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Transfiguration Witness

A sermon preached by Jay P. Rowland on Transfiguration Sunday February 26, 2017 at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.  Scripture texts: Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9.  This sermon weaves in material from Rev. Kathryn Matthews published online: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_26_2017

Transfiguration Witness

Today the church season of Epiphany, the season of light, comes to an end as we make way for Lent.  Kathryn Matthews notes “How fitting it is to end the season of light with a light so bright that no one on earth can produce it, a flash of brilliant, blinding revelation …” otherwise known as the Transfiguration of Jesus.

The saying “timing is everything” seems applicable to the timing of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Let me explain: Prior to this scene tensions have been steadily increasing among Jesus and his followers. Words exchanged between Jesus and the religious authorities, among the disciples themselves, and even between Jesus and his own disciples have an edge to them.

Then in Chapter 16 Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him–who they think Jesus is. The disciples relay what they’ve heard: prophets, leaders from the past, meaningful names among their people. Then Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (16:16) comes as a bit of a surprise considering that up to that moment, there was no hint that any of them were thinking this way.   But then Jesus likely surprises all of them when he explains that the Messiah must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of their own religion’s authorities and be put to death, then rise on the third day.

That’s probably more than any of the disciples could digest.

Too bad.

While still absorbing Jesus’ words, Peter and James and John find themselves following Jesus up a mountain.  Nothing could have prepared them for what they saw there: Jesus’ face shining “like the sun,” Jesus’ clothes “dazzling white,” a “bright cloud” overhead, Moses and Elijah intimately conversing with him … and to top it all off, a voice declares that Jesus is God’s “Beloved” Son along with a what sounds like a stern command: “listen to him!”

The Transfiguration story, like Moses in the presence of God in Exodus, presents to us unique insight into the power, the transcendence and the otherness of our Lord.  The first audiences hearing the Transfiguration story would immediately think of the Exodus stories.  Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann notes,

There is no doubt that the gospel presentation of Jesus on the “Mount of Transfiguration” alludes to the Sinai text. The church confesses that all of the glory of God shown to Moses is now embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. The glory of God exhibited at Sinai is now exhibited in his person. It is no wonder that the disciples “fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (Matthew 17:6). They readily discerned that all of the glory of God was in play in his person”

Walter Brueggemann, God Beyond All Relationships and Agendas: Exodus 24:12-18, ON Scripture, Odyssey Networks, 2014, huffingtonpost.com/

The story of the Transfiguration and of God appearing to Moses on Sinai are unusual stories even for the Bible.  This is NOT a common practice for God.  The fancy theological term is “theophany” that is, “a manifestation or appearance of God or a god to a person” (dictionary.com).  We moderns seem to have trouble divine self-revelation.  Won’t just seem to have developed or been equipped with a frame of reference which allows us to enter these stories as experiences of the church worthy of our contemplation.  Of course we respectfully and politely listen whenever these are read during worship, but we stop short of allowing (or inviting) our God, the God of the Transfiguration and the God of the Exodus to invade our minds, our imaginations, our lives.

We’re just not conditioned to think that way–which is our loss.  Because if we could find a way to let God invade our minds, our imagination and our life, I believe these stories could (and perhaps should) shake loose from us all our fears about corrupt earthly authorities and powers.  The early church believed that the Transfiguration gave us a glimpse into the Divine Mind shared by God and Jesus.  If they could, then why can’t we open our eyes and our hearts to the astounding radiance of God shown in these intimate moments of God’s self-revelation. No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey these moments can whisper to us that the radiance of this God of ours shimmers beneath the surface of all the hard realities which distract us and hold us in fear of what lies ahead.  The message God sends is that what lies ahead of us is God’s goodness and light; God’s LIFE in us; our life’s destination is God.

Peter’s words from his New Testament letter (a lectionary reading for today) offer instruction:

… we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”18We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. 19So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. …                        (2 Peter 1:16-19)

The Transfiguration was a gift to the disciples, and to us.  When our own experience of suffering and loss is recognized as vitally connected to that Jesus, who also suffered and died, who was tempted and betrayed, then we can go on, even “to Jerusalem” … to everything that awaits us, everything we have to face in our lives.

Just as surely as we know that Jesus experienced pain and loss and death, and rose again, we know that we too will share in that new life. We may not get the dramatic visual confirmation that Peter got after his passionate proclamation of Jesus as “the Son of the Living God,” but we have our glimpses, here and there, now and then, throughout our lives, of who this Jesus is.  These glimpses come to us through the community of faith. Through the memory of The Church.

Peter, James, and John had their bright, shining moment with Jesus, but it was only one moment out of many moments they experienced with Jesus.  Even if we were to be so fortunate as to experience this ourselves, it would still be something we would have to move on from, powerful though it would be, it would be an indication, a moment, a hint, of what was still yet to be. In the meantime, we would return to life as it is and was before.  And we would have to find a way to keep that moment in a special place where it might help us keep going, or give us the courage to keep going, or to stay with a moment we find difficult.  In the end our hope rests with Jesus, he who reached down and touched his three disciple friends, saying “get up and do not be afraid” raising them up the mountain, Kathryn Matthews says, and from there to Jerusalem.

Lent comes our way in a couple of days, with the invitation to join them on the way.

On the way “to Jerusalem” there are people who can remind us of God’s radiance.  People here in church, in our family, people in our community, people in the most unlikely of places.  These are challenging days. Many are nervous and fearful.  Tensions are high.  If ever there was a time to seek God’s radiance, now is the time.  The season of Lent is a challenging and at times difficult spiritual season provides opportunities to notice the radiance of God shining in the most unexpected people and places.  My hope for Lent is that we start noticing.  What would happen if at the end of each day, we made some quiet time to think back over the day’s moments, searching for any moments we might have missed–moments when God’s radiance came near.  We could let those moments and those people be Jesus’ transfiguration witnesses for our journey to Jerusalem.

Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead closes with these words from the main character, Rev. John Ames:

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance–for a moment or a year or the span of a life….  Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?” (Gilead, p.245)

Who has the courage to see the world through Jesus’ transfiguration?

That’d be you and me.

Let us be Transfiguration Witnesses for each other and for the world God so loves.