Sunday, March 2, 2014
Last Sunday after Epiphany: the Tranfiguration
St. Matthew 17:1-9
He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them.
In the sermon last Sunday, I spoke of how grace not only reveals God’s goodwill towards us but also changes us so that we might love with a divine love and be as God is. The verse which ended last week’s Gospel lesson--“be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”--is less a command than a description of what will happen to us and to humanity as we become more open to this transforming grace of God. It might be justly asked what does it mean to be open to the grace of God? Just it merely mean being especially religious or spiritual? The typical attitude towards grace as well as many things in life is that if I want something I am going to have to earn it and work for it. That is a fine model for the ego, but it fails to account for the way in which God is the source, continuance and final end of our existent. The lessons this morning indicate the path which we must take to receive this transforming grace.
The lessons all relate to the transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain. Transfiguration is a word used to describe the change in the appearance of Jesus at this event. Coming at the end of Epiphany season, there is a hint of our Lord’s divine nature as well as his perfect human nature in this transfiguration. The Old Testament lesson shows Moses ascending a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments on the two tables of stone. The mountain is full of clouds and fire as Moses encounters the glory of the Lord. In the Epistle, we have a first-hand account of the transfiguration with the voice heard from heaven. Finally, in the Gospel lesson, our Lord takes three chosen disciples up to a mountain where the glory of his perfect human nature is revealed. Moses and Elijah appear with our Lord; Moses represents the law while Elijah represents the prophets; together they imply the unity that is between the New Testament and the Old Testament.
A common element in these lessons is clouds. The cloud covers Mount Sinai as Moses enters the glory of the Lord. The cloud interrupts Peter’s misguided suggestion to build tabernacles. But clouds are also a motif in Scripture generally. They often symbolize God’s presence. For example, the cloud and fiery pillar that accompany the Hebrews in their journey from Egypt to the promised land. Consider too the clouds into which our Lord ascends forty days after Easter, as he enters the very presence of God.
We have a word for clouds into which we enter: fog. Fog probably makes us think of lack of visibility. It can be disconcerting and scary driving in fog because of the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Scripture uses clouds to symbolize God’s presence; we think of clouds as obscuring and limiting vision. These two ways of understanding clouds are not as different as they might at first appear. To enter God’s presence, to see his glory is to accept a degree of uncertainty, a degree of blindness.
Allow me to explain. We naturally want to know what our future looks like. We would like to have some certainty about employment, money, the welfare of our children and other loved ones. In order to secure this certainty we work very hard to plan and protect that which we hold dearest. We worry whether our children will ever sort out their lives. We worry that family members will become gravely ill. So often all this planning and anxiety comes to nothing, in large part because we anticipate events over which we have no control. "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." We make our plans but are never truly ready for the tempest of time and decay.
There is an alternative to this constant fretting over the future, and it is called faith. Faith is accepting our limited ability to see into the future or change it and trusting that God will order every part of our lives. This necessarily involves surrendering our plans and anxiety. We have to surrender our children to the grace of God which can preserve them through every trial and trouble of this life. We have to surrender our loved ones to God knowing that their ultimate security and health can only be found in God. To accept this faith, to surrender in this way is to enter into a cloud. It is not a cloud of confusion and chaos, but the cloud of God’s sure mercies.
Consider the Hebrews who came out of slavery in Egypt. They had visions of what the free life would look like, but when these images did not immediately materialize they actually told Moses they wanted to return to slavery in Egypt. The comforts of prison life were more alluring than the uncertainty of wandering in the desert on the way to an unknown, unseen promised land. Moses enters into the clouds of faith and hears these staggering words of God: “I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.” For the Hebrews the alternatives were these: the comforts of a known prison or the uncertainty of faith in God’s plan for them as a people.
There is a similar faith in the account of our Lord’s transfiguration. The passage about our Lord’s transfiguration is preceded by Peter’s great confession. Jesus questions his disciples, who do you say that I am? To which Peter answers, thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. Now Christ is simply the Greek word for Messiah, and for a Jew to confess someone as messiah would mean that he would very much anticipate the world to change in a dramatic and definitive way. The hope of many first century Jews was for the Romans to end their occupation of Israel. For the pious, the messiah would be the one to win this independence. But for Peter and the disciples no such victory is given. Instead, they witness Jesus transfigured and then as they come down the mountain, in the verses following our lesson, they are told that “The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men: And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again.” This was not exactly what they were expecting of their messiah. Matthew writes, And they were exceeding sorry. The disciples are soon going to have to enter the uncertainty of Good Friday. They will enter the cloud that is said to have covered the sky the three hours our Lord was nailed on the cross.
My friends, we have been called to come up the mountain, to enter the cloud of faith and uncertainty. It is the uncertainty of the wandering through the desert on the way to a promised land. It is the uncertainty of the loneliness and desolation of the cross on the way to the empty tomb. If we are prepared to surrender the images of what we want our lives to be like or what we think they should be like, then we will open ourselves up to receiving God’s grace, because in surrender, we become open to love, joy and peace. After all, if you are so busy pining after the comforts of prison life, a life that you think is certain and secure, there will be no energy or openness for love or joy or peace. Prison life is not about love but about self-preservation. Prison life is not about joy but about accumulating as many moments of fleeting happiness as possible. Prison life is not about peace but about trying to forget that you have resigned yourself to bondage. My friends, in the words of St. Paul, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).