When Things Become Clear

St. John’s United Methodist Church of Baltimore
Rev. Jackson H. Day, Pastor
Transfiguration Sunday, February 27, 2022

When Things Become Clear[2] 

When my father was in his last months, he had fallen, and a hemorrhage had impaired his brain function.  He was then in a nursing facility and when we visited one day he was in a room with other patients and a therapist was passing a large beach ball back and forth between them.

I realized this was not just about playing ball – his mind wanted to keep him 30, 40, 60 years in the past – but when a beach ball is coming at your face, your attention is sucked into the present.

Would that the events of this week were as harmless as a beach ball, for it is the invasion of Ukraine that has captured too much of the attention of too many of us with emotions: anger, despair, hopelessness—and admiration for the resolve of the Ukrainian people.  And left your pastor with the question, “what on earth can we say about the Transfiguration[3] that might possibly be useful in a time like this?”

The German word for Transfiguration is “Die Verklärung.”  Buried in that word is the word for “clear.”  We often think of the Transfiguration as “making things different.”  If it really also means “Making things clear”, what a great gift that is!

War makes things unclear.  If you cannot know what is going on, you may not know how to respond.  What can help us in during “the fog of war”?

When you look at the Transfiguration story in detail, three things become clear – the importance of prayer, the importance of struggle, and the importance of affirmation.  


Matthew and Mark don’t seem to know why the story of the Transfiguration happened, but Luke is clear at the beginning.  Jesus gathered together the three disciples and went up to the mountain – to pray.  Why at this particular time?  Because it was a time of transition between Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing in Galilee, and going to Jerusalem to face death on the cross. While he was praying, Luke writes, the appearance of Jesus’ face changed.  Matthew says his face shone like the sun.  All three say Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white.  Mark has an interesting mind; the clothes are so white that Mark thinks about bleach and that no one on earth could bleach Jesus’ clothes that white.  

I think a transfiguration like that doesn’t come from how hard we pray to God.  I think it reflects how much we allow God to speak to us.  In the transfiguration, I see God shining through, because Jesus through prayer made himself completely open to God.

Sometimes we belittle prayer.  We may say, “there’s nothing left to do but pray” as if that means there’s nothing left to do at all.  We say of someone, “he hasn’t got a prayer” when we mean, “he hasn’t got anything.”   You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t slice it, you can’t measure it.  So for many of us it becomes a formality. Start and end a meeting with prayer, but certainly you wouldn’t waste the time to come to church just to pray, would you?  What on earth would that accomplish?  

Prayer is important.  It seems to me that during this Lenten season, we could profit – as could the world around us – by increasing our emphasis on prayer.  Always with the lesson we sometimes teach children:  there is a reason we have two ears but only one mouth.  We pray because it is listening that helps make things clear.

We need to pray for ourselves.  We need to pray for God’s presence in our lives.  We need to pray for others that we know and open our hearts to caring for their wellbeing.  

We need to pray for forgiveness.  Because each of us is human, each of us surely knows of at least one person that we need to forgive, and at least one person whose forgiveness it is important for us to seek.  I want to challenge us during lent to identify who those people are and to remember them in prayer daily.

We need to pray for our church congregation.  God has given us a wonderful location and a wonderful facility and a wonderful core of committed, loving, faithful people.  We need to pray that this will benefit more people than just ourselves.  We need to picture these other people in our minds, who they are and where they are, and pray for them.

We need to pray for Ukraine. We need to pray for the larger world, the entire globe.  

Several decades ago, the National Conference of Viet Nam Veteran Ministers held their annual meeting at a Roman Catholic monastery in the hills above San Diego, overlooking the pacific.  The monks there believe they have one mission in life – to pray for the world.


The Transfiguration is a powerful story of something happening within.  It involves not only prayer, but struggle.  When we first hear what God wants of us, we’re not necessarily enthusiastic about it.

Others can help us in our struggle.  In the Transfiguration, those others are Moses and Elijah.  The scriptures don’t get into scientific technicalities about how they were present.  Were they a vision that somehow not only Jesus but the disciples shared?  Were they material or immaterial?  We don’t know, and we don’t know what they said.  Sometimes when we struggle with something we simply need others around to listen to us, and their presence is more important than their words.

Why these two?  They symbolized to the early Jewish Christians that Jesus had the blessing of their political liberator, Moses, and their top spiritual prophet, Elijah.  In the Jewish seder service, the last cup you drink is the cup of Elijah, and you drink it with the door open – because the Messiah may be near.  In the Transfiguration, Jesus had the blessing of Moses and Elijah, both of whom were unusual in that the Old Testament reports they spoke to God on behalf of the people directly in God’s presence and were not destroyed – as it was believed many others would be.  And both Moses and Elijah were believed to have been taken up into heaven rather than buried.

What did Jesus talk about with Moses and Elijah?  Matthew and Mark don’t say.  But in today’s Luke reading we get the conversation topic: they were “speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  And that was Jesus’ struggle at this moment of transition.  

Moments of struggle are high moments in our lives.  I remember one of my own.  It was in October, 1999.  My last job in health care had ended the previous April.  I had spent the summer not only sending out hundreds of resumes, but I had also been asking God what direction my life should go in next.  I had been led to an organization in Towson that focused on healing the psychological wounds that come from terrible events, whether child abuse or terrorism or combat.

We started talking about developing a curriculum for pastors and other leaders of churches about healing these wounds, because we knew that every congregation has wounded people in it.  I spent some time at Enoch Pratt library researching foundations and found one that gave us a small grant to plan the project.  It was off and running.

In the midst of all this a phone call came from a government agency where I had submitted my resume.  They had a position they needed to fill immediately.  Would I come and talk?  I did. The job involved looking at numbers, figuring out what they meant, and writing up what they meant so other people could understand.  I could do that.  The job would give me an excellent salary for the rest of my life.  They seemed enthusiastic.  I went home and spent a sleepless night.  Should I, or shouldn’t I?  What would I gain, and what would I give up?  What were my needs?  What were my commitments?  Why had God put me here?  I talked with God.  I talked with my wife.  And the next morning I called them back.  “I’m sorry.  It sounds like a wonderful opportunity.  But I’m not the person for it.”

That was a high moment for me.  I had been through a struggle and in the process — things had become clear.  Now I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it.  I could feel the weight fall from my shoulders.  I was at peace, although it was scary to turn down security in favor of something much riskier.    

All the scripture says is that Jesus, Moses and Elijah “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  But when I read that, I hear a struggle, I hear a conversation that started out with some things in question, perhaps Jesus wondering if he would go ahead.  And when the conversation was over, I hear that Jesus had gained clarity.  He would continue on course.  And perhaps that’s the essence of the transfiguration.


The Transfiguration story is about prayer, about struggle – and about affirmation.

Now that the struggles are over, another mighty moment takes place.  A cloud appears, reminding us of the shekinah, the glory and presence of God that led the children of Israel in the wilderness by day and night, and there is a voice from the cloud.   “This is my Son, the beloved, my chosen one, with whom I am well pleased – listen to him.”

This is an affirmation not only of Jesus’ relationships and that Jesus has made the right choice – this is an affirmation that through the struggle and the experience on the mountain, Jesus has achieved being himself.

There is a Jewish story of a great rabbi, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol. Rabbi Zusya spent much of his life studying texts and serving small congregations throughout many provinces. His life was filled with congregational expectations as well as fulfilling the expectations of his students. One day a young man saw Rabbi Zusya sitting on the steps leading up to the synagogue. His head was in his hands and he was obviously upset about something. The young man approached Rabbi Zusya and asked him, “Rabbi Zusya, why are you so distraught?”

Rabbi Zusya responded, “because, I am concerned about the day that I will have to go before the great throne of judgment.”

“Rabbi Zusya, you have nothing to worry about. You have been a great scholar and rabbi to so many people. You strive to meet all the needs of so many people. You might even be compared to such a scholar as Moses!”

“Yes, that is what worries me. For when I go before the throne of judgment, they will NOT ask me, ‘why were you not more like Moses our teacher? Instead, they will ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?'”[4]

God calls us to be who God intended us to be, and achieving that is a struggle for each of us, because we are both discovering and defining who we are.  I hear in God’s words to Jesus an affirmation of the importance of being who we are.  “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.  You’re not trying to be Moses or Elijah, you are being Jesus, and doing a good job of it.”

Resolution of struggles about who we are are available to any human being.  When we hear President Zelensky of Ukraine, we are listening to a man who knows he may be dead within the week, but has the world’s admiration because the world hears a man who may be at war with Russia, but is at peace with himself.  

Prayer, clarity, affirmation.  That is the mountaintop.  The mountaintop can be left behind, because these three things don’t need to be left behind.  Jesus has prayed with those who are close to him.  He has become clear about his ministry, his mission, his life.  He has been affirmed by God.  

Next in the story we see that Moses and Elijah have disappeared and Jesus is alone again with the three disciples.  And now it’s OK to be alone, because of what Jesus carries with him from the experience.    And it’s even OK not to talk about it.  Luke just says they kept silent.  Matthew and Mark say that Jesus asked them not to talk about it until after the Son of Man is raised from the dead. 

Prayer.  Struggle.  Affirmation.  Clarity.  The Transfiguration gave Jesus the power to move on with his life even though he now knew it would be more difficult and painful than any life before.  Prayer.  Struggle.  Affirmation.  They gave clarity and power to Jesus, and they can clarity and give power to us and our world.  

[1] Exodus 34:29-35, Ps 99 UMH 819 2 Cor 3:12-4:2; Lk 9:28-36 (37-43)

[2] Adapted from a sermon preached at Grace UMC, Upperco, MD, January 25, 2004

[3] Luke 9:28-36

9:28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

9:29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

9:30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.

9:31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

9:32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.

9:33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.

9:34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.

9:35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

9:36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

9:37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.

9:38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.

9:39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.

9:40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”

9:41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”

9:42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

9:43a And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

[4] Risking Connection