Transfiguration - Savour Those Moments in God's Presence
Luke 9:28-45, Psalm 36 (Narrative Lectionary Year 3)
I am starting my fifth year at Briarwood and this is the first time I am preaching on Transfiguration Sunday. The Transfiguration passage has always been a strange one to me. I haven’t known what to make of it. I have come to a new appreciation for this passage as I studied Luke 9:28-45 this week.
Many sermons on the Transfiguration focus on Peter and say that Peter got it wrong, that he should not have suggested building a dwelling for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. But it’s important to note that Peter is not rebuked for suggesting they build these dwellings. Rather, Jesus says nothing, and then Peter, James, and John had the privilege of being enveloped in a cloud in which they heard the voice of God. If that’s not affirmation, then I don’t know what is.
If Peter didn’t get it wrong, what is the focus in this passage? The focus is on Jesus and this profound spiritual experience. Jesus himself was changed and he was encouraged by Moses and Elijah. And then Peter, James, and John saw it, and their response was that they wanted to stay in it as long as possible—they wanted to build dwellings—they wanted to savour this encounter with God. These kinds of profound spiritual experiences are special. They don’t happen often and they don’t happen to everyone. When they do, we should savour them. And that’s what Peter wanted to do: he wanted to stay and worship and revere and appreciate the glory of God in the face of Christ. He wanted to savour this encounter with God because his focus was on Jesus.
Let’s see what happened. It’s important to know that the immediate narrative context for the Transfiguration in the Gospel of Luke is Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death. In the verses right before, starting in Luke 9:21 (which we didn’t read), he tells the disciples he’s going to suffer and die. And then at the very end of our passage today, in Luke 9:44, he tells them again. Jesus himself is getting mentally prepared for the road to Jerusalem and his eventual suffering and death.
For the disciples, and for Peter in particular, in verse 9:20, before our reading for today, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah of God. The disciples are starting to realize who Jesus is. At the same time Jesus is trying to tell them that he’s going to have to suffer and die. All of them are at huge pivotal moments in their lives of faith and they need God in order to move forward.
So, in our passage, starting in verse 28, Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray and he brings Peter, James, and John with him. And while they were praying, they had a profound spiritual encounter with God—Jesus was transfigured.
The way I see it, Jesus was reminded of who he was by God. He experienced, in the flesh, his own divine glory. He himself got a pre-experience, if you will, of the future glory of the resurrection, something to hold onto during the long walk to Jerusalem, and his suffering and death on the cross. Jesus is Son of God, but he’s also fully human, and we humans need that—something to hold onto, to give us hope when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
In addition to that, God gave him even more. Moses and Elijah came and it says in Luke 9:31, “they were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Knowing the disciples would not be able to give Jesus the support he needed for his journey to the cross, God sent Moses and Elijah to talk to Jesus about it. Imagine talking to your closest confidant about something difficult that you know you have to do. Imagine the support and encouragement that they can give you as you embark on that difficult task. That’s how I imagine this conversation going between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. The Transfiguration is a moment when we glimpse Jesus’ divinity and we see him as very vulnerably human, in need of support. That is quintessential who Jesus is: fully divine in all of his glory, and fully human in all of his vulnerability.
What about Peter, James, and John? They were tired. We see a foreshadow of Jesus’ resurrected glory, and we see a foreshadow of Peter, James, and John in the Garden of Gethsemane. Thankfully, here, they manage to stay awake. They see this whole thing that Jesus experiences. We should be impressed that Peter had his wits about him enough to even offer to do something worshipful, like build dwellings, because I think that if any of us had been on that mountain, we probably would have been shocked and standing there silently, with our mouths hanging open. Peter’s offer to build dwellings reminds me of the Wisemen, traveling miles to bring gifts, to worship Jesus.
God responds to Peter by surrounding them all with a cloud. And it makes me think of the Exodus, when the Israelites followed the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. This is that cloud. And from the cloud, they hear God’s voice. God affirms Peter’s declaration about Jesus’ identity as Messiah, but takes it deeper, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen.” And then, in the context of Jesus trying to explain that he will have to suffer and die, God also says, “Listen to him.” So, God gave them an affirmation and a command. This, for them, became something to hold onto, a light in the darkness, when things got tough. Now, we know they struggled with Jesus’ suffering and death—Peter even denied he knew Jesus in the middle of it—but this gave them something to look back on, to see them through the difficult days, especially after Jesus’ death. And once he was resurrected, then they understood what had happened on the mountain—they could look back and connect the dots.
These profound spiritual experiences with God change us. They prepare us for difficult roads ahead. They give us something to look back on when things get tough, when we want to quit. They are experiences we should savour, and remember. Savour your encounters with God. It’s important to notice that these encounters happen in prayer. Jesus went up on the mountain to pray, and brought Peter, James, and John with him.
We might think this was a singular kind of event. But, we can also have encounters with God that are like this. Most often, these encounters happen when we are in prayer. People describe these experiences in different ways: feeling God’s presence, feeling a warmth in our hearts, seeing a vision, hearing God’s voice. No matter how God manifests in these encounters with us, in these profound spiritual experiences, we should savour them.
I recently learned of a woman in the Montreal region who had an experience like this. She is an African Canadian woman named Bunmi Laditan, who recently published a book called Dear God: Honest Prayers to a God Who Listens. I heard her interviewed on Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love podcast. (https://jenhatmaker.com/podcast/series-32/reconnecting-with-god-through-our-wandering-with-bunmi-laditan/) In the interview, Bunmi goes into great detail about her spiritual journey. She started in the church, then left the church because her church experience was one where abusers were empowered. She converted to Judaism, she dabbled in paganism. And finally, she started really seeking. She went into a synagogue and knelt in front of the Torah. She had one of these encounters with God. She learned that God sees her, God pays attention to her. God was inviting her into prayer.
After that, she started praying and over the course of several days, she asked God, “Who is Jesus?” One day, after asking this question, she went out on her patio, just looking outside, and she felt a presence behind her. She describes it as the kindest, most loving presence she had ever felt. It made her realize she didn’t know what love was. She sensed that someone was there—not a person—but again, the kindest most, loving presence. The presence was also powerful. In her experience, people with power were not kind or loving. But this power was different. This power wasn’t going to hurt anyone; it wasn’t going to exert itself on her. It was just there. The love and the kindness was intense in the best way: the kind of love and kindness that makes you want to run into it and stay forever. And she knew who it was—Jesus. And in that moment, her question was answered. She said, “He doesn’t have to say anything. When he’s there you know. He doesn’t have to announce himself, he just is.”
Bunmi Laditan, in this profound spiritual encounter with Jesus received the message that God is love. That Jesus is the most loving and kind presence in the universe. Jesus sees us. Jesus pays attention to us. Jesus loves us. She wanted to savour it; she wanted to stay in the presence forever.
Honestly, we all need to hear that Jesus loves us over, and over, and over again. No matter how many times the Bible says that God is love, we still have an image in our minds of God as angry with us, ashamed of us, scolding us, telling us that we are bad. That is not who God is. God loves us with a love that is beyond anything that we can imagine. Jesus is that love in the flesh. That is something we can hold onto when things get tough.
Peter, James, and John, they really needed to hear that Jesus was the Son of God and they needed to be told to listen to him because the most important thing that was happening was that Jesus was turning towards Jerusalem, about to go to the cross. It was going to be a difficult road, both to the cross and through the cross to resurrection. That transfiguration moment, when they saw Jesus in glory and heard God’s voice in the cloud, was something to savour, something to look back on for encouragement when the road became rough.
We, today, really need to hear the message that God is love. Too often the concept of love is twisted in our minds or in the words of others and we think that it’s God. But Jesus is revealing himself, in experiences like what Bunmi had, teaching us that we don’t know what love is. We need to relearn it in the arms of God. God’s love and kindness is powerful and it’s the kind of love and kindness that we want to run to and stay in forever. God is profound love, a love we should savour. We are called to take it in, and live it out.
In the Transfiguration we see Jesus in divine glory and human vulnerability all at once. He was given a foretaste of his resurrected glory and support and encouragement to begin the difficult road to the cross.
Peter, James, and John, but Peter especially, received this profound spiritual experience at a time when they couldn’t yet understand it. Yet, Peter had the presence of mind to savour it, to worship Jesus in the midst of it. Peter was right to try to prolong this profound spiritual experience. And I wonder, when we encounter God like this, do we try to savour it? Do we even create space for these encounters with God? Do we even go up on the mountain or to a quiet place to pray with Jesus?
We are all experiencing difficult days. I encourage you to pray. Make space for encountering God in your life. Seek the glory of God in the face of Christ. There’s not a right way to do this. Peter, James, and John were almost asleep. Bunmi’s prayers are brutally honest. The point is to pray as you pray and God will meet you there. Create space in your life for these encounters with God. And stay. Savour those moments in God’s presence. God is sustaining you for the road ahead. Amen.