A Sermon for 11 February 2018 – Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday
A reading from the gospel of Mark 9:2-9. Listen for God’s word to us as we hear this gospel’s account of the transfiguration of Christ.
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Scripture is filled with theophanies. Appearances of the Divine when it’s best to take notice. Just three chapters into the history of the people in Egypt, the man Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro. He goes out beyond the wilderness to the mountain of Horeb, known as God’s, with the presence of mind to turn aside when a bush was on fire but not consumed. There God appears to Moses. In the great theophany, Moses encounters God. His life’s work is re-directed, as he learns the very name of the Divine: Yahweh, I will be what I will be! (Exodus 3:1-15)
When at last Moses leads the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, another great theophany takes place. This time Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The mountain shook like a volcano waiting to erupt when God called Moses to ascend. The LORD gave command after command, as the terrified people waiting below begged for mercy. They could not tolerate the tumultuous event directly. “Stand in our stead,” they told Moses, “lest we encounter God and die” (Exodus 20:18-21). The theophany – the appearance of the Divine – scared them so.
Isaiah records a similar awe-provoking event. When he saw the pivots of the temple shaking. The throne of the LORD filled with the Presence as seraphs rejoiced: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! The whole earth is full of God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). And before that, again at Horeb. When the prophet Elijah is worn out from fighting the prophets of the idol Baal who had been welcomed by the wicked queen Jezebel. Elijah flees for the wilderness only to find himself fed that he might prepare himself to stand outside the entrance of the cave. The winds rush. The earth quakes. A fire blazes. At last sheer silence prevails from which the Voice queries: “what are you doing here Elijah?” The theophany instructs, until restored; Elijah returns to his post (1 Kings 19:1-18).
Three of the four gospels of the New Testament record the theophany read of today. Second Peter 1:16-18 refers to it as well. Six days after Jesus has begun to teach his disciples that the Way he’s on leads to death before resurrection, the gospel of Mark records Jesus taking Peter, James, and John with him up a high mountain. What they see stands in the long line of biblical theophanies. Appearances of the Divine that instruct even as they demand. In Mark’s gospel the experience is pretty straight forward, of course – as little detail as possible for this gospel’s rush to record the whole story. Like Moses on Sinai for the commandments, a thick cloud overtakes them all. The Voice proclaims: “this is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him! – exclamation point, meaning: emphasis intentionally added. To be sure they don’t challenge Jesus on his teaching again. And like that, the flash is gone. Theophany over so that Peter, James, and John can spend the rest of their lives seeking to make sense of just what they saw.
Yes, scripture is filled with theophanies. Times when the Divine is seen. It’s a wonder we don’t talk about them more. The times in our lives when God appears. When we know deep inside that the ground on which we stand indeed is holy. The Presence has slipped into our midst – rather we have slipped into the awareness of the One who is ever-present. As English mystic Evelyn Underhill says: God always is coming to us in the Sacrament of the present moment. Carl Jung put it simply: Summoned or not God is present. In An Altar in the World – a book that would be a wonderful read during the upcoming season of Lent – Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “People seem willing to look all over the place for this treasure (the treasure that is connection with God). They will spend hours launching prayers into the heavens. They will travel halfway around the world to visit a monastery in India or to take part in a mission trip to Belize. The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives.” She continues: “the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. . . . The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are” (2009, p. xiv-xv).
Perhaps with our consent to be where we are, opportunities will arise for us to be enveloped by God’s Presence – even if for a mere second. We talked about it at the most recent Renewal Team meeting. Because whether or not the tradition has emphasized the importance of Divine encounter, the great mystics of the faith long have known. Encounter with God is what truly matters. Connection, as one philosopher has written, with “something greater than the self – something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding” (Paul Woodruff as quoted by Rev. Cathlynn Law, 20 Sept. 2015 at http://ucup.org/multimedia-archive/the-practice-of-paying-attention-sermon-series-on-altar-in-the-world-by-barbara-brown-taylor/). It’s what the whole spiritual but not religious movement is all about. Encountering the Divine who appears everywhere – not just in the ritual of Sunday morning worship in a sanctuary. But, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes: right under our feet – in things like “a trip to the grocery store . . . (or) something as common as a toothache” (An Altar in the World, p. xiv).
Perhaps God is met in various ways and places – because God’s people have been created for such connection. “Having hearts that are restless until they rest in You,” Saint Augustine of the Fourth century professed. No one way fits us all and no one way can sustain us all throughout all the days of our lives. Thankfully, there are seven classic ways of encountering the Divine. It’s best we try them all: ritual – hence the heavy emphasis on worship, nature, art, community – which is why we Presbyterians love such times of fellowship like potluck dinners, dreams, the body, and one that life ensures we’ve got down pat: suffering. Ritual, nature, art, community, dreams, the body, and suffering all are ways to open our eyes to the Divine in whose Presence we are saturated – like fish that happily live in water, but whose Presence we so seldom glimpse – like fish in the water who no longer recognize that in which they swim.
We call the liturgical feast celebrated today Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday. And long have we focused on what was going on with Jesus. When we step into the shoes of those first disciples gathered around, to see as they might have seen; we begin to notice the theophany – the appearance of the Divine come to instruct, even as it confounds. To connect with our restless hearts that thirst for something More. To remember that encounter happens on mountain tops, deserts, and banks of rivers. In dreams of the night and visions of the day. In the process of creating and the pain housed in our bodies. In what happens between people in community and what happens in the quiet recesses of our own hearts. In the acts we do with intention together in here as we reach beyond ourselves for the Divine. And in the places we walk out there as we live and move and have our being in the world.
In a few days we will enter the season of Lent. Forty days for intentional practices that become the portal through which God appears. We’re invited to remember the wisdom of the mystics as we choose how we’ll inhabit this Lent. Looking for God to appear, open to theophanies of the Divine in ritual, nature, art, community, dreams, the body, and suffering. God waits to be encountered afresh – where we haven’t yet dared to tread. . . . Every moment offers the opportunity to see the God who is Present. To give thanks for the Divine who appears. This year, may we observe a holy Lent paying attention to the God all around.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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