"Listening to Jesus": Sermon for the Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Year C

"Listening to Jesus": Sermon for the Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Year C

Mar 03, 2019

Passage:Luke 9:28-43

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Epiphany

Category: Discipleship, Epiphany, Holy Spirit

Keywords: discipleship, holy spirit, love, transfiguration


With the "Transfiguration" of Jesus on the mountaintop, we hear God tell the disciples to "listen to Jesus." What does "listening to Jesus" look like? Especially when we are hurting or suffering or not sure of where to go next?


In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Here we are at the last Sunday after the Epiphany. What that means, of course, is that in our Liturgical Calendar, this is the last Sunday before Lent. We are about to start that long, reflective march toward Jesus and the cross.

In so many ways, it seems so odd to us. I mean, didn't we just finish Christmas a few weeks ago? Didn't we just have the little baby Jesus stories afresh in our minds? I know it wasn't but just a few weeks ago that we had our Epiphany pageant, where the baby Jesus was approached in great celebration by several of our little shepherds, our sweet angels, our wonderful camels, and our little sheep. What an awesome night!

How can we be moving so abruptly from the celebration of Jesus' birth to the road to Jesus' death?

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, we find the apostles in a place where they are probably experiencing similar emotions. Of course they were not there with Jesus at his birth. But they have come to know and love Jesus. They have become a part of his life. He is part of theirs.

Just before the section of text that we read today, Jesus tells his disciples that he must undergo great suffering, that he will be killed, and that he will be raised.

Jesus also tells them that anyone who wants to be his follower should take up their cross and follow him.

This news has to feel devastating to the apostles. What could it mean?

So then we have the next interchange that we heard this morning. Jesus invites three of his disciples--Peter, James, and John--to climb a mountain with him. These three have already witnessed wonderful things... They've even seen Jesus raise the daughter of a grieving father from the dead. They believe  in him. They have confessed that Jesus is the Messiah--the Anointed one of God.

Once on that mountain, something happens to Jesus. While he is praying, Jesus is transfigured—literally changed in front of the disciples. His face shines like the sun. His clothes become dazzling white. And he is suddenly flanked by Moses and Elijah. What the light shows us, the audience, is that Jesus is manifesting God’s reign into the darkness and death of this world.

Moses and Elijah, the two great prophets of the tradition, are standing with Jesus. Why Moses and Elijah?

First, these two were arguably the greatest of the prophets of the old covenant. But, second, these two were also people whose bodies were never found upon their death. Luke tells us that they are here to talk with Jesus about "his departure" that he will accomplish in Jerusalem. In other words, Moses and Elijah are the ones who can talk knowledgably to Jesus about such "heavenly" topics as resurrection .[1]

In the meantime, we've got the three disciples witnessing all of this. Or, we might say, "somewhat" witnessing all of this...

Can you imagine what it would have been like to be one of those disciples?

I can't even wrap my imagination around it!

Luke tells us that as the disciples watch all this, they are "weighed down with sleep." In other words, it looks almost as if it's happening in a dream to them... Everything appears as if it's in that place right between wake and sleep.

But then Peter responds on that mountain.

And I think Peter's response is like many of us when we have heard difficult news.

He doesn't really pay much attention to the fact Jesus' face and clothes are shining a dazzling white... If he had, then he might have thought something really special was happening here.

Peter also doesn't observe the presence of Elijah and Moses as signs of some great connection of Jesus to God's redemption throughout time.

Instead, Peter is thinking about what's going to happen when they go down that mountain. Peter is still focused on the news he received just before they went up the mountain. Jesus is going to undergo great suffering! Jesus is going to be killed! ......Don't we all do this? We understand his laser focus on the bad news. "Can we get a second opinion? ...Can we delay this?... Can we do anything? ...Please!" Peter is desperate!

"Perhaps," says Peter, "we can just build this safe retreat away from the world, where none of that danger can get to us! I've got a great idea!," he says. "I'll just build three dwellings, Jesus--one for you, and one for Moses over there, and another one for Elijah--and we can all avoid any of that horrible end that you said was coming!"[2]

 But you see, that's not what this whole experience was about. So, to help Peter and the other disciples out, a cloud appears. This is the presence of the Most High. The Holy Spirit of God. It appears and covers them.... Just like the cloud that overshadowed the mountain when Moses received the tablets of stone. Just like the Spirit of the Most High that overshadowed Mary when she conceived new life in her womb.[3] This time, instead of the law being handed over by God for the sake of Israel, the voice makes clear that the gift is even greater. The voice says: "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

What an amazing gift!

They have been traveling in fear since that moment that Jesus told them his fate.

We understand this. We get this. We all experience this.

Life is going along just fine for us and WHAM! A doctor tells us something that we cannot believe is true.

We get a phone call out of the blue that has news that no one wants to hear.

How do we go on from that moment? We are numb. We are confused. We are afraid.

For Peter, James, and John, they cannot hide away from the suffering that is to come. But what they also have in front of them is the light of God in their very presence:  assuring them them direction.

God says: "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

But what does listening to Jesus look like?

As we travel back down the mountaintop, and toward our destination we try to hold onto this experience--this knowledge of God's presence.

But we also have with us the struggle, the toil, and the reality of heartache and pain in our world.

Jesus came down from that mountain and immediately healed a child who was suffering.  Listening to Jesus means being present to those who need God's love in the world.

We have transcendent encounters with the holy in the midst of our own suffering in life. But for most of us, our encounters with the Holy are probably not full "mountaintop" experiences, where we see a  blinding light or we hear some assuring voice from the midst of a cloud.

Instead, in the middle of our suffering we encounter the Holy in different ways. We discover that God is with us, saying to us, "You are my child," in the kindness of a stranger. God is with us, saying to us, "You are my Chosen," when we gather to worship in a community of the faithful. God is with us, saying to us, "Follow me," when someone needs our love and support. [4]

So yes, it's true that it wasn't that long ago that we were celebrating the absolute joy of the Epiphany Pageant.  We sang, and held our candles aloft, and gathered around the Baby Jesus. But this moment of the Transfiguration, just before Lent, offers us an important perspective--God is telling us:

There is nothing we can do to hide from either joy or sadness. We can't run from the path that we are on. We can't back away from bad news. BUT we also cannot hide from God.

God finds us when we are joyful. God sits beside us, broken and mournful, when we are sorrowful. God celebrates with us when we are happy, filling our hearts with light and warmth. God mourns with us when we are despondent.

 Transfiguration is about the appearance of God’s presence in our midst.  God tells US: “I am always with you. YOU are my Chosen. Together, let's head down that mountain and share my love with the world.”     Amen.


                [1] See Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 260-61.

                [2]This interpretation of Peter's motivation for building the dwellings comes from  Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz “Matthew 17:1-9: Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary  Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Epiphany.

                [3]See Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 262.

                [4]Much of this argument from from  Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz “Matthew 17:1-9: Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary  Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Epiphany.