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

facing another way, part 5 of 5

thinkinga biblical and personal reflection, based on Matthew 2.1-12, for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2017

January. Named for Janus, the Roman mythological god of gates and doors, entries and exits, beginnings and endings; often depicted with a double-faced head, one looking to what was, the other to what is to come.

janus-detail-of-the-nave-ceiling-art-of-the-abbey-church-of-waltham-holy-cross-and-st-lawrence-waltham-abbey-essex-england

A fitting image, matching the lovely story of magi following a star, finding a transforming revelation in a Bethlehem born baby, returning home by another way, looking back and looking forward.

the-journey-of-the-magi-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

A fitting image for our stories, we who have entered a new year.

Still, I think there must be less, therefore more to life than this simple, swivel-headed, potentially dizzying experience of looking back to what was, what is known, what is “once upon a time” and looking forward to what is to come, what is unknown, what is not yet in time. If looking back and forward is all or even much of what we do, then, I think, we can miss and will miss what is most true.

For between the two countenances of Janus, one peering into the past, the other gazing into the future, we see his true face – invisible, incapable of representation, for it looks always at the present.

The present. This instant moment, the immediate moment, the only moment in which you and I, with all who we are and all that we have, can be.

The magi came from afar, found the one for whom they had searched, and “left for their own country by another road.” Maybe this was their epiphany, the light of insight they experienced at Bethlehem. Maybe this is how they were changed. To live in each present moment, bringing, being all that they would, all that they could be.

Maybe this is a fitting, faithful reminder for you and for me in 2017.

 

Illustrations:

Janus, from the Nave ceiling of The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross and St Lawrence, Waltham Abbey, Essex, England

The Journey of the Magi (1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)