Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 7, 2016

2016.02.07 “Juxtaposition” – Luke 9: 28 – 43

Central United Methodist Church
Juxtaposition
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 9: 28 – 43
February 7th, 2016

raphaeltransfiguration (1)

“Transfiguration” by Raphael

 

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.  Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said 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” — not knowing what he said.  While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”  While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God. – Luke 9: 28 – 43, the New Revised Standard Version

 

It has to be one of the most amazing scenes ever: light, sound, heavenly voices, all in one place; how could it not be dazzling?

Wait, you think I’m talking about the Transfiguration of Jesus? Sorry, I was talking about the half-time show at the Super Bowl, later today. Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Coldplay, and Bruno Mars all in one place. It will be dazzling.

I thought of the juxtaposition of these two scenes on this Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday. Every year when I preach on Transfiguration Sunday, I think the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most fantastic stories in the Bible, and puzzle over what to make of it for us moderns. And yet when I look at events like the Super Bowl, it appears we moderns know a little about sound-and-light shows too, because we still like to be dazzled sometimes. Or at least some of us do. Bread and circuses, I think the Romans called it. They watched gladiators fight a battle to the death; we watch highly paid athletes give each other CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. More civilized, highly profitable, and very entertaining.

The use of juxtaposition – defined as “two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect” – can be revealing.

Really, there is almost no end to the insights juxtaposition could give us. Consider the spectacle and excess of the Super Bowl, juxtaposed with images of the children of Flint, Michigan, having to drink water laced with lead, because the Governor of Michigan, Rick Synder, switched their water supply from the glacial waters of Lake Huron to the toxic waters of Flint River, as a money-saving measure.

Juxtapose modern press conferences and presidential debates, with the scene on the Mt. of Transfiguration: Jesus, talking with Elijah and Moses, about his upcoming death as the Suffering Servant of God. Did you see the video this past week from the Jimmy Fallon show, where Jimmy Fallon had an actor portray Jesus, saying some of the quotes some of the presidential candidates have said? (You may view the YouTube clip here). That too was a form of juxtaposition, contrasting not only how incongruous those quotes would be coming out of Jesus’ mouth, but even more so our whole political process with its “one-up-manship”, and “I’m better than him or her,” contrasted with the life of humble service lived by Jesus, embodied in his words: “For the Son of Man has not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

We are not the only ones to use juxtaposition; Luke uses it to great affect in his Gospel. Did you hear the two scenes described in juxtaposition with each other today?

First, the scene of Jesus praying on the mountain, with three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John. They are awakened to a vision of Jesus as they had never seen him, dazzlingly transfigured. Peter, babbling like a fool, goes on about how good it is to be there and how great it would be to just stay there, building three memorials, one for Jesus and one for Moses and one for Elijah. Except, he was shushed by a voice from heaven, the same voice heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” After all that, Jesus told them not to brag or say anything about what they’d seen. What are we to make of this mountaintop experience?

There certainly is a place in life for such experiences. Who doesn’t want them, and when they do come, who doesn’t want to make them last, as long as they can, and even repeat them? Isn’t this why we come to church, to carve out a holy time in the midst of our often unholy lives where we can (no, not sleep, like Jesus’ disciples did) but seek a glimpse of God’s glory in music and word and ritual, but lift up Jesus in our lives and most of all, “Listen to him.” Isn’t it for this reason that instead of building booths like Peter wanted to do, we build churches, like Central. When we leave here, don’t we try to take with us what we have experienced, back to our day-to-day lives, difficult as they are?

It is such a scene from daily life that Luke juxtaposes next, right after the scene of the Transfiguration of Jesus. As you heard, immediately after they went down the mountain, Jesus was met by a great crowd, and specifically one man, a father, who said to him: “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Was that the disciples who stayed behind, or the disciples who had shared the mountaintop experience? Had they tried to use some of their spiritual points earned as a result of that experience, to discover that not only did they not have any, but that they failed completely, maybe worse than before they’d gone up the mountain. This is not magic, folks, it is a mystery, just as it is a mystery – why, given the same treatment, some people get well and some get worse today. It is not magic, any more than modern medicine and healing is today.

Don’t we wish that as a result of our mountaintop experiences, our glimpses of the glory of God and of genuinely listening to his Son, we would actually have more power to solve the situations not only that the world faces, but that we face in our lives? Whether it is racism or injustice or addiction or disease, despite our professions of faith, don’t we the followers of Jesus often feel as powerless to help as Jesus’ disciples were then? Don’t you hate it when it seems like faith doesn’t work, especially when we feel like we need it most? I have always liked a story I once heard about a man in a hurricane in New Orleans, who came running up to a priest with a crucifix in his hand and said, “Hey, Father, how do you work this thing?”

But this – I think – was Luke’s point: in the face of what often feels like our own spiritual impotence, Jesus exhibited in his life the amazing presence and power of God. Whether on the mountain of transfiguration or in the valley of desperation, whether in dazzling light or in deep darkness, whether in healing a child in Galilee, or hanging on a cross in Jerusalem. And so, after placing in juxtaposition these two scenes, Luke concludes: “And they were all amazed at the greatness of God.”

For five centuries, art historians, theologians and other scholars have been mystified by the Italian Renaissance Master Raphael’s last and greatest painting, “The Transfiguration,” a huge altarpiece hanging in the main picture gallery of the Vatican Museum in Rome.

Why, they wondered, did this master of psychological realism combine a scene of the Transfiguration of Christ with another Biblical scene, showing the failure of the disciples to cure an epileptic boy, placing one scene on top of the other? No previous artist had ever coupled these two scenes, and Raphael, who was struck down by a fatal fever at the age of 37, just as he was finishing “The Transfiguration,” left no hint as to his intention.

Scholars who studied the painting saw it as two separate and unrelated scenes. Some went to great lengths to fathom the intent of the artist. One expert suggested that by depicting what appeared to be a youth possessed by demons, Raphael thought his work would be helpful in casting out supernatural beings during feasts and fasts. Another argued that the true meaning of the painting is Raphael’s declaration of triumph over his greatest rival, Michelangelo.

In particular, scholars who studied the work were puzzled that the scene of Christ rising from Mount Tabor is one of glorious triumph, while the scene below depicts a wretched defeat. What could be the possible connection between triumph and defeat, they wondered?

In 1995, a Philadelphia cardiologist and amateur art sleuth named Gordon Bendersky solved the mystery. In an article in Source, a scholarly journal for art historians, Dr. Bendersky contended that a medical analysis of the epileptic boy in the lower right of the painting, together with the discovery of the etymology of Raphael’s name, makes clear the artist’s intention.

Dr. Bendersky said his curiosity had first been aroused by the portrait of the boy. Supported by a man who could be his father, the boy is helpless, his eyes rolled back, his mouth agape and his arms flailing. Dr. Bendersky noticed something that others had overlooked: the boy appears to be post-ictal, the final phase of an epileptic seizure. “In short,” Dr. Bendersky said, “Raphael showed the boy as cured.”

Because epilepsy was common in the early 16th century and because medical knowledge offered no means of controlling seizures, Raphael portrayed the two scenes as bound together by Christ and His miraculous power to heal.

But then, pursuing his research, Dr. Bendersky discovered one final clue to help explain the painting. He learned that Raphael had been told, probably by the Pope’s secretary, Tommaso Inghirami, that the name Raphael is derived from Hebrew and means, “God heals.” (These insights about Raphael’s “Transfiguration” are from a December 16, 1995, article in the New York Times, “Cardiologist Answers a Raphael Question,” by William H. Honan).

So, as his last work before this death, Raphael joined the two scenes in today’s Gospel together as his final testament to the healing power of the transfigured Christ. Juxtaposition, we call it.

May the greatness of God and healing power of the transfigured Christ, be with us from the mountaintop through the valley, from the glory of Epiphany through our Lenten journey to the cross, from this day through all the days of our lives. Amen.

 

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