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Sunday, February 10, 2013

From the Mountain to the Plain

The Rev. Dinku L. Bato is a pastor of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus and a Ph.D. candidate at Luther Seminary in Congregational Mission and Leadership.  He is from Addis Ababa, and he and his family were at Mount Olive on Transfiguration for a celebration of our partnership in mission with Christians in Ethiopia. He preached and led the adult forum.

Pr. Dinku L. Bato, Transfiguration of our Lord, year C; text: Luke 9:28-36

In the name of the Father, and of + the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


The story in our text today (commonly known as the Transfiguration) foreshadows the two separate events on the Mount of Olives: place of prayer and arrest as well as the scene of the ascension. The transfiguration is a narrative of two major doctrines of Christian life: the cross and glory wherein the theology of glory is inseparably intertwined to the theology of the cross. The scene depicts Jesus praying as heavenly bodies talk to him about his imminent pain, death, and resurrection while his disciples doze on the mountain of vision. As we continue to look into the passage where the identity of Jesus is unveiled,  I want us to approach it in six analytical steps toward examining the problems and solutions the text offers (including brief passages immediately surrounding today’s gospel reading).

I. The External Problem: Spiritual Slumber, Heedlessness

The disciples, in spite of this important incident, where they are invited to participate in the disclosure of God’s salvation plan, seem to be heedless and unprepared, allegedly due to
   1. The time of the day (probably night time, in which they usually go to bed),
   2. The tiredness involved in the trek (mountain climbing), and
   3. Apparently, Jesus’ prolonged prayer.

Their condition, however, may not be appropriate when seen against the background of Jesus’ intended purpose, which may include
   1. Revealing the identity and purpose of Jesus’ coming,
   2. Encouraging these particular disciples (in the inner circle) in their upcoming responsibility as key leaders in the ministry, and
   3. Acting as prayer companions as Jesus prepares for the “exodus,” and departure (suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection) in Jerusalem.

Here sleep may be understood as a faithless equivalent to vigilance in prayer. Later at Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes the disciples for their heedlessness in prayer: “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Lk 22:46).  Who chooses to sleep on such an eventful night—a divine one? Such nights need special alertness, for as Elihu states: “Our maker gives songs in the night” (Job 35:10).

Their inattention has led them to misunderstand the event which they glimpsed only partially. By the time they wake up from their slumber, they will have already missed the first part, the crucial part: the words of Moses and Elijah to Jesus where they speak about his departure (lit. “exodus”), that is, his suffering, death, and resurrection. This means that they miss the cross which they were meant to see considering their unwillingness and/or unpreparedness to accept. We also remember Peter rebuking Jesus for telling them about His imminent suffering and death.

Their misunderstanding of the event was not without consequences. I see four ramifications:

The first is surrender to their own agenda (dwelling in the moment of glory), exaltation above the rest of the disciples and all earthly pains. This was clearly demonstrated in the question of greatness raised among the disciples or the position the mother of John and James requested for her sons when Jesus would come to his Kingdom. Yet it is not possible to dwell permanently in this moment of glory. Peter could have learned this right from where he stood—the mountain which slowly releases the dew it absorbed from the atmosphere as the  sun shines upon it.  Thus, the dew turns into a stream that flows to the dry valleys.  Mountain top experiences (dreams, epiphanies, and visions) always need to be connected to the lives in the valley where God wishes to pour his blessings. Only then can they bring significance to our entire experience in making the goal clear in the journey and at the same time helping us to see the tasks and struggles from new perspectives that give our lives purpose.

The second is knowing not what one speaks (v. 33). Cross-less talks are gibberish talks; they are quite misleading like flowery roads leading to death. Paul on the other hand determines to speak/preach nothing else but Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23). Only in the light of the cross do we ever understand the character of God or the significance of Jesus.

The third is sinful silence (v. 36). According to Luke the silence seems to arise out of fear, a lack of faith which becomes sinful silence and unholy, a silence that emanates from a disappointment connected to the need to descend into the valley, leaving the mountain top experience behind. The hustle and bustle of self aggrandizement muffles the resounding evangelistic voice echoed in the holy mountains of revelation.

And the fourth and final ramification is to live below expectations, which is their inability to be agents of God’s blessing and healing to His people as depicted in their failure to heal the epileptic—(as in Luke 9:37-38).  Obsession with the self (the big I) equates to spiritual slumber. There are times when this spiritual slumber deprives us of seeing what we ought to see. Preoccupied and tired out by the responsibilities and burdens in our lives, we soon lose focus on life’s bigger picture which is serving others in the name of Christ. We are often tempted to put ourselves at the center. This sort of self love stifles not only our ability to see the full revelation, but also leads us into sinful silence and inaction in the face of injustice and death in which the whole creation languishes. Hence, the call is in place for us: “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ephesians 5:14).

II. The Internal Problem: Faithlessness

The external problems we saw hitherto have an internal cause, in this case, fear /terror (v. 34) and faithlessness (v.41). The cloud which depicts the presence of God should have conveyed faith and joy, but to them it instigated fear and terror. Their hearts were filled with desire and competition for earthly gains. Their encounter with God of selfless love, therefore, has caused trembling and frustration rather than joy and jubilation. This lack of trust and confidence has resulted in all kinds of heedlessness, selfishness, and the inability to speak and act properly. The unbelief and the consequent restlessness of our hearts and thoughts often become the source of restlessness in our speech and action. We also may need to join the father of the epileptic boy in the Gospel of Mark, who cried:  “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24-25).

III. The Eternal Problem: Eternal Separation from the Presence of God (Death)

Unbelief leads to isolation and perdition as depicted in Jesus answer here: “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?” (v. 41). This refers, I believe, not only to the crowd that was gathering around the epileptic boy who the disciples, reportedly, couldn’t heal, but even more so to the befuddled and distraught disciples.

Faithlessness is powerful at keeping the presence of God out of one’s life. This sort of unbelief finally, Luke tells us, led Peter to denial of his Lord and the rest of the disciples to deserting Him.  Luke clearly portrays this condition of the disciples–particularly in the life of the two who were on their way to Emmaus (representatives of the rest of the group, who were hiding out of fear) who remarked that “but we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). Their hope for earthly glory was shattered and with this their lives. Similarly, Ron Starenko aptly notes in his Sabbatheology article “Glory Lost, Glory Found” that “whatever glory we seek, whether in our efforts or accomplishments, which are fading, we are heading the wrong way, ultimately having no promise of life, no future, no continuity, as the pay-off is death, the final terrifying experience, glory lost forever.” [1]

IV. The Eternal Solution: Listen to Him!

We see God coming closer and closer to them: the messengers (Moses and Elijah), the cloud, the voice, and above all, His Son, who walked with them in spite of their doubt, fear, and perversity. God comes to us, for us and always loves to abide with us—Emmanuel, regardless of our slumber and frailty.

No more cloud of fear and terror but of God’s presence and guidance as it was for the Israelites in the wilderness: “By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way” (Exodus 13:21). This in some way depicts the characteristic of Christ, who is a refuge to His people from the heat of a flaming law, the blazing sword of justice, the anger of God, the fiery darts of Satan; and who continues to lead his people through the wilderness by his Spirit, by his word, and by his own example; and who is the best Shepherd to follow.

Now it is not the voice of Moses or Elijah but the voice of the Son (the fulfillment of both the Law and the prophets) whom they need to listen to. No more confusion from the multiplicity of puzzling voices but a unique voice of the Good Shepherd that guides them through the wilderness.

V. The Internal Solution: Know the Voice

Now they know a voice—the voice they know. Now they trust a voice—the voice they trust. The voice expels fear and disbelief and guides them to rest and peace: As Jesus said: “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (Jn 10:4-5).

I once heard a story of a man who lost a couple of dogs to thieves who killed them with poisoned meat before robbing his house. But finally, this man trained his new dog in a way that it eats only after listening to the voice of his owner whenever the food comes on a plate or thrown over the fence. Thieves, ever since, have relentlessly tried their old trick on the new dog, but to no avail. The dog knew the voice of his master.

The voice of our Shepherd continually comes to us, as new men and women in Christ: through the reading and preaching of the word, the sacraments, through prayer, friends, creation, vision, dreams, and epiphanies: “For God does speak—now one way, now another—though man may not perceive it” (Job 33:14). Do we notice the voice of Christ, our shepherd, who always speaks to us and walks before us?

VI. The External Solution: Live According to the Voice!

This humble voice that guides them now is powerful enough to break the haughty cedars of self aggrandizing motifs and selfish living. “The voice of the Lord is powerful . . . The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars” (Ps 29:4-5). No more would they seek their own glory, but the glory of the one who called them to glory through the cross (theologia gloria via the theologia crucis): It enables these sons of thunder (“Boanerges”) to live for others a life of service rather than a life of wrath that once prayed for fire from heaven to destroy Samaritans who resist receiving them (Lk 9:54). At the end of their lives these Sons of Thunder became known for something else. James was the first apostle to be martyred. And John became known as the apostle of love.

They would no longer be unaware of what they spoke, as Peter did after seeing Moses and Elijah on the mountain of transfiguration. Peter and John’s fear was supplanted by a confidence from the Holy Spirit who speaks now through them even in the face of opposition from those who threaten them to keep silent about this Jesus whom they preach crucified and raised from the dead: “For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).


Today, we too are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, Who fills us with confidence and moves us to speak and proclaim boldly the good news of God to all creation through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. We too are empowered by the same Spirit to descend the mountain of self- enhancement to the valley of pain and suffering to serve others humbly and joyfully.

May the heavenly love always shine upon us and melt our love of dwelling in mountain top experiences, prompting it to flow and go to the arid and dark valleys until they grow and glow. Amen.

[1] See

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