Luke knew the importance of identity too. The ninth chapter of his gospel, which we have snippet of this morning, starts with a very powerful man asking a question about identity (9.7). Herod the Tetrarch had heard reports of Jesus and the twelve apostles he had just sent out to heal and proclaim the kingdom, and was perplexed. He had just had John the Baptist executed, but some people were saying that he had been raised from the dead. Others were saying that Elijah or one of the prophets had returned. Herod wasn’t convinced by these stories. Who, he wondered, could this Jesus he was hearing about be?
Peter thought he could answer that question: ‘God’s Messiah’, he said (9.20). But he had only begun to imagine what this might mean. And so Jesus filled in the picture. The Messiah would be rejected and suffer and be killed and be raised on the third day. The identity of the Messiah was way beyond what any of the disciples were prepared to imagine. Peter and the other disciples, despite making a good start, were hardly any clearer about Jesus’ identity than Herod.
It is only after we have the question posed by Herod and half answered by Peter, that we come to the mount of transfiguration. At last, the moment when all will be made clear. Jesus takes Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain to pray, and something that can only really be marveled at happens. As Jesus was praying, his face and clothing were visibly transformed. It is as though, for a moment, the veil of heaven is drawn back, and Jesus can be seen as he truly is. At last, we think. This is the Messiah we want! A shining face, glowing clothing, having intense, meaningful discussions with two of the most significant figures from Israel’s history. This is a Messiah who you can really worship!
But if we were merely to come to that conclusion, we would be paying as little attention as Peter James and John. Did you spot what these immensely privileged disciples were doing whilst their Lord was talking with Moses and Elijah? They were dozing, ‘Weighed down with sleep’, or possibly even ‘drunk with sleep’ (9.32). Peter, James and John were only partially aware of what was going on. The translation we have in the NRSV doesn’t quite do justice to this. It reads, ‘But since they stayed awake’, but the tense of the verb ‘awake’ in greek stresses the beginning of a new action. So a better translation is something like, ‘when they were beginning to wake up’.
Why did Luke tell us about these napping disciples? I think it is to show us, as clearly as he possibly could, that the three witnesses of the transfiguration failed to understand the most significant part of the event, and instead, fixated on the least important aspect. Peter, the spokesman for the three disciples, fixates on the glorious, shining Jesus, the Messiah they had all dreamed of, and he wanted to preserve that moment by building shelters for them to stay in. What the three disciples had missed, though, was the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah. We read that they were ‘were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.’ The word Luke used for ‘departure’ is literally ‘Exodus’. The Exodus was the story of how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, leading them through the sea, from death in Egypt to new life in the promised land. The discussion was about Jesus’ death to save his people, his resurrection to bring us new life. For Jesus, the transfiguration both confirmed who he was, and assured him that the path he was about to take to Jerusalem was God’s will. Here, on the top of the mountain, the Law and the Prophets agree that the Messiah will bring about a new Exodus for his people, and the Father adds divine approval. We are to listen carefully to the Son, because the teaching he offers leads us to know God more truly.
If we aren’t listening, if we are half asleep, the transfiguration confirms everything we expect God to be. Glorious, powerful, shiny. The kind of deity that we want to set up a shrine to. But if we stay awake and listen attentively we’ll realise that true glory isn’t found in the glowing face. It is found in the journey to Jerusalem, in the path of suffering to free his people. As one preacher put it, ‘Glory doesn’t shine, it bleeds’ (Debbie Blue, Sensual Orthodoxy).
Where do we expect to find glimpses of holiness? Beautiful worship? Exquisite music? A serene, ancient church? Perhaps we glimpse holiness in nature, when we look at a night sky or a sunset. Some people go on pilgrimage to holy places, or join religious communities. Some lock themselves in libraries to study the deep things of God. There are many ways we try to feel in touch with the spiritual, in which we experience the sacred, but the transfiguration challenges us, not to look for or hold on to the holiness that we expect to find, but to listen to the Son, to follow him on the way of the cross, and to go on learning from him. Learning to see the God whose strength is revealed in the weakness of the cross may lead us to the same awed silence we see in the three disciples on the mountain top.