Lord, show us a sign!

a sermon, based on Luke 9.28-36 and Exodus 34.29-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2017

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”[1] His identity confirmed it was important for Jesus to declare what kind of Messiah he was: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised”[2] and, therefore, what kind of disciples they were: “If you want to be my followers, deny yourselves, take up your cross daily, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”[3]

Hard words to hear. Harder to heed. The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. They had heard his great teaching, beheld his grand miracles, experienced his wondrous love. Now this! The promise of his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice. What on earth would, could compel them to keep going, to continue following? Perhaps nothing on earth, but rather only a heavenly sign of their destination, their destiny.

The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520

“Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray.” There, the first sign. Jesus is transfigured; his face and clothing blindingly bright. The Greek indicates that Jesus does not reflect, like the moon, like Moses on Mount Sinai whose face shone, mirroring the glory of God, but rather, like the sun, radiates light. His transfiguration is effulgent; the external emanation of his internal glory of God.

Second sign. Moses and Elijah, chief representatives of God’s Law and the prophets, appear, speaking with Jesus about his departure, his death, resurrection, and ascension that he will accomplish in Jerusalem thus, confirming the truth of everything Jesus has told his disciples about his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice.

Third sign. If the disciples want or need additional proof of Jesus’ identity, the vox Deus, the voice of God resounds from the heavens: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

One of our Epiphany season hymns of praise to Jesus glories in his transfiguration:

Manifest on mountain height, shining in resplendent light,

where disciples filled with awe Thy transfigured glory saw,

When from there Thou leddest them steadfast to Jerusalem,

cross and Easter Day attest God in man made manifest.[4]

There on that mountaintop, for Peter, John, and James, there is no doubt. Jesus is the Messiah, the revelation, the revealer of God!

So, now what? What do we do with this story? We weren’t there. We didn’t see it. And that’s a good thing.

Peter had an idea: “Let’s build houses!” We can’t blame him. We’d want to stay, too. But funny thing about this and any other mountaintop transfiguration when God’s glory unmistakably is revealed. They don’t last. Transfigurations, appearing in numerous ways – a ray of sunlight through dark clouds, a brilliant rainbow after a storm, a kind word when we’re discouraged, a tender touch when tired, forgiveness when we have offended, acceptance when all we see is the worst about ourselves – come and go as splendid serendipity, beyond our power to command or control, encouraging us to keep going, continuing to follow Jesus.

Transfigurations don’t last. But “on the next day, when they had come down from the mountain”, a man begging that his ailing son be made well approached Jesus, who healed the boy.[5]

This is a sign that the mountaintop transfiguration, whilst never enduring forever, can be repeated in our daily living. Wherever, whenever you and I, through word and deed, transform discord into harmony, despair into hope, disappointment into forgiveness, sorrow into joy, there is a transfiguration moment when we become signs, revelations, revealers of the glory of God.

 

Illustration: The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520. Note: The Transfiguration is depicted in the upper part of the painting. Jesus floats aloft, with Moses and Elijah, bathed in an aura of light and clouds, as, below, Peter, John, and James, bowed and supine in fatigue, shield their eyes from the radiance. (The two figures kneeling to the left of the mountain top are said to be St. Felicissimus and St. Agapitus, two 3rd century Christian martyrs.) The lower part of the painting portrays Jesus’ disciples seeking, without success, to cure the demon-possessed boy (Luke 9.40), who, in his agony, is naked to his waist, his flesh pale, his body contorted, his arms outstretched, his eyes rolled upward.

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 9.20

[2] Luke 9.22

[3] Luke 9.23-24, paraphrased

[4] From the hymn, Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord, to thee we raise, The Hymnal 1982, #135, verse 4; words by F. Bland Tucker

[5] Luke 9.37-42

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making meaning – a view from the mountaintop

epiphany-1-22-17 the text of the sermon, based on Matthew 17.1-9 and 2 Peter 1.16-21, that I had prepared to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 26, 2017.

However, as happens on occasion, in the moment, something else occurred, truly, stirred within me, leading me to preach a similar, though extemporaneous, thus, unscripted message. As the words that came to me were not recorded, with apologies to my dear readers, the following sermon text is all I have to share!

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Living requires, demands the art of making meaning. In every encounter, every experience, moment by moment, we add to our ever-increasing trove of memories, our constantly-evolving personal histories. With our physical senses, we hear, see, smell, taste, and touch and with our intuitions, perceive above and beneath, around and through all things; our observations taking shape in our opinions, our perceptions in our points of view. All of it giving shape to our sense of what is real and true.

We always, often unconsciously, are making meaning. Without this constant labor of life (of love!) our existence may seem to be, and perhaps can be nothing else than a random series of unrelated events; the only connection being that we are the ones living through them.

Now, I confess that most of the time when I reflect on my experience the meaning I make tends to validate the worldview I already have conceived and constructed. True, in every moment I can’t afford absentmindedly or, worse, apathetically to abandon my standpoint. In order to continue to be and to become someone, I must stand somewhere; not everywhere. The problem, the danger is that sometimes my perspective can harden, holding, locking me in place, blinding me to new discoveries, constraining me from considering contrary viewpoints. That is, until I am stirred, shaken out of the comfortability, the complacency of my outlook by something so astoundingly “other” I can’t ignore it. Something so unreal that it demands I try to make sense of it.

Jesus, at a crucial moment in his ministry, asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”[1] Peter answered, “The Messiah.”[2] I suspect Peter spoke out of his understanding of who the Messiah was, God’s anointed one, and his understanding of what the Messiah would do, save Israel from Roman oppression and restore the nation to the prominence of the time of King David.

Jesus had another destiny. He would not spare the people from suffering. Rather through his suffering he would show another way to live. In God’s Name, confronting the secular and religious powers and principalities, he would die, and then, be raised from death, demonstrating that abundant, eternal life with God is real and true and to be shared with all. Would his disciples, expecting, wanting another kind of Messiah, a-this-world-liberating-from-all-suffering-saving-Messiah continue to follow him? If not, what would it take to convince them?

This coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, is the first day of Lent, when we, with Jesus, will begin again his journey to Jerusalem where he, facing the cross of his crucifixion, demonstrates this new way of life of surrender and sacrifice for a cause greater than self. Will we continue to follow him? If not, what would it take to convince us?

the-transfiguration-la-transfiguration-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Today, this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, we read of a great revelation. A wholly, completely, and holy, “other” moment when the boundaries between time and space, heaven and earth, temporality and eternity dissolve. When a triple confirmation of Jesus’ identity is given. He glows in effulgent – radiated, not reflected glory. Moses and Elijah, the chief representatives of the Law and the prophets, appear as witnesses to the truth of Jesus. The vox Deus speaks. In this astonishing and terrifying moment, all questions resolve. The disciples are called, wrenched out of the comfort of their commonly held convictions. They behold and believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Basking in the brilliant light of that revelation, they want to remain. But, no! They who follow Jesus must come down from the mountain.

Jesus commands they tell no one. Perhaps in fear they would be considered mad, babbling nonsense or, more truly, in the awareness that there are times when words fail. How does one, how can one describe the ineffable? Later, Peter tried, remembering and reflecting on his experience of being “eyewitnesses of (Jesus’) majesty”…(and hearing) this voice (of God) come from heaven, while we were with (Jesus) on the holy mountain.”

Coming down the mountain, Jesus continues to show his disciples his new way. They are met by a crowd. A man kneels before Jesus begging for the healing of his epileptic son. Jesus cures the boy.[3]

the-possessed-boy-at-the-foot-of-mount-tabor-le-possede-au-pied-du-thabor-1886-1896-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

The meaning of the mountaintop, where on a clear day, we can see forever, is clear. The transfiguration of Jesus is to be encountered and experienced by all. And the disciples of Jesus, then and now, thus we, with the words of our lips and the works of our lives, are to share with all this transfiguring revelation – that abundant, eternal life with God is real and true. Let us, we who behold and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, follow him and do that.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustrations:

The Transfiguration (La transfiguration) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

The possessed boy at the foot of Mount Tabor (Le possédé au pied du Thabor) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 16.15, my emphases

[2] Matthew 16.16

[3] See Matthew 17.14-18