Sermon from February 7, 2016
Luke 9: 28-36
“It was Jesus of Nazareth all right, the man they’d tramped many a dusty miles with, whose mother and brothers they knew, the one they’d seen as hungry, tired, footsore as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded.” Those are Frederick Buechner’s words, looking back at the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.
It’s such an odd story. I commiserate with the disciples who, according to the gospel writer, “kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” We might think that they would have come down from that mountain bubbling over with excitement. “Guess what we saw!” “You should have been there!” “It was amazing!” But, they kept silent.
When I was in seminary, a professor said, “Many people have had an experience of the Divine. But they are hesitant to speak of it.” She invited us to think about those experiences that we had had. I read the same thing in a book recently. But we don’t talk about them. They remain hidden.
I wonder if those disciples didn’t say to themselves, and maybe each other, “We can’t tell anyone about this. They’ll think we’re nuts!” Who would expect businessmen to have a mystical experience? Is it any different today? Who wants to be labeled crazy? And we know there are enough “crazies” in our world, in our own society. There are people who claim that God has spoken to them, that they have heard God’s voice and know exactly what God wants. We know the painful consequences. People are quick to proclaim God’s will and God’s judgment. Oftentimes personal fears and prejudices are given God’s stamp of approval.
Add to that our discomfort with what we can’t explain. The Reformed tradition is not known for having mystics. The emphasis is on logic, good theology, and careful attention to the Biblical witness. It is designed to prevent the harmful “I speak for God” rhetoric that leads people to destructive theology – and sometimes destructive behavior. How many cults have had people willing to follow leaders even to death because they have been convinced that those leaders were speaking God’s word?
I was thinking how hard I find it to preach on the Transfiguration – because it can’t be explained! Now, that doesn’t mean that people, good scholars, haven’t tried to explain it. Some speak of it as a post-resurrection appearance that got told in the context of Jesus’ life. So, the resurrected Jesus could have this appearance – but not the human being that trod the dusty roads!
I don’t think that works. Maybe we’re supposed to let the mystery remain – to let this story challenge our desire to have an answer, to have an explanation for everything so that we can make sense of it. It is one of those stories to remind us that God is God. Whatever we understand of God is only partial at best. We cannot and should not expect that we would be able to explain everything about what God desires and who God is.
Back to those experiences of God. Perhaps we need the wisdom demonstrated by the disciples of not saying anything – at first. This story wasn’t shared until they had the time to place it in a context. They could begin to understand it more fully after they had journeyed to the cross and experienced the good news of the resurrection. Our experiences of God need to be placed in the context of the witness of scripture and the church throughout the ages. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that they did share the story. Its impact became evident as the community of faith heard it and embraced it. Perhaps the community helped shape the way in which the story was remembered and told. As the church, this story challenges us to make room for sharing our stories and reflecting together on the mystery of God revealed to us.
Beuchner went on to say, “Even with us something like that happens once in a while [seeing God in the midst of the human.] The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”
There are times when we are transported to our own mountaintops, when we are in awe of the beauty of God’s world and God’s presence. We are given a glimpse of God’s glory in the midst of this world. We see the wonder and the awe of God’s incarnate presence, of God’s willingness to be wrapped up in the ordinary. It is as if the veil is pulled back for a moment – and we see not dimly, but more fully the promise of God’s indwelling presence.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink wrote, “Transfiguration is living by a vision: standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us. In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self-worship or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst – on the way to the cross.”
The disciples may not have spoken about what they had seen and heard, yet, perhaps it gave them some glimpse of the reality that God was present in Jesus’ life in a way that they didn’t fully understand. It is a reminder that the life of faith does not come with a clearly mapped route. It does not come with all the answers. It is a journey to a destination that can be glimpsed, but is not fully known. The story of the transfiguration is in the middle of the gospel. It marks a turning point. Jesus’ ministry begins to lead him to the cross. His face is set toward Jerusalem. His disciples do not understand – yet they followed. They made it almost all the way, until fear won the battle and they faltered.
God chooses to be known to us. God chooses to be involved in our lives and in our world. And sometimes that involvement challenges, even shatters, our expectations and our assumptions. The glimpses we have of God are not to endow us with special powers or privilege that mean we can dictate to the world. On the contrary, they might better serve to remind us that God is God and we are not, and that God is beyond our full knowing or our full explaining. There should always be in the life of faith and in the life of the body of Christ room to be surprised and awed by the ways that Gods transforming presence is revealed in ways we would not expect, in places we would assume God is absent, or through people we have discounted – even our very selves. I love Wink’s words. “Standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us. In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self-worship or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us.”
We journey toward a vision, a vision that emerges as we consider the witness of all who have gone before us, beside us, and as we acknowledge our own experiences. At the same time we allow for the vision to become clearer with time. We allow for God to intervene in ways that correct the journey that we’re on, sending us on a new road. That happens as we cultivate the practices that open us to God’s presence – practices of prayer and study, engagement in the mission of God’s people, and connection with others who are on the journey. And, in all of that we need to allow for mystery, wonder, and awe that God is God.