Have you noticed how closely tied sleep and death are in the New Testament?
This is especially true for the writer of Luke. Often when someone dies they are said to have fallen asleep. Lazarus is described as having fallen asleep. Stephen is stoned, lies down and falls asleep. Jesus says to the family of the little girl that she is not dead, but sleeping – and the professional mourners laugh at him. Jesus tries to talk to the disciples about his upcoming death, but they assume he is talking not about death but about sleep. Eutychus falls asleep, is declared dead, but is taken away alive. Odd isn’t it? We certainly know the difference between death and sleep, but in the New Testament Gospels and epistles, sleep and death are often synonymous.
So what’s going on in this odd story of Jesus’ transfiguration in Luke’s account? Luke is the only one with this verse about Peter, James and John being oppressed by sleep, burdened by sleep, weighed down by sleep. And then Luke gives us this bit about “since they stayed awake” (or perhaps “when they were fully awake”) they saw Jesus’ glory and the impressive company of law-giver Moses and prophet of prophets Elijah. Matthew never mentions sleep or wakefulness. Neither does Mark. All three accounts have Moses and Elijah and Peter’s offer to build booths and the cloud and the voice of God proclaiming Jesus’ status and the command to listen to him. However, only Luke tells us that they were weighed down with sleep and then, somehow, fully awake and able to see Jesus in glory. And I wonder what Luke wants to convey to us with this. What does it matter if they were sleepy or wide awake?
I think Luke may be saying that Peter and James and John weren’t burdened so much by sleep. I think they, like all of us prior to Jesus glorification, are weighed down by death. I think Luke wants us to connect their oppressive sleepiness with the burden of sin and death that can only be lifted by what Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem. I think the disciples aren’t sleepy so much as bone tired. Beaten down. Exhausted. Fighting not just sleep but the despair and death that were pervasive in their time (and no less pervasive in our time).
By this point in Luke’s Gospel they’ve been up close and personal with lepers, the demon possessed and a massive crowd of hungry people. They have gone toe-to-toe with Pharisees, heard that Herod is asking questions and know that the one who first proclaimed Jesus, John the Baptist, has been beheaded. They’ve almost drowned at sea and have just been informed that the One they left everything in order to follow will undergo great suffering and rejection. Oh, and by the way, they need to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow. And, yes, they’ve gone out and preached and healed, but the needs are great, the accomplishments few and the suffering and the death never ending.
They are fighting sleep, fighting the oppressive and almost overpowering forces of sin and death that retreat only to regroup and come back stronger. And Luke knows they ain’t seen nothing yet. Luke knows they will fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus needs them most. His exodus to Jerusalem is right around the corner. His warnings about suffering and rejection soon will come to pass. How will they ever stay awake for that? How will they not succumb to the temptation to give in to the sleep, the sin, the death that clings so closely, that is such a heavy burden, that looks like it has won? How will we not throw up our hands and let sleep overtake us?
We keep filling up the food bins, but they keep emptying. We start cleaning up after the floods and the record blizzard hits. Things settle down in one part of the world but another is exploding. We reconcile with one family member and darn it if we aren’t now at odds with another. The credit card gets paid off and the furnace goes out. Our children seem happy and in a good place, but now our parent’s health is failing. We are following Jesus the best we can – visiting the sick, feeding the hungry – and yet there is always more to do. And we are so tired, so stretched, fighting not to give in to a death-like sleep that renders us blind to Jesus’ glory and deaf to his Word. And Luke knows we are not yet to Jerusalem, that place where death will win, at least for a while. So maybe that’s why he wants to tell us: Stay awake, stay fully awake, because this glimpse of glory is going to get you through if you can fight sleep long enough to see it. But how? When we are so bone tired?
Maybe Luke offers us a clue here, too. Listen to Matthew’s version: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them.” Now, listen to Mark’s version: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them.” NOW, listen to Luke’s account: “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Notice anything different about Luke’s version? Luke says eight days later, a reference to the day of resurrection, the eighth day, the first day of the new creation, a reminder that death doesn’t have the last word. Luke wants to connect this Transfiguration story not just to Jesus’ baptism but also to his death and resurrection. He desperately wants us to get it, who Jesus is, how hard it is to follow, how powerful the forces of sin and death, but also how sure Christ’s victory is, so stay awake during those very times that make us most bone tired.
Did you notice anything else unique in Luke? Jesus prays. He goes up the mountain to pray and while praying he changes, his face changes, his clothes become dazzling white. Jesus is praying at his baptism when the heavens open up. Before he preaches, he prays. He prays all night before choosing the twelve and he will pray just before his arrest, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” Maybe Luke wants to tell us something about the power of Jesus’ prayer, therefore the power of our prayers made in Jesus’ name. Perhaps the best way to fight sleep, to remember that sin and death don’t win in the end, to remain awake and ready to see God’s glory, is to pray and to listen to him as we’ve been commanded.
Listen to him as he says, “Peace be with you.” “Be not anxious.” “I will give you rest.” “Knock and the door will be opened for you.” “The last shall be first.” “Be merciful.” “I have come to seek and save the lost.” “The messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all the nations … you are my witnesses.” Luke desperately wants us to know that no matter how weighed down we feel, no matter how bone tired, no matter the suffering that is and is to come: Death will be defeated, and through Jesus Christ, his crucifixion, his resurrection, we will be made fully awake. We will be gifted with life: abundant and eternal, able to see his glory, ready to listen to his Word, poised to bear witness to all the nations, but first we need come down from the mountain and go with him to Jerusalem.
- Take some time with the Exodus account appointed for Transfiguration Sunday. Don’t assume your hearers know much about Moses or Elijah and what they represent. Consider how to share their importance in your context.
- How do we talk about prayer, its power and importance, while acknowledging that prayers often go unanswered? What can we learn about prayer from the times and words Jesus prays?
- What is the significance of the disciples’ silence in verse 36? Are there times when we are called to be silence about our experiences of Jesus?
- Do a concordance search of “cloud” and notice what other biblical stories you discover. What connections might they have to the Transfiguration?
- Take this week to list all the things that are weighing you down. What about your congregation? Community? World? Make this your prayer list for Lent.
- Check out hymn #193 in “Glory to God” and notice the questions in verses 2 and 3. Let the answers to those questions shape your Bible study or sermon.
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