Psalm 2; Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21
Lent begins this Wednesday – Ash Wednesday - a hinge between Epiphany and Lent, between a season of light and a season of darkness. The word Lent refers to the lengthening of days that happens during this season that bridges winter and spring. But Christians think of Lent as a period of darkness, a time to attend to life’s dark side. Before Ash Wednesday is Transfiguration Sunday. The transfiguration is about experiencing transformation and the loving, awe-inspiring God who transforms. It is also about the light in Jesus’s face and clothing, against the backdrop of a bright cloud - the dazzling darkness of God. Transfiguration creates light but occurs in darkness.
In this way the story mirrors the pattern of our lives, which also alternates between light and darkness. Most of us have seasons where things go pretty smoothly and other seasons where darkness predominates. Even the outer world has its seasons of light and darkness – something we are very aware of right now. We are usually told to shun darkness: don’t dwell on the negative; get out of your depression as soon as you can; focus on the positive. But depth psychology knows that darkness has a lot to teach us about what really matters. So Lent asks us each year, “What is deep in your heart?”
The transfiguration occurs at a difficult moment in Jesus’ story. He turns to Jerusalem, the center of conflict and power. Jesus promised the Reign of God but threatened to confront Jerusalem right now. Accompanying Jesus won’t be as safe from now on. Jesus knew this. So he took his closest disciples up a mountain, where they came into God’s presence; their hearts and souls were opened to see what their eyes could barely believe.
The transfiguration reminds the church and God’s people of the hope and glory of resurrection as we experience the rest of life–crucifixion, persecution, trials, tribulations, suffering, doubts, and lack of hope. The transfiguration offers to bolster our spirit during times that try our souls and our patience. When in the depths of hell, the transfiguration transports us to the heights of heaven. Does that sound good to you?
Transfiguration is a gift in discouraging times. But does it help? It’s just a story about something that could never happen in real life. How is that supposed to help us? In the epistle, Peter goes to great pains to answer that question. The Transfiguration served Peter as a lamp to help him get through all the discouragement on the way to the morning star rising. It didn’t keep him from making mistakes. He still abandoned Jesus in his moment of greatest need. But it kept him going. That’s the choice: we can keep the lamps out of our darkness; or we can let them in and follow the light as best we can.
Three of the four Gospel writers included this scene to help tell the story of what it was about Jesus that had gotten “under their skin” and deep in their heart. At the seeing level it serves as an icon that reveals the holiness of Jesus - a window to the holiness in each of us. At the hearing level, it invites us to listen to what is deepest in our hearts.
Implicit in both seeing and hearing are choices. The transfiguration story and Lent offer choices about what we see and hear. Which images will we dwell on and make authoritative in our lives? Which voices will inform our lives? Every choice is a fork in the road. Though each one has a different level of complexity, in each one we can see the choice between the road of fear and the road of love. Lent is a time to practice decision making. When we face the darkness of Lent we get better at noticing the difference.
Notice that it wasn’t Aaron the Priest – the official interpreter of the law – that appeared with Jesus. And it wasn’t David the King who defended the state that appeared with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t appear with symbols of royalty or ritualism. He appears with Moses, who liberated the people from oppression, and Elijah, whom King Ahab called “that troubler of Israel.” The story confronts us with a choice about what kind of religion we will follow – religion that only finds comfort in the status quo or religion that dares to transform society by caring for those excluded by it. In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus does not rebuke Peter for seeking permanence on the mountain top. He simply invites Peter and the others down the mountain to face an epileptic boy whose need for healing tested the new clarity they’d gained.
Peter wanted to cling to the lamp. Will we cling to lamps we get along the way? Or will we go down the mountain and face the threatening situations we find there? It’s tempting to stay on the mountain. There’s so much comfort when the future really feels possible, when, in fact, the future feels present. But they’re just glimpses. And to settle for them is to miss the true stuff of life – the struggle for the Reign of God. It’s so tempting to grab the lamps that we’re given along the way as a comforting light and stop struggling to give birth to God’s reign
What will we listen to? Will we listen to God’s voice that leads to life, though it questions how we see, or will we listen to voices that lead to death because they sound safe? The voice from heaven says, “Listen to him.” This is the voice that I, God, want you to listen to. When all the voices of life compete for your attention, voices of anxiety, voices of despair, voices of those who disparage you, voices of retaliation, of confusion, voices of swagger, voices that say, “This is how we’ve always done it,” or voices that say, “You can’t do that!” or voices that say, “Whatever you are about to do, you have to do it like this.” You hear all these voices, paralyzing you into not being your true self, not being a compassionate, creative, unique, loving member of the human family. God says, “Listen to my voice speaking through Jesus. Listen to him.”
Will we believe the vision even though we only glimpse it occasionally? Or will we question it against what we see most of the time? On the mountaintop the disciples had a vision; in that vision they remembered the stories of Moses and Elijah, and they saw who Jesus really was – the Son of God; the very Presence of God in Divine Form; glorious; bright; a dazzling shining light; like an angel. Yesterday during the Vestry retreat Dolores spoke to us about the importance of remembering people who did courageous things in the past in order to strengthen us to face the challenges of our day. That’s what Jesus helped the disciples do. The gospel goes on to say, “As they came down the mountain, Jesus ordered them to tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” This is a vision, not history. This isn’t a historical episode. It’s a vision where people saw clearly. Suddenly, it was all gone. And there was Jesus.
Visions are rare moments, when there is no fog, no haze, no obstructions; where you see the truth about God and Jesus Christ clearly. Visions are moments of clarity where you know something is true. They are neither hallucinations nor fantasies. Hallucinations usually happen to unstable people who are going through a time of instability in their lives. Fantasies occur when you cannot deal with the real world, and so you create an imaginary, world as an escape.
God permits us from time to time to see through to the heart of the matter. God is the reality behind the icon. The challenge to us is to be committed enough and bold enough to keep our eyes open and to dare to look, to pass through the gate of the visible to the mystery of the invisible, and then to accept responsibility for everything we see.
I want to finish by inviting you to do a visualization. Imagine you are on the Mount of transfiguration. You are in awe because you saw Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. The cloud of God’s glory has come over you. The words of the heavenly voice still ring in your ears: “This is my Son, whom I love and with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
What is your response? Are you willing to listen to Jesus?
Now, imagine that the Spirit has led you to a peaceful place. You’re alone. You quiet yourself. You clear your mind of the usual mental clutter. You remain quiet in order to hear from God. You pray something like: “God, you said to listen to your beloved son Jesus. I am ready to listen. What does Jesus want to say to me?” Remain quiet and listen to Jesus.
Can you sense what Jesus is saying to you?
If what he said is significant and encouraging to you; if you feel good and right about it, then let it soak in. Imagine how your life would be different if you took time to be still and listen to Jesus. Do you feel good about that? Ask God: “Is that your vision for me – a life transformed by listening to Jesus?” Ask yourself, is that what I want for myself? copyright - George Hartwell, 2002 Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2002- please acknowledge author if citing these resources
I encourage you to practice that image regularly during Lent. Let yourself be loved by God, and see what happens in your life.