Jesus: A Glimpse of God

Matthew 17:1-9


I am not ready for Lent. And I did not want to leave Epiphany this year. In fact, as far as I’m concerned Lent is coming far too early this year. So I found myself dragging my feet writing this sermon. Fleming Rutledge said that on this Sunday “the church turns away from the light of Epiphany into the shadows of the Cross.” I find myself like Peter: wanting to build and stay where the light is. But Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem–not to overthrow the Roman rulers and rule an independent Israel. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die. In Matthew 16 right after Peter’s confession of faith and right before today’s passage, Jesus predicted his suffering, death and resurrection. The Transfiguration is the first step toward the Cross. Even with Jesus’ prophecies and warnings, the disciples weren’t ready for the trip to Jerusalem. And most of the time, no matter how much we prepare, we are not ready for the long shadows of Lent. Which is the reason for the Transfiguration. This really is a pivotal Sunday. This is the last Sunday of Epiphany, but we are already looking to Ash Wednesday, just as the glorified Jesus is already looking toward Jerusalem.


But before we begin the long journey to Jerusalem, we get a glimpse of who it is who is calling us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. Jesus leads the disciples up to the top of the mountain. To a place where humans and gods met. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, mountain tops are places to encounter the divine. The Celts called these thin places: places where this world and the spiritual world intertwine, and it is easy to step from one world into the other. Jesus takes the disciples to this thin place. And there his divinity is revealed: “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” God’s glory, the same glory that filled the tabernacle in the wilderness and then Solomon’s temple, emanates from Jesus. Then two other men who met God on mountain tops appear: Moses and Elijah. We read of one of Moses’ mountain top encounters with God in today’s reading from Hebrew Scripture. Light and clouds shroud Mt. Sinai as Moses goes up to receive God’s commands. Elijah met God in sheer silence on a mountain. Now time is put aside as the lawgiver and the prophet of prophets meet with the Son of God on another mountain. It’s a scene we can’t quite imagine or get our minds around. We’re not supposed to, just as the disciples did not. As usual it is Peter who opens his big mouth before he’s really thought about what he’s saying. He wants to build booths for all three and stay on the mountain for awhile. We all do. None of us likes to move on from the glory of God when faith is easy and God’s presence is so evident in our lives. But move on they have to do as do we.


As clouds envelope the mountain top God once again approves of what Jesus is doing: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The same voice that approved of his baptism now approves of his obedience to go to Jerusalem. God tells the three disciples to listen to him. In the powerful presence of God in light, clouds, and hearing his voice, the disciples fall to the ground. In her sermon on the Transfiguration, Madeline L’Engle said:


The story of the Mount of Transfiguration is also strong stuff, not to be understood in the language of provable fact. Jesus, like Elijah, stands “upon the mount before the Lord.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and extraordinary, incomprehensible things came to pass. Jesus’ clothing became shining, and Elijah himself appeared to Jesus in the brilliance, and Moses came, too, and they talked together, the three of them, breaking ordinary chronology into a million fragments. And then a cloud overshadowed them, as it overshadowed Moses on the mount, and the voice of God shouted out of the cloud.


Strong stuff. Mythic stuff. That stuff which makes life worth living, which lies on the other side of provable fact. How can we be Christians without understanding this? The incarnation itself bursts out of the bounds of reason. That the power which created all of the galaxies, all of the stars in all of their courses, should willingly limit that power in order to be one of us, and all for love of us, cannot be understood in terms of laboratory proof, but only of love. And it is that love which calls us to move beyond the limited world of fact and into the glorious world of love itself. Of Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah, both of whom had themselves stood on the mount and been illuminated by God’s glory. When Moses went down from the mountain his face was so brilliant that people could not bear to look on him, and he had to cover his face in order not to blind them.


The brilliance of God is indeed blinding, and we need myth, story, to help us bear the light.


At the Transfiguration we see the incarnation through divine eyes. This is what God sees. We can only catch a glimpse because of the brightness. At the same time the Transfiguration is full of revelation and shrouded in mystery. But it is this mysterious light and glory that will see us through the long days of Lent as we travel in the shadow of the cross. In her sermon, Madeline continues on why we have a hard time understanding Jesus:


Jesus was not a westerner and He did not have a western mind, which is perhaps why He is so frequently misunderstood by the western mind today. His first miracle was a lavish turning of a large quantity of water into very fine wine at a wedding feast where the guests had already had a lot to drink. He was not interested in the righteous and morally upright people whom He saw to be hard of heart and judgmental, but in those who knew they were sinners and who came to Him for healing. His birth was heralded by angels, visited by adoring shepherds, and resulted in the slaughter of all Jewish infants under the age of two.


If Jesus was a threat to Herod two thousand years ago, He is still a threat today because He demands that we see ourselves as we really are, that we drop our self-protective devices, that we become willing to live the abundant life He calls us to live. We retaliate by trying to turn Him into a wimp who has come to protect us from an angry father who wants us punished, and the retaliation hasn’t worked, and we’re left even more frightened and even more grasping and even more judgmental.


And that is what Lent is about: seeing who we really are and letting Christ lead us into that abundant life that is full of the love of God. It is a season of repentance and self-examination. One thing the Transfiguration makes clear is that we are not God. But as we walk the days of Lent, seeing our humanness good and bad, we have the light of the Transfiguration to remind us of who our God is. And it helps us make it to Easter when not even death can hold onto the light that has come into the world.


But we have three more days before Lent begins, and during this time we can dwell and meditate on the mysterious light of God in our lives and world. This is the light that will sustain us through Lent until Easter.


The picture is from the St. John’s Bible.