Text: Luke 9:28-36 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Eli′jah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli′jah”—not knowing what he said. 34 As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen;[a] listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
If we open our minds and our hearts to really hear these words, we can’t but be amazed and even stunned by what they tell us.
Try putting yourselves in the place of any of those three disciples. Imagine waking up to see Jesus, completely transformed, clothes whiter than any bleach could make them, standing with the two of the greatest men the people of Israel had ever seen, Moses, the Giver of the Law, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, right there, before their very eyes.
Nothing in their experience, nothing in the experience of anyone they knew – or had ever known – could have prepared them for this moment. Not only that, but they realize that this man, Jesus, the man they’d been living with, learning from, for all this time, a man whom they thought they knew, was far, far more than even they could have imagined. Now, a few verses before this passage begins, we hear Peter declare that Jesus is “the Christ of God.” He had a definite flash of insight; but, as sincere as Peter no doubt was then, seeing what is taking place before his eyes now still had to be several degrees beyond mind-boggling!
So this passage is, among other things, about identity, specifically the identity of Jesus. Jesus is now fully revealed to these three disciples in no uncertain terms to be nothing less than the Son of God. Professor Scott Schauf writes the following on this subject: “The emphasis throughout the episode is on the dazzling attestation of Jesus’ identity. We are first given the description of his transformed appearance (verse 29). The change in the appearance of his face is reminiscent of Moses’ face becoming radiant upon experiencing the presence of God in Exodus 34:29-35. But the description of the change in Jesus’ clothes distinguishes him from Moses significantly: Jesus’ clothes become ‘dazzling white,’ words Luke uses to describe the appearance of angelic figures in Luke 24:4 and Acts 1:10. Jesus’ transformed appearance is thus not merely because he is experiencing God’s glory (like Moses) but rather because he is the very source of divine glory. The point is made explicit when the three disciples are said to see Jesus’ glory in verse 32.” And, to top it off, we have verse 35: “And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him’”!
But this is not just about Jesus’ identity. It’s also about the disciples’ identity. No one could witness such an event without being fundamentally changed. Whether or not they fully recognized it at that moment, the lives of Peter, John, and James were also irrevocably altered – they weren’t transfigured, but they were transformed. They had long since ceased being fishermen, and now they had ceased being “just” followers of Jesus – now they have become eye-witnesses of the nature of God.
But the question became: What do you do at a moment like this? What can you do?
Here’s what Peter did – he tried to prolong the experience, to make it last. He cries out: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
This was a totally natural and understandable reaction. Peter was utterly overwhelmed, and so he, like all of us in such moments, sought to regain some sense of order. Building some shelters was the first thing he thought of to try to do that. Building shelters, even temporary ones, was a way to buy some time to digest and make sense of what had just happened. But it was also an attempt to prolong the experience, a way to bask just a little longer in God’s presence. In other words – let’s stay here, where it’s wonderful, where we don’t have to deal with the problems of the world. Let’s stay here, where we’re close to God.
We all want that. We all want to feel touched by God. We all want – need – to feel blessed. That’s why we come together here, week after week – we want to feel God’s closeness, to hear God’s voice, to bring before God our prayers and supplications. We want that intimacy, that sense of being directly and continually in God’s presence.
Think back on those moments in your life where you felt safe and secure. That may be what Peter and James and John were feeling that day. They were surrounded by the glory of God; everything else – all their toils and worldly cares – faded into insignificance. There are probably as many ideas of what heaven is as there are people. Many of these concepts would be familiar to us, and many others would probably shock us. But I’d be willing to bet that every idea of what heaven is would have one thing in common – heaven is a place of peace, of safety, and of love. No wonder Peter makes that hopeful suggestion.
One other thing had to have been weighing on Peter’s mind and prompted his suggestion – just before this passage, Jesus foretells his death. Luke does not tell us what the reaction was on the part of the disciples, but I can well imagine that this news had not sat well with them, especially with Peter. So when Peter blurts out that maybe they should just stay up there, it’s because he’s justifiably terrified of what’s coming.
But staying there was not an option for the disciples. That would have made that Jesus’ ministry, and the ministry we all share that we have been given by him, pointless. Jesus had a mission to fulfill. And the disciples also had a job to do. That job was nothing less than saving the world. And that can’t be done from the top of a mountain.
We all love having our “mountaintop experiences.” They’re exhilarating. They’re uplifting. They’re totally wonderful. But human life is mostly lived in the valleys. It’s only in the context of normal life – life in those valleys, where things can be dark, confusing, and scary, but where we also find moments of great fulfillment and times of great humanity – that the value of the mountaintop experience is truly to be found.
That job the disciples had is also our job. Their identity is also our identity. As much as we love the mountaintop, we know we can’t stay there. It’s in the valleys of life where the action is, where we’re supposed to live, where we do live, and where we fulfill our calling. It’s our calling to be there for others who hurt and are afraid. It’s our calling to be the one holding the candle to shine the way so others no longer stumble in the dark. We’re the ones giving a Kleenex to a grieving mother or father, or widow or widower. We’re the ones putting an arm around someone so they can walk when they’re too tired to take another step. That’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s who we’re supposed to be. That’s who we are. And, again, no: We can’t do that if we’re on top of a mountain.
It isn’t easy. Sometimes doing that important job is something we do even when we’re full of doubts and misgivings, struggling with indecision, quaking with fear inside. But we do it, anyway. We rise to the occasion. We show courage. As Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s first fighter ace, famously said, “Courage is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared.”
And the same is true for us. But we can take heart from knowing that, when we step into the breach to be those people Jesus calls us to be, we aren’t alone. We’re never alone. Jesus is with us: “[A]nd lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mtt 28:20, RSV)
So, today let’s celebrate those mountaintop experiences we have had, but also rededicate ourselves to the task at hand: To save the world in Jesus’ Name!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
 Schauf, Scott, “Commentary on Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)”, February 10, 2013, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1572