By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Luke 9:28–36(ESV): The Transfiguration
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
Do we ever get used to the narrative of scripture? Where we hear the story so much that we forget the power the words really have? This Sunday we read about the transfiguration of Christ. I have heard about this many times. I have been impressed with the unique ability that Jesus has, he glows when he is on the mountaintops praying. Which might explain why he withdraws to the wilderness when he prays. Imagine his mother yelling at him when he was growing up. “shut off the light Jesus we are trying to sleep.” Mary might say. Only to hear, “but mom I was only praying!”
Yes, I joke a bit about this passage because for many if us it seems almost fantastic. People do not glow, their clothes do not turn dazzling white without great work, and people just dI not appear out of nowhere.
The fact is that these things do not normally occur and that is why this story is included in the gospel. There is something special going on. Something out of the ordinary. Something that no one really understands, and they simply try to explain something without an explanation.
I have dwelled on this passage this week. I have reflected on it from different perspectives hoping to bring something today that might speak to our condition. I listen and read the news and all I hear is extreme division. What is it that we need to hear?
That is when I began to just sit with this passage. Sometimes when we simply let the scripture be, the spirit speaks the loudest. At times we want to know so much about scripture we spend vast amounts of time in study. We look for that nugget of truth that will be the key to life. Jesus spoke about how the religious leaders pour over scripture looking for life only to miss it. The study of scripture is important, I spend a great deal of time doing it but at times we can get so deep into the grammar and spelling that we miss what is said.
Jesus, as was his custom, withdrew to an isolated place to pray. I think we often forget how often Jesus did this. We get distracted by the miracles and the healings that we miss the life he lived. Jesus made a point to withdraw from what was going on all around him to pray. He cleared a place in his life to simply pray.
Do we understand how important this is? Jesus was a very busy person. People were constantly demanding his time and attention. They would follow him from one town to the next. When he went home to visit his family so many crowded into the house that people could not even eat. Jesus was in demand, he did have the luxury of privacy. So, he would go to places difficult for others to follow to pray. He would even send his disciples away as a distraction so that he could withdraw in a time of solitude to commune with his father. Prayer is important to Jesus.
At times, I feel we do not understand how important prayer is. We often have a skewed idea of prayer. We pray for others in need, we pray for our own needs, we pray before a meal and offer Thanksgiving, but do we pray for commonality with God? Do we make space to just be with God? Not just to read scripture or read devotionals to increase our knowledge but to just let God move and speak to us?
Jesus and his three closest friends went up the mountain. We are never really told why it was the three. I say his closest friends, only because they are the ones that are spoken of most often. He might have taken them because they were the ones most likely to cause trouble. James and John were the sons of thunder and Peter seemed to like to swing a sword around, so maybe Jesus kept them close to prevent bad press. But more than likely they were the most eager to learn. He left the others down below, he most likely did this to ensure that he would not be disturbed. If we read the gospels, we find that this is a formation that occurs often. This is how important prayer is to Jesus. It is as if he places guards at the trail head and then places more guards just outside his sanctuary.
Is our prayer time guarded like this? How often are our prayers interrupted by our busy schedules? How many times are they cut short because of ringing phone or a chiming notification? Do we defend our time with God or is it something that we just squeeze in between appointments? Yes, we should pray without ceasing. Yes, we should live in constant communion with God, but if we do not make time from the start do, we participate, or is prayer just good luck charm we rub before we do what we want?
Jesus went up to the mountain to pray. The disciples marveled at his joy at prayer. They once begged him to teach them to pray. Pleading with them to teach them to pray, like John taught his disciples to pray. We are not told exactly how John taught his disciples. He may have given them a set format or words to say. But the mention of this tells us that he did teach them to pray. And some of Jesus’s disciples were once disciples of John. They knew what John taught but there was something different about the joy Jesus had and the discipline of John. They wanted to know. They watched Jesus pray, we are told that they were heavy with sleep as they watched. Initially we might think that they were bored, but do we get bored watching the people we love? How many hours do parents watch their children do common things? Parents will watch their babies sleep. They look at the creases in their skin and examine the swirls of their hair. They are exhausted yet they watch until their bodies force them to sleep. The disciples watched Jesus pray. They marveled and wished that they could have the joy of prayer as Jesus did.
They watched and saw before them something amazing. As Jesus prayed, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothes became a dazzling white. Imagine if you were one of those three disciples looking at your beloved teacher and seeing this. The awe that must have filled their souls. One of the books I read while I was studying for my master’s degree at Friends was about an Orthodox priest in Soviet Russia. This priest was sent to the gulag because he was a threat to their government. This book was written not by the priest, but it contained the stories of those people this priest encouraged during his life. There was one story that I will never forget, it was in the deepest coldest part of winter and the prison camp they were in was in Siberia. The priest and one other prisoner were being disciplined so they were locked in a metal room out in the weather. The cold was unbearable, it would kill them within hours, yet the priest was excited to go to the room. He was excited because he would have the opportunity to pray undisturbed for hours. His companion was frightened because of the cold but the priest encouraged him to pray with him, so they prayed. They were in this room for over twenty-four hours, yet they survived. The companion said that while the priest was praying, he was no longer aware of the metal room they were in. He said that as the priest prayed it began to get warmer and then he opened his eyes and the priest was standing not in the clothes of a prisoner but in the robes of a priest and they were standing within a church. They prayed all night and when the doors were opened, the guards were amazed when they walked out alive.
I have never seen someone transfigured in such a manner. But I have been transported by prayer. In some of my prayers I have reflected on various aspects of scripture and it has been so real around me that the odors around me were not what they should have been. There was one times while I was contemplating the crucifixion of Christ that I could literally smell the coppery sent of blood as I cried over the sacrifice that Jesus made to bring me back to God. I can tell you after that time in prayer I was not the same. Just as the companion of the priest was not the same, nor the disciples. Each of us got a glimpse of something beyond.
What is prayer? It is a question we all ask as we enter a lifestyle of faith. As our faith deepens our life of prayer changes as well. When we are young it is a list of all the things, we are thankful for, with a few pleas for new toys. As we grow, we are exposed to the suffering of life, we begin to pray for loved ones who are sick, or we ask God for guidance through a difficult situation. But prayer is something far more. Prayer is the single most fundamental discipline of our lifestyle of faith. When we pray, we enter communion with God? Our spirit meets with God in a realm beyond our physical comprehension. We enter a place where there is no time; no past, present or future a place that just is. This is why the spiritual lives of our grandparents have lasting affects on the lives of our grandchildren. When they pray their prayers are carried by the Spirit and they can flow and spill over into the lives of generations. Because when we pray, we are not in this world, our spirit has joined with the Holy Spirit in the realms of God. Peter, John, and James saw this when they were on that mountain. They saw Jesus, not as the teacher but as source of light, and they saw with him the law giver and the prophet. Moses and Elijah were standing there with Jesus, the two greatest personalities of their religion were standing right by their teacher. We do not know how they knew who they were, but they knew. They knew because they were with Jesus in this spiritual realm of prayer on a mountain. They knew that Moses and Elijah had also prayed on mountains and stories were told of those experiences. And while they were sitting there in awe, they heard the voice of Moses, the voice of Elijah, and of Jesus. They heard their spiritual heroes speaking the words they had heard for so long. They heard them spoken not as cold text from a scroll but as real conversation as they, Moses and Elijah, looked forward to the glory of Israel. They were sitting on that mountain hearing the conversations that lead to the formation of their scripture. They were heavy with sleep but all at once they were fully awake.
Imagine if your life of prayer were like that? I am often asked why we do not see God working like he does in scripture today. I am asked these things while those that speak express their concerns with the direction various aspects of our world are going. Why do we not see God working? The one answer I can give is that we do not fully release ourselves to prayer.
We let ourselves be distracted by the various struggles of this world, and we let fear creep into our lives. Instead of praying we begin to make plans. We start to use our wisdom which we gather from our various life experiences and we apply them to what we face. At times this is good and even honorable, but have we prayed? As campaigns rage, as war drum seem to beat just over the horizon we turn to the powers of the world, when our finances become tight or our health becomes questionable, we seek answers, but have we prayed? Have we really prayed? When we read the testimonies of the disciples and the prophets from ancient days and we marvel at how they were able to live through the struggles they faced, do we look at their lives of prayer? When we read the stories of those ancient martyrs that faced the violence of Rome do, we look at their life of prayer? When we read of Stephen seeing the heavens open before his eyes as stones are hitting his body, do we ever think that maybe his life of prayer was what allowed him to see the hope instead of experiencing the pain? When we read the stories of the persecuted church throughout Asia and the world have, we considered how they pray?
If God is our refuge, if God is our strength and our shield. If his word is our protecting sword how are we connecting to that power? If Jesus said to his disciples that they will see greater things than the feeding of the five thousand, the healing of a leper, the release of souls from the grip of demonic bondage, or the raising of the dead, how do we see that if we do not make a place for prayer in our lives? We do not see God working in many areas because we are not allowing God to work. We have place guards keeping the Spirit out instead of circling around Him. I say this because I am just as guilty. I say this because I like Peter do not always know what I say. I so often stand before you, encouraging you to do something more, yet I am the one most convicted because I have failed. I like Paul cry out “I want to know Christ – yes to know the power of his resurrection and participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” To know in this way begins with prayer, and through prayer we are guided into the ministry He has set before us. And when we pray and minister under his guidance, we will see his hand working in the lives around us. But do we pray?
So often we like Peter enjoy amazing mountain top experienced and we wish to stay and build a tent. We want to preserve what we once knew. But we cannot stay on the mountain. If Jesus stayed on that mountain, the wages of sin would not have been paid. If Jesus stayed on that mountain we would still be held in bondage. We are called to walk with Christ, walk to the mountain to pray and to walk back down to serve. But we are not called to make the world in our image, but the image of God. We are called to Love our enemies, to do good for those that abuse us, to pray for those that persecute us. We are called to will the good of all those people around us. How can we even begin to do such a task if we do not pray? How can we even consider it without seeing the face of Christ shining in our lives?
Let us now enter a time of open worship and communion as Friends and as we do, I ask that we each read these verses again to ourselves and sit with them. (Luke 9:28-36). As you reflect on those verses watch Jesus pray and join him in that joy.