Transfiguration Worship

On this Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, we prayed for those effected by the Chardon High School shooting, exactly ten years ago today; and we prayed for peace in Ukraine. The sermon touched upon these themes, as well as the gospel lesson: Luke 9:28-36. Our hymns were Fairest Lord Jesus and O Wondrous Sight! O Vision Fair (to the tune of Just As I Am). Our organist played Abide with Me during our time of silent prayer.

Here is a video of the service in its entirety (click "read more").

Beneath the video, you will find a complete written transcript of the sermon.

Shining Example

While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
—Luke 9:29

Last week I chose to talk to you about the Old Testament reading of the day. It was the story of Joseph and his brothers. I seldom know how you really feel about a sermon, but that one got more positive comments than any I’ve preached in several years. The problem was, apparently most of you thought I was making up the story. I assure you that the sermon as I preached it was quite true to the story as it’s told in the Bible. I guess the story of Joseph just isn’t told as much as it ought to be.

Now today’s gospel reading is sort of at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s a story that gets told every year, bar none. And it’s always told on the same day—the Sunday before Lent begins. (At least that’s when we tell it in Protestant churches—in Roman Catholic churches, it’s told the Second Sunday in Lent.) It’s such an important story that it’s told by thee of the evangelists: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It’s such an important story that it has a holiday named after it: The Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.

No matter where we read it—whether it’s Matthew 17, Mark 9, or Luke 9—the story is the same. Jesus brings Peter, James, and John up a mountain with him to pray, and while they’re praying, something happens. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is transfigured (the Greek word looks a lot like our word metamorphosis), but in Luke he’s changed. Whatever verb is used, the same thing happens. And within the bright light that suddenly surrounds Jesus, Moses and Elijah also appear. The giver of the law and the greatest of the prophets are there to confirm that Jesus is Messiah.

In every version of the story, Peter speaks up. Whether he’s scared or nervous or excited, we’re not sure. But something causes him to suggest that they do something to make what they’re looking at permanent… or at least semi-permanent. “Let’s build shelters for all three of them—Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.” But as soon as the words are out of his mouth, a cloud comes down and nobody can see anything. But a booming voice comes out of the cloud—the voice of God—saying, “This is my beloved Son: Listen to him” (except in Luke where Jesus is the Chosen, not the Beloved). Then the cloud disappears, and everything seems to return to normal.

In today’s reading, Luke tells us that Peter, James, and John told no one about what they’d seen on the mountain. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus told them not to tell anyone. So even here, the evangelists agree. The glory of Christ can’t be understood apart from the whole story. We can’t get to the shining face without first seeing it in the throes of agony—the agony of the cross. Jesus, Peter, James, and John must all descend once again into the valley and be confronted by a troubled world.

And that’s exactly what happens—in all three of the synoptic gospels. At the foot of the mountain, there’s a crowd, and there’s a commotion. A sick child has been brought by his father, but the remaining disciples are able to do nothing for him. In all three of the gospels that tell of this event, Jesus heals the boy. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus wonders aloud why he has to put up with the faithlessness of his followers. But it’s Mark I like best. For here, when the disciples ask why they couldn’t do anything for the boy, Jesus responds that cases like this required prayer.

So in all three synoptic gospels, the story of the Transfiguration begins and ends with prayer. Jesus climbs the mountain in order to pray. Prayer revealed the true nature of Jesus, and he shone as bright as the sun. Prayer connected him to the tradition (that’s what Moses represented) and to God’s power to change our reality (that’s what Elijah represented). It was after Jesus prayed that God said, “This is my Son, beloved and chosen: Listen to him!” And after all this, he brings wholeness to a boy—a child of God—through prayer. And in Mark he specifically says that it was only through prayer that this wholeness was brought about.

Prayer, then, is what surrounds and inspires the Christian life. It’s what makes mountaintop experiences happen. And it’s what enables us to face what awaits us down in the valleys. Prayer gets us through the hardships of our pilgrimage, and prayer reveals the glory that awaits us at the end of the journey.

There are probably preachers out there who are able to compartmentalize better than I can—who can talk about the Transfiguration and what happened afterwards, without letting current events affect what they say. I’m not such a preacher—at least not today. Today I’m part of a community that cannot forget its pain. Today we honor our grief as we think about the events of ten years ago. And as we do so, I think many of us will remember how our prayers transformed our grief into prayers to do better and to be better. In our church, those prayers often take visible form: We have folded thousands upon thousands of peace cranes since February 27, 2012, each one representing a prayer for peace and a commitment to end violence.

Today also, we are reminded of our smallness. What can regularly little people like us do in the face of all-out warfare, in the face of the naked aggression of one vast nation against a much smaller one? I doubt that Vladimir Putin will ever know—much less care—that I changed my Facebook cover picture to a photo of the Ukrainian flag. But God will care—not that I posted a picture, but that I turn to God in prayer.

Just as Christ was glorified on the mountain, then returned to the valley to minister to a little child, so God Most High hears the prayers of God’s little ones. And it is to the little ones that God pays most attention.

This is not just some left-wing ideology that I’m throwing at you. It is pure scripture—occurring at least twenty times in the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 9:18 tells us that “the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever.” In Proverbs 14:21, we read that “those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor.” Isaiah (11:4) said that “with righteousness [Messiah] shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” In every one of those verses (and many others), the Hebrew word is ענוים. Whether it’s translated as poor or humble or meek, these are God’s little ones. And when the world forgets them or when the powerful move against them, God sees and God cares.

It's just a coïncidence, but there was a great Christian poet who often wrote about God’s little ones—God’s anawim—and her name was Ann Weems. She wrote a poem that I want to make my own this morning. In fact, it’s what I’ll close this message with:

On the edge of war, one foot already in,
I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

I pray that stone hearts will turn
to tenderheartedness,
and evil intentions will turn
to mercifulness,
and all the soldiers already deployed
will be snatched out of harm's way,
and the whole world will be
astounded onto its knees.

I pray that all the ‘God talk’
will take bones,
and stand up and shed
its cloak of faithlessness,
and walk again in its powerful truth.

I pray that the whole world might
sit down together and share
its bread and its wine.

Some say there is no hope,
but then I've always applauded the holy fools
who never seem to give up on
the scandalousness of our faith:
that we are loved by God......
that we can truly love one another.

I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles. (Ann Weems †2016)
—©2022 Sam L Greening, Jr.