Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Transfiguration: Light in the Darkness

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9:

One of the conversations that are routinely held amongst clergy, although not really shared amongst those outside, is the difficulty we encounter in talking about the same stories over and over again, especially for those stories that occur every year like Christmas and Easter, and we wonder how we are going to find something new to say about them.  And then there are others, like the story of the transfiguration, a story which we encounter every year on the last Sunday before the season of Lent begins, first with the party we know as Mardi Gras and then Ash Wednesday, that cause us the same anxiety, although as we can tell we don’t get the same turn out for this story as we do at Easter and Christmas, but that doesn’t make it easier to come up with something new to say.  And I know your hearts are breaking for me, complaining about the preparation I have to do when I only work one day a week.

But in addition to today’s story, today is also the one year anniversary of the death of my 9-year-old nephew Wyatt.  In some ways it seems like so much longer than a year and in some ways it seems so much shorter than a year.  Some of you remember that time, and we thank you for your help getting us through it, and for those who weren’t here yet, Wyatt went into the emergency room with a severe headache and, according to his doctors, in a perfect storm of problems, died a week later when a blood clot in his brain caused swelling in his brain that couldn’t be controlled, taking his life.  Yet, there is a link to that tragedy and the story of Jesus’ transfiguration as well as Paul’s statement which today comes from his second letter to the Corinthians.

The “six days later” that begins today’s gospel passage refers to Jesus asking the disciples who people say that he is, and they say that some say John the Baptist and some say Elijah, but then Jesus says, and this is a question directed not just to the disciples, but also to us, “But who do you say that I am?”  Who do you say that I am?  It’s not enough to hear what others say, it’s not enough for others to make a proclamation of faith, to say who Jesus is not just for others but more importantly for us.  And so Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah.  This is a truly remarkable moment in the story of Jesus because it is the first time in which the disciples make a proclamation of faith.  We have been told that the demons know who Jesus is, but until this point no human has made this proclamation, and then we are quickly shown that although Peter has made the statement that he still doesn’t really understand.  Because immediately after this Jesus begins telling the disciples about what is to happen, that Jesus must suffer, be rejected, be killed and then be raised again after three days.  And when he says this, Peter, who can’t help himself, rebukes Jesus and Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!”  Then he says that whoever wants to be a follower, must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow.  That is what sets up this moment on the mountain.

Normally when we talk about those moments when we have had a God experience, we talk about there being thin spots on the world, where the ordinary and the divine are closer than normal.  We also normally talk about those as being mountaintop experiences, for several reasons.  The first is that because in scripture people go to mountains in order to talk with God, or they experience God when they are on a mountain; think of Moses.  The Temple was also constructed on the highest point in the city and then was built even higher and was called the Temple Mount.  That is not just some word that was applied to them.  The second reason is because often when people were experiencing God, experiencing one of those thin spots, it is because they had stepped outside of their normal life.  They were either intentionally leaving the ordinary to find God, or they had left the ordinary for some other reason and in doing so opened themselves up to experience God.

That is certainly what is happening in the story of the transfiguration, at least for Peter, James and John who are called out by Jesus, to come to the mountain, although they have no idea what they are getting themselves into.  When they get to the top of the mountain, Jesus was transfigured before them and his clothing becomes dazzling white.  We don’t really know what Jesus looks like when he is transfigured except that something happens that makes him very different than what the disciples are used to and make them understand Jesus in a very different way, and then his clothing becomes such a bright white, that was not possible even using oxiclean, it’s that bright light overcoming things.  And then Moses and Elijah appear along with Jesus.  Moses representing the great law giver of Israel, and of course he received the laws on a mountaintop, and Elijah is the great prophet who was believed to be the one who would come before the Messiah came.  But it’s not just that Moses and Elijah appear, thus saying that Jesus is not only greater than them, but that they go away, leaving Jesus as the Messiah, behind.

Then Peter, once again not being able to control himself, although this time we are at least told that he is terrified by what he has seen, although he doesn’t know what to say, but does that stop him?  Of course not, because he’s Peter.  And then finally, a cloud descends upon them and they hear a voice from the cloud saying “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!”  This harkens back to what God said to Jesus at his baptism, and is just one more sign to indicate what is going on here, as well as one more step as to who Jesus truly is, as well as the added piece that they, we, are to listen to him.  After they come down the mountain, Jesus again gives a passion prediction, that is tells them about his coming arrest, suffering, death and resurrection and he begins making his way towards Jerusalem and the fulfillment of that prophecy.  Although it should be noted that calling this passion predictions is perhaps incorrect, because all of them also talk about the resurrection.  It’s not just about his suffering and death, but what will follow.

I think there had to be a level of satisfaction and assurance for Peter and James and John in what they saw on that mountain, the fact that they were right, that they weren’t wasting their time in following Jesus when they might have been out doing other things, including looking for the Messiah.  There was assurance, certainly on Peter’s part, that his declaration of faith was correct; it was not made in vain or from a total misunderstanding.  He did misunderstand who and what the Messiah was supposed to be, but at least he had enough faith to make the claim even though he didn’t understand.  And perhaps that’s what mountaintop experiences are supposed to do, that they are supposed to give us a sense of assurance, a sense of satisfaction, a sense of something to hold onto when the mountain seems to be crashing around us and everything is falling apart.  That those thin spots give us that brief momentary glimpse into something else, even if it is just a feeling, to let us know that our declaration of faith was not made in vain.  And yet, we don’t live on the mountain.  Jesus comes down from the mountain.  The disciples come down from the mountain.  We come down from the mountain and we have to live in the realities of life.  The mountains are great, but the fact is that we live in the valleys.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the story of the transfiguration is told the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season, a time of repentance and preparation, a time of sorrow and contrition, a time of atonement and anticipation, and a time darkness and despair, especially in that last week of Jesus life.  That we move from the high of the mountaintop, to the depths of the tomb, to the celebration of Easter morning. From the lightness of the Transfiguration to the darkness of Lent again to the lightness of Easter.  That all of these things are linked together.  That we cannot separate the call to discipleship from the cross, and we cannot separate the cross from suffering, and we cannot separate the suffering from death, and we cannot separate death from the celebration of Easter.  All these things are linked.  They are one. But, unlike the disciples, we approach the base of the mountain and the procession to Jerusalem knowing what the story will bring.  We know already about the arrest and the cross, but you know what?  We also know about Easter.  That even in the midst of the darkness and the despair that we know that hope is present because Easter is present.

But the question we might still ask is if God is only present for us on the mountaintop?  Is that the only place we can find assurance?  Is that the only place we can find the thin spots?  Or, is God present for us and can we have mountaintop experiences even in the valleys where we live, perhaps even in the valley of the shadow of death?

In his letters, Paul certainly has something to say about suffering, especially in 2 Corinthians where is refuting arguments being made another group who are often referred to as the “super apostles” who are building themselves up and saying how great they, and so Paul emphasizes the suffering that he has undergone on behalf of the gospel, and says that it might appear to the super apostles that his gospel is veiled, but that’s because he is not using it in order to build himself up, nor he is arguing that by becoming a disciple, by proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah , that all of our suffering goes away. Which appears to be one of their arguments that when we accept Christ that all we receive is blessings, that all the bad things stop happening and only good things will happen to us.

If that is really the case then I’m guessing that none of us are really true disciples, because I’m willing to bet that all of us have had bad things happen to us, things we would have preferred not to have happen, and what Paul says is that to think as the others did totally misses the point of Jesus, just as the disciples are missing it.  Jesus humbled himself and suffered, and because of that his light shined out of the darkness.  As I have said many times, you don’t need light in the light, you need it in the darkness and so Jesus brings light to the world, he is the light to the world, not because things are going well, not because by accepting him as Lord makes everything go away, but because there is darkness in the world, and even though we have been freed from slavery to sin and death, yet we still walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

On the night before Wyatt died, we were told by the doctors that there was nothing that they could do, that the damage to his brain was too severe and that it was just a waiting game as his various systems began to shut down.  We gathered around his bed that night and began to pray, to ask for God’s help, to let Wyatt know that it was okay to let go, that while we would miss him, we would be okay, and we asked for God’s strength for us as we walked through the next few days.  Now I have to be honest and say that there have been plenty of times when I have doubted.  There have been times in which I have felt distant from God, times in which I have felt that God wasn’t even present, even times when I have wondered if there was a God at all, but in that moment with Wyatt, I don’t think I have ever been more sure of my faith, more sure of the promise of eternal life and more sure that God was present, even in the midst of despair and pain.

I don’t know that I actually experienced God in the hospital room with Wyatt the way I have perhaps experienced God at other times, when I could say, “wow, that was a God moment,” but I know that God was there.  That God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, not only because scripture tells us that, but because I’ve experienced it.  That my mountaintop experience, my moment of assurance and of faith, was not on a mountaintop at all, but instead in the valley, in one of the darkest moments of my life, in one of those times that I would not ask to have happen even to my worst enemy.  And yet there was God, there was Jesus, the light shining in the darkness.  The veil of death might have been pulled over Wyatt and the family, but it was not pulled over our faith, and I know that Marianna feels that without her faith, without knowing that God the father knows what it is like to lose a son, without knowing that God has been present for her that she would not have been able to get through the past year, and I know that is true for so many of you as well.

That’s not to knock mountaintop experiences.  They are important.  They are necessary.  We need to get outside of our normal lives, outside of our comfort zones, outside of ourselves, sometimes, in order to encounter God in unique and unexpected ways, to have those thrilling moments of discovery and of faith, because sometimes those are the things that help us to make it through the dark moments, that give us the faith to keep going in the face of everything that tells us otherwise.  I think it is the thing that gave the disciples that courage.  But let us not forget that it is not just the mountaintops where we touch God and where God touches us.  Sometimes it happens in the valleys as well, and one of those valleys in the season of Lent, a time of repentance and a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter morning.  That we are not abandoned, that God has not left, that God is present for us in the valleys of our lives just as much as on the mountain, and perhaps even more so, because Jesus is the light that shines on the brightest of days, but Jesus is also the light that shines in the darkness, in our darkness, that Jesus is present for us and that Jesus has come to transform, to transfigure our lives, to let us know that God is present.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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