A sermon for the last Sunday after the Epiphany, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio: the Transfiguration readings
The disciples were terrified when the cloud enveloped them on the mountaintop, but it was the voice of God that called to them, encouraging them to trust in Jesus. Down in the valley, in the shadow of the mountain, a parent was terrified for his child; he turned to Jesus for help, and even there, in the valley of shadows, Jesus had mercy on them, and the people were astounded by the greatness of God.
At the time of the Epiphany in Bethlehem, the Magi were guided by a star to the birthplace of Jesus. They recognized first by its light the significance of this holy child. By the end of the season of the Epiphany, one which is particularly close to our hearts in this place, we find the brightness of God’s revelation veiled by a cloud, even as Christ is transfigured by a vision of glory.
The cloud, that bright cloud, is manifest in more than one form. Literally, a cloud covers the mountaintop. If you have ever hiked through cloud cover on the high ground, then you know that to enter a cloud strikes a chill into your bones. Your skin grows clammy with the unspilt rain suspended in the air around you. Your vision grows vague, as mists veil the path ahead of you. Your breath is heavy with the humidity; even sounds seem muffled, as though you have already been transported to another plane, at some angle to the daylit world from which you entered the cloud. If you have never walked through a cloud, you’ll have to take my word for it: it is a lesson in mortality.
Then there is the cloud that hangs over Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah, who are discussing his imminent departure; in other words, not to put too fine a point on it, his death by crucifixion, his torture and political assassination, his self-giving sacrifice which is about to take place in Jerusalem.
There is the veil that is drawn over Peter’s apprehension of the event; and then there is the cloud of anger that darkens Jesus’ brow as he is confronted, in the valley of shadows, with a father in distress, a son in trouble, the clinging power of unclean spirits, after all he has done and with all that he has left to do, after he has commissioned his disciples to do the work for him, and they have, in this instance, failed: “How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” It is the cry of a prophet under a cloud.
Yet even this bright cloud proclaims the greatness of God; the astounding greatness of God. Throughout the Bible, a cloud is made to represent God’s very presence among us; God’s care for God’s people; God’s deliverance; God’s revelation. When Moses went up the mountain to talk with God, he entered a cloud, the glory of the Lord settling over the peak (Exodus 24:15-18), and God called to him out of the cloud. And it is out of the cloud on the mountaintop again that the disciples hear the voice of God, affirming and assuring them that, despite their fear over what might follow in Jerusalem; despite their doubts, their coldness of heart, struck with the clammy knife of the cloud, there is no denying that Jesus is the Son of God, the Epiphany, the revelation of God’s mercy made flesh. Even when Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about his imminent departure from Jerusalem, the word that they use, obscured by our English translation; the word that they assign to Jesus’ departure is exodus. Exodus: that great remembrance of God’s deliverance, God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy towards God’s people, when the Spirit of the Lord led them with a pillar of fire by night, but with a pillar of cloud by day.
On the way down the mountain, Jesus healed a father’s only son of an unclean spirit, releasing him from the bondage of his sickness, delivering him from the pollution of his illness, and the people were astounded at the greatness of God.
So sometimes we feel as though we are moving through thick clouds, lost in a fog. Some of the mist is of our own making. Consider the smog that wraps major cities of the world in particulates and pollution, unclean air making breathing itself unhealthy. The clouds that come from an unclean spirit, serving profit instead of people, self-righteousness before reconciliation, mammon before mercy. The clouds of sin that have a chilling effect on our ability to love one another. These are clouds of our own making, that veil our vision of God’s kingdom, of the world as it could be, as it should be, if we loved God as God has loved us, with full and hungry hearts, and our neighbours as ourselves. As we approach Lent, the need to reassess our systems, our selves, our lives, our habits to discover wehre we continue to pollute our own environment with sin is evident, and we may hope to begin to clear the air, with God’s help; that’s one way of looking at the clouds that surround us.
Then there are those bright clouds in which we recognize God’s presence already among us, working in us and through us as we struggle to do the right thing, even when the way is obscure and foggy, even when we are terrified, even when we confronted with anger, grief, failure. The way of the cross is not an easy road, but it does lead to deliverance, to freedom from unclean spirits, eventually to resurrection.
There is a profound struggle for justice being played out not only in the world but in our own churches, for people claiming their full humanity, the fullness of the image of God, the call of God upon their lives. This past week the United Methodist Churh voted to continue to restrict the ministries and marriages of LGBTQ+ people. And lest we get too self-righteous, our own Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion; perhaps even parts of this community continue to get caught up in the same debates. When I think of how impoverished our history, our fabric would be without some of the ministries and marriages that we celebrate, my heart breaks. It is hard for me to imagine the harm suffered by someone who is told that the validity of their marriage, their family, is up for debate; that their worthiness to serve Christ is up for debate because of their gender identity, their loving partnerships, but this is still happening in our churches, even in Christ’s church, and he must be asking, “How long must I bear with you?”. Others suffer harm and continuing injustice because of their race, their colour, their inheritance. From the clouds of righteous anger, God thunders, “This is my child!” We would do well to listen.
Even in this cloud, God is speaking, reminding us that it is through clouds of glory that his justice will be revealed.
Then there are the clouds of grief, in which it seems as though our whole world has turned into tears. This, too, even this is a revelation of God’s mercy, for these are God’s tears that surround us, enveloping us in the cloud of God’s great compassion, bearing with us, bearing sorrow alongside us. This is not a silver lining message, but the recognition that God is with us even when we are chilled to the bone and uncertain how we will ever leave the cloud and carry on.
Perhaps the message of the Epiphany, in the end, is not to try to leave the cloud behind, but to find God within it. To pay attention to the pollution that we have introduced, the particulates of sin and pride, and seek God’s help to clean them out. To find, as we work, that the cloud grows brighter, and we see more clearly Christ transfigured within it, his glory at work even on the way to the cross. To hear, as we rest, God’s voice of encouragement. To rest in the astonishing greatness of God’s mercy, filling the whole of creation like a cloud, like the very air that we breathe.