Sermon, Feb. 15 on Mark 9:2-9 (The Transfiguration)
The story of the Transfiguration is always the Gospel text on the last Sunday of Epiphany, before we transition to the season of Lent. I like to think about Epiphany as the season of “aha moments” in the gospels. We get story after story of situations where Jesus reveals to those around him that he is more than just a man. For Mark this is kind of confusing because while Jesus is revealing his identity to people through miracles and such, he’s also constantly telling people not to talk about who he really is. But the point of Epiphany is that God is not somewhere off in the distance, waiting until some pre-determined date to step into the world and ‘do something’ about whatever’s going on. God is in the world, bringing about God’s Kingdom is big and small ways through people…people like Jesus, people like you, people like me.
So with that context, this story is the ultimate ‘aha moment’…the ultimate Light story. It is the ultimate revelation of Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God. It is the ultimate window for the disciples into what the fullness of Christ really looks like. For this moment, the boundaries between heaven and earth, between human and divine, between past, present and future are all really fuzzy.
And that’s uncomfortable for us, isn’t it? We like boundaries and lines. It’s much more comfortable to keep things like heaven and earth, human and divine, past and present separate. Know which is which and what goes where…that’s what we’d prefer. People and experiences that don’t fit our rational and logical framework…well, they sort of make us uncomfortable.
But I think the first thing we can learn from this Transfiguration story is that the presence of God in the world blows away our perceptions of ‘normal.’ Or at least it has the potential to. Jesus’ life and ministry is full of boundary-exploding teaching and behavior. You think there’s a clear boundary between those God loves and those God condemns? Boom…no there isn’t. You think there’s a clear boundary between the life you live now and what happens after you die? Boom…no there isn’t. You think there’s a clear boundary around how poor people, foreigners, women, children, and anyone who could be called a ‘stranger’ should be treated? Boom…no there isn’t. In Jesus, we get a glimpse of what life can be like when we release ourselves from the lines and restrictions the world would have us live under. And what the story about Jesus and the disciples on the mountain top reminds us is that this experience of God breaking into the world…this encounter with the holy that blows away our perceptions and expands our understanding of God…that can be our experience. We don’t have to wait until after we die. True, we don’t get a lot of stories of people glowing and being visited by Moses and Elijah. But when Jesus ascended into heaven after the Resurrection, he promised the Holy Spirit as the very presence of God that would live in and through each of us. He gave the disciples the power to do what he did and more. He charged them with being the presence of God in the world. So now, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened by faith, we can see beyond the limitations of our human experience and encounter a God who breaks into the world, right now…a God who tears down walls, and who shows up in powerful and unexplainable ways.
What does this look like, you might be asking? It’s all fine and good to talk about God breaking into the world and challenging our boundaries and perceptions…but what does it look like in the context of the messiness of life? Think about your own moments of epiphany–those moments where God has expanded your perspective and revealed God’s self to you in new ways. A relatively rare group of people can point to an isolated experience. Most people, when asked about how God became real to them, point to a relationship or relationships. How does God break into the world today? Through relationships. How does God bust apart stereotypes and assumptions? Through relationships. How does God transform communities? Through relationships.
Even Jesus’ transfiguration…Jesus’ mountain top experience…happens in the context of community. Jesus could have gone up to the top of the mountain by himself and had this amazing spiritual encounter. He would have been changed. But one of the boundaries that Jesus blows away is the boundary between his spiritual life and his public life. He doesn’t keep his spiritual life separate from his life with the disciples. He invites them into community with him in a way that allows him to share the very essence of who he is with them. This is a vulnerable moment for Jesus, and he doesn’t hide that vulnerability from his disciples. It is in the midst of that kind of genuine, honest, mutual community that this experience of the holy happens.
It makes me wonder–what would that look like today? What would it look like to to strip away all the stuff the world tells us about who we are until we see each other in our true essence–until we encounter the holy in one another? When we can do that, God breaks in and says to and about us what he says to and about Jesus, “this is my child, in whom I am delighted.” And when we can do that…we encounter the holy in one another.
I realize this is easier said than done. It’s all fine and good to envision honest, genuine, transformational community, but it’s incredibly complicated to create or experience it. People are broken, and messy, and relationships are complicated and confusing. I’m not just talking about romantic relationships, by the way…I’m talking about all relationships—from the person you live with to the person who takes your parking spot. But I think that’s what we as followers of Jesus are called to wrestle with. People all around us are desperate to be in transformational, genuine, real community. People want to be known beyond their facebook profile, their twitter feed, their pinterest board. People want to know that someone out there wants to see them beyond the walls they have put up. As followers of Jesus, we can be those people. We can be people who see others as God sees them, and who says, “you are a child of God…in whom God delights. And I am here to listen to you.” When we can be in relationship with each other in a way that moves beyond the boundaries, that integrates all of who we genuinely are, the transfiguration happens again…and God breaks through in miraculous and unexplainable ways. We encounter the holy in one another.
But in order to do this, we’ve got to get off the mountain. It would have been so much more comfortable for the disciples if they could stay at the top of the mountain in the midst of their holy Jesus moment, wouldn’t it? In fact, Peter even suggested it. “It is good for us to be here,” he says. “Let us make three dwellings.” That word ‘dwellings’ is translated a bunch of different ways, and could be anything from a tent to a temple. But the point is that Peter wanted to preserve that experience of the holy. He wanted to bask in the experience of encountering Christ in a new way and just stay there. But Jesus didn’t let him. As soon as Peter offers the idea that they stay in that moment, the moment is over. Moses and Elijah disappear, and Jesus leads the disciples back down the mountain…to crowds who need something from them, people who misunderstand them, authority systems that are against them, and ultimately where they watch Jesus be led to the cross. Later, when Jesus is being led away to trial, I can just imagine Peter saying, “we should have stayed on that mountain top.” But although what the disciples encounter at the bottom of the mountain is messy and painful and full of uncertainty, the wonder and glory of their experience of Christ on the mountain goes with them.
Remember–the transfiguration is about God breaking down boundaries and barriers and showing up in new ways. So even as the boundary between humanity and the divine is a little bit fuzzy in the midst of that spiritual experience on the mountain top, that transfigured Christ goes down the mountain with the disciples. The boundary between humanity and the divine is just as fuzzy on the cross as it is in this transfiguration moment. The good news is that we encounter the holy not just up on the mountain, but also in the midst of the valleys. That’s the journey from Epiphany to Lent and on into Easter.
Every week when we come together for worship, we encounter the holy. We come together in community in a place away from ‘out there,’ and we are invited to see Jesus in his fullness–surrounded by Moses and Elijah, and by the voice of God reminding us that he is God’s son. As we enter into this space, we are invited to dip our fingers into the baptismal font and remember that we too are children of God, in whom God delights. As we sing songs and hear scriptures read, the wisdom, history, and traditions, and faith of so many who have gone before us comes back to life for a minute. And as we come forward to the Table we encounter not just a symbol of the love and forgiveness of Jesus, but the actual love and forgiveness of Jesus. We can’t exactly explain it, and it doesn’t always make sense…but it’s real. I don’t know about you, but every now and then, my breath is taken away by what happens here in worship, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am in the very presence of God and God’s people. Every week, through worship, we experience the holy and witness the transfiguration again.
And what’s our tendency? We want to keep it here, right? We want to preserve this experience of God so that we can hang on to it. And so we build a tent…a structure…a containment container for our experience of God. We begin to use language that makes it sound like our experience of God is limited to these four walls, to this liturgy, to these songs. We do things the way they were done before so that we can re-capture that feeling of holiness and meaning. Because maybe it’s not physical walls that we keep God in, maybe it’s the walls of our theology, our tradition, and our expectations. Our experience of God fits within this specific criteria, and anything outside of that cannot be God. We build tents. “It’s good for us to be here,” we say…”let’s stay here.” Our encounter with God becomes limited to this place, these practices, this language, these people, this history, these songs…and anything outside of that tent or those boundaries makes us uncomfortable. But I don’t think Jesus wants us to stay here…I think Jesus wants us to go down the mountain and out into the world.
Jesus called his disciples off the mountain and back into the messiness of life, and he does the same thing to us. What we experience here in this place–hopefully in some way a genuine encounter with the holy–is meant to go with us out of this place and into the messiness of life out there. It’s easy for us to see and touch God’s presence when we’re on the mountain top with music, scripture, prayers and community that feels safe and familiar to us. It’s much harder to see and touch God’s presence when we come down that mountain. But even as we are invited into the presence of the holy when we gather for worship, the very real presence of God comes down the mountain with us and joins us in whatever’s next. It’s in relationships out there that the power of the Gospel transforms. It’s in breaking down walls between people that the power of the Gospel transforms. Whatever we experience in here is meant to send us out there…into each other’s lives and into the lives of our neighbors…so that we can be witnesses to the real presence of God in the world.
The disciples’ experience on the mountain top was one that was full of mystery and unanswered questions. They didn’t exactly understand it and they couldn’t exactly explain it. But they couldn’t deny the wonder and glory of being in the very presence of the divine. They got a glimpse into a reality that was both very much present but also not yet fully actualized. It was like a preview of a movie they would have to come back and see later. They got the highlights. They got the gist of the story. But they’d have to sit through the whole movie to see how it all fit together. They got to see a glimpse of what the fullness of God in Christ really looked like, but that didn’t get them out of still living it and looking for it in the midst of their daily life. The tag line of this movie could indeed be something like, “Transfiguration…coming soon to a body near you.”
We too are invited into this preview…this glimpse…this snapshot of God’s glory and wonder. But we know that we don’t yet have the full story. The experience of Jesus on the mountain top can be our experience. I can’t say that we’re each going to have a moment where our clothes start shining and we hear voices from Heaven. But we can experience transformation through relationship with others and through relationship with Christ, and through the gifts of love, salvation and forgiveness given to us by God. We get a glimpse of the transfiguration when we allow God to burst open our boundaries and limitations, and when we release God and God’s activity from our limited understanding. We get a glimpse of the transfiguration when we journey with people in a way that creates space for open, honest, vulnerable relationship into which the voice of God reminding us that we are children of God can be heard. We get a glimpse of the transfiguration when we resist the urge to keep our encounter with the holy contained to a specific liturgy or a specific space, but instead take our encounter with the holy with us into the messiness of life.
And so, as we walk with each other into the season of Lent, may we be strengthened by what we see, hear, touch and taste in this place. May we encounter the very real presence of God breaking past our boundaries and assumptions and reminding us that we are deeply loved children of God. May we engage in relationships with each other that move beyond the superficial masks to where we experience the holy in one another. And may we not keep this vast, mysterious, transfigured Christ to ourselves, but may we go from this place knowing that the transforming power of God is in us and is working through us to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. Now THAT’S what I call Epiphany!