There is this thing with the Gospel is that often we start reading a passage, and as we read this passage, we find the story so beautiful and well, so extraordinary that we may start doubting it really happened / or at least we wonder if it really happened this way – like Jesus feeding 5000, the water turning into wine or maybe like today the Transfiguration: Jesus is up on the mountain and as he starts praying, his face and clothes become dazzling white and Moses and Elijah show up.
If you find it hard to believe, you are in good company. A lot of theologians like to think that the whole thing is maybe just “symbolic”, told as an image, an illustration to make us understand something deeper – here: that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, so his glory must be shown in a dramatic vision.
But to me, what is interesting is that, each time there is one of those extraordinary stories in the Gospel – stories that seem really hard to believe – there are also always a few details that are so grounded in everyday life, so real, that I want to believe the whole story is true and this is exactly how it happened. Certainly the case today: The Transfiguration is an extraordinary story and yet, Luke reports little details that make you think he sticks to the facts. (Matthew and Mark tell the story as well, but they don’t notice what Luke notices.).
And this what Luke notices:
– Jesus and the disciples are praying
– The disciples feel sleepy.
And well, I think Luke is very candid, because Christians don’t always like to admit it, but we know that for a fact: Prayer can make us feel sleepy… I looked up in a dictionary the definition of “dozing off” and it reads: “to fall into a light sleep unintentionally” and then the example they give you is: He dozed off during the sermon! So this is well acknowledged this is how worship goes sometimes!! We certainly experience some “dozing off” here at Christ Church with a service at 9:00am. It will be worse next week with daylight saving time!
So what about that? Well, there are actually quite a few times in the Gospel when Jesus asks his disciples to stay awake: to pray with him, as in the garden of Gethsemane, but also Jesus tells parables about staying awake, and it’s like he is always worried about his disciples falling asleep. And I always wondered about that until this week when I read an article about a church in Washington that manages to attract a lot of young people (so the newspaper made an article out of it!). A young man who was interviewed said he decided to stay after attending a Bible study because: “The word of God woke up something in [him] that was asleep for a while”
He said: The word of God woke up something in me that was asleep for a while.
And I thought: Well, that’s it, that’s what it’s all about. Jesus does not care if we fall asleep when we are tired. Jesus was worried about people being hungry – no doubt he had compassion on those who were tired / fall asleep even if it was during prayer or his sermons. But Jesus was still worried his disciples let some important things fall asleep inside of them / become numb / forgotten and so Jesus tried very hard / went out of his way to capture their attention, to remind them of who they were / meant to be.
Actually, the Transfiguration story concludes the cycle of Epiphany and it is a parallel to the beginning of the season when we read about Jesus’s baptism: We hear the same words: “This is my Son, my chosen”. The voice of God asks to look at Jesus and listen to him/ The Gospel wants to remind us that we are sons and daughters of God too and warns us that we should not let that go numb.
But maybe we have a feeling that we are not sleepy. We are for sure a busy generation. According to a recent study: we never had gotten so little sleep and it puts us into troubles: health problems, depression, accidents. Yet, we are sleepy, in the sense that we can all numb ourselves:
– With different things: TV shows, addictions, work…
– In different ways: Parts of ourselves, part of our lives that have fallen asleep…
Jesus wants us to be full people / alive / to use all that we have, all that we are. And we may make this experience that God wants to wake us up – like the disciples on that day of the Transfiguration, like this young man in this church in DC. I know I could relate to the story of the man because that happened to me. When I was in my late twenties, I stopped going to church for a while, and then one day I went to a prayer group and they were singing Taizé songs and it was so moving it’s like it reminded me I had a soul.
But being reminded of our soul, it’s not only about religion. Maybe you have been woken up to your soul in other ways, like you read a book and it made you curious / you wanted to think more deeply. Or you started a painting class and you discovered you could use your hands, become a more creative person. Or maybe you met somebody who touched your heart, or you discovered a cause you wanted to fight for…
We all fall asleep at some point and we all need to wake up: It’s true for us as individuals, as couples, as churches… This week, our church had to take the Diocesan survey: “Unstuck church assessment”: The purpose is to identify whether congregations have fallen asleep! (We’re not doing too bad, but we could do better…).
It’s wonderful to know we are accepted as we are / loved by God but we are made to grow: grow fully into our possibilities. Isn’t it heart breaking when you see that your children don’t use their gifts? You love them but if they spend their time staring at a screen, you probably want them to raise their heads, to participate in the conversation…Well, maybe this how God sees us to! God wants us to mature! We are made for so much more…In his letter today, Paul says that we are made to be transformed in the image of Christ, from one glory to another.
And indeed the Gospel story does not end with the Transfiguration: Jesus walks down the mountain and he cures this young man – why is there such an extended description of his affliction? Well, the description insists on the fact that the young man is distorted and disfigured by his crisis / it’s like he is a counterpoint to Jesus whose face is radiant. But Jesus does not condemn him. On the other way around, we see Jesus restoring the man to his true face and true beauty…Satan’s work is to disfigure who we are. But more often, we may just don’t work hard enough to be our most beautiful selves!
Of course, it’s not about the way we look like…It’s about – as Paul notices – being fully ourselves: bold / confident disciples (even bolder than Moses!). Jesus gets mad at the end of the story because his disciples don’t act as if they were empowered. They are shy, they don’t think they can do the healing. How often is it that we also think we cannot help people / do something for God and we just try to get by. We do that as individuals / as a church. Jesus wants us to we have power (=the power to act/serve), in the same way you would want your children to be able to take care of themselves…and to take care of others too!
It’s not easy to grow, to change, it can be painful…We are also woken up in suffering: Like when you start exercising and it makes you hurt in muscles you didn’t know you had in you. There is a reason why we fall asleep during worship: Sometimes it’s boring of course, but also it’s demanding. To really look, listen and make a change in us…Dozing off / numbing is a good way out sometimes…And yet, how much do we need to stay awake if we don’t want to miss the important stuff. Had the disciples fallen asleep on that day, they would have missed this incredible vision.
We see that Jesus is transformed as he prays / we too are transformed as we work on our relationship with God…Let God work on ourselves / transform us so like Jesus we can “shine God’s glory”, not to hide but to transform the world. Luke mentions a time range of “Eight days”, some think it points to the new creation. God renews us and transforms us to mirror Christ. Maybe Lent is this time to let God “re-create us” and awaken us to our true selves. Amen.