A little over a week after Jesus preached the Beatitudes, he went away to pray. In other Gospel moments, when Jesus goes away to pray, he tends to go alone. This time, he invites three disciples to go with him: Peter, John, and James. As a prelude to the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus goes to pray, but does not want to be alone, he brings disciples along with him. All of us, even Jesus, need community. We cannot go it alone. He is not running away from the needs around him when he goes away to pray. He embraces the needs around him by seeking a place to intercede for creation.
While on the mountain, Jesus transforms during the time of prayer. His face changes appearance and his clothes shine with light. Two Old Testaments prophets, Moses and Elijah, appear. They start talking together about what will happen to Jesus in Jerusalem and everything about to happen to him the week of his death and resurrection. Peter, James, and John forced themselves to stay awake so they wouldn’t miss a thing. This time, they saw everything – unlike the night Jesus invites the disciples to pray with him in the garden before his crucifixion, when they cannot stay awake, the disciples are riveted. They are in such awe of what they are witnessing they cannot help but force themselves to stay up on the mountain while Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah through the night.
But the mountain top moment with the prophets cannot last forever. Eventually Elijah and Moses get ready to leave. As they are departing from the mountain, Peter has an idea. He goes to Jesus and says, “Thank goodness we are here to help! James, John, and I can build some dwellings for each of you!” A cloud from heaven surrounds Peter after he says this, including the others, and a voice comes out of the cloud, saying “This is my child, listen to him!” After this, it’s almost like nothing had happened. Jesus is alone, his face is no longer different, his clothes no longer shine. The night has returned to its stillness and the only clouds are the ones high above in the sky. Notice that Peter makes no other comments about how convenient it is that he is there with James and John on the mountain. They stay silent for the rest of the evening, returning to prayer and eventually to sleep. They didn’t tell anyone what they experienced on the mountain that night and kept it to themselves.
When they go down the mountain, a crowd is waiting for Jesus, Peter, James, and John. A father in the crowd shouts, “My only child, my son, is sick and needs healing. Can you help him?” Jesus seems angry and grieved in his reply – he even calls the crowd ‘faithless’ and ‘perverse.’ He says, “How long must I put up with you? Bring your child here.” The demon possession Luke describes in this healing translates to what modern doctors would most likely call a seizure disorder today. Jesus heals him and returns the child to his father. The passage ends with a line like a ribbon tied around a present: Everyone was amazed at God’s greatness. The End. And everyone lived happily ever after.
The parallel of the child-parent relationship here seems quite purposeful. God calls out on the mountain to Peter to rebuke him, reminding him that Jesus is their child, and God declares to the group of disciples that Jesus is God’s chosen one. Now, Jesus is the one responding to the needs of a parent, and rebuking the crowd. As God’s child, Jesus offers another child healing, returning him to his family. It seems that everything is how it should be now at the end of the passage, as if Jesus has taken care of everything.
But a question lingers in the air – what will happen now? Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus about what was about to happen to him in Jerusalem, about what he would accomplish there, about what the future holds for him in the not too distant future. In the space between the Sermon on the Plain and Holy Week, Jesus speaks with the patriarchs who represent the Law, Moses, and the Prophets, Elijah. In the midlands, Jesus prepares. He does not escape to another place to avoid his mission and ministry, but gets ready for the time ahead of him. He gets ready for whatever is next for him. And in this time of preparation, a father asks for healing for his only child, his son.
I often wonder what Jesus felt like as he responded to the demands on his time and his healing energy. He could have easily left for heaven for Moses and Elijah during the transfiguration. He just did the grand tour of healings and teachings with the Beatitudes and the miracle of the loaves and fishes. What else does he need to accomplish or to show people God’s love and power? But Moses and Elijah talk with him about what is next. I imagine this as a moment of decision for Jesus. Do I stay or do I go? Do I remain here and complete what is before me, even to the point of death, or can I leave now? I brought witnesses with me to see this all happen, so I don’t have to stay. Peter, James, and John could tell the others where I have gone and what I am doing next. It would be so easy to disappear up into heaven with Moses and Elijah, rejoin my Father, and be done with the incarnation.
Or what about Peter? I wonder how Jesus felt when Peter made the presumption that his presence mattered because of what he could do for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter, James, and John do not come with Jesus because he needs them to do anything for him. He invites them because they are in relationship with Jesus. Peter misunderstands and cannot sit in awe of what he is witnessing like James and John. He cannot be still. He jumps into action, believing that he is indispensable, believing that he must make himself absolutely important, perhaps even more important than Jesus and the rest.
Or perhaps you see yourself in the father this morning, desperate for healing, longing for God to touch your life and the lives of the people you love. Maybe you have tried everything you can, and nothing is working. Maybe you have reached your limits offering care to someone else, and do not know where else to turn. Maybe you are burnt out, hopeless, yearning for someone or something to alleviate the burden you carry.
Reflection and action go together. The transfiguration is not only about Jesus on the mountaintop, coming into contact with the patriarchs of old. It is about you and me. It is about the ways we reflect, and act, the ways we listen and learn, the ways we build more together than we can alone. It is about us, and yet it is not.