Glows in the Dark

Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

Exodus 34:29-35
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36 (27-43)

(Once again, note the more academic translation and exegetical notes following my thoughts here)


Luke 9:28-36 (27-43)

This is an amazing story. How do you even talk about it? You can’t, actually. It is a vision of God (in fact, Matthew’s version calls it that). It can’t be captured by words. It isn’t something that can be put on film. It would look staged and fake.  

I know of a minister, who I see once a week in a clergy lectionary Bible Study, who says that for the thirty years she’s been in the ministry, she has never yet preached on this passage because she can’t understand it. Each year when it would roll around in the lectionary, she would say, “What can you say about a Jesus who glows in the dark?”

It needs to be read with our poet’s eyes and ears, and not our legalistic, literalist, ones. Because whatever we finally believe about its meaning, it’s subject will not be about clouds and dead people on mountains. It will be about something far more transcendent and life changing. This passage is beyond left brain, cognitive words.

So, one recommendation for preaching on this text is to start with some question that is similar to that of my friend who avoids preaching on it. Admit that it is incomprehensible and be honest about that. Then move on. What can anyone say about a Jesus who glows in the dark? How do we stare in the face of its mystery and then be certain that we have articulated all there is to know about it?

One thing we do know is that this encounter with God is not like most of what passes for God encounters today. Nothing of the warm and sweet encounters that most Christians hope for today. Nothing warm and sweet about this. When you think about it, this story is fairly close to terrifying.

Actually, there is often more to Jesus than the popular piety; you know, the meek and mild Jesus, who blesses everybody for whatever they do, regardless how crappy and awful they are. That stuff was famously called “Flabby Religion” by CS Lewis. This one is more like Rudolph Otto’s Idea of the Holy: the Mysterium Tremendum, et fascinans. I don’t know what that means either, but it doesn’t sound “flabby.”

One thing we can talk about is that there is in each of us an extreme human drive toward encountering God. The kind of encounter that Jesus (supposedly) had up on that mountain. There are many examples of encounters with God in the Bible:
Moses and the Burning Bush
Jacob’s ladder, full of angels going up and down into heaven.
Job and the voice of God that came to him out of the whirlwind

Barbara Brown Taylor calls these encounters, “Cracked doors between this world and some other, brighter place where God is no Absentee landlord.”[a]
But for most of us, most of the time, in most of our lives, bushes don’t give off much heat.
Most of our ladders don’t have angels on them and
Most of our whirlwinds—if they speak at all, don’t say anything more profound than “whoosh.”

Here’s another possibility: perhaps the transfiguration wasn’t so much of a change in Jesus, as it was a change in his disciples. The light always came from him, but they needed an experience which helped change them so that they could see it.

Peter’s response to all of this is telling. He wanted to build three tents, probably representing the booths or tabernacles that the Israelites lived in while in the desert. But really--unkindly put--up on this mountain they would be religious tourist attractions. They would something he hoped people would trek up the mountain for, deep into the rarified air, and then worship them in ways that they could not do down below. But it appears that even Peter was aware of how dumb that sounded, because as soon as he made the offer, Luke adds, “Not knowing what he said …” Meaning he was fumbling his words and stumbling with awkwardness.

This could be a good place in a sermon to remind your parishioners that this was Peter, after all, the one who never past up an opportunity to say the wrong thing in the wrong way. All of the gospels portray him as a fumbler of the mouth (especially Mark, upon whom Matthew and Luke lean heavily). On his not knowing what he had just said, it might be tacky but accurate, to ask, does Peter ever know what he has just said?

So, pause and note the short comings of Peter, it would make for a relief from the somber, austere picture of the mountain, but then follow it with what is probably the truth: one of the reasons why Peter is so often portrayed as stupid in the gospels (especially Mark) is because Peter was a stand-in for the rest of us. If dumb, illiterate, foolish Peter could be a physical and spiritual leader in the early church then all of the rest of us have a shot at it. And to be fair, when faced with a vision of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, on a mountain top glowing with a “dazzling” whiteness that was beyond anything ever comprehended, and bathed in clouds and the voice of God, could we do any better?

Luke has this event take place on “the eighth day.” Matthew and Mark have only six days. Is that because Luke finishes out half-days from the time when Jesus and Peter had their famous argument about who he was and now, the day of this transfiguration? Or was Luke trying to make a sideways reference to the resurrection, which occurred on the “eighth” day (that is, the day after the Sabbath)? That may sound farfetched, but there are some parallels between Luke’s telling of the resurrection and his representation of this story today. It’s also worth noting that our own Christian Sabbath is on the “eighth day.” So, there may be a slight hint by Luke that the transcendence of the risen Christ is only truly understood while in worship. “It is Luke, after all, who tells us in the story of the walk to Emmaus that the risen Christ makes hearts burn when the Scriptures are unfolded and is known in the breaking of bread, surely an allusion to Christian worship.”[b] Who knows.

Another mystery is why are only three disciples allowed to experience the transfiguration? These three, Peter, John, and James, were also the only ones who witnessed the healing of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:51). But that only furthers the mystery; it doesn’t explain it. For the purposes of a sermon, however, one can say with integrity something about how only a minority of people will ever gain the deepest insight into the meaning of the Son of the living God, but only say that after acknowledging that in truth there is no consensus on why they were the only ones.

One other thing that is unique to Luke is a reference (once again) to prayer. Unlike the versions found in Matthew and Mark, here Jesus takes his (three) disciples up to the mountain so that they can have a time away for prayer. It’s a brief comment, but Luke sprinkles references to times of prayer for Jesus all through the gospel, almost more often than all of the other gospels combined. This too can be an opportunity in a sermon to lift up the idea of Jesus’ prayer life. Surely he had one, and one wonders what he prayed about. We know of several of his public prayers (scattered in different places in all four gospels), but we don’t know what he might have been saying in his quiet personal life.

Another interesting thing in Luke’s version, in contrast with Matthew’s and Mark’s, is that Luke does not say that Jesus was “transfigured” as the others do (Matt 17:2; Mark 9:2). He says that Jesus was “changed” (heteros) while they say he was “transfigured” (“metamorphosed,” metamorphoo). So, here on “Transfiguration Sunday,” we are reading the story from the Gospel that does not say that he has experienced a “transfiguration.” The reason is, once again, impossible to know for sure, but the best guess is that, since he was writing to a Greek audience, and since they had frequent stories in their theology about their gods and magicians transforming themselves into animals or people, or whatever, Luke was probably concerned that his readers would be confused. He didn’t want this other-worldly occasion with Jesus to be tainted by those stories, so he chose to describe what happened with a less controversial, less confusing, term.[c]

Why was Jesus up there with Moses and Elijah? There are many references in the story that point back to Moses and his time on a mountain: the glowing clothes and face, the “glory,” the clouds, the voice of God. But along with him is Elijah, so it is more than that. Why were these two figures the ones to be seen with him (9:30)? Some say it is because for the Hebrew people, Moses represented the “Law” and Elijah represented the “Prophets.” That makes sense. Others argue that neither one of the two had actually died, so they parallel the (sort of, but not quite) death of Jesus. Possibly. However, only Elijah is actually said to have never died (2 Kings 2:11; Mal 4:5). Moses on the other hand only qualifies because while he did die, he was buried by God and not humans (Deut 34:6), so that may be what the tradition means. Plus there are a few unbiblical Jewish writings that claimed that Moses never died (cf. Rev 11:6). However, one thing that both of them did share in common was a tradition that both of them would return in some sense before the time of the end.[d] So, that could have been it.

One thing that has always seemed interesting to me was that when Jesus and the two were on the mountain, they were discussing his “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31). And the word, “departure” in Greek is exodus, a word that you’ll recognize as having powerful resonance among Jews to this day. At one level, the word could just mean a simple departure up the mountain. But at another, the prophets and many in Jesus’ day saw in the word a symbol or sign or allusion to Israel’s future, when they would be released from bondage to the oppressive Roman rule. They often viewed as a new exodus. So, it could have been referring to that.

Finally, note what follows this story. When they leave the mountain, they encounter a young boy who has a demon that resembles epilepsy. He can’t control his body and he frequently tries to throw himself into a fire so that he can die. The first thing that Jesus does when he comes down from the mountain is to pull out of him the demon who is controlling him and trying to kill him. It’s hard not to see a parallel between the mountain top experience and real life in the midst of dying children.

We had a young man in our congregation not long ago who was tortured by the demons of addictions inhabiting his body. They fought him and took control of him. For years he was in and out of treatment centers and finally, recently, he seemed to be turning his life around and gaining his life back. Until one night not long ago when the demon came back and threw him into the fire. He got high on easily purchased prescription drugs, got in his car, drove too fast, lost control, and hit a tree. And died suddenly.

The transfiguration story is about Jesus being chosen, blessed, and anointed by God to go back down into the valley where the real pain of real life resides. Peter, for all our forgiving his blundering, appears to want to stay on the mountain and retreat from that pain. The mountain was necessary. It was needed. It was what filled Jesus with God’s spirit. But his ministry was not there. It was with the young boys (of all ages and genders) who are fighting to stay alive against the powers of drugs and alcohol, and pain, and oppression, and disease, and racism, and sexism, and age, and hunger, and poverty, and fear, and all the rest of the demons that haunt humanity, who need the healing touch of Jesus, and (later) his followers in order to move forward and find life.

Translation, exegesis, everything you never thought you needed to know about this passage

28Now about eight days[e] after these sayings Jesus[f] took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain[g] to pray.[h] 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed,[i] and his clothes became dazzling white.[j]
30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory[k] and were speaking[l] of his departure,[m] which he was about to accomplish[n] at Jerusalem.
32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep;[o] but since they had stayed awake,[p] they saw his glory[q] and the two men who stood with him.
33Just as they were leaving him, [r] Peter said to Jesus, “Master,[s] it is good for us to be here; let us make[t] three dwellings,[u] one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.[v] 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them;[w] and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.[x] 35Then from the cloud[y] came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen;[z] listen to him!”[aa] 36When the voice had spoken,[bb] Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent[cc] and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Jesus Heals a Boy with a Demon
37On the next day, when they had come down[dd] from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher,[ee] I beg you to look at[ff] my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly[gg] a spirit seizes him, and all at once he[hh] shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth;[ii] it mauls him[jj] and will scarcely[kk] leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41Jesus answered, “You faithless[ll] and perverse generation, how much longer[mm] must I be with you and bear with[nn] you?[oo] Bring your son here.” 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astounded[pp] at the greatness of God.[qq]

[Jesus Again Foretells His Death
While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples,]

[a] “Thin Places,” reviewed in the Lectionary Homiletics Vol. XV, No. 2, Feb-Mar ’04, p. 27.
[b] Stephen Farris, “Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Transfiguration), Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 358.
[c] See Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993]).
[d] Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary (1993).
[e] Mark 9:2 (Matthew 17:1) has “after six days” which agrees with the general statement.
[f] Gk he.
[g] “The mountain” (eis to oros). Probably Mount Hermon because we know that Jesus was near Caesarea Philippi when Peter made the confession (Mark 8:27; Matthew 16:13). “Hermon is still the glory of Palestine from whose heights one can view the whole of the land. It was a fit place for the Transfiguration” (Robertson).
[h] “To pray” (proseuxasthai). Peculiar to Luke who more than the other evangelists, frequently mentions Jesus in prayer (cf. 3:21). See also verse 29 “as he was praying” (en tōi proseuchesthai), one of Luke’s favorite idioms). 
[i] “Was changed” (heteros) “Became different.” Luke avoids Mark’s word, metamorphoo, “was metamorphosed.” He was writing for Greek readers, and possibly he was concerned that the word would be misunderstood to them because of their belief in the transformations of heathen deities into other forms. See Matthew 17:2. “Greek gods and magicians transformed themselves into other forms, though Mark, like Luke, was alluding to Moses, not to magicians” (Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993]).
[j] “White” (leukos). In classical Greek very indefinite as an expression of color; being used, not only of the whiteness of the snow, but of gray dust. Its original sense is clear. All three evangelists use the word, but combined with different terms. Thus, Matthew, as the light. Mark, glistering (see on Mark 9:3). Luke, uses this word and it is only here in New Testament), its meaning is something like, dazzling like the brilliance of lightning.
[k] “appeared in glory” (ophthentes en doxẽi, first aorist passive participle of horaō). This term is also unique to Luke. Compare verse 26.
[l] “were speaking” (sunelaloun autōi, Imperfect active). The imperfect is graphic; as the vision revealed itself, the two were in the act of talking.
[m] “Departure” (exodus,. Hard to translate; “a journeying, “a going away.” “Probably refers to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, all of which will occur in Jerusalem (see esp. 9:51)” (HarperCollins). Other words for death (thanatos) in the N.T. are ekbasis, going out as departure (Hebrews 13:7), aphixix, departing (Acts 20:29), analusis, loosening anchor (2 Timothy 4:6) and analusai (Philippians 1:23).
[n] “Was about to accomplish” (ẽroun). “Accomplish,” or “fulfil.” Significant connection to Jesus’ death. Moses and Joshua had begun an exodus from Egypt, but had not accomplished the going out of God’s people from this present world. See Hebrews 3:18; 4:8. “The purpose of the Transfiguration was to strengthen the heart of Jesus as he was praying long about his approaching death and to give these chosen three disciples a glimpse of his glory for the hour of darkness coming. No one on earth understood the heart of Jesus and so Moses and Elijah came. The poor disciples utterly failed to grasp the significance of it all” (Robertson).
[o] “Weighed down with sleep” (ẽsan bebarẽmenoi hupnōi, periphrastic past perfect of bareō). “Weight,” “burden.” Not in the N.T. Only in passive (present, aorist, perfect) in the N.T. See Galatians 6:2. “They had apparently climbed the mountain in the early part of the night and were now overcome with sleep as Jesus prolonged his prayer. Luke alone tells of their sleep. The same word is used of the eyes of these three disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:43) and of the hearts of many (Luke 21:34).” (Robertson, Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament).
[p] “Since they had stayed awake” (diagrēgorēsantes de). Or but when they were fully awake. “Luke is fond of compounds with dia. The effect of dia can be either to remain awake in spite of desire to sleep or to become thoroughly awake. This is most likely correct. The Syriac Sinaitic has it “When they awoke.”
[q] “His glory,” ten doxan autou, noun feminine). See also verse 26 in the words of Jesus. A general meaning could be one’s opinion or judgment. Here, and more typically with NT, splendor, brightness (of the moon, sun, stars), magnificence, excellence, preeminence, dignity, grace; majesty: a thing belonging to God or angels, as apparent in their exterior brightness; a most glorious condition, most exalted state. Strong has: Dignity, glory, honor, praise, worship.
[r] “Just as they were leaving him…” (en tōi diachōrizesthai autos ap autou). Lit., in their departing. “As they were leaving him.” Peculiar to Luke and another instance of Luke’s common idiom of en with the articular infinitive in a temporal clause. This common verb occurs here only in the N.T. The present middle voice means to separate oneself fully (direct middle). This departing of Moses and Elijah apparently accompanied Peter’s remark as given in all three Gospels.
[s] “Master” (epistata). It was Rabbi in Mark 9:5, and Lord (Kurie) in Matthew 17:4.
[t] “Let us make” (poiẽsōmen, first aorist active subjunctive). Same word as in Mark 9:5, but Matthew 17:4 has “I will make” (poieôsoô). It was near the time of the feast of the tabernacles. So Peter proposes that they celebrate it up here instead of going to Jerusalem for it as they did a bit later (John 7).
[u] “Dwellings.” (skene, n. pl., acc. fem). Apparently akin to skyoo, a vessel. “a portable dwelling of cloth and/or skins, held up by poles and fastened by cords to stakes—‘tent” (Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), p. 81. 
[v] “Not knowing what he said” (mẽ eidōs ho legei). Literally, “not understanding what he was saying” (mẽ, regular negative with participle and legei, present indicative retained in relative clause in indirect discourse). Luke puts it more bluntly than Mark, adding that Peter spoke out of fear (Mark 9:6). Peter acted according to his impulsive nature and spoke up even though he did not know what to say or even what he was saying when he spoke.
[w] “Overshadowed them” (epeskiazen autous, vb. ind. imp. active, third per. sing.) “Began to overshadow them;” thus harmonizing with the words, “as they entered into.” Nowhere else in the N.T. (epi, skiazoô, from skia, shadow). “Them must be confined to Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Grammatically, it might include all the six; but the disciples hear the voice out of the cloud, and the cloud, as a symbol of the divine presence, rests on these three as a sign to the disciples” (Robertson). See Exodus 14:19; 19:16; 1 Kings 8:10; Psalms 104:3.
[x] “As they entered into the cloud” (en tōi eiselthein autos eis tẽn nephelẽn). “Luke’s idiom of en with the articular infinitive again (aorist active this time, on the entering in as to them). All six “entered into” the cloud, but only Peter, James, and John “became afraid” (ephobẽthẽsan, ingressive first aorist passive).
[y] “From the cloud.” (ek tẽs nephelẽs). This voice was the voice of God like that at the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:22; Mark 1:11; Matthew 3:17) and like that near the end (John 12:28-30) when the people thought it was a clap of thunder or an angel.
[z]  “My son, my chosen” (Ho huios mou, ho eklelegmenos). There are other readings for this, but most scholars agree that this is the correct phrase. Others have “the beloved (as nrsv margin)” possibly to harmonize with Mark 9:7. Or, instead of eklelegmenos (“chosen”), they have eklektos (“beloved”) as a way of harmonizing with Luke 23:35b: “but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” Fitzmyer notes that “the chosen one” “is a Palestinian Jewish title found in Qumran Aramaic texts…[however, it] does not occur in the OT and is not per se a messianic title” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 28, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 803).
[aa] “listen to him!”
[bb] “When the voice had spoken.” (En toi genesthai tẽn phonẽ). Lit., “in the coming to pass of the voice.” The Revised Version has this more pointedly “when the voice came.” It does not mean that it was “after” the voice was past that Jesus was found alone, but simultaneously with it (ingressive aorist tense).
[cc] “And they kept silent” (esigesan. vb. aorist, active ind. 3rd per.). Lit., “They held their peace.”  Ingressive aorist active of common verb sigaoô, became silent. Louw/Nida believe it has the sense of preserving something that is a secret (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 401).
[dd] “Come down” (katerchomai, “to move down, irrespective of the gradient—‘to move down, to come down, to go down, to descend’” Louw/ Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 1996), p. 195. Very frequent in Luke, and only once elsewhere: James 3:15.
[ee] “Master” (Didaskale,  n. voc. sing., masc.). Teacher.
[ff] “To look at.” (epiblepsai, aorist act. inf. Of epiblepō [epi, upon, blepō, look]). Common verb, but in the N.T. only here and James 2:3 except Luke 1:48 in quotation from LXX. According to Vincent, this word, though uncommon in the NT, is very common in the medical literature of the time, for examining patients.
[gg] “Suddenly” (exephnẽs, adverb). Also only used once outside of the writings of Luke, in Mark 13:36, and again Vincent notes that it is also frequent with medical writers. “Luke has more medical details in his account than the other evangelists. He mentions the sudden coming on of the fits, and their lasting a long time. Hobart remarks that Aretaeus, a physician of Luke’s time, in treating of epilepsy, admits the possibility of its being produced by demoniacal agency. Epilepsy was called by physicians “the sacred disease” (Vincent).  
[hh] nrsv Note: Or it
[ii] “It convulses him until he foams at the mouth” (sparassed auton meta aphrou). Literally, “It tears him with (accompanied with, meta) foam” (old word, aphros, only here in the N.T.). From sparassō, to convulse, a common verb, but in the N.T. only here and Mark 1:26; 9:26 (and sunsparassō, Mark 9:20).
[jj] “Mauls him” (suntribon auton). Common verb for rubbing together, crushing together like chains (Mark 5:4) or as a vase (Mark 14:3).
[kk] “Scarcely” (molis). Late word used in place of mogis, the old Greek term (in some MSS. here) and alone in Luke’s writings in the N.T. save 1 Peter 4:18; Romans 5:7.
[ll] “Faithless” (apistos). Disbelieving and perverse diestrammenẽ, perfect passive participle of diastrephō), twisted, turned, or torn in two.
[mm] “How much longer…?” (heōs pote). Lit., “until when.”
[nn] “Bear with” (anezoma, vb, fut. mid. ind. 1st. per. sing.) To hold up, to hold one's self erect and firm, to sustain, to bear, to endure. “Hold myself from you” (ablative case humōn)” (Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament,” A.T. Robertson, 1927).
[oo] “how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” (heōs pote esomai pros humōs kai anexomai humōn). Here the two questions of Mark 9:19 (only one in Matthew 17:17) are combined in one sentence.
[pp] “All were astounded” (exeplẽssonto de pantes, vb. imp, pass. ind. 3rd, per. pl.). Derived from of the common verb ekplẽor                                                    
ekplẽgnumi, to strike out.
[qq] “At the greatness of God” (epi tẽi megaleitotẽti tou theou). From the adjective megaleios and megas (great). Lit. “at the majesty (or greatness) of God.” In the N.T. only here and Acts 19:27 (of Artemis) and in 2 Peter 1:16 (of the Transfiguration). “This verse records a typically Lucan reaction to the miracle, being present in neither Mark nor Matthew. Cf. 4:32; 8:25; 11:14 (Fitzmyer, Gospel According to Luke I–IX, p. 810).