February 10, 2013 – Transfiguration – 2013
To listen to the recording, click here: Transfiguration 2013
Yesterday morning, I was sitting by the woodstove, looking out into the back yard at the new snow. The sun was shining down on all that pure, dazzling whiteness, and it was reflected in thousands of little points of light as the snow caught its rays. Even the air was shimmering with tiny crystals of ice. It was glorious. There’s something about light, about brightness, that is as nourishing to us as fresh bread when we are hungry or cool water when we are thirsty. It lifts our spirits to wake up to sunshine after days of dark, rainy weather. It brings new hope to come to the end of a long dark night. It chases away fear even to turn on a lamp in a dark room. We need light. And I think one reason that light is so important to us is that it is one of the marks that God built into his creation to let us know who he is. There is a popular painter, Thomas Kinkade, who is sometimes called the “painter of light” because his paintings capture the light so well in scenes of villages and gardens and cottages. But the original “Painter of Light” is the One who was the Creator of light, and his creatures love the light because whether they know it or not, they are seeing a reflection of the One in whom they exist, the One from whom all life and all goodness comes.
Psalm 104 is a long and wonderful psalm that talks about all of God’s creation, the sun and the moon and the earth and the sea: and about his creatures, the livestock and wild beasts. And man, as well. And starting in verse 27, the psalmist wrote,
These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.
Have you ever watched a sunflower over the course of a day, the way it keeps its face turned to the sun? I saw a photograph once of a huge field of sunflowers, and every single flower, thousands upon thousands of bright yellow faces, was turned the same direction, towards the light of the sun. Just as those flowers automatically turn towards the light, so people are created with a longing for light. And over and over again, when God revealed himself to his people, he revealed himself in light, because light is one of his signature things, it’s a manifestation of who he is. We read today about Moses, when he went up on the mountain to receive all the words of the Law. I love to read about Moses, because he was such a humble, deeply human person, insecure and imperfect, and yet he had as close a relationship with the Almighty God as any other person has ever had. And he loved God’s people passionately and selflessly; he was so faithful that when God promised his people that he was going to raise up a prophet like Moses, he was talking about Jesus. The Bible tells us that Moses talked to God as a man speaks to his friend, face to face, and when Moses returned from speaking with God his face was glowing, literally shining, with the reflection of God’s glory. It was so glorious that the people were frightened when they saw him. It was just too much glory for them to handle, and Moses had to wear a veil over his face when he came back down from the mountain, just like we have to pull the curtains shut sometimes on a really bright day when our eyes can’t quite handle that much light. The fear of the people was not the kind of fear we have when we think something evil wants to harm us; it was the fear of facing something – some One – that was so good they were afraid to come near it. In the shining face of Moses the people recognized the holiness of God.
When Jesus took Peter and James and John up onto the mountaintop, they were just as dazzled by the light as the Israelites had been. Just about a week before this, Peter had made his great confession. The world hadn’t yet figured out who Jesus was: people thought maybe he was some kind of a prophet, or maybe even John the Baptist come back from the dead. But when Jesus asked the Twelve, his close friends, “Who do you say that I am?” they got it right. Peter spoke for the group when he said, “You are the Christ, the Messiah we’ve been waiting for, the Holy One of God.” But there was more that they needed to know, there was more of himself that Jesus wanted to reveal to them, and he chose these three, Peter and James and John, the three men who would be the pillars of his church to come with him onto the mountain and to behold him in his glory. When Peter was an old man, sitting in prison in Rome and he knew he was very near death, he remembered that moment. He wrote: “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”
It was a transforming moment. It was so terrifying that Peter babbled foolishly about putting up tents, but it was so glorious that it burned in his heart, the memory undimmed, for the rest of Peter’s life. But then, like all glorious moments, it was over. Suddenly Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus. His face and clothing, that had gleamed like lightning, just looked like they always did. The bright cloud dispersed, and the voice they had heard from heaven was silent. And it was time to go back down the mountain. If you just read the rest of chapter 9, after the account of the Transfiguration, it seems like a real buzz kill. No sooner did they get to the foot of the mountain than they were faced with a demon that was too powerful for the disciples to cast out. After that, Jesus tries to warn them about his arrest and execution, and the disciples embarrass themselves with one of their foolish arguments about who’s the greatest, and a whole village of Samaritans rejects them, and the chapter ends with a stern warning from Jesus that if anyone wants to follow him they had better count the cost. From the glory of the mountaintop they were thrown right back into life as usual. Having come so near to the face of God they were still just as human as ever; their lives were still full of failures and fears, and they were still as full of flaws. What was the good of being on the mountaintop at all? Why did God bother to reveal himself to those three men?
I would imagine that there were many, many times in the days and weeks to come when Peter and James and John wished themselves back up on that mountaintop. It was the kind of experience we wish we could get back to, or hold onto somehow. We know, because we’ve all had our own mountaintop experiences, times when the face of God seems so near, when we see or hear or feel clearly what is so hard to hold onto down in the day-to-day real world. It might be just a fleeting moment, but we remember it, and if we could we would stop everything and stay right there. But it doesn’t work like that. When the glory faded away, Jesus led Peter and James and John back down the mountain, back on the road to suffering and death. God doesn’t leave us on the mountaintop. Not yet, at least. But he doesn’t bring us up to the mountain for no purpose, either, because when we behold the glory of the Lord we are transformed by it – not all at once, like a magic spell, but little by little the light of his Spirit works in us to re-create us, to make us more and more like him, more and more the people we were created to be. We read today in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “We all, with unveiled face (and he’s referring to the veil that Moses put over his face to hide the shining that it had from being with God) We all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
Those times when the Spirit brings us extra near to God: maybe an “aha!” moment when we are reading the Bible, where we suddenly feel like the words are speaking directly to us; or a sense of God’s presence as we kneel at the altar rail to receive the Eucharist; a time of solitude at a retreat when we finally are able to be quiet enough to hear his voice, or a time of close fellowship when we recognize Jesus in another person– we love those moments, we treasure them, but we can never hold onto these things; we can’t stay there. And if we try to re-create them, if we try to manufacture experiences with the Spirit, we are always disappointed. It is only God who can lead us up the mountainside, and only when he chooses, and then he returns us to the journey. But even though the road looks the same and the potholes and roadblocks look all too familiar; even though we still make wrong turns and get ourselves lost at times, we don’t return to the journey alone, and we don’t return to the journey unchanged. As Paul wrote, we do not lose heart. Because the same Peter who always said the wrong thing and who failed miserably at the crucial moment, the Peter who skulked in the courtyard when Jesus was on trial and denied even knowing his Lord, was the same Peter on whom the church of Christ was founded, just as Jesus said he would be. And he is the same Peter who faced martyrdom with hope and joy and faith, and through whom the Spirit speaks even today in Peter’s letters to the churches. He was transformed from one degree of glory into another, by the revelation of glory on the mountaintop, and by following Jesus back down the mountainside and traveling the road step by step with him.
It is very hard for us to see the work that God is doing in us by his Spirit. It’s easy to be hopeful in those mountaintop moments when the light is bright and the air is clear and God’s voice is not drowned out by the murmur of the world and our own worries and fears and frustrations and those of the people around us –all those traffic noises we hear along the road. But if we hold onto our experiences we lose our way, because Jesus doesn’t stay on the mountaintop either. He is with us on the road, his Spirit growing and changing us even when we can’t feel it – I think maybe especially when we can’t feel it. And the way we can tell that is to look back along the road. Think back in your life, way back at the things that once ruled over you that you now have control over. Think of powers in your life that don’t have the hold over you that they once did – cruel words, or terrible experiences, or the shame of your own failures that were once paralyzing to you. By the work of the Spirit, as the glory of the Lord has been revealed in your life, these powers are losing their hold on you, and you are being changed, little by little, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, from one degree of glory to another.
So, brothers and sisters, we do not lose heart, because the power that is at work in you is the power of the God whose glory was manifested on the mountaintop. And you will behold his glory, and more, you will be at long last the image and reflection of his glory that you were created to be. John, who saw Jesus’s glory revealed on the mountaintop with Peter, wrote these words, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”