On Wednesday of this week, the season of Lent begins. In some of the more liturgical churches, there will be worship services on Wednesday to note the arrival of the Lenten season, but all day, during the day, in these churches, people will be coming to receive a smudge of ashes on their foreheads. It is likely that we will encounter some of these people on Wednesday, and our attention will be drawn to their faces like a flash of light in the darkness. Our first temptation, though, may be to pretend that we do not see; to act as if everyone wears a quarter-sized smudge of ashes on their foreheads every single day of their lives. That’s me. I know. I’ve done this for years. I can’t stop pretending that I don’t see. I was taught to pretend as a youngster. “Don’t look. Don’t stare, they’re Catholics!”
The ashes that our more liturgical friends will be wearing on Wednesday will most likely have come from the dried palms left over from last year’s Palm Sunday celebrations. The ashes are then mixed with a little bit of olive oil, smudged on the forehead, and put there as a symbol of repentance. The ashes are an outward and visible sign of a person’s relationship with Jesus Christ. So don’t pull a Wayne. If you see somebody wearing ashes on Wednesday, don’t glance away, don’t pretend that they’re not there. Instead, thank the person for wearing them. Thank that person for identifying themselves as a Christian, and tell them that you, too, are a follower of Jesus Christ. There just might be a potential friendship in the making.
Well if the ashes of Ash Wednesday leave our faces a little smudged, the glory of the Transfiguration left Jesus’ face shining like the sun. On the mountain, Jesus revealed his full glory, and the disciples almost missed it.
Prayer is probably the most important discipline that any of us can cultivate. And Jesus is our prime tutor in this matter. When Jesus needed to pray, when Jesus needed to be alone with God, everything else in his life came to a crashing halt. Without exception, the single most important discipline in Jesus’ life was prayer. And so Jesus has gone up into a mountain to pray. Jesus is away from the crowds, and even away from most of his disciples. Only Peter and John and James are with him. And they’re not really with him, because they have managed to fall asleep. A careful study of the Gospels will reveal that all of the disciples suffered from narcolepsy. Whenever Jesus prays, the disciples sleep. Much could be said, perhaps, about the exhausting demands of ministry that often overwhelmed the disciples, but it is far more fun to imagine that the disciples of Jesus had perfected the art of sleeping with a pious look on their faces, to hint at prayer, much in the same way that some people have perfected the same art for use in worship services. Luke, I think, would rather that we tended toward the exhausting demands of ministry, but the actual words he uses have confused translators for centuries. Try to think of something like “asleep, but alert”, or “alertly sleeping”, and you’ll be pretty close.
But while the three disciples were sleeping alertly, Jesus’ appearance was radically changed, and neither Luke, nor we, nor those sleepily alert disciples can fully comprehend it. In fact, most of the whole of this chapter is like that. Chapter nine is probably the most thunderous, most dramatic, most life changing, most other-worldly chapter in the whole of Luke’s Gospel. For our purposes this morning, chapter nine is the most significant chapter in the Gospel. The whole chapter represents a turning point in the disciples’ lives and in Jesus’ life.
The chapter begins with Jesus giving his disciples the power to cure diseases, and the authority to drive out demons. That’s huge. It can only mean that the torch of the Kingdom of God is being passed on to the disciples. Every Christian generation since then has passed on the torch of ministry to the next generation.
And then Jesus sends the disciples out to preach. And with that preaching, the kingdom is growing and moving out into new areas. And today, that torch is still being passed, even if those new places are in our own neighborhoods.
And then there’s the feeding of the five thousand, which is an awesome demonstration not only of how Jesus meets human need, but also about how we are co-participants in meeting that need. Like the disciples, we are the ones who are called to distribute the bounty that Jesus creates and provides.
And that is followed by Peter’s awesome and amazing declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the long awaited Messiah. And after that, there’s the powerfully troubling call to discipleship that immediately precedes the Transfiguration. In that call, Jesus asks us the same questions that he asked us last Sunday. We must always answer those questions very thoughtfully, and carefully.
Twice in this chapter Jesus goes away by himself to pray, and twice Jesus plainly tells his disciples that he must suffer and die. And, in spite of this overload of profound awesomeness, the disciples still find some time to bicker among themselves about which one of them is the greatest. And if that isn’t enough to cram into one chapter, we’ve also got verse 51, where Jesus resolutely and sorrowfully turns his soul in the direction of Jerusalem to begin the long and frightening journey to his death. I cannot imagine the courage that that moment took. It was all about endings, to be sure, but it was also about endings that led to ultimate fulfillment.
In chapter nine, the ministry of Jesus is rapidly changing. It is expanding to the disciples, and the center point of it all is this moment of glory on top of the mountain.
Heaven has broken, once again, into the earthly realm. The gates of heaven have opened up, and eternity is occupying the top of the mountain. And Moses and Elijah have come to talk with Jesus. And somehow, part way through the conversation, the disciples are beginning to come to, and they are absolutely dumbfounded. There is light everywhere. Bright, blinding light. Light that they cannot fully comprehend, because it is so other-worldly. This light is incomprehensible because it is the very light of heaven, and the disciples discover that they are aliens and strangers in this holy place on the top of this mountain.
I would have loved to have been a flea in Peter’s pocket so that I could have heard that conversation between Jesus and Moses and Elijah. But I suspect that the conversation was more for Jesus’ benefit than it was for Peter or James or John. The disciples certainly seem to be intruders in this whole affair, because it seems that just as the disciples are beginning to become involved, the conversation is over, and Moses and Elijah are gone as mysteriously as they appeared.
But an observation, nonetheless: this conversation began with prayer. Jesus had felt the need to pray, and in that prayer, heaven embraced him. When we pray, our hearts are also embraced by heaven, and our voices are heard in the very throne room of God. We may not experience blinding light, and visions of Moses and Elijah when we pray, but we are very close to where they are. The hosts of all of heaven surround us when we pray. Angels and archangels and seraphs and cherubim and loved ones are all there.
It is not an accident that a bit of the heavenly conversation on the mountain is preserved. We learn that Moses and Elijah and Jesus are talking about Jesus’ departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Please do not miss the significance of the word “accomplish”.
Accomplish is a word that implies purpose, and determination, and completion. The death of Jesus was no senseless tragedy. The death of Jesus did not come about as the inevitable result of a crowd gone mad. The death of Jesus was the culmination of God’s plan of salvation, put in place and established long before Adam and Eve ever felt the soil of this earth between their toes.
Just as things were winding down on the top of the mountain a cloud enveloped everyone. This cloud is the glory cloud of God’s presence, and it makes appearances throughout the Scriptures, and always for the benefit of the human beings who witness it. We probably remember it best as the pillar of cloud by day and the column of fire by night that led God’s people through the wilderness and reminded them of God’s daily presence, protection and provision. This cloud, though, has been around since before the moment of creation. There we learn that it hovered over that very mysterious deep.
The presence of this cloud terrified the disciples. They knew that this cloud signaled the very presence of God. And then, as the cloud enveloped everyone, there was a voice that came thundering out of it. “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him.” And then it was all over. And here we discover that this event is a critical moment for James and John and Peter, and for every disciple of Jesus in the ensuing 2000 years. Our instructions are to listen, to pay attention and to heed the voice of Jesus. Easier said than done, but essential to our lives.