Tag Archives: Transfiguration Sunday

Theophany: Encountering God

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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  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.”  He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.  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.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Transfiguration: A Transformation Metaphor

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!
RevJule
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15 February 2015 – Transfiguration Sunday
Click here to read scripture first:  http://www.biblestudytools.com/nrsa/mark/passage/?q=mark+9:2-10

Even though I wasn’t good at the guessing last week: for those of you who attended our church history celebration last week and brought in your baby photos, wasn’t that fun? Seeing so many of us from just a few years back? . . . Being able to see the dimples that remain in some, the eyes that gave you away, the smiles that never change. It was so good to see each other at different stages in our lives. It got me thinking about how much each of us has changed over the years. I mean, think about it: since those baby photos were taken, how much have you grown, learned, done? Aspects of us might always stay the same so that we remain recognizable – at least to ourselves. But so much more of who we are has changed dramatically. We no longer are just those sweet lil faces in the photos. Each of us has grown and adapted on such unique journeys through the path that is called our, individual life.

For some reason, those photos from last week remind me of the other change we’re hearing about in the gospel reading for today. It’s Transfiguration Sunday so it’s not just any old change the gospel of Mark writes about. It’s Jesus. Pretty much at the half-way point of the story between his baptism and his death and resurrection, it’s almost as if Jesus deliberately wanted to transfigure for them. According to the gospel of Mark’s record of it, six days after Jesus first tells his disciples that the path he’s following will lead to his death, but not to worry because three days after that he will be raised again. Six days after Jesus first tells how this all is going to go down; he leads Peter, James, and John up a mountain.

Now, mountains are important for Jesus and his people. Those first disciples certainly knew that. Significant encounters with God took place on mountains. On the top of a mountain, Moses too ended up with a glowing face. On the top of a mountain, the great prophet Elijah came face to face with God. And on the top of this mountain Jesus and his friends are climbing, a voice is going to tell these three lead disciples to LISTEN to what Jesus had to say. And, it wasn’t some big pronouncement he was about to make – like the transfiguration and the voice were the trumpets pre-message to get everyone’s attention for the most important words that are about to be spoken. No: Jesus already had told them the most important words they needed to hear.

In Caesarea Philippi – the ancient place where folks retreated for restful restoration at Mount Hermon’s Banias Waterfalls, which happen to be the source of the north to south waters that make up the eastern border of the land of Israel. There at the geographic start of it all, Jesus asks them who they believe he is. After Peter correctly answers: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29), he and the others refuse to accept the definition of Messiah that Jesus gives. Because Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed One of the God who isn’t quite as some might expect. Jesus tells that he is going to suffer, be rejected, and killed, before he finally rises again (Mark 8:31). It’s a natural human response, I think, to want it not to be so. I mean, who among us wants to suffer. Rejection hurts – it can crush our egos all together. None of us actually want to be killed – literally or metaphorically. We know this or things like swallowing our pride, and starting over after a divorce, and saying goodbye to our loved ones on their deathbeds wouldn’t be as hard as they always seem to be. Though Jesus never attempts to tell why it must be this way, it just is. Resurrection comes only after death. And just to be sure those disciples actually LISTEN and ready themselves to live likewise, the appearance of Jesus changes dramatically as a voice calls: “This is my Son, the Beloved. LISTEN to him!” (Mark 9:7).

Jesus changes – transfigures with the light of God shining right on through his eyes because he needs his disciples to know that they will need to change too.  Step by step becoming a little bit more like him.

It’s the path of transformation to which he calls us. Of dying to self daily in order to follow behind this God revealed in-full in Jesus. And transfiguration, at least according to the gospel of Mark’s telling of it, shows some of the classic human responses to change. Did you notice that? As soon as Jesus is transfigured and a few other bodies appear along with him, Peter proposes they hold on to the moment. Settle in to things as they are and never let go. Resist all future change. He suggests they make three dwellings – perhaps reminiscent of the annual Jewish Feast of Booths which originally celebrated God’s provision through the 40 years of wilderness wanderings and eventually commemorated the magnificent harvests of the Promised Land. Perhaps Peter intended those dwellings as symbolic of the one Moses came down Mount Sinai the second time with instructions for. He had been told how to build the Tabernacle or the place for the Dwelling of God. Either way, Peter is missing the point. The glorious change of Jesus they are experiencing is not for the purpose of clinging to that exact spot. It’s for them to heed the warning that the life of discipleship will look like his: giving ourselves away, no matter the cost, in order to be raised again. It’s a new way of life they are to learn. Being transformed bit by bit.

As the story unfolds, fear sets in next. Of Jesus transfiguration, the gospels all record the human response of absolute terror. Fear. We know this stuff, right? . . . Fear so often is a part of any process of change. Transformation is tough. Opening ourselves to being changed is consenting to a process in which one thing is certain:  uncertainty.  Something most of us don’t really like. We never can know what it all will be like as we change. Those disciples never could have guessed they eventually would break away from their Jewish ways as they gathered and grew into a whole new way of being. They couldn’t have imagined traveling to far-away places or staying close to home to tell people they didn’t really know about the gracious love of God, which they experienced in Christ. The healing and helping and outpouring of the Holy Spirit they came to know as they followed after him. We know they were afraid – they scattered in the garden when Jesus was arrested. They hid while he was crucified. They were in shock at the message of his resurrection. . . . Do you know those wonderful words of Eleanor Roosevelt? Cuz it sorta seems like the first disciples needed her pep talk: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face . . . You must do the thing you think you cannot do” (Eleanor Roosevelt, pinterest.com/overcoming fear quotes). This week I also came across these words regarding fear: “Fear is an idea-crippling, experience-crushing, success-stalling inhibitor inflicted only by yourself” (Stephanie Melish, Ibid.).

This process of transformation to which the transfigured Jesus calls us reminds me of the practice of courage I once heard about. It was an assignment for some class. To come up with one daily discipline and journal about it for 30 days prior to the start of the class. I guess one woman found her life incredibly settled – probably because she felt afraid of everything. So she created the practice of courage to see what might happen. Every day for her 30 day assignment, she had to shake it up. She had to do one thing she had never done before – especially if it was something she was afraid to do. She reported to the class that some days were little things like taking a new route home from work or eating at a restaurant she’d never been to before. Some days things were a bit tougher, like actually having the conversation with her boss about what had been bothering her for months at work. One thing she did, as a novice violinist who had never played in front of anybody but her teacher and her teacher’s other students, that woman practicing courage entered a talent show and played an introductory solo violin piece in front of 500 people. She reported to the class that her fingers nearly sweated off the strings and it might not have sounded like Yo Yo Ma, but she did it. She looked fear in the face and did something she never dreamed she could accomplish. During the practice of courage, every night she kept the journal required for the class. There she’d tell of what courageous new thing she did, what she noticed as she did it, and any other insights she was gaining from that intentional commitment to doing something new. She told how it was getting a bit easier to do new things and how fear was beginning to be less of a driving force in her life. . . . Upon reading the student’s final paper on the practice, the instructor of the class was so inspired by the process that she decided to give the practice of courage a try too and even encouraged others to do so as a way to grow deeper in discipleship of Christ.

Maybe it’s a practice some of us might want to take up for the season of Lent that’s sneaking up on us. A great way to begin to gain a little more breathing room in the face of any fear. Try one new thing each day – especially something that terrifies us – and pay attention to what happens in us along the way. Bit by bit changing. Transforming into who God intends for us to be. Be it scary. Slow. Unwelcomed even. But what a glorious journey the transfigured Jesus calls his followers to undertake. May we open ourselves a little bit more to the amazing process!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015