Second Sunday of Lent: Called Out of this World

Genesis 15:5–12, 17–18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17–4:1, Luke 9:28-36

The first Sunday of Lent, we battled the temptations of the flesh (bread), the eye (miracles), and pride (the kingdoms of the earth). The second Sunday, we see the goal of this battle: Jesus transfigured.  Jesus shows us God’s power by leading us in the fight against temptation, and he shows us God’s glory in the Transfiguration.  And so the reading concludes, “Jesus was found alone,” or “there was found Jesus only.”  Only Jesus.

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Our readings rise to the theme.  In the first, Abraham walks by faith.  God promises him descendants as numerous as the stars; Abraham’s believes; and it is credited to him as righteousness.  It all begins with trusting in the Lord.

Already this reading develops things a step further.  Abraham believes the promise about children, but when God promises him a land for them, he questions.  That question drives him to sacrifice—the strange sacrifice of animals split in two, with the appearance of a flaming torch passing between them. 

There are two levels of faith.  One is pure faith in God’s plan for his people.  But then that faith has to take flesh: to believe that God will actually give us a place for those children requires trusting God with our stuff, and so Abraham’s sacrifice.  The highest faith sees Jesus alone—but for that faith to take flesh, we must set aside other things, so that Jesus is alone.

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Our reading from Philippians raises the stakes.  For the enemies of the cross, Paul says, “their end is destruction.”  That’s ironic: the Cross seems like destruction.  We say, “God wants me to be joyful!”  And Jesus says, “only through the Cross.”

So too those who make their stomach their God and shameful things their glory.  If we live for this life alone, we live for destruction.  If we live beyond this life—and offer this life in sacrifice, even embracing the Cross—than beyond destruction we find God.

But only because he is our savior, who can “change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.”  Only Jesus can carry us through.  That’s what we profess in our Lenten fasting.

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I’m sorry this is the first reflection I’ve been able to publish this year of Luke, because I’ve been trying to watch Luke’s themes.  His Gospel is the most complicated of the four.  Somehow it focuses on the power of grace, the power of God’s mercy, the change God brings about in the worldly order.

In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, he adds some details.  Moses and Elijah were talking to him—about “his exodus,” Luke adds, “that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  In fact, Luke’s Gospel quickly moves to that final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus heads for Jerusalem in chapter twenty of Matthew, six chapters before the Cross; and chapter ten of Mark, four chapters before the Cross; but in Luke it’s in chapter nine, thirteen chapters before the Cross.  (In John he heads for Jerusalem in chapter 12, but John skips right over the journey, and spends 13-17 at the Last Supper.)  Luke is all about that exodus up to, and through, Jerusalem.  And the Transfiguration is just a few verses before that.

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In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, he adds some details.  Moses and Elijah were talking to him—about “his exodus,” Luke adds, “that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  In fact, Luke’s Gospel quickly moves to that final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus heads for Jerusalem in chapter twenty of Matthew, six chapters before the Cross; and chapter ten of Mark, four chapters before the Cross; but in Luke it’s in chapter nine, thirteen chapters before the Cross.  (In John he heads for Jerusalem in chapter 12, but John skips right over the journey, and spends 13-17 at the Last Supper.)  Luke is all about that exodus up to, and through, Jerusalem.  And the Transfiguration is just a few verses before that.

In Luke alone, the disciples are falling asleep.  Jesus must escape out of a world where the flesh triumphs over the Spirit.  And though Matthew calls the cloud bright, and Mark only says there is a cloud, Luke says the cloud causes fear.  The disciples are being called beyond themselves.

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And so Luke frames a little differently the words from the cloud: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”  (Many translations say “chosen,” but the Greek is “agapatos”: agape-d, beloved.) 

We are called to a profound conversion.  We follow the ways of the world.  Peter wants to build by his own strength and initiative, instead of listening to Jesus and being filled with the divine light.  And Peter’s plans are to stay put: he wants to build tents, but Luke adds that he says this that Moses and Eijah “were about to part from him,” and that Jesus is beginning his exodus.  Luke emphasizes the contrast.

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Jesus is leading us upward.  The Transfiguration is a funny mix, because on the one hand, we need to look at nothing but him, a kind of contemplative stillness.  But to look to him is to be called out of ourselves, to follow him in his exodus, into the Cross, out of the ways of this world, out of our comfortable tents. 

Thus the traditional Lectionary gives us the Transfiguration this second Sunday of Lent, a sign of the glorious culmination, almost more glorious than Easter itself—but in a key that calls us to conversion, out of our comfortable worldly calculations, up the mountain of the Cross to the heavenly Jerusalem.  For, says our epistle, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” not in earthly tents.

How are your calculations too worldly?

eric.m.johnston

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