A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2018
It’s hard to know just what happened on that mountaintop. For all that we have three accounts in three different gospels, the story is so strange that our imagination fails us a little when we try to put ourselves in the place of Peter, James, and John, and to see with their vision. They describe Jesus’ clothes – but we know that this story is not about the divine dress code. They want to build tents, stay in the moment – they need more time themselves to process what is happening. Instead, they are left with a moment’s epiphany, enough to pass on an impression of glory, and the confusion of a divine embrace.
Once upon a time, I taught Sunday School. We were studying the story of Hagar, after Abraham expelled her and Ismael into the desert, and she thought that they would die of thirst. If you remember, God spoke to her as she sat under a tree waiting for the end, and showed her a well where she could revive herself, her child, and both their spirits.
I asked the young children I was with whether they thought that God had made the well miraculously appear, or whether the well was already there, and God had shown Hagar the way back to life. It was the peak of the Harry Potter craze, and I was sure that the children were all about magical thinking, but they did not answer quite in the way that I expected.
They were unanimous in their decision that God did not make up the well on the spot, but that God did open Hagar’s eyes to the providence that God had already arranged for her and her son; that God revealed the way back to life that she had been unable to find by herself.
Jesus told his first followers that to understand the kingdom of God, one must see with the heart of a child.
To follow the hearts of my student teachers, then, the Transfiguration might have been not about Jesus’ dazzling white clothes, but about the vision of his disciples, their eyes open to the glory of God that inhabited Jesus all along; about the revelation of God that we so often miss, milling about at the foot of the mountain.
As is often the case with Mark, his is the most straightforward and basic account of the story. In Mark, we find only the essential details: Jesus has gone on a retreat with three of his disciples. On that retreat, they have a religious experience in which they see Jesus shining as though all of the dust of the mountain and the dirt of daily living had been scoured away, and he was presented to them fresh, and clean, and whole; the glorious image of God shining out of the face of the Son of Man.
As though to reinforce the point they saw Moses and Elijah, the symbols of God’s ongoing revelation to God’s people, the Law and the Prophets, the signs of God’s continuous and continual engagement with and revelation to the world since the beginning of our biblical history. And now they were joined by Jesus, and a voice from heaven said, “Listen to him.”
In him, you will find God reaching out in love to all of God’s people.
This mountaintop assembly reassures the disciples that the self-revelation of God is a perennial thing; that, to borrow the tagline of our sisters in the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking.” It confirms Christ as the crowning glory of God’s appearance among us: “Listen to him.”
“For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Even Jesus’ first and closest disciples, though, had trouble at times focusing on that grace and glory. Even Jesus took them away, apart, to the top of a high mountain, clear air, in order that they might see clearly what they were just beginning to understand: that this Jesus was the image and incarnation of God’s love and glory on earth. Even they, who had witnessed his healing miracles and his profound authority, found themselves distracted by sore feet and Roman empires, hungry bellies and harsh words, family troubles and fascinating diversions, gossip and gamesmanship. Even when Jesus was right in front of them on a daily basis, it took effort, concentration, and a deliberate removal from distractions to see him clearly.
It could almost be a parable for our own lives.
We are here, seeking Christ in Word and Sacrament, hungry for God’s self-revelation, because we know that this Jesus, revealed on the mountaintop, is the very grace and glory of God among us. Yet we find ourselves distracted constantly by grief and by gossip, by violations and violence, by fear and trembling tears. We are busy with the dust and dirt of daily life, and we rarely find the time to wash our vision clean and see the dazzling light which God has created for us to walk in.
That is what Lent is for.
We end the season after Epiphany with a reminder that in order to see clearly, in order to hear God’s voice, in order to find God’s self-revelation, we might occasionally need to step out of valley, the rut into which we have worn ourselves, and retreat into prayer. That we might need, as thirsty and as desperate as we are, to set ourselves under a tree to wait upon God’s word. That we may need to find the time to climb a metaphorical mountain (or a real one), to seek with intention and energy the vision that God has in store for us.
However we do it: through Wednesday meetings or individual observance, the giving up of something whose absence will remind us to fill our hearts instead with God, or the taking on of extra obligations, seeking to serve Christ in others: however we do it through prayer and practice, through the reading of God’s word and the meditation of our hearts, through fasting and the deliberate sanctification of time; we have time set aside, six weeks out of the year, an annual Sabbath to rest in God’s grace and glory, which has already redeemed us from our sin and sorrow, our dust and ashes, if only we could see it clearly.
In the story of Elijah’s departure, Elisha asks to receive the mantle of that great prophet. “If you can see me,” answers Elijah, all power will be yours to do the work of a prophet, to see the will of God.
It is all in the seeing. It is in the seeking that we find the clear vision of the glory of God, which is already waiting for us, on the mountaintop, in the wilderness, in Word and in Sacrament, and even, if we look closely, in our own lives: the glory of God which is veiled only by our own tendency to distraction.
If Epiphany is about its revealing, then Lent is about our looking for it; but we have the assurance, as we enter the search, the forty days of wilderness wandering, that it has already been found, and that God, the God of Abraham and Hagar, of Ismael, Moses, and Elijah, the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ will not let us wander alone, nor fail if we falter.
That is the promise both of the desert and of the mountaintop: of the Patriarchs, the Law and the Prophets; a promise confirmed and crowned by the revelation of Jesus Christ, who is the image, the face, the summit of God’s glory.