February 15, 2015
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
“Expectations and Enlightenment”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
My sisters and I grew up not knowing our grandparents, even though we all lived in the same town. For a variety of reasons, some of which I’ll never understand, we never stayed alone with our grandparents, we never stayed overnight with them, they never played with us. I say this not to elicit sympathy, but to set the stage.
Grandpa Anderson was 73 when I was born, and 50 years ago, 70 year olds were old. He started to become blind not long after my mother was born, so he never knew what we looked like. Despite his failing eyesight, he taught my mother to hunt, and there was always a hunting dog in the house while she was growing up. Whenever we visited him, he would put his hand on our heads and tell us how much we’d grown since the last time we saw him.
We, too, grew up with hunting dogs in the house, although they didn’t hunt as much as they did when mom was young. We grew up with puppies and kittens, and we didn’t think much about them. One day, when I was about 10, we took the last puppy we were to keep, and snuck it into the nursing home. For those who are too young to know, pets weren’t allowed into such places, nor did nursing care facilities have their own pets.
So mom went up to Grandpa’s bed, leaned over and said as loudly as she could, without raising suspicion, “Dad, we brought you something.” She put the six week or so old puppy on his chest and in an instant, all those years immediately faded from his face as he said, “A puppy!”
I share that historical bit to highlight the transformation of Grandpa’s face, and how ordinary, almost everyday-like such experiences can be. Our scripture passage also deals with a transformation, albeit a lot more than that of a grandfather’s face.
2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Thank you, Missi. I don’t know about any of you, but I really like this passage because of all the questions that come up. Like - how did the disciples know it was Elijah and Moses? It’s logical that Peter, James, and John had never seen photos of these two men from Israel’s history. And I suspect oil painting portraits of them didn’t hang in some “Saints of Renown” gallery in the Temple. One has to figure that they never had their faces plastered onto $5 bills or stamped onto a denarius. And one would likewise suspect they were not donning some “Hi My Name Is ______” sticky badges on their chests.
Of course, the easy answer to the question “How did they know?” is that the Holy Spirit revealed it to their hearts and minds, and that is no doubt part of the answer, too. But however it was they knew, Peter at least was enthused enough by the gathering as to want to bottle it and keep it going. Or he was so flustered that the only thing he could think was suggest tenting.
The actual Greek word is skena, which is the same word used in an important Old Testament translation for “tabernacle.” It’s also the root of the verb form John used in John 1:14 when he told us that the Word made flesh “tabernacled/tented” among us.
What’s interesting about that, is that - as opposed to a solid, immovable temple, those temporary tabernacles could be moved, much like the Israelites used to pack up and move the original Tabernacle—Ark of the Covenant and presence of Yahweh and all—to a new place. Maybe they could eventually cart the glory of those little tabernacles all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem and infuse it with the glory of the Christ, ushering in the kingdom of God once and for all.
Or maybe he just didn’t know what he was saying. (I am certain I would have been tongue-tied had I been there, not to mention brain-addled - well, more so than usual, in the presence of such an event.) At the very least, the disciples didn’t expect to see the famous law-giver or the greatest of the prophets to show up, much less both of them.
It was a poem by Steve Garnaas-Holmes over there at unfoldinglight.net that underscored the visual effect of this event.
“Sometimes you forget to think,
to analyze and compartmentalize,
and instead you just gaze,
and finally you really see,
see the glory hidden in the ordinary,
the light in the stone,
the angelic being
in the person next to you.
is not moral perfection
but seeing clearly,
with the delight and wonder
with which God sees,
seeing with eyes for holiness,
seeing the divine in people
and treating them so.
is not certitude
but seeing what is truly before you,
seeing the bud in the bud,
the child in the child,
even when you do not see.
is not understanding
but seeing the light
as if for the first time.
is not knowing
Theologian Frederick Buechner had this thought. “[In the Transfiguration] it was the holiness of [Jesus] shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it that they were almost blinded. Even with us something like that happens once in a while. 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.”
In one sense Buechner here is maybe rendering the actual Transfiguration of Jesus a bit too mundane, a bit too much like what could happen to us on most any given afternoon while taking a ride or walking down a sidewalk. But on the other hand, he may be on to something, and I would add to his musings this one: Even on all kinds of days when the disciples and Jesus were by no means having a mountaintop experience and when dazzling garments whiter than white were nowhere to be seen, even then when Jesus smiled kindly at lepers, looked pained to see a “sinner” being shunned by the Temple establishment, or looked winsome after telling a hurting prostitute to go in peace because her sins were forgiven, there was a sense in which the disciples were seeing the face of the divine transfigured in also those ordinary moments. They were seeing hints of glory. They were seeing true God of true God, vividly and surprisingly and, yes, dazzlingly on display in God’s One and Only Son, full of grace and truth.
My question is, “So what do you see, in this transformation of Jesus?” Maybe it’s the likeness to Jesus’ baptism: the cloud that appeared and covered them - like the Spirit of God descending like a dove“, “This is my Son, whom I love” like “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Perhaps it is the mention that they were all alone at the beginning of this morning’s passage, and then at the end, “they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.”
Perhaps there is nothing to this, but it’s curious that this incident is bracketed by the sense of being “alone.” Perhaps one idea that can be drawn from the Transfiguration is that it reveals how with Christ, we are never really alone—we are always in the company of a great host, a great cloud of witnesses.
It’s also interesting that with all the spectacular visual effect, God says, “listen.” Maybe it was as much a temptation for the disciples then, and for us disciples now, to rely on what we see, and less on what we can hear. Seeing is so easy - so immediate - but hearing, hearing takes more concentration, more attention.
When I came across Jan Richardson’s Painted Prayerbook Blog, I couldn’t resist adding her comment, because I took the first part of is as a challenge. But the majority of it is also very right on.
“It’s not a new message;” she said, “I’ll wager that the greater percentage of the sermons preached on this text will offer a variation on the theme of navigating the transition from the mountaintop to the flatlands. And yet we need to keep practicing that transition, to keep rehearsing the journey that moves us from being recipients of wonder to becoming people who, transformed and—shall we say it?—transfigured by what we have received, can then offer these wonders to a broken world.”
Maybe Jesus’ transformation is a foreshadowing of the transformation that we will all undergo when we pass from this life to eternal life. Maybe it’s far more than any of us can understand until the day when we begin our lives in Christ’s full presence. If nothing else, it is a reminder to look, without expectations, that our lights may be brighter and fuller than we ever thought possible.
Let us pray. Transformative and Enlightened God, we thank you for those moments that light our lives in ways that stay with us. Thank you for those lessons that come to us in the spectacular and the ordinary. Help us to not get nervous or uncomfortable in the silences you give us, that allow us to hear you in the fullness of your messages. Help us navigate the paths between our valleys and mountaintops, and let us not become weary of following you and doing your work. For the blessing of being your people, all of us say, Amen.