I wish I could pretend that each Sunday I preach I climb into the pulpit with an equal measure of certainty about my insight into scripture and my convictions about what I have found there, but the truth is I don’t. There are simply weeks when the mixture of life, time and my own faith — which is being worked out day by day, just like yours — don’t feel quite up to the task. This, as you might gather, is one of those weeks.
“The Transfiguration is a strange story — the mountain, the light, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the utterly confounded disciples, the voice of God. How do we make sense of this supernatural event? What does the Transfiguration of our Lord have to do with us? I confess that I couldn’t figure it out. So, when serving in the parish, I scheduled Youth Sunday on Transfiguration Sunday, thereby successfully avoiding preaching about it for years.” (1)
Gee, thanks. We’re about five kids short and six years shy of being able to pull that off, but a good suggestion nonetheless. Bishop Eaton goes on, however, to reflect on the relationship between what happens on the mountaintop and what follows afterwards. On the mountain, Jesus shines with the glory of God. Down below, Jesus makes his way to the cross. The two are inseparable, the glory of God and the cross.
We’ve been singing “glory to God” as the canticle of praise at the beginning of worship for the last three months, since the beginning of Advent. The gloria comes, as the note in the margin of your bulletin indicates, from the story in the gospel of Luke of the arrival of the angels at the scene of Christ’s birth who sing, “glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom God favors” (Lk. 2:14). But Matthew’s gospel, which we’re reading throughout this year, the angels appear at night not in the fields, but in a dream, as Jesus’ father Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him, “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Mt. 1:23).
Immediately after that story, we learn that a star has appeared in the sky, a pinprick of light in the dark, leading wise men from distant nations to the place where Jesus was born. This season of Epiphany began with the glory of God shining brightly in the night, and just a hint of the cross as well. The God who is with us in Christ Jesus is not just with us, but is a light to the nations. Something small, something provincial and tribal, has to die to make room for the glory of God who came into the world for the sake of the whole world, and not just the people and places we know and care for.
Then Jesus met John at the river Jordan, where he was baptized by a man who could not believe that his Lord would consent to be blessed by someone as human as that wilderness prophet. “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, “and do you come to me?” Of course, that’s exactly what Jesus, the Immanuel, does. God comes to us. God is with us. We sang “glory to God” on that day, the Baptism of Our Lord, to acknowledge the grace of that event, that God comes to us, even when we think it ought to be the other way around. And something had to die in that river, under those waters, namely John’s conviction (and ours) that the righteousness of God is only for the righteous.
As we continued to journey through the season of Epiphany, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Galilee, where he would meet and call his disciples. The gospel of Matthew quotes a bit of the prophet Isaiah here,
“On the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Mt. 4:15-16).
The glory of God called the disciples — Peter and Andrew, James and John — away from work they knew and people they loved to follow Jesus on the path to a confrontation with power that would lead to a very public and very painful death. The glory of God and the cross.
Then we settled into the real meat of this season of Epiphany as Jesus came to the mountain again, this time to deliver the Sermon on the Mount. Here the glory of God was made manifest as Jesus, doing his best impersonation of Moses, delivered a new law from the mountaintop in the form of the Beatitudes. Blessed are just about everyone you’d think was far from blessed, theirs is the kingdom of God. The glory of God shining through in a reversal of fortune that meant death to all our expectations about who and what is valued in the commonwealth of God.
As I’ve just sketched out, so far this year we’ve been traveling with Jesus pretty sequentially through the gospel of Matthew, accompanying the disciples as they gradually come to understand that God really is with us in the person of Jesus, who they come to know as the Christ. Today, however, the lectionary rips us out of that continuity and shows us a scene close to the end, after the time for teaching parables and healing miracles has ended and Jesus prepares to die.
As I stand here in the pulpit, having already confessed to you that I’m not always ready to be here, that I’m not always ready to preach, that my own faith is fragile and bends under the weight of so much expectation, I discover that this may be exactly how the disciples are feeling as well.
By this point in the story Peter has already confessed that Jesus is the Christ, but almost immediately thereafter he’s been rebuked by Jesus who says to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mt. 16:23). Why? Because Peter had the temerity to confront Jesus about his public profession that he would be killed by the authorities, but would rise on the third day. It’s all becoming a little too real, the cost of discipleship a little too high, as Jesus declares, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24).
Six days later, six days after Jesus has made it clear that God’s glory is going to be revealed most clearly in his death, Jesus returns to the mountain. On those heights those who follow Jesus see him with Moses and Elijah, shining with the glory of God, and they just want to stop, to freeze this moment and live in it forever.
Episcopal priest and educator Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz, founder of the Episcopal School of Los Angeles, writes,
“The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe.” (2)
And I realize that this is exactly what has me afraid to preach sometimes, that I’m trying to make for God a monument of words, that I’m trying to keep God safe with stories and explanations that will make it easier for you to bring God up in the places where you work and mix with this world that is always denying that glory has anything to do with death.
But it does. Glory has everything to do with death. Not just the little deaths, the practice deaths, we’ve watched along the way: the death of our prejudices, the death of our insecurities, the death of our certainties, the death of our expectations. But big death, the one with the capital D.
Jesus’ death is the sign of God’s ultimate solidarity with the suffering of creation. Jesus’ death is the proof that God is not distant, but is with us.
This morning I am praying for a friend who is with his family at his mother’s bedside in the ICU, keeping watch as she straddles the line between life and death. Many of us know the anxiety and even the terror of that vigil, but we also know by faith that God is present at the bedside with that family.
This morning I am praying with the family of Lois Valbracht, a family friend who died this week at the age of 98, whose father-in-law was pastor here at St. Luke’s for a quarter century, and whose husband was the pastor of my childhood church in Des Moines, Iowa. She herself — as a mother, a musician, a writer — shared a faith that inspired those who knew her right up to the very end. Many of us know from our own lives how grief at a moment like this can still be transfigured by gratitude at the way God is revealed in a life lived by faith.
This morning I am praying with you, some of you caring for parents whose fragile lives are in precarious places; some of you weighed down by the grief of a parent or a spouse or a child or a friend who died too soon; some of you living with illnesses in your own bodies, approaching your own deaths. The word of hope from the mountaintop is that God is not distant, but with you.
Life is full of makeshift pulpits, moments in a conversation when you are called to coalesce your faith into words that can carry the meaning of God’s glory in the face of death. Just like I do, I know that you sometimes struggle to find words to share the faith that is in you; faith that sometimes stumbles, as it did for Jesus’ own disciples who heard the voice declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” and who fell to the ground in fear.
At moments like that, at moments like this, what comfort there is in knowing that it is not we who have to make our way to God, but God who makes a way to us. As they trembled on the ground, overcome by awe and fear at the reality and the presence of God, Jesus came and touched them, saying “Get up and do not be afraid” (Mt. 17:7).
Patrick Wilson, a Presbyterian pastor in Williamsburg, Virginia writes,
“Some would say that God is much too much to be contained within the walls of a church. Of course they are right. Some would remind us that God is so great that neither the earth below not the heavens above can hold God. Certainly we must agree with them. God is certainly so great that God can never be contained in something as small as a crumb of bread or a sip of wine. We nod our heads, yes; but we must hasten to add: furthermore, God is so great, so majestic, so glorious, that God deigns come to us in a crumb of bread and a sip of wine, just as much of God as a hand can hold.” (3)
On the mountaintop God’s glory is revealed in a body preparing to die. A body like ours, transfigured by a love and a grace that will not abandon us, no matter where our life takes us, not even the cross. That is why we sing “glory to God” and “alleluia!”
(1) “From a Cross, a Dazzling Light,” by Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. The Lutheran, March, 2014.
(2) “Pastoral Perspective, Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
(3) “Homiletical Perspective, Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.