In an old Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown wonders, “Why would they ban Miss Sweetstory’s book from the school library?” Then he speculates, “Maybe there are some things in her book that we don’t understand.” Violet responds, “In that case, they should also ban my math book.” Frankly, if we were to ban books containing things we don’t understand, we’d ban the Bible and get rid of all theology books.
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) is one of the least understandable stories in the scriptures. It must be important because it’s included at key places in three of our four gospels; it’s also one of the most neglected stories. Many important theology textbooks used in seminaries over the years say little or nothing about it, and one of the key treatments of the gospels from a psychological perspective also avoids dealing with it. It seems beyond logic, yet it reappears every year in the church’s cycle of readings and even has its own day in the church calendar, Transfiguration Sunday, so we’ve got to deal with it somehow.
We deal with the transfiguration best, I believe, by sneaking up on it, not directly but from an angle, or its truth might see us coming and run away. “Tell all the truth,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “but tell it slant . . . / The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” The way to speak of the transfiguration, I’ve discovered, is not to speak of it directly, not to analyze it or explain it, but to look at what’s around it, what leads up to it and what follows it. What’s the setting in which this rare gem is placed?
Picture the scene: a mountaintop, prayer, an overshadowing cloud, a voice from the cloud – elements of the usual settings for the closest communion with God. A few verses earlier, Jesus predicted his suffering and death and spoke about the high cost to anyone who follows him (Luke 9:22-23). He emphasized it again just after his transfiguration, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands” (v. 44). Then Luke tells us, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (v. 51).
Jesus is at a critical turning point when, perhaps for the first time, he accepts death as the real and looming outcome of the way of life he has chosen. And maybe here he commits himself at a deeper level to the journey of faith he has begun – a hard, self-sacrificing journey – knowing that on the other side is unimaginable joy and life without compare.
He could have gone up the mountain that day and gone over the hill, settling for a life like everyone else, fitting into the world around him with hardly a second thought, going through the motions of life without ever really living. Or he might have gone ahead but half-heartedly, never risking himself totally to the way of life he had chosen and so never knowing the wholeness that comes with total commitment to God’s will. He could have remained quiet and unprovocative, active in his community and congregation, avoiding the struggle with hard choices that would shape his life of faith from day to day.
Instead, he chose the rigorous, costly way of total commitment to his calling. He opened himself to his true nature, his God nature, uncovering the will of God that lay deep beneath his own will. And in that moment, in that choice, he was transformed, transfigured in the eyes of those around him, and he became seen as his true, essential self, in all his fullness, in all his wholeness, in all his radiant glory.
The options Jesus had before him are the same options that face every one of us. Will we do, as well as we are able, what we know God requires of us, or when confronted with the choice, will we go over the hill and run away into the night? Will we play at faith, going through the motions and living like the whitewashed tombs Jesus warned us about, pretty on the outside and rotten on the inside? Or will we live our lives, as well as we are able, in total commitment to going the distance regardless of the cost?
There’s a story that comes to mind once in a while about a little boy who fell out of bed one night. As his mother was comforting him, she asked how the accident happened. The boy replied, “I guess I just lay down too close to where I got in.” A lot of folks in the church lay down too close to where they get in, and they’re always falling out, always living life partially, dreaming of the abundant life Jesus offers and never feasting on it. Don’t be one of them. Choose the way of total commitment, and go the distance.