On the final Sunday before Lent, we’ll read the story of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), when Jesus shape-shifts and hangs out with famous Old Testament personalities. We’ll also go with the optional second part of the story (Luke 9:37-43), when everybody comes back down the hill and heals a boy.

Where are we?

First point to ponder: the story begins with a relative time stamp, “About a week after he had said these things…” What things? He’s just been talking about his upcoming trial, execution, and resurrection. Just before that, Peter had made his important declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. This context is the same in all three synoptic gospels, but Luke omits two memorable dialogues. First, in the exchange about Jesus’ death after Peter’s declaration, Matthew and Mark tell about Peter trying to talk Jesus out of dying, to which Jesus replies, “Get away from me, Satan!” Second, in this week’s reading, Luke omits a conversation about the meaning of rising from death and the role of John the Baptist as Elijah.

After this pair of stories, Jesus speaks more about his death, then there’s an argument between the disciples over who gets to be the greatest. Again, the three synoptics agree on this order, except that Matthew includes one other teaching in this cycle. Shortly thereafter, “As the time drew near when Jesus would be taken up to heaven, he made up his mind and set out on his way to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). This is a turning point in Luke’s story, when Jesus gets done being nice to people and starts transgressing the boundaries that will eventually get him killed. His teachings are about to get more challenging and more confrontational.

What’s going on here?

As the RCL acknowledges, this story of going up the mountain and getting shiny harkens back to the story of Moses bringing commandments down the mountain to Israel in the wilderness.

Moses and Elijah are the lawgiver and the prophet, i.e. the author and the epitome of the two major divisions of Hebrew scripture. (There are also “writings,” including the Psalms and other books that don’t have quite the same cachet.) Conveniently, Elijah was taken up to heaven at the end of his ministry, and God himself buried Moses without telling anyone where, leading to speculation that perhaps these two might be available to usher in the messianic age. Jesus too will have a unique exit from the world, which is what they’re all talking about in v. 31.

All this happens when Jesus is praying, which is a significant theme in Luke. The other gospels don’t mention prayer, focusing instead on their being alone. The disciples have a tendency to sleep through Jesus’ prayers, as happens again at Gethsemane.

Peter’s suggestion to set up tents refers to the festival of tabernacles, which was an eight-day harvest festival that also took on connections with the giving/reading of the scriptures.

The divine voice seems to echo Jesus’ baptism, but with slightly different phrasing and the addition of witnesses.

I’m intrigued about why Luke leaves out the conversation about John the Baptist as Elijah, and in general how the Transfiguration story and the healing story are related.

Peter Woods makes the connection between God’s pronouncement that Jesus is the chosen Son and the “only son” who needs healing in the second story.

So what?

The obvious place I go with this pair of stories is to think about how the amazing spiritual experiences of my life have always come in “special” places – places set apart like the wilderness, or places I had to travel to get to  – but the real work I’m called to happens in mundane “down the mountain” life. I totally understand Peter’s impulse to set up shop (or at least camp for a week) in the place where God seems to be doing something great. But most of us are called to something less flashy than that, at least over the long term. The final verse of the old hymn “In the Garden,” which is otherwise not my favorite product of the late-19th-century hymn boom, captures this dynamic very well.

When the Voice tells the disciples to listen to Jesus, David Lose hears a call into prayer. We do a lot of things as the church and as Christians in the world, but how do we do at prayer? Specifically, how do we do at prayer as listening (not just telling God what we want or need)?

Maybe there’s something to be said for the disciples being quiet in v. 36. After all, they (or we) aren’t usually very quiet for very long. Maybe they’re learning something? What do we learn from our encounters with God?