Thursday, February 4, 2016
The Next Day
Every year, on the Sunday before Lent starts, we read the story of the Transfiguration. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each recall the moment for us, and we read each account in successive liturgical years A, B, and C. This year, Year C, we have Luke's story. There are several subtle differences between the accounts, which allow the preacher to nitpick her or his way through a specific text. Often, I will use these differences to highlight some of the important themes in each version even if I leave those specific observations out of the sermon. This year, though, I'm making a pretty big preaching choice based solely on the way Luke portrays this encounter, and I think that it's worth exploring here.
This Sunday, in the Revised Common Lectionary, we have an option of reading Luke 9:28-36 or extending the reading to include the next episode, which concludes in verse 43. In the other two years, we aren't given the option of extending the reading, and, unless the preacher uses the rubrical option of expanding it, the gospel lesson concludes as Jesus urges the disciples to keep the transfiguration event to themselves. I find that bizarre. In fact, if I hadn't checked the RCL for the other two years, I would have assumed the opposite to be true because if there is any year in which the scene at the bottom of the mountain does not belong it is when we read Luke's version.
Matthew and Mark say essentially the same thing. They conclude the transfiguration with something like "As they were coming down the mountain..." and then immediately pick up the next story with "And when they had come to the disciples..." or "And when they came to the crowd..." In those two accounts, there's no break in the action. There is a real sense of immediacy to the encounter that awaits them. Not only is there no narrative interlude to split it up, but there isn't even the passage of time. It's immediate. When they get down the mountain, they are met by the disciples and a crowd who are waiting on Jesus to come and fix the problem that awaits them (see below). Luke's version is very, very different.
When Luke finished the transfiguration story, instead of depicting Jesus telling the disciples to keep quiet as they plod down the mountain, Luke offers an editorial summary: "And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen." That might not sound like a huge difference, but read the next verse: "On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him." That's a totally new story! There's not even an attempt to connect the two. Luke isn't interested in suggesting that one followed the other in quick succession. He wraps up the first with a transitional editorial remark and then lets a whole day go by before starting the next encounter fresh. I think reading them together in Luke's version is to make something out of nothing. Save it for Years A & B, when you can lengthen the reading and make the point.
And what might that point be? The encounter that waits for Jesus is the story of the father whose son is seized by an evil spirit. When Jesus is told that his disciples could not cast it out on their own, Matthew and Mark portray Jesus as making a connection with what had happened up on the mount of transfiguration. Mark has Jesus explain to the disciples that "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer." Bingo! Prayer! And Matthew? His focus is on faith: " He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” But Luke? Luke gives us none of that. There is no explanation. There is no encouragement. There is no connection with the transfiguration.
I say leave it out. If you can't find anything to say about the transfiguration, go read it again. There's a dozen sermons at least tied up in this story. Don't preach the next day. Let the transfiguration tell its own story. If this were Mark or Matthew, I'd say that the following episode points clearly back to the transfiguration itself. But not this year. I say let it go.