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

a Christmas season meditation – imagine this

Imagine. How does one tell a story of Hebrew origin – one that took root and flowered in a speck of Middle Eastern terrain, a tale of a monotheistic god who entered the time and space of human history – to a first century Greek-speaking and thinking world of many gods?

This, I imagine, might have been John the evangelist’s focus when writing, “In the beginning was the Word…”, his mind turning, “Hey, you Greeks, stop me if you’ve heard this one!”

Of course, they had. Word, in the Greek, logos, the animating power of the universe, without which there is nothing, through which all things come to be, was an idea shared by Jewish and Hellenistic cultures.

So far, so good.

Now, imagine a Greek, wedded to a dualistic philosophy of the purity of the spirit realm and the wickedness of the corporeal world, intrigued, hooked by the use of logos; reading along, suddenly arriving at the verse, not having seen it coming, “the Word became flesh,” scandalized, in disgust, throwing the scroll to the dust. The pure logos, the eternal principle of universal order, encased in sordid flesh? Unimaginable!

Yet, like an idea so terrible that, once perceived, clamps unshakably onto the consciousness, impossible to ignore, my imaginary Greek reader retrieves the scroll and, with appalled fascination, reads again, “the Word became flesh,” cringing painfully, “and we have seen glory.” What? Glory? Doxa? Eternal splendor? Divine and invisible majesty that is visible in time and space?

So unimaginable and so wonderful! God’s glory made real in the flesh of Jesus. This, for John, is the Christmas story.

Countless are the ways to articulate what this – God’s glory made real – means. This is what I imagine.

In over 40 years of reading and reflecting on scripture, especially the biblical gospel accounts, I continue to encounter in Jesus one who embodied love and justice unconditional, kindness and fairness, actively, equally shared – without qualification, without reliance on any standard of deserving, merit, or judgment – with all, especially the physically and spiritually poor and oppressed, forgotten and forsaken, lost, least, last, broken in spirit and barren of hope. Here is God’s glory.

Now, imagine this. Whenever the glory of love and justice is born in the womb of human lives, enfleshed, made real and visible to all in our intentions and actions, words and deeds, then we are the Christmas story.

Imagine that.