Most Christians have heard of that time when Jesus shone with glory, speaking with Moses and Elijah up on a mountain. It is one of those events that gets its own name – ‘The Transfiguration.’ Rightly so. The event is in all the synoptic Gospels, and shows that the culmination of God’s plan is Jesus. Moses points to him; Elijah does too. As Peter had to learn, the law and prophets aren’t co-equal to Jesus, but our hope is in the glory of Jesus, alone.
That’s a mountaintop experience, right there. Seeing Jesus in all his glory. We even note what Jesus was discussing with Moses & Elijah – his upcoming exodus at Jerusalem, which is to say his death and resurrection – and just associate it with the glorious plan of God. Jesus will die and be resurrected, that’s the center of our faith, the wonder and the glory. Jesus for us. Jesus alone. Hallelujah!
But then, most of the time, we leave that there and go back down the mountain. Great to think of the cross; harder to realize what it means. And so it should be no surprise that the Transfiguration in all the gospel accounts is directly tied to, immediately followed by, another scene. A valley scene.
Down in the valley, there’s not peaceful, shining glory. There’s arguing and crowds, the disciples and the scribes, and a child foaming at the mouth. There’s suffering and pain. There’s disagreement. Yep, there’s real life.
And Jesus steps in. The issue is that the disciples, who have been given some power of their own, have not been able to heal the demon-possessed boy, who has been tortured with seizures since birth. They’re arguing over it. There are accusations, sadness, suffering.
Jesus looks around and is dismayed. “How long will I have to deal with this faithless generation?” is his question. There really appears to be some question of whether Jesus is able to heal this particular affliction. Even the father of the child pleads for compassion from Jesus “if you are able.” No paragon of faith, he says he believes but in the same breath is crying “help my unbelief!”.
In the midst, there is Jesus. He takes the child. He commands the demon to leave, and to never return. This is the Word incarnate, declaring in power, freeing the child forever. He does have compassion.
Jesus has compassion, in real life. But what does it look like? Here’s where it gets really interesting.
Because the child falls at his feet like a corpse. There’s this moment of silence, almost, as people are like, “the kid is dead.” See, that’s the power of Jesus. He does it. And it leaves the child… dead.
And only then does Jesus reach down, and take him by the hand, and raise him up.
That’s what healing looked like. That’s what rescue entailed. The Word of promise, authoritative, received… resulting in death… and resurrection. All by Jesus.
The disciples want to know why they couldn’t do what Jesus did. He says ‘this kind is only by prayer,’ and we go off on our glory roads again, figuring out how much prayer is needed… but what this means is tied to all he’s said. This kind is only by asking Jesus. Only by dependence. Jesus, alone.
And that’s the message all the way through life, isn’t it? Real life, with real suffering, disease, death. Jesus, the Word of God, acts to save through his own suffering and death. This is the glory of God. Applied to us, in his compassion he speaks salvation to us. But it looks like death. And it depends on resurrection.
Real life looks like trusting Jesus who says he has paid it all. We are forgiven. But it looks functionally like death, like our being even worse off than before. And it puts all our hope in his raising of us.
That’s the message of the mountaintop and of the valley. That Jesus, in glory, will suffer and die for us. And our power, our strength, our life avails nothing. We fall on his mercy for us. We live through death and resurrection, at his hand, on his work, in him forever.