4 “O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.”
5 Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One. (Psalm 99)
This is a shining kind of day. Today, the last Sunday in Epiphany is known in our liturgical calendar as Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration means literally a change in the figure of someone or something. On this day filled with the light of God, Moses comes down from the mountain and unbeknownst to him, his face is glowing. Because Moses has been engaged and transformed by God, the radiance of the encounter has changed his appearance.
In our reading from the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus, has taken three of his followers up on a mountain to pray. And before their astonished eyes, Jesus becomes fully realized—as God incarnate, the One in whom God is revealed. His face is transformed and his clothing “becomes dazzling white.” And if that wasn’t enough, two heroic figures from the Jewish story, Moses and Elijah, appear and begin to talk intimately with Jesus about Jesus’ “exodus” as he travels to Jerusalem and to his destiny on the cross.
These stories seem otherworldly and so detached from our human experience. Moses’ encounter with God leaves him glowing to the point of needing a veil to tamp down the brightness. And Jesus on the eve of his journey to Jerusalem and his destiny with the cross, is witnessed by three of his disciples to be transfigured so that his face was changed and his clothing was radiant.
The language of “glory” is visual imagery for the presence of the Divine. It is a common image for the closeness of God or heaven. In this way, you can see what the scriptures are really about and you can really see God’s presence shining through the person encountered. But what does this mean for you and me as we come to the end of our time in the season of Epiphany and stand at the beginning of the contemplative season of Lent that begins this Wednesday.
In this season of Epiphany we have heard stories about the ways God makes God’s self known to us in this world. Beginning with the birth narrative in the Gospel according to Matthew where the story elicits our experience of being a baby and caring for babies, understanding the very vulnerability of this One who we believe (see) is God’s Son. To today where three disciples are led on a field trip to the top of a mountain and there are witnesses to the full glory of Jesus’ presence—God’s being shining through him. While it can be easy to become lost in the supernatural quality of these stories–their beauty as well as their familiarity lulling us into attending only to their dramatic visuals–Epiphany invites us to go beyond, to listen and see where God is inviting us to be witnesses and participants in God’s activity so we too can be revived, restored, empowered by the glory that is God.
We have been given as treasures of our faith– scripture, stories, communities, and worship practices where God surely has seemed present. Every week we are invited into this space to share together prayers, music, liturgy, and the gathering at the table of fellowship where all are invited to be fed and enlivened for our lives in the world. Each week we are invited to reflect and remember times of God’s presence that brought us joy, hope, awe, and comfort. Living here in the Berkshires, beauty finds its way into our hearts almost daily and there we are moved to remember God’s constancy and compassion. Offered God’s opportunities for sharing our gifts, we are invited to work alongside children, young people and adults which enable us to experience the joy of giving of our best selves and growing alongside others as we work in our garden and pantry. Being a part of Bible Study, a book group, and times of meal fellowship, we have had the opportunity to know companionship and the enlivening chance to listen and learn from others on this journey of faith.
N.T. Wright says that the more open we are to seeing God everywhere and in everyone, the more we are linked to the realities of the world. He says, “We are right to be aware when we return from some great worship experience, when we rise from a time of prayer in which God seemed close, his love real and powerful. These times are never given for their own sake, but so that, as we are equipped by them, God calls us to participate fully in the world.”
God is also a constant presence in our personal lives. God never abandons us whether we are leaping with joy or struggling with despair. And God is present when love shows up in the form of family, gifts, and simple presence. It can be hard at times to see the glow when life upends our hopes. But the glory of God is never far away as we remember that we are being called, even in the valley, into life.
Peter, James and John must have looked forward to an intimate retreat away with Jesus. Here they would have the opportunity to ask questions and hopefully get some answers to all that pulled at their hearts. What do the parables mean? How can they be expected to love their enemies, in particular those who do them harm? And what did he mean that following him required first taking up their own cross?
But the time did not turn out as the disciples had planned. Shortly after arriving on top of the mountain, Jesus changes from familiar companion to an altered appearance in the company of Moses and Elijah.
It is not a surprise that Peter speaks up proposing to capture and extend this time. But Jesus’ glory will not be staying on a mountain top. The glory of God’s presence and the needs of the world cannot be separated. As R. Alan Culpepper observes, Peter’s attempt to enshrine his mountaintop experience wasn’t what Jesus had in mind: “Faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment but by following on in confidence that God is leading and that what lies ahead is even greater than what we have already experienced.”We have to bring the mountaintop experience down into the level places and into the valleys of life. For in all our times in life, God is profoundly present.
God calls the disciples to surrender their hopes of controlling or even fully grasping this moment. God disorients them so they are available for God’s presence. God surrounds them in a cloud where their sight cannot be depended on and speaking in a way that captures their attention, they are reminded that Jesus is God’s Son and they must “Listen to him!” Because Luke does not record any immediate words from Jesus, we may reason that God intends the disciples to listen to all Jesus says and all he will continue to say as he journeys toward Jerusalem. And this means following him back down the mountain. This means following him all the way to the cross.
For one day they are surrounded with this astonishing experience. But then they must return to their homes, to their people, to the daily challenges that life brings. Jesus and his disciples must return to the place where life’s struggles are never far away.
In this story, the moment they arrive in the valley, they are met by a grieving father who pleads for the welfare of his suffering son. The story of the son’s condition is heart breaking. The illness has captured the boy, body and spirit. The father begs Jesus to do something to help his precious child. Jesus responds by healing and returning the boy to his family. While the glory of transfiguration may have occurred on the mountain, struggle and heartache continued down below.
It is in the valleys and level places of life where Jesus’ transfiguration has meaning. As much as the worship we celebrate today inspires us, as much as the daily prayer we practice centers us, as much as the time in community strengthens us, it is also in the valleys and plains of life where we encounter God’s love. It is in the times when great decisions must be made, when hardship pays a visit, when our lives are upended by great loss, that God’s light guides us, that God’s love shelters us, that God’s glory strengthens us.
Like Peter, James and John, we will not live our lives as Christians only on the top of mountains. Despite the beauty of our sacred space, despite the empowerment of our practices, we cannot build dwellings that separate our faith from our daily experiences nor the needs of all with whom we share this earthly home. We will not be able to just shut all the doors and windows and remain locked in sacred space despite its power and beauty. We must turn to Jesus, filled with the glory of God and listen to and follow him.
This mountaintop experience was a formative time for the Israelite people in the wilderness. Moses, empowered by God’s love and guidance, will lead them from their lives in slavery to a people steeped in the power of God’s goodness. The time on the mountaintop for the three disciples, gave them the experience of God’s overflowing love, mercy and strength as they continued on following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.
Today is certainly a mountaintop experience. Today we welcome Jen Bloesch, who will guide our work in Gideon’s Garden. We rejoice that she is here safely and that she has already begun to plan her first steps, talking with Pennie and meeting with Sue. Her call is one of wonder and infinite possibility that God will certainly shine through. But Jen along with this Grace Church community will not stay on the mountain top. We will follow God’s call to the level place and into the valleys. And we know that God’s love will accompany us every step of the way.
God is everywhere. Jesus calls us to come close, to listen and witness to the glory of God so that we may be transformed on the mountain top, in the plains, and in the valleys of our lives. Living high up above all in a private place of revelation is not the message of transfiguration. Rather it the vision of God’s presence that walks with us wherever life leads. The glory of God is the light that enlivens us all. And it is this light that the darkness cannot overcome.