Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27). Now, if you were listening, you know that verse wasn’t in the Gospel reading we just heard. Instead, it comes just before it in Luke’s story. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “there are some here who will not taste death before they see” what the kingship of God, the sovereignty of God, actually looks like. Keep that thought in mind as we move along this morning.
We’re celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration today, and it’s one of those scriptural stories that sort of loses its punch with over-telling. Many of us have heard it too many times; it’s become commonplace. But if you happen to be someone who hasn’t heard this story very often – or maybe never heard it before today – I wonder how it strikes you?
Let’s look at a few key words and phrases. We’re told Jesus and his three closest disciples go “up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28). They go away to the place, in Scripture and still today, where people often go when they’re seeking a deep encounter with God – up on the mountaintop. OK, there’s our setting.
Then, there’s this phrase: Jesus’ “face was changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (9:29). Clearly, something’s happened up on the mountain, something otherworldly and mysterious.
Then we hear, “Suddenly … Moses and Elijah were talking to” Jesus, appearing in “glory” (9:30,31). OK, so a strange situation has just gotten seriously weird, as long-dead religious heroes suddenly appear out of nowhere. And what they talk about seems strange, too: Jesus’ upcoming “departure” at Jerusalem – and, even stranger, the word for “departure” in Greek is exodus (9:31). We’ve heard that before.
Meanwhile, the disciples are drifting in and out of sleep in their meditative state up on the mountain – not sure what’s real and what’s not, not sure whether they ought to do something to make this mystical moment last, like notes scribbled in a dream journal. Soon enough, it becomes clear they’re not dreaming after all. A dark cloud comes and overwhelms them, and the disciples are “terrified” as the cloud swallows them up (9:34). Finally, to freak them out completely, the very voice of God booms from the dark cloud, thundering, “This is my Son, my Chosen, my Beloved; listen to him!” (9:35). And suddenly, Jesus and the disciples are standing there alone. I imagine the disciples are looking for somewhere to run.
This is not a happy little Bible story. This is a terrifying encounter with the sovereign Lord of the universe. And it’s made even more terrifying for the disciples as they come to realize that the guy they hang out with, their leader, their teacher, their rabbi – he’s a whole lot more than that, sharing directly in God’s terrifying glory.
And as they keep reflecting on all this, I imagine it becomes even more confusing still. God’s voice had thundered, “Listen to him!” But, you know, Jesus didn’t have anything to say in this story. No grand proclamations. Not a single word, actually. So, Peter and James and John might have wondered, what were we supposed to listen to?
Well, rewind the story a bit. The last thing Luke describes before this account of the Transfiguration is one of those moments – maybe the supreme moment – of Jesus tellin’ it like it is. He asks his friends, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (9:18). And then he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” (9:20). Peter gets the answer right, though he hasn’t really understood it yet. He says, “You’re ‘the messiah of God’” (9:20) – which for them meant, “You’re the one God has anointed to be king of Israel, the one who will bring back God’s direct rule of our land, just like the good ol’ days of David and Solomon.” Jesus basically says, “Yes … and no.” He gives them the deep mystery of messiahship – that being God’s anointed king means he “will undergo great suffering, and be rejected by [the religious leaders], and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22). And then, he hits his friends in the gut with the mystery they’ll spend their lives trying to live into: “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves, and take up their cross daily, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (9:23-24) This truth comes directly from God’s beloved Son. “Listen to him!” boomed the voice from the cloud.
So, if you’re hearing this story with fresh ears, let me ask: Are you scared yet?
* * * *
Well, it’s summertime. These are supposed to be lazy days of relaxing and reading on the beach – or at least cooling off at the local pool. So every summer, in my mind’s eye, I go back to Meador Park pool in Springfield, Missouri. Meador Park was about 2 miles from my house growing up; and once I reached the age of emancipation for a kid in Springfield in the 1970s, which was about 10 years old, my parents let me ride my bike to the pool by myself. It was a different day. I had no fear, as a boy, going off to the swimming pool by myself – apparently neither did my parents. So I’d go and swim, maybe meet friends that day, maybe not, but definitely revel in the freedom and relaxation of summer.
One day, I met up with some friends. And as boys do, we started bragging about what we could do in the water – how long we could hold our breath, how deep we could dive, how far we could swim. It moved quickly into dares, and the dares moved quickly to the last place I wanted to go: the high dive.
Now, I know this will shock you, but I wasn’t exactly an athlete as a kid. Nor was I particularly coordinated. And I hated getting water up my nose. And I’d never jumped off the high dive. Ever. To me, the high dive at Meador Park pool was about 100 feet tall, like a circus scene from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Probably not, actually; but it sure felt that way.
So you know how this story goes. After the obligatory posturing of 10-year-old boys negotiating a dare, I found myself climbing the ladder up the high dive. I got to the top. And I walked slowly out, feeling the board quiver harder and harder the farther out I stepped. I walked to the end.
And I stood there. And I stood there. And I stood there. And the longer I stood there, the worse it got. The longer I stood there, the higher the high dive became.
* * * *
In a few minutes, three babies and their families are going to gather around this tiny pool here in the chancel. It’s not a very imposing sight, really. There’s not much water there. But let me tell you, that water’s got power. Because in that tiny pool is the water of life … and death … and new life in Christ.
As newborns, we burst from the womb’s primordial waters, overcoming blood and pain before we even gasp our first breath. So water is life … but it’s also death. In these lazy, hazy days of summer, we always hear of boating accidents and drownings; and we know, even if we don’t like to admit it, that the difference between life and death in the water is razor-thin. So water is death … but it’s also new life. Soon these three young people, and the adults who’d give their lives for them, will be asked to jump off the high dive into this tiny pool. The stakes are high because in that water, yes, we do die. “In it, we are buried with Christ in his death,” as we’ll pray before the baptisms. But just as surely, and so much more powerfully, “By it, we share in his resurrection. [And] through it, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP 306) Rising out of that pool, we are reborn as members of the family of God. Rising out of that pool, we are washed clean of every stain. Rising out of that pool, we are clothed in the garments of transcendent glory, like Jesus on the mountaintop; and we are sealed with the oil that’s anointed prophets and kings as we join Jesus as members of his royal priesthood.
And as we rise from that water, born again, we hear the voice of the risen Lord whose company of disciples we join. We hear him commission us for service in the reign and rule of God: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross daily, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
As the songwriter Marcus Mumford sings:
In these bodies we will live; in these bodies we will die.
Where you invest your love, you invest your life.
Awake my soul –
For you were made to meet your maker.1
As you stand at the end of the high dive, are you ready to take the plunge? Come on in. The water’s fine.
1. Mumford & Sons. “Awake My Soul.” Sigh No More. 2009.