Last time I opened up a bit about the journey I took to have my thinking reshaped by the cross. Jesus slowly chipped away at some long held convictions and values I had been brought up with. The largest pill to swallow was learning to let Jesus’ strange commands have more sway than the common sense and conventional wisdom I had come to rely on in my day to day decision. This was a journey, a process that involved a lot of letting go and surrender.
As we look at the Gospel Lesson from Luke on this Transfiguration Sunday, we discover that Jesus’ own disciples had to undergo their own painful reevaluation of everything they thought they knew if they were to walk the CrossRoad. Were they ready to accept the radical and even preposterous nature of the CrossRoad?
This is the last Sunday after Epiphany, the season where we slowly come to behold the divine nature and glory of Jesus as Messiah and Savior. We travel along with the disciples in the Gospel lessons each Sunday, as they come to grips with who this Jesus really is. Is he just a good moral teacher? Is he just another faith healer and wonder worker? Or, could he be the promised Messiah and Son of God? Today we hike up the mountain with Jesus and eaves drop on one of the most mysterious moments of his earthly ministry. Yet, this mysterious story is equally as revealing of Jesus’ true identity and the nature of his mission. Please rise for the reading of the Gospel today from Luke 9:28-36:
28 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 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.) 34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” 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.
Luke’s Gospel is divided into two parts. Luke 1-9 deal with Jesus’ powerful preaching and healing ministry around Galilee that aims at revealing Jesus messianic identity. At the end of chapter 9, Luke tells us how Jesus left Galilee and “resolutely set out for [or “set his face toward”] Jerusalem” (9:51) where he would be crowned King. Chapter 9 is therefore the hinge of the book, the dramatic turning point in the story, where Jesus asks his disciples point-blank, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter famously gets it right for once saying, “You are God’s Messiah” (Luke 9:20)! I imagine the disciples perking up as Jesus finally admitted he is the long-awaited King in the line of David. It’s time to head to Jerusalem for the great showdown with his enemies and his glorious coronation ceremony to follow. I hear swords being sharpened and prayers for holy war being offered up in secret by the disciples who don’t yet understand the nature of the upside down Kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate.
We all know how the story unfolds. Jesus will indeed be crowned king, but it will be a crown of thorns. Jesus will be victorious in a battle and his divine glory will be revealed, but it will be a battle waged against the spiritual forces behind earthly enemies, and his glory will be the glory of the cross. When Jesus lies dead in that tomb on that long Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the disciples will all be tempted to write Jesus off. “He’s just another failed messiah, a poor victim of Rome’s brutality.” “See, there’s no power in weakness!” “Might makes right, and the meek don’t inherit the earth; they just get killed!” “We thought he was the one the Law and the Prophets wrote about, the one who would usher in the Kingdom! I guess we were wrong.”
Anticipating that such doubts that would threaten the disciples’ fragile faith, Jesus gave three of his closest disciples another gift—an experience—that prepared them to walk the CrossRoad and continue trusting Jesus was indeed the Messiah even when things took an unexpected turn. That gift is known as the Transfiguration. A lot could be said for this strange occurrence, but for today I just want to point out a couple points related to our own journey down the CrossRoad. Before Jesus sets out to Jerusalem where he will meet a violent death, his disciples then (and us today) should take heart knowing:
First, Jesus’s identity and ministry has the official endorsement of the two key pillars of the OT—Moses (the great Law-giver and Liberator) and Elijah (the last great prophet and Spirit-filled miracle worker). This would be like a future presidential candidate claiming that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln appeared in a vision to officially endorse their campaign. Luke is the only Gospel writer who mentions what the three spoke about—“They spoke about his departure [or “exodus”], which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” Again, it takes some guts for a Jewish prophet to talk about his own exodus with Moses, the agent of the first exodus, the most foundational event for the Jewish people. (I also wonder how Moses felt about Jesus going up on another Mountain to deliver his new Law that he claimed was upstaging the Law Moses had delivered centuries earlier.) The dumbfounded disciples looking on are to conclude from this encounter that Jesus is indeed “the one the Law and Prophets wrote about”—for Moses and Elijah have appeared to make that fact clear.
Second, if Moses and Elijah’s endorsement is still not enough to reassure the disciples that he is the Chosen One, God himself descends in a cloud to confirm Jesus is the Messiah King. Luke tells us that while Peter was still rambling on about God-knows-what—setting up little tents and roasting marshamellows with Moses and Elijah or something—“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” (Luke 9:34-35). And don’t you forget it, boys!
Yes, after the final hammer blow echoes off the craggy rocks of Golgotha and the last nail pierces the skin of Jesus; when the only sounds to be heard are the sobs of the grieving woman at the foot of the cross; when all but one of the disciples have fled in fear and doubt; after Peter has denied even knowing his best friend three times and the cock crows; as Judas’ corpse hangs like a rag doll from that other tree; when the disciples find themselves behind locked doors, hiding for their lives while Jesus lies buried in a cold stone tomb—if only, through all of this, those three disciple could just recall this moment of dazzling clarity when God himself stooped down to declare once and for all that, despite the radically counterintuitive cross-shape His Kingdom will take: “This is [indeed] my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
DID THEY EVER GET ONBOARD?
So, my question is simply this: Did they listen to Him? Even when he challenged their core convictions about what it means to be Savior and Lord? Did they listen to Him even when he called them to take up their own cross and turn their back on their preferred meaning of what Christ’s salvation will entail? Did they listen and follow him down the CrossRoad? Or did they deafen their ears and continue clinging to conventional wisdom regarding kingdoms and power and glory and how God’s victory ultimately comes?
Lucky for us, we can read the rest of the New Testament to see whether or not these guys ever got on board with Jesus’ cruciform way of life.What about the strong-willed, alpha male Peter wielding a sword and cutting off an ear to prevent Jesus’ arrest? Did he ever end up on the CrossRoad? This is the guy to whom Jesus said, “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” He is the same guy to whom Jesus said, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s [cruciform view].” Did Peter ever surrender his conventional view of God’s power and victory, and embrace the CrossRoad to glory? Indeed! In a letter he wrote years later to encourage persecuted Christians scattered about the Roman Empire, he urges them to literally walk in Jesus’ cruciform steps:
“For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. He never sinned, nor ever deceived anyone. He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly” (1 Peter 2:20-23). It doesn’t get more Jesus-like than this. This is a strong echo of the Sermon on the Mount.
How about James and John, the hot-tempered brothers whom Jesus nicknamed “the Sons of Thunder?” Just a few verses after the Transfiguration on the Mount, these guys run into a little opposition and ask Jesus, “Do you want us to call fire down from heaven to burn them up” these enemies (Luke 9:54)? Not exactly prime candidates for a cruciform life characterized by Enemy Love and non-violent resistance!
As it happens, John would pen the Fourth Gospel where he tells us that true greatness takes the form of a servant, royal power that stoops to wash the feet of others (John 13). When Jesus stands trial before Pilate, John gives us the those famous words from Jesus that show his kingdom doesn’t use violent force: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). Moreover, perhaps the most cruciform writing in the entire New Testament is also associated with John—that is, the Book of Revelation. From start to finish, Revelation is a call to Christians to overcome the brutal power of Empire by following the non-violent, self-sacrificial Way of the Lamb.
So, we see the transforming power of the Spirit at work, able to stop us in our tracks and get us moving in an entirely new direction. But it’s a process that takes time. It’s a decision that requires obedience. It’s a way of life that invites surrender.
WHAT ABOUT US?
So, what about us today? This Wednesday Christians round the globe will be walking around with ashes smeared on their forehead. As curious onlookers wonder what the little black dab on our heads means, we’ll be reminded that the CrossRoad is a peculiar road that begs for an explanation. The CrossRoad is a way of life that marks more than our foreheads once a year; our entire being is to be marked by the cross of Christ. Following the Crucified One in a world set on avoiding suffering at all costs and denying the reality of death, will indeed mark us out as different.
My sermon in a couple weeks as well as our feature film this Ash Wednesday will introduce us to the Apostle Paul who has a lot to teach us about life on the CrossRoad. Come learn more about the man who went around telling others, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:17).
Do you bear the marks of Christ in your life in any visible way? Can we spend the next 40 or so days of Lent pondering what it might mean in practice for us to “resolutely set our faces” toward our own life of cross-bearing? My prayer for all of us is that we will all find ourselves on the Mountain, having our own revelatory encounters with Christ in all his dazzling radiance and divine glory. May it be so. Let’s pray.