mountain surely the others would have asked what transpired up there. Surely they would have seen the clouds overshadow them and then disappear as quickly as they came. Surely they would have seen it in their faces that they had witnessed something. They may not have been dazzling white like Jesus or like Moses’ when he came down from the mountain and the presence of God, but they almost certainly were some kind of white! No, there’s something different going on here in Luke. Something far less settled. This feels less like nirvana that they’ve experienced, on more like trauma.
So you can imagine the further shock it must have been as they come down the mountain and walk into the fray of a crowd pushing in on them with so many rushing to Jesus for healing and help and suddenly this man somehow shouts out above the rest about his son who’s tormented by this spirit and how the other disciples who were left down in the valley couldn’t help him. Think how they must have tried and tried and looked over their shoulder to see if Jesus and the others were on their way, the father getting more and more frustrated and nearing his wits end, wanting to do whatever he could to help his son, and the disciples keep praying and praying, and looking for Jesus until finally he was there. And you can imagine their mix of embarrassment and dejection and relief when the father started telling his story and how they couldn’t help him.
And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus responds to it all in a way that seems very un-Jesus, replying not just to the father but to the whole crowd, the whole world: You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? He then tells the father to bring his son to him, casts out the spirit, heals the boy, gives him back to his father, and “all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
I’m sure they were. But is anyone at peace with what we’ve just heard? Were the disciples?
Yes, the boy was healed, but after so much failure and frustration. So much waiting and confusion and even so much less comfort from Jesus, who seems to be struggling to come to terms with the suffering and death that awaits him.
And this would continue as they made their way to Jerusalem. The crowds would clear and again Jesus would tell them about what was to come, this time more directly than before: Let these words sink into you ears,” he would say to them, The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands. But they again didn’t understand—how could they? And they were afraid to ask him—why wouldn’t they be?
It all happened on the mountain, but this is no mountaintop experience—at least how we imagine they’re supposed to be. There’s plenty of light but just as many shadows. There are moments of glory, but they’re seen through a fog—through a mirror dimly lit, as Paul would put it. There’s great hope at what is happening among them, but just as much failure and frustration. There’s so much left unsettled. Few clear answers. Moments of triumph surrounded by periods of uncertainty. It may not sound like what we’d expect the life of a disciple of Jesus would look like. But then again, look at our lives.
Isn’t this how life and faith are sometimes? Most of the time? Seasons of time?
It happens so fast here with the disciples it feels more like a roller coaster, with all the abrupt ups and downs—clouds swooping in, light appearing. And we have seasons in our own lives that feel that way, too. The diagnosis that comes out of no where. Losing a job out of the blue. A car veers, tragedy strikes. And I suppose unexpected joys can surprise us, too. The lucky-break, the windfall.
But what the disciples experience here in a very short period you and I may see over a length of time. Most spiritual clouds don’t swoop in and swoop out; they linger for a time. If it’s Jesus’ face shining at us, we usually cann’t tell it with certainty. The healing we wait for is less the time the rest of the disciples waited for Jesus to come down the mountain and more the time the boy and his family had been living it with spirit long before Jesus ever came to town.
Most of the questions we have for Jesus don’t get answered so quickly. And we have to try and find a way to live with them. Live through them. If we can, even live into them.
Several years ago, Richard Rohr, the great Franciscan spiritual writer and patron saint of the Adult Too Sunday school class here at First Baptist, wrote a book on spirituality and the 12 steps he called “Breathing Under Water.” The title is taken from a poem by Carol Bieleck that describes someone building a house by the sea. Not on the sands, but on sturdy rock, there overlooking the sea that for a time seemed at bay, so to speak. “We got well acquainted, the sea and I,” she writes, “Good neighbors.” Until one day the sea came. It came not all at once, but slowly and deliberately—“flowing like an open wound,” she writes.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought, the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.
For Rohr, the rising, inescapable waters are the waters of addiction— to alcohol or drugs or whatever tangible thing it might be, but the truth is, he writes, that these are just outward signs of a deeper condition we all suffer from. We’re all “addicted” to something, we all depend on something to cope, to numb us in some way, to get us through life without having to encounter it at any great depth, or at least not for too long—be it our defenses, our way of thinking, our imperfect way of seeing the world. As a people we’re addicted to oil to war or consumerism or power—to a sense of our superiority our world view, our “innocence.” And while our instincts would tell us to ignore these things, or at best simply run from them or try to build walls to block them, the truth is they’re so great we can only learn to transcend them, to live through them, to breathe underwater.
And this, he writes, is salvation. What the 12 steppers call recovery, the New Testament calls salvation: learning to pass through the pain to find healing,
“surrendering to win, dying to live, giving it away to keep it.”
Finding wholeness amid what feels like fractures pieces. Seeing how the pieces can come together to create something new—not without imperfections, and jagged edges, but revealing beauty within the brokenness.
Kelsey chose it as our call to worship last week, but Thomas Merton’s famous prayer gives voice to this kind of hard-won peace. “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I cannot see the road ahead of me. I cannot know where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”
“But—he prays—I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I a doing.”
He ends the prayer saying, “I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
“Are we Easter people, or are we people of the cross?” Justo González, asks. The answer, of course, is “yes.”
Are we people of mountain, or of the valley?
Do we train our eyes to see the light, or does a fog remain?
Do we walk this road alone, or will there be other pilgrims along the way?
But will I ever be fully alone?
Even the God of infinite yeses will tell us no when we need to hear it.
 Justo González makes this point beautifully in his commentary on Luke from the Belief series, which has helped shape this sermon.
 Justo L. González, 128