by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
February 18, 2007
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
“And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.” –Luke 9:29-30
Much Christian preaching these days tells us what God will do for us when we do something, like give ourselves to Him in a pledge of faith, for Him. There is the Gospel of wealth, and the Gospel of peace of mind, of positive mental attitude and mutual caring, of moral indignation and political exhortation. These samples are not uniformly wrong, but they do rather skew the emphasis towards the practical and away from the contemplative dimension of the NT message. We preachers are expected always to find and declare the “so what” in every story, what Aesop and the Victorians called the “moral” of a story, that we obscure the important dimension of what I can only call worship. The saying “Don’t just stand there, do something!” is the usual motto of the pulpit, and today I want to put in a word for the opposite, namely, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
Today we find the disciples simply staring as Jesus shines before them. They see him start to pray, and gradually begin to glow, brighter and brighter, until thy have to avert their eyes from the rays of his glory. “Glory” is the Bible’s word for the radiance of God and here we see Jesus in glory and know who he is. Most sermons I have heard on this story rush on to the work that awaits us in the valley after we leave this precious place on the mountaintop at this precious time with Jesus in his glory. I want to urge you to forget all you can on the valley and abide here on the mountaintop as if it were the only place on earth worth being, which of course it is.
The context of the account in the order of the gospel narrative is significant: just after Peter’s confession of him as the Christ of God and in the midst of the first prophecies of his humiliation, suffering and death, on the one hand, and just before the commencement of the long journey to Jerusalem where the prophecies will come to pass (9:51), on the other. Luke’s gospel is composed in such a way as to emphasize that discipleship is walking with Jesus every step of the long journey to the Cross. The journey begins just after this event of self-revelation and lasts from 9:51 to chapter 23, almost sixty percent of the whole gospel text.
In the liturgical calendar, next Wednesday begins Lent; it is Ash Wednesday, when we begin the forty-day walk with Jesus through the wilderness to Jerusalem. Since we might in the midst of the gloom of the penitential path be overcome with darkness and forget who he is and what really is going on, we read this gospel story that reassures us that we walk with the light of the world to victory over death not to defeat in the dark. Moses and Elijah appeared with him, says the gospel, talking about the “departure’ he is to achieve in Jerusalem. The word Luke uses for “departure” is “exodus,” because he intends us to hear the allusion to the great saving event of the OT, the deliverance of the slaves from Egyptian bondage. Thus we are reminded that we are embarking on a solemn but not sad journey, a hard but not hopeless migration, indeed a march of triumph rather than a slouch and a stagger. “We are marching to the promised land,” as the old “spiritual” sings.
Clearly we are dealing here with spiritual insight and not moral exhortation. The gospel tells us not so much what we must do, nor how we should react as, who Jesus is. He is about to enter a period of humiliation, never forget who is being humiliated, he is entering the darkness of human ignorance and force, never forget who is being whipped, punched and nailed up here, hand and foot. He is the Christ of God, Peter says, and Jesus shows Peter the truth of his confession. Jesus is indeed, highest in the glory of God. The law represented by Moses and the prophecies represented by Elijah find fulfillment in him. Moses and Elijah defer and stand aside, and the depth of the divine reality comes to word, “This is my Son, My Beloved, listen to Him!” “Do not listen to Moses,” “Do not listen to Elijah!” ” Rather, listen to Him!” (I know the church does want to draw the negative conclusions about the law and the prophets that I do here, because it is a religious institution and needs religious trappings to prosper, nevertheless, I wish to insist on them. Jesus makes all that goes before obsolete, and when we are able to accept that we shall begin to find a way out of the embarrassment of religion into the authenticity of existence in faith).
In our pragmatic civilization the Bible is of no importance unless it can instruct us how to live successfully in this world. Can it help us to be rich? Can it bring us peace of mind? What can it do for me? Can it give me a “purpose driven life? This kind of expectation is not shameful, but it is vulgar, juvenile and shallow. In Trinity College, Dublin there is, on display alongside the magnificent manuscript of the Book of Kells, a faded remnant of the Book of Jarrow. It is faded because the farmers that rediscovered it, knowing it was holy, and therefore good for something, soaked it in water and gave the water to their ailing cows to drink. This is a perfect example of what I call the vulgar attitude to the Scripture; it must do something useful or else what’s it for?
Today we have a story that is good for nothing; it won’t cure your cow’s cramps, nor make your portfolio prosper. It is good for nothing, except to give us the opportunity to sit before radiant Jesus in his glory, with gaping mouth and teary eyes, and know with gratitude two things, that he is the one who turns the key to my life, and that the burden of religion, its law and its prophecy, has disappeared from my heart as shadows when we turn on the light.
Did Jesus really shine like the sun, or is this just a story? I think he shone, actually and wonderfully, and that this effulgence was simply an acute instance of the normal radiance that surrounded him wherever he went. I know people who can at times be radiant, I know that there is more to spirit than I understand, and I know that the human Jesus was Spirit rampant in the flesh, and is still the light of the world; so why not? Finally, I know that when at last I go into that ineluctable dark I shall enter his unquenchable light. Therefore, today I take this time simply to sit and watch and feel very good that there is one so beautiful to love, who loves me and will never leave me in the dark.