A Promising Contradiction
Feb 27, 2022
The Transfiguration of our Lord
Text: Luke 9:28-36
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Do you remember the story of Adolphus? I told it to you several weeks ago; it was about a man who through his disconcerting behavior challenged the people of LaSalle Street Church in Chicago to live out the grace they proclaimed. And, according to the author Philip Yancey, who told the story in his book ”Church: Why Bother?”, they did just that.
There’s another story that Philip Yancey tells about LaSalle Street Church that I want to share with you today. It is about transformation and affirmation, which happens to be a theme of the Gospel lesson.
He tells how, each year in the summer, the congregation held a baptism service in always-frigid Lake Michigan. Those being baptized that day included two young stockbrokers, husband and wife, who said they wanted to “identify with Jesus more publicly”. There was a woman of Cuban descent, a man who had been an agnostic until the previous six months, an aspiring opera singer, and an 85-year-old African American woman who was being immersed against her doctor’s advice. They, along with seven others, a very diverse group, were quickly immersed in the lake and emerged trembling and goose-pimply, eyes bright and large from the cold. Church members standing on the shore welcomed them with hugs (and I hope towels) and announced, “Welcome to the Body of Christ!”
These proceedings were watched by beachgoers who were also diverse but represented the principle that like gathers with like. Families were in one section of the beach, people of Hispanic background in another, gay men in another … the list of groupings could go on and on. But to Philip Yancey, the group from LaSalle Street Church - including people who that very day were transformed by the waters of baptism and affirmed by their new church family - was a symbol of the alternative society that Jesus inaugurated on earth long ago. They were diverse, yes, but had the same identity of, as theologian Karl Barth once said, people who contradict the world in a way which is full of promise. (1)
Today’s Gospel lesson is all about that promise, which comes to us in Jesus, who was both transformed and affirmed in what we call the Transfiguration, described in today’s Gospel reading.
During the last two weeks, our focus was on Luke 6, the Sermon on the Plain, in which we were confronted with challenging descriptions of how followers of Jesus are to live. Remember … love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, do not judge, show mercy…. All of which direct us to a new way of living in the world, the way of love.
Then Jesus sets out to live out his own teaching. He heals the servant of a Centurion, a Roman soldier; he raises a mother’s only son from death to life; he heals people of diseases, plagues, evil spirit, and blindness; he taught in parables; calmed a storm that threatened to capsize the boat in which he and his disciples were traveling; returned a severely disturbed man to “his right mind”; fed thousands with five loaves and two fish … in just three chapters of scripture… and that’s not the complete list. Most importantly, perhaps, he made it clear to his closest followers that he will suffer, be rejected, be killed and the third day rise from the dead. His followers, though, seem unable to hear these words.
Then, we read, Jesus goes up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John. While he is praying, he experiences both transformation and affirmation. The appearance of his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white, scripture says. It’s not that Jesus became something he was not already; the transformation was that Peter, James, and John saw him for the first time for who he always had been. The light of his divinity is shining in and through his humanity.
On that mountain, Jesus is encouraged by his ancestors Moses and Elijah, heroes of the faith, and affirmed by God with words similar to those spoken at his baptism, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
It’s interesting to note that only in Luke’s version of this story is the content of Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah revealed. Look again at verse 31: “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” His departure … a reference to his arrest, suffering, and death … but the word that he actually used is not departure, but exodus. And, that word occurs nowhere else in the Gospels.
Especially with Moses on the premises, the use of that word should remind us of the watershed event of the Jewish faith, when the people of Israel were freed from centuries of slavery in Egypt, with Moses as God’s instrument to lead their departure. That’s the Exodus. It’s interesting that it’s a story filled with suffering, struggle, and victory, which is repeated in cycles over the centuries. Like Moses, in spite of being chosen, Jesus is not granted an easy passage in his exodus. (2)
So, with this reminder from the past, and having experienced transformation and affirmation, Jesus’ final journey leading to the cross begins. That’s why we observe Transfiguration Sunday every year the Sunday before Lent and our journey to Holy Week and Easter begins.
There’s one other detail I’d like to point out today. Did you notice verse 32? “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” No doubt, they were glad they stayed awake; just think what they would have missed if they had not done so?
Pastor JoAnn Taylor writes this: “The journey of Lent is an invitation to stay awake. His glory is breaking in all around us, all the time. Do we have the eyes to see it? What is keeping you distracted? What is numbing your senses? What is lulling you to sleep? What will it take to become awake?” (3)
Those are good questions for us to consider as Lent begins. Those who were baptized in the story with which I began had become awake – by more than the cold water of Lake Michigan – but by receiving God’s grace and seeing it shared. In that, like Peter, James, and John, they too experienced the glory of God.
During Lent, look for God’s glory. It may not be as visible as Jesus’ shinning face and clothes, or as startling as a cold dunk in the lake. But, then again, perhaps that will be the case. Look for it in our focus on the Psalms. Look for it in the Interfaith Justice Series. Look for it in your children’s and grandchildren’s often insightful questions. Look for it in answered prayer. Look for it in a concert, or in nature or in your own face.
I often see the glory of God in very ordinary places and people, but it takes me a while to realize that that is what I have seen. It is when we are awake that we can contradict the world in a way full of promise. AMEN
(1)“Church: Why Bother?” By Philip Yancey, 1998, Zondervan, pgs. 38-41
(2)“Transfiguration of Our Lord” by Sarah Henrich, www.workingpreacher.org
(3)“Listen to Him: A Sermon on Luke 9:28-36” by JoAnn Taylor, March 2, 2019,, www.pastorsings.com