This sermon, preached on February 19, 2012 at the Richmond Mennonite Fellowship, based on Luke 9:28-36 and Paul Simon’s song, Wartime Prayers. They lyrics to this song can be found here. The quotes from the song are in italics.
Every year, on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the larger church celebrates the Transfiguration. And although I’ve preached and listened to sermons about this holy day, I really don’t get it. And when I ask my preaching friends about it, they give me some interpretations that I really don’t understand. I mean, I understand them, but I don’t understand them. In Mark’s gospel, which was the first written, it’s not difficult to understand that Mark is trying to explain Jesus’ place in the world… he’s trying to get them to see that Jesus is on par with Moses and Elijah, even in communion with them, so therefore, somehow, better than Jesus and Elijah
So the transfiguration deals with identity.
In Matthew’s gospel, which likely used the Mark passage as its model, there is more of an emphasis on the idea of building a permanent home for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. It’s like, “We’ve had this transcendental experience, let’s make it last forever! As one of my minister friends said, “It speaks to our nature to make mountaintop experiences last forever.”
For me, none of these explanations resonated.
Until I read the Luke passage and entered into a conversation with Paul Simon. In Luke’s gospel, you see that the visitation from Elijah and Moses is preparation… preparation, for Jesus’ departure, his exodus.
And it began to make sense to me. So I wrote about this conversation I think happened after the transfiguration.
After the glow had worn off, and dinner had been served and cleaned up, Simon Peter and Jesus sat up the room where they were staying. The other disciples had fallen asleep, and the house had the quiet respiration of snorers. Everywhere you went, you could hear the breathing in and breathing out.
Simon Peter asked Jesus, “Why did you go out to pray today?
Jesus replied to Simon Peter “Because you cannot walk with the holy if you’re just a halfway decent man I don’t pretend that I’m a mastermind with a genius marketing plan I’m trying to tap into some wisdom Even a little drop will do I want to rid my heart of envy And cleanse my soul of rage before I’m through.”
“But why pray?” Simon Peter asked.
Jesus explained it this way:
“Prayers offered in times of peace Are silent conversations Appeals for love, or love’s release In private invocations But all that is changed now Gone like a memory from the day before the fires. Simon Peter, you don’t know what’s coming up. I’ve told you that we’re heading to Jerusalem, and I’ve told you that it’s not going to be easy. But it’s possible that I’ll be killed there. So instead of praying for love, or for love’s release, I’m praying a wartime prayer.
“You know what’s been happening, Simon Peter. We’ve been walking around Israel for a few years. My cousin, John the Baptist, has been killed by Herod. I’ve won the favor of the people, but I’ve angered the politically powerful. And when you add all of that to the volatility that of Israel in this time, a storm is brewing. Because of the turbulent times, I’m not praying for sweet things, I’m not praying for good times, gone like a memory from the day before the fires. I’m praying for something else.”
Remember that our text tells us, “As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, (exodus) which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.”
The conversation between Simon Peter and Jesus continued. Simon Peter asked, “What did Elijah say to you?”
Jesus laughed and said, “Apparently, Elijah’s always rubbed people the wrong way. You remember that Elijah was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, he faced down Ahab and Jezebel. He said to me, “People hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars.” He told me the story about the time he faced down Baal. But more importantly, how alone he felt when he did. He said, “Jesus, you’re going to be unpopular. You’re going to feel alone. When you do, just offer a wartime prayer. And know that we’ll be with you.”
And then Moses grinned when he heard what Elijah said. Moses said to me, “Times are hard, it’s a hard time But everybody knows All about hard times, the thing is What are you gonna do? Well, you cry and try to muscle through And try to rearrange your stuff But when the wounds are deep enough And it’s all that we can bear We wrap ourselves in prayer.”
Moses continued, “Remember when I met Pharaoh to set God’s people free? I wanted to back down. I wanted to get past it. I wanted the cup to pass from me. But it didn’t. I put on my big boy pants, and I faced him down, knowing that my God was bigger than his.
“Then much later, in the desert, my student Joshua fought the Amalekites, and I prayed a Wartime Prayer. And as long as I held my arms above my head, we would win, but if my arms dropped down, Joshua began to lose. I couldn’t hold my hands for very long, So Aaron and Hur sat me on a rock, and held my arms for me. We won that battle. I want you to know, Jesus, that in those last moments, we’ll be beside you, holding up your arms, and joining you in a wartime prayer.”
Simon Peter sat back for a few minutes. He seemed like he was digesting Jesus’ words while he was digesting his food.
“One other question, Jesus,” he said. “What did the conversation with Elijah and Moses give you?”
Jesus looked at Simon Peter and said, “It reminded me of the nature of God. Like a mother who murmurs in twilight sleep, And draws her babies closer, With hush-a-byes for sleepy eyes, And kisses on the shoulder , To drive away despair, She says a wartime prayer.
Today made me ready for the next weeks,” Jesus continued. “You disciples don’t understand it yet, but I’m going to face some really tough situations in the next month. Knowing that God, Moses, and Elijah are with me will help me make it. And knowing that they are there for me keeps me available to be there for all of you.”