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Transfigured by Prayer

San Williams

February 10, 2013
Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)

02-10-2013 Sermon Today is known as Transfiguration Sunday.  This is the Sunday that brings us to the end of Epiphany and gets us ready for the season of Lent.  All three of the synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—include the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.  Yet only Luke sets the transfiguration in the context of prayer.  Neither Matthew nor Mark mentions that Jesus had gone up on the mountain specifically to pray.  Neither do they say, as Luke does, that Jesus is praying when the transfiguration occurs.  So let’s rivet our attention on this often overlooked detail.   Namely, Luke’s insistence that prayer played an essential role in the transfiguration of Jesus.

To begin, note how Luke repeatedly depicts Jesus as a person of prayer.  Not only was Jesus praying on the mount of Transfiguration, but also every important juncture of his ministry, every critical decision in his life, was associated with prayer.  Following his baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus while he is praying.  Jesus’ selection of the twelve disciples occurs after he has spent an entire night in prayer.  In the verses just preceding today’s scripture, Jesus was praying when he asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and then proceeded to instruct them about the suffering and rejection that he must undergo.   Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, and again on the cross, forgiving his enemies and commending his life into God’s hands.

Clearly, for Jesus, prayer was not merely mouthing words to God. Rather it was an intimate relationship with God, an abiding awareness of God’s presence.  Prayer, for Jesus, must have been a kind of deep listening, in which the whole history of God’s promises meshed with his own identity and sense of mission.  Thus in today’s reading, Moses the lawgiver and the prophet Elijah are joined in conversation with Jesus.  Luke presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, but only in the most paradoxical sense—a liberator without a sword, a leader who suffers defeat, a Savior who is rejected, a King who is servant, the Son of God who allows himself to suffer at the hands of his enemies.   Such a paradoxical understanding of the Messiah caught the disciples by surprise.  They couldn’t understand it, and didn’t want to accept it.

This morning our chancel choir gave voice to this inherent paradox.  The anthem, Christus Paradox, has us imagine two mountains upon which God’s glory is revealed.   The Mount of Transfiguration, where  the face of Jesus shines with heavenly light, and  the Mount of Calvary, whereupon  that same shining face is bloodied and spat upon.  In the words of the anthem:  “Clothed in light upon the mountain, stripped of might upon the cross, shining in eternal glory, beggar’d by a soldier’s toss…”

How did Jesus come to embrace such a paradoxical understanding of his identity and role?  How did he discern that he was to fulfill the ancient hope for God’s Kingdom to come on earth, but in a way that no one anticipated or expected?  Luke gives us a clue. Through prayer Jesus came to understand that the only way to lead people out form the bondage of sin and death was to take them upon himself. So we can be grateful that Luke has provided an insight that apparently Matthew and Mark overlooked, and that is that prayer played an essential role not only in Jesus’ transfiguration but throughout his life.

But significant though that insight is, Jesus’ prayer life is not Luke’s main point.  Notice that the force of the transfiguration scene is directed to the disciples, not Jesus.   Luke isn’t merely showing us what prayer meant to Jesus, but he is inviting us to ask what it means to us.

To be honest, I resisted preaching a sermon on prayer, in part because I don’t feel as though I adequately understand it.  Prayer often seems awkward, sometimes embarrassing, and it raises questions we have trouble answering.  For many of us, in fact, a practice of prayer has dropped out of our busy lives.  We feel that we don’t know how to do it, and when we do try to pray we might feel foolish.  Yet we can take comfort in knowing that prayer has never been easy.  In the transfiguration scene, Luke describes Jesus’ first disciples as “weighed down with sleep.”  They were awake all right, but they were not fully comprehending.   Luke notes that Peter doesn’t know what to say, and what he does say misses the point.  Further, Luke pictures a cloud overshadowing the disciples, and this terrifies them.  Taken together, these words and symbols suggest that there is, and always has been, a kind of unknowing, a lack of understanding, associated with prayer.  Paul spoke for disciples of every age when he said, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.”

But let’s not lose heart. Let’s not give up.  Through scriptures such as the one we’re considering today, more and more we come to see that prayer is not just talking to God; it is, more nearly, a way of listening to God. Specifically, prayer is listening to God speaking to us through the words of Jesus.  In today’s reading, the final words out of the cloud are directed to the disciples:  “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.” And just a few verses later, Jesus again speaks of his betrayal into human hands, saying to his disciples:  “Let these words sink into your ears.”  Is prayer, then, primarily a matter of opening our ears, our hearts and minds, not only to hear the words of Jesus, but also to let them sink in?  Prayer, in this sense, is attuning our lives to the teachings of Jesus, and listening to what may admittedly be the most paradoxical words ever spoken:  “If any want to be may 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 with save it.”  Whatever else prayer is, it is the continual effort to let those words sink into our ears.

Friends, our scripture this morning offers us the opportunity to grow in our faith and deepen our relationship with God through the practice of prayer.  As you know there are many ways to pray, various kinds of prayer, and countless techniques.   We’ll share some good resources for prayer with you at our Ash Wednesday service this week.  But by whatever method, our prayer should draw us ever deeper into the life of Jesus so that we, too, are transfigured, renewed, “changed into his likeness,” as Paul wrote, “from one degree of glory to another.”    Jesus is God’s Son, his Chosen.  Listen to him.

We keep hearing about people for whom church is no longer relevant, and very often the reason given is that they see no connection between faith and their daily life.  But every time we pray, we bridge the gap between our “daily life” and our “faith life.”  Friends, I raise this question as we prepare to begin the season of Lent.  As you know, prayer is one of the practices most emphasized in Lent as a way for us to enter more deeply into the life and suffering of Jesus.  I can’t give you a particular strategy, set of words, formula or technique for this, because prayer is shrouded in the cloud of unknowing. It is mystery and paradox, and it is never easy.   But as a congregation this Lent let’s each take time during the day—and insofar as possible remain aware all day—to listen to the words of Jesus, and to let those words sink into our ears, our hearts and minds so that our lives become identified with the mystery of God’s liberation through the suffering of God’s chosen.