There’s an old Paul Simon song called Learn How to Fall. The bridge contains these lyrics:
Oh, and it's the same old storyEver since the world beganEverybody's got the runs for gloryNobody stop to scrutinize the planNobody stop to scrutinize the planArtists, I believe, receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit even when they don’t know it. And I believe that in these words and in the entire song from which they come, Paul Simon, who isn’t a Christian, is saying more than even he realizes.
The truth to which Simon points is this: All we human beings who, though made in God’s image, have inherited the condition of sin from our ancient grandparents, Adam and Eve, want “glory.” We want, in our sinful hearts, “to be like God” (Genesis 3:5). (This is a distortion of the true glory God has in mind for us as the only ones God created in His image [Genesis 1:26].)
But, again like Adam and Eve who grabbed hold of the fruit that God told them would bring them death, things like glory or transformation or righteousness or joy or life or any truly good thing cannot be grasped by human effort. All of these things--glory, transformation, righteousness, joy, life, or any “good and perfect gift”--come to us as gifts from God. They are to be received, not achieved.
Whatever this world has to offer will die. Whatever God has to offer is eternal.
God operates by a different plan from the ones offered by the world, the devil or our sinful selves. Today’s gospel lesson, Luke 9:28-36, containing Luke’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration, will allow us, again in Simon’s phrasing, to “stop and scrutinize the plan,” God’s plan.
Shortly before the incident recounted in the lesson, the apostle Peter confessed his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed King, the One come to make the fallen world right. Peter said that Jesus was, “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:20).
This was the right answer, but Jesus might have had good reason to doubt whether Peter understood exactly what that meant.
The Old Testament repeatedly promised the Christ. But popular culture in first-century Judea envisioned the Christ as a triumphant warrior king who would enter Jerusalem, throw out the Romans, the latest in a long string of foreign overlords to have conquered God’s people, and let the Jews conquer and be prosperous and comfortable. This popular version of the Christ bears little resemblance to the real one prophesied in the Old Testament by the prophet Isaiah.
This version of the Christ or Messiah would demand no transformation, no surrender, and no faith of His followers. They could be just as selfish and heedless of the Word and the will of God as they’d always been. All that mattered was that their names were on the church membership rolls of First Church of Self-Righteousness and Entitlement.
All of this may be why Jesus said what He said after Peter had confessed Jesus as the Christ: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Luke 9:22) And then: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Life with God in His eternal kingdom is a free gift to all who repent and trust in Christ. But if we are to receive the gift God wants to give to us, we must stop grasping for the prizes offered by this dying world.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus shows us the path to glory that we all seek, even if that’s not the word we might use for it. So, please take a look at our lesson, starting at verse 28: “About eight days after Jesus said this [that is, eight days after the words of Jesus we just talked about], he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.”
This is a remarkable moment. On top of a mountain, the kind of place where God had once interacted with Old Testament figures like Moses, the bringer of God’s law, and Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet, Jesus prays.
When Moses encountered God on a mountaintop, you’ll recall, his face reflected the glory of God into whose presence he had come.
But it’s different for Jesus here. Jesus once said of Himself: “I am the light of the world.Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12).”
You see, on the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus isn’t reflecting the glory of God. Jesus also tells us, “The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me” (John 12:45) and “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
Jesus Himself is the source of the light.
He glows in the radiance of Who He is: God the Son.
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory,” the preacher in Hebrews says, “and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word... (John 1:3).”
This is what Jesus wanted His three closest and most intimate disciples to understand, that though the way to His kingdom went through a cross, through the surrender of self and the crucifixion of our old sinful natures, as God, the Author of life, Jesus could offer new and everlasting life to those who would faithfully follow Him no matter what.
When we’re going through tough stuff in our lives, this can be our comfort and hope. Christ is God and He is the One Who can lead us to life beyond the pain and challenge and death.
Verse 30: “Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.”
Neither Moses nor Elijah had walked on the earth for centuries. But here they are, in Jesus’ reflected glory, talking with Jesus about his departure.
In the Greek in which Luke wrote about this incident, the word translated as departure is exodos, exodus. The Exodus is the event in Old Testament history in which God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt, took them through the wilderness, and into the promised land.
Jesus was about to accomplish a new exodus, this one not just for the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, but for all who trusted, believed (and believe now) in Him. Jesus was going to endure the wilderness of suffering and death, then rise from the dead, so that He could meet us in our wildernesses and lead us into the presence of God, today in this imperfect wilderness and beyond the gates of death in the eternal promised land.
Verse 32: “Peter and his companions were very sleepy [just like they would later be in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of Jesus' betrayal and arrest], but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what he was saying.)”
Peter makes at least two mistakes here.
First, despite the evidence before him--Jesus allowing the three disciples to see Him in the full glory of His deity, Peter equates Moses and Elijah with Jesus. He wants to erect three shelters or tabernacles to honor Jesus and the two Old Testament figures, as though each were on equal footing.
Second, like the grasping world, Peter wants to capture God’s holiness, rather than be captured by it. Peter has yet to learn that human beings cannot be saved from sin and death by the things they do, or strive for, or control, but solely by surrendering faith in Jesus the Christ.
Peter didn’t know what he was saying, but God still loved him and Jesus would not give up on him, just as God loves you and me and, as long as we have breath, Jesus will not give up on enveloping us and the rest of the human race in His kingdom of grace and love.
Verse 34: “While [Peter] was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’”
This is the same voice, that of God the Father, that told Jesus at His baptism: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22.)” At that time, the Father spoke to reassure the Son as He began His ministry. Now, at the Transfiguration, the Father speaks to encourage these three key leaders of Christ’s Church in the bleak days between Jesus’ death and resurrection, and later, in the remaining days of their lives. Even though Jesus would die, they would know that He was and is the Christ, and that they hadn’t been mistaken in following Him.
Today, in the midst of both happiness and setbacks, we can live in that assurance, infinitely strengthened by the fact that after Jesus had taken the way of the cross, He rose from the dead, and that “the one who believes in [Jesus] will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in [Jesus] will never die (John 11:25-26).”
Verse 36: “When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.”
There was no Moses, no Elijah. Religion may be about building shelters--or tabernacles--to dead saints. But faith in Jesus is about following and listening to a living Savior, about turning from death and sin and self-will, turning instead to Christ, our King.
That Paul Simon song I mentioned earlier also has these lines:
You got to learn how to fall Before you learn to flyWe’re all anxious to fly, high above the death and anxiety, the sin and the striving of this world. We want the resurrected life, the life of victory.
But before we can fly, we must fall.
We must lay aside all our pretenses of a righteousness born of our own goodness and see Jesus for Who He is: the Savior Who alone, amid all the competing voices, is the One to Whom we need to listen.
Not money or security.
Not tradition or change for the sake of change.
Not fashion or habit.
Not Buddha or Allah.
Not sex or drugs. (Or rock and roll.)
In another place, Jesus calls Himself the good shepherd and His followers His sheep, and then says, the good shepherd’s “sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger (John 10:4-5).”
Amid the din of voices screaming at us on TV and radio and social media, commercials, and political ads, may we keep listening for Jesus, through the wilderness and the cross, to the promised land and God’s glorious kingdom.
May we always return to the One Who loves us more than we can either ask or imagine.
May we always listen to Jesus. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church.]