Knowing the Ending
Scriptures: Luke 9:28-36
I don’t normally watch movies a second time, but lately I have been watching reruns of Harry Potter. When you watch the Harry Potter movies a second time, you realize how many things you did not understand the first time. For example, why is the evil Lord Voldemort so resilient? He keeps getting killed and keeps coming back. We don’t really understand this until the fifth movie. Or why does Professor Dumbledore seem so protective of Snape? Snape is in league with Voldemort, isn’t he? Doesn’t Dumbledore realize that? You don’t really understand the relationship between Snape and Dumbledore until the end of the last movie.
When I watched Harry Potter a second time, I noticed all kinds of things I missed the first time. The first time I watched the movie it was obvious that Snape despised Harry Potter. But only when I watched the movies a second time, after knowing the ending, did I noticed that at crucial points Snape is the one protecting Harry. I also began to see that nothing in the movie happened by chance. Things that seemed coincidental: Harry finding an old diary or happening to pick up an old potions book marked up by the Half Blood Prince—these things did not just happen by chance. They are part of larger forces at work, and they have ramifications, both for good and for bad, that we don’t realize at first. The same is true for people. Who knew in the early movies that fumbling, bumbling Neville Longbottom would turn out to be one of the most important heroes in the story? In fact after all the epic battles between Harry and Voldemort, at the end it is Neville Longbottom that finally destroys Voldemort by killing the snake which accompanies him. And if you remember the symbolism of the serpent in the Bible, this is loaded with theological significance. You don’t really understand what is going on in Harry Potter until you know the ending.
That is the key to our scripture reading for today. Jesus goes up on a mountain with three of his disciples to pray. While on the mountain the disciples experience a vision. Jesus’ appearance is changed. His clothes become dazzling white, and there appears to him two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament: Moses and Elijah.
This vision is a sneak preview of the end of the story. The next time we hear of the disciples falling asleep it’s with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane right before his arrest. The next time we see anyone in dazzling clothes, it’s the angels announcing Jesus’ resurrection. And the reference to seeing Moses and Elijah can only mean one thing: that the kingdom of God has come. Here in the middle of Luke’s gospel, just as Jesus sets off on his foreboding trip to Jerusalem, we get a sneak preview of how it’s all going to end.
When I was in college two friends and I went backpacking in the Olympic Mountains. Our goal was a peak on the southeast side of the Olympics called Mt. Lincoln. As anyone knows who has gone hiking in the Olympic Mountains, you always start out in a dense forest. For a long time we followed a trail upstream along a creek until we came to some switchbacks that took us up the side of a hill. Because of the trees we could not see very far ahead, so we had no way of knowing if we were still headed toward the mountain or how close we were. All we could do is follow the trail and keep going. Finally, however, we broke out on top of a ridge and there right in front of us was Mt. Lincoln, so close and majestic in the clear mountain air it seemed like we could touch it. For the first time we could see our destination. But then I looked and saw there was still a lot of forest between us and the mountain and a lot of hills still to climb. At that moment standing on that ridge I experienced two things: a vision of glory and a preview of suffering. My friends and I stayed for quite a while on that ridge looking at the mountain, because we knew that once we started down into the forest we would probably not see the mountain again until we got there. The memory of it would have to keep us going while we trudged through the woods.
That, I think, is what the disciples experienced on the mountain with Jesus. They experienced a taste of glory and a preview of suffering. They saw Jesus shining with glory, just as he is pictured in the book of Revelation. The saw Moses and Elijah, whose appearance signaled the kingdom’s arrival. But what were Moses and Elijah talking about with Jesus? Verse 31: "They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem." In other words, they were talking about his coming death.
And then the vision disappeared and they had to go back down into the valley. The valley is a tough place. When Jesus came down from the mountain, he discovered that the disciples whom he had left in the valley were arguing among themselves over who was the greatest, which is ironic since none of them were all that great.
If you remember, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God up on a mountain—Mt. Sinai. But when he came down from the mountain, he discovered that the people of Israel had already broken them. The valley is a tough place. Elijah won a great contest against the prophets of Baal up on Mt. Carmel. But when he came down from the mountain, he discovered that the queen was out to kill him. The valley is a tough place.
That’s why Peter preferred to stay on the mountain. In verse 33 Peter says 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." It is not clear what Peter has in mind here, but I think he wanted to set up three dwelling places so they could all stay right where they were on the mountain. Peter wanted to skip the valley. It would be like me saying to my friends, "Let's camp right here on the ridge and forget about Mt. Lincoln." Peter wants to stay where they are and avoid all the struggles and problems awaiting them in Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. For Jesus and for us the way to the kingdom leads to Jerusalem, the way to glory leads to a cross.
Still, knowing the ending makes all the difference. That’s what I discovered watching reruns of Harry Potter. Knowing the ending changes the way you look at people. It gave me a new respect for Neville Longbottom, even while people were making fun of him. I wanted to say to them, “Don’t make fun of Neville; he’s going to save your neck.” It even caused me to see Snape in a different way. I began to see him not as an evil person but a conflicted person, a person struggling with disappointment and demons of his own. Knowing the ending changed the way I looked at people along the way.
So it is with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. In this story you are given a preview of the end so that you will better understand people and situations along the way. This story tells us to expect suffering. Don’t be shocked by it; don’t be unnerved. Jesus clearly knew that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, and he told the disciples to expect the same thing. So don’t be surprised when there is pain in your life, or sorrow, or when you feel misunderstood and rejected? This is the inevitable price of living in a fallen world and still loving people.
If you love people in this world, you are going to get hurt. But you are also going to be saved. That is promise given to Jesus in this story, and to us. The suffering of the cross will not be the last word. The rejection experienced by Moses, Elijah, and Jesus was not the final chapter in their story, and it won’t be the final chapter in yours either.
Knowing the ending changes the way we look at things along the way. It is possible to keep going through the forest if you remember that the mountain is still there, and it is possible to keep following Jesus, if you remember how it’s all going to end.