Guest post by Allyn Harris Dault
Sermon preached Jan. 16 at Third Baptist Church, St. Louis
One of the things that often bothers me about sermons is that they’re pretty much one-sided. Normally I would get to do all the talking, and you’d have to sit there patiently, wondering what I’m talking about (on a good day) or when I’ll be done so we can all go have lunch (on a bad day). And while I’m not yet willing to free-form the whole sermon time today, I would like to start by getting some of your thoughts on this passage. The text is included in your bulletin, if that helps, but hopefully you’re familiar enough with the story that you already have some ideas as to its meaning. What is the Transfiguration about? How do we interpret it, or how have you heard it interpreted before?
(answers from the congregation)
Thanks to all of you for being brave enough to share with us. What I’d like to do for the next several minutes is to offer another idea for this passage, one that, at least to me, makes a little more sense and is easier for us to apply to our own lives. I think this passage is like that old joke, “When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar.” We can get so used to hearing things a certain way that we get stuck in that spot, unable to see new life in an old text. The teacher-part of me wishes that “stuck in the mud”-part of all of us didn’t exist, that it would be replaced with a double portion of curiosity and a love for discovery. So, if you would, put on your curious explorer glasses with me. We’ll look at the content and structure of the passage, see how it connects to other themes in Luke, and then ask how we might live differently in light of our discoveries. Then we can all go have lunch.
My reading starts with the parts of the text we only find in Luke. First I want us to look at the text printed on your insert. Many of you probably know that the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) share a lot of material about the life and ministry of Jesus; the Transfiguration is one such piece of material. All the Gospels except John mention it; Luke, however, adds a couple of segments. These are in bold print on the insert, but in a nutshell they are the mentioning of prayer, then a big chunk that includes information about the conversation between Jesus Moses and Elijah, two mentions of the word “glory”, and more space for the disciples in the story than they get in the other gospels.
This bold chunk is significant; it changes the shape of the entire passage. It’s like when you’re looking under a car hood. Everything fits in there just fine, but if there’s a new do-hicky part thing that could improve the function of your engine and battery and whatever else is under there, where can you put it? You have to make a space to fit it in. Luke has the parts from the other Gospels, but the stuff in bold print is Luke’s do-hicky part thing that he fits in between the other stuff.
What this does, structurally, is it creates what bible nerds call a chiastic structure. It’s described there on your insert; basically, it is an in-and-out kind of movement that looks like one half of the letter X (which in Greek is called a “chi”, hence “chiastic structure”), but acts like a sandwich. The beginning and end match up like pieces of bread, the pieces just inside those match up – like putting veggies and cheese on the top and bottom, continuing until you get to the meat in the middle. That middle part is generally the focus of the passage. This goes against our usual framework of beginning-middle-end, with a focus on the end, but in ancient times it was a very common way of structuring a piece of writing. As a side note, if you’re looking to figure out how a biblical text is put together by the author, one way to do that is to look for these chiastic structures.
As you can see on your insert, the chiasm here is pretty straightforward. It starts with Jesus and the three disciples going up the mountain and ends with them coming back down the mountain. Well, actually, that happens in verse 37, but I hope you’ll give me that one. The next pieces show Jesus praying and having the appearance of his face and clothes changed at the beginning, then at the end it says “Jesus was left alone.” The focus of these verses is all on Jesus. As we continue moving toward the middle from either end, we read of heavenly messengers – first Moses and Elijah, then the cloud out of which God speaks. We’re then left with the center of the passage, the focus on the disciples, which if you’ll remember is one of those parts that are unique to Luke. By making them the focus of the story, Luke has turned a story about Jesus into something else. Our door has become ajar.
If the disciples are the focus of this story, what exactly are we supposed to be focusing on? From that piece in the middle, we get this idea that the disciples were not quite seeing clearly, that they’re not sure of what’s going on. Then Peter gets the idea to become a construction worker, but all we learn from this is that he didn’t know what he was talking about. The only other significant information we get about the disciples is that they were silent when they came down the mountain. They didn’t know what to say.
That’s a pretty common thing for the disciples, though, isn’t it? They miss the point over and over. In fact, the disciples don’t ever seem to understand things until after Jesus ascends to heaven in the book of Acts. Jesus teaches them about the importance of service and servanthood, but they ask who will be the greatest in the kingdom. Moses and Elijah come to talk to Jesus about his departure, or more literally, his Exodus toward Jerusalem, but Peter wants them all to hang out on the mountaintop, saying “It is good for us to be here.” Three times in Luke Jesus predicts his death, but the disciples never seem to pick up on it. They’re hoping for a king and all the benefits that go with it: lavish banquets, political influence, swanky robes.
It’s sort of sad how the people on the inside, the ones who ought to understand the point of Jesus’ teachings, just don’t get it. Of course, we have two millennia of hindsight through which to figure it out and we still miss a lot, but notice how often the upside-down kingdom of God appears in Luke. In Luke 1 an old, barren couple conceives and gives birth. Then Mary says that God’s lowly servant will forever be called “blessed”, that the powerful will be brought down and the lowly lifted, that the hungry would be filled while the rich would be sent away empty. In chapter 2 a 12-year-old confounds the old men in the Temple. In chapter 4 Jesus’ message in the Nazareth synagogue is one for release to the captives and sight to the blind. In chapter 5 Jesus calls his disciples, convincing them to give up their responsibilities to their families (a bigger deal than even in our day) to follow him. I could go on, but hopefully by now you get the idea. What we can read in Luke 9 is connected to the ideas in the rest of the book, namely that the normal natural human desire for glory and renown is in tension with God’s desire for us.
Of course, it takes more than reading something in the Bible to be able to take my own desire for glory and really offer it up on a sacrificial altar. Even the work of ministry feeds my ego. When I’m preaching or directing the choir, I’m in the spotlight. At school, I have this inner urge to be the center of the teacher’s attention. I want to be in the limelight, I want to be praised, I want to make sure everyone knows I’m qualified and competent and responsible and brilliant. And I’d take a swanky robe, too.
God wants something else from us, though. We can take our example from Luke. What I really like about Luke’s Gospel is that he wasn’t willing to leave the storytelling to other people. In his message to Theophilus in Chapter 1, he is clear that he is not the first to tell this story; he just sees something that hasn’t been told before, and he makes sure to tell it. And the disciples finally got it; they went from boneheads to servants after the resurrection, making sure that people got the chance to hear what they knew.
Great stories have power. Our country remembers another great story this weekend, the story of Martin Luther King’s courage, how his tragic death has kept him from seeing the progress we’ve made toward fulfilling his dream, an agenda that “proclaims justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates,” as Tavis Smiley described it on a recent radio program. Mr. Smiley continued, “Sometimes, when you have that as your agenda, you’re not popular. When he dies in this country, he dies persona non grata. Over 55 percent of black folk had turned against him by the time he died and probably because they thought he was too soft. He wasn’t radical enough. Others, because of his position on the Vietnam War. And almost three quarters of the American people at large had turned against Dr. King. When he dies on that balcony in Memphis, he is persona non grata.”
It’s too bad that the great stories leave their heroes in such a state, but there’s no denying that this happens often. Our hero, Jesus, was persona non grata, rejected, abandoned. Some probably thought he was too soft, not radical enough. Maybe some didn’t like his position on Rome. And so he dies for a few days in order to change everything. It’s a pretty good story.
When’s the last time you’ve heard that story? When’s the last time you’ve told that story? What in that story is worth sharing? Who in your life is worth sharing that story with? What’s keeping you from sharing it?
The Transfiguration wasn’t written to inspire us to be more like Jesus, I think. None of us are going to get shiny faces or have God say out of a cloud, “That’s my kid! Listen to this one!” In Luke’s version, at least, it’s more about what we do with what we’ve seen and heard. Will we be silent, like the disciples here? Will we be like Luke, always finding new things in the old stories, eager to talk about them?
As we sing our invitation hymn, take a moment to ask yourself – how have I been changed by the work of Christ and the Church? What will I do as a result?