Grand Bara Desert, Djibouti, Africa
Today is the second Sunday of Lent. Lent is a forty day period of prayer and fasting in preparation for Easter. It recalls the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before he was tempted by the devil. The number 40 in the Bible is symbolic of testing. Not testing like an exam, but testing like a refiner’s fire. Not only does the spiritual journey of Lent remind us of Jesus’ ordeal, but I can also see a parallel between his journey into the Palestinian wilderness and my journey into the Djiboutian wilderness.
The Bible passage for today, Luke 9:28-43, has two seemingly unrelated miracle stories: the Transfiguration and the Healing of a Demon-Possessed Boy. One takes place on a mountaintop, the other on the plain. One is a private miracle witnessed by only three disciples, the other by a large crowd. In one miracle Jesus himself is changed, in the other Jesus changes someone else. In one God speaks from heaven, in the other a demon speaks from the one he possessed. One provokes fear and silence, the other amazement. Despite the stark contrasts, these two stories are complimentary, not contradictory. They represent the two journeys of the Christian life: the inward journey of prayer and the outward journey of service.
The background to the first miracle, the Transfiguration, is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matt. 16:21). Yet Peter resisted Jesus’ prediction and even rebuked Jesus for saying he must be killed then raised to life. The other disciples didn’t have any better understanding. Before the Resurrection they shared the Jewish view that the Messiah would be a conquering king who slays the wicked, not a suffering servant who dies for them.
Jesus chooses three disciples – Peter, James, and John – to witness his Transfiguration. Luke tells us, And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke 9:29-32). A cloud then covers him and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). Moses and Elijah are significant, because they represent the Old Testament Law and the Prophets. The point is that both the Law and the Prophets discuss the death of Jesus, even though the Jews – including Peter – failed to understand.
The purpose of the Transfiguration was twofold: to remove the offense of the cross from the disciples’ hearts and to give the disciples hope that the body of Jesus will be raised and glorified after his death. The miracle gives us the same hope for our own bodies. In the Book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (Phil. 3:20-21).
In the second miracle story Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy with epileptic seizures. The disciples hadn’t been able to cast the demon out. Presumably these were the disciples who weren’t with him on the mountain. Throughout Luke’s Gospel there is a special focus on the poor and needy, the outsiders and the neglected. This story demonstrates Jesus’ love for those at the margins of society.
Lent invites us on a spiritual journey into the wilderness. Our sins are exposed and by God’s grace removed. Jesus is the Light of the World. His light not only reveals our imperfections, but cleanses and transforms us. We cannot encounter God without being changed. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29b). The more time we spend with God, the more we become like him, and the more his light will shine through us and on those in darkness.
During Lent God invites us to become intentional about both the journey inward and the journey outward. What would our lives would look like if each one of us took God up on his invitation? What would our church look like if we all did? I’m not exactly sure, but I’d love to find out!