Monday, February 15, 2010

The Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year C] - February 14, 2010 (Luke 9:28-36 [37-43])

I have this hunch that the story of Jesus’ transfiguration strikes listeners of today as extremely bizarre. Maybe I’m just projecting my own impressions onto everyone else, but I’ve often wondered how we make sense of this account that is attested by three of the four gospel writers. Jesus goes to the top of a mountain with a few of his friends. Then, strangely, his appearance changes, his clothes start glowing crazy white and then two ancient figures from Israel’s history suddenly appear and hold a conversation with him. Before they know it, a cloud descends, out of which a voice is heard to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen! Listen to him!” And then, as soon as that last word is spoken—poof!—Jesus is left alone.

I mean, let’s be honest: this is not an ordinary day in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This is not, by contrast, Jesus at a wedding reception, or eating in a house with his disciples. Modern ears can make sense of so many parts of Jesus’ story. The nativity, even with all the angels and the shepherds, is familiar to us. We hear, with considerable ease, Jesus’ teachings and parables. They include references and images that we know from our own life experiences: fishing…sowing seeds in a garden…dysfunctional family relationships. Even events like his baptism and his miracles and healings don’t seem altogether too other-worldly and ethereal. We can get a handle on them. We can, in some sense, “relate” to them.

But Jesus’ transfiguration is another story. It’s too short on the details our modern, scientific minds would like to know and too long on mystery—details like, how exactly did his features change? Or, how was he different after this metamorphosis? A hazy account of Jesus’ convening with two of Israel’s most famous prophets is jarringly out of place in the life of a man who hangs out with some of the earthiest people around, and who frequents some of the most common places around. This ascent into the clouds is just not something that happens to regular human beings, which is what we come to understand that Jesus is: One of us. Flesh and blood. God as human.

One of the reasons, perhaps, that this transfiguration account is so remote to modern ears is that we are not as familiar with Moses and Elijah as earlier congregations, and certainly not as familiar as Jesus’ disciples. Here were two figures who loomed large over the Jewish and early Christian mindset. Moses, Elijah, and their individual stories factored some way into the faith and even identity of each and every Jewish person. They were the big guns, the holy head honchos of the Hebrew faith.

The most contemporary thing I might compare this to would be like being on the field, playing in the Super Bowl with Drew Brees as your quarterback, and then looking up in the huddle to see him discussing his next play with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana. The association made between Jesus and these two figures would have made a profound statement about his identity and about which direction his life was going to take.

What’s more, Luke tells us the three of them are discussing his upcoming departure. Interestingly, the word in the Greek is “exodus”: Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are speaking of his exodus, “which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Just prior to this trip up the mountain, Jesus had made the first prediction about his suffering, death, and resurrection. Referring to that event, then, as an exodus would have rung even more clearly in the ears of earlier audiences, for that is what Moses was known for. Moses had led his people in their deliverance from captivity in Egypt through the Red Sea and the wilderness of the Sinai to the freedom of the Holy Land. Now Jesus comes to lead God’s people out of captivity through the wilderness of death. It will be an exodus to true freedom.

All of these aspects of the Transfiguration, including the cloud that becomes like a veil to the disciples and the voice that thunders from inside like the words from an ancient prophet—things that may seem mysterious and peculiar to you and me—would have had a profound effect on those who first heard about this day in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

It appears from our text that they do. Peter, James, and John are terrified as they enter the cloud. Peter, amazed at Jesus’ glory, is likely reminded further of the Feast of Tabernacles, the yearly festival during which the Hebrews commemorated the Exodus by constructing makeshift dwellings, or tabernacles, like the ones that had sheltered them in the wilderness. He doesn’t even understand what he’s saying, but he senses how good it is for them to be there and see this transfiguration, but, at least for now, they come down the mountain. There is, after all, an exodus ahead.

And, as they come down that mountain, they run into a man whose only son is overtaken by a demon. As they come down that mountain, they are confronted with the needs of the people, As they come down that mountain, they come face to face with their own failures as disciples, their own powerlessness over the true wilderness of the human experience.

It seems to me that as difficult as it may be for people like us to make sense of this particular transfiguration event, we do have plenty of similar situations in the wilderness of our own lives. In fact, I wonder how often Eagle Eyrie, the Baptist retreat center outside of Lynchburg that serves as the location for our Synod’s youth events, is thought of as Virginia’s own mount of Transfiguration. Several times a year, youth and adults from all over Virginia trek to the top of the hill for a closer encounter with God. Those of us who make the trip often claim to experience while we’re there a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and why he matters. I notice that it is difficult for many youth to leave the sense of intimacy of faith they receive there. I know that, as I read this account, I recognize quite a few sensations I, myself, have at Eagle Eyrie: a trancelike state of sleepiness; stammering and stuttering incomprehensibly with exhaustion; and an inability to articulate exactly what we saw and heard to those who weren’t there.

Our synod youth events, our congregational worship, our pilgrimages of faith and wonder bring us, in some sense, closer to God. We, like the disciples, experience wonder, amazement, an out-of-the-ordinary encounter with faith. Yet for all the excitement and terror that the transfiguration brings, the exodus of faith cannot be continued until they come back down. For all the glory we glimpse on those mountaintop, the glory we will really need to see is that which happens when Jesus confronts the demons in the valley, when Jesus confronts the demons of all on the cross. For all the thrill we get from gazing at Jesus in these moments of grandeur, the truly crucial part of our faith will come when Jesus graciously looks at us, and, in doing so, heals us.

It happens that today, February 14, 2010, is the twentieth anniversary of the most distant photograph of earth ever taken, higher than any mountain view.  On this day in 1990, the spacecraft Voyager 1 rotated in its orbit and clicked its shutter to make one final a snapshot of our solar system from almost 4 billion miles away before it disappeared into the vastness of the universe. Did you say “cheese”? The resulting image has become iconic, and I bet most of you have seen it somewhere before in either books or in movies, or on television. Very different from the famous photograph taken by early space voyages that showed earth as a large round ball of swirling blue, white, and green, the photo taken by Voyager 1 showed just how vast the universe is in comparison to our planet. The photo has been titled “The Pale Blue Dot,” named so because, in it, earth is barely distinguishable among a dizzying number of other tiny flecks as a pale blue dot.

For many who have seen it, the picture of the pale blue dot is humbling, disorienting, and incomprehensible. They are, in a sense, transfigured by what it reveals: that the surrounding universe is so gargantuan and we occupy but a microscopic speck. To them it says we are nothing special, perhaps…just one dot among many, the vista of some remote deity.

For us, I reckon the snapshot could hearken our minds back to our Lord’s Transfiguration when the disciples saw briefly what God’s ultimate glory was like before he resumed his journey back down the mountain to look on us with compassion. For us, it can remind us that an experience with God’s love and glory, though breathtaking and powerful, is not really complete until viewed from the vantage point of the cross, from the vantage point of the boy who is freed from his demon. For us, the distance from that spacecraft to earth is but a fraction of the voyage God undertakes from the top of that mountain.  For the sight of the pale blue dot communicates nothing about the fun of a snow day, or about the smile of a Valentine, or about the joy of holding a newborn baby, or about the suffering of war and torture, or struggling with demons, or the loneliness of grief. But places like that is precisely where Jesus’ exodus will take him. Places like that are on that journey from the splendor of God’s Son on the mountaintop.  Jesus is the true Voyager, going the distance in our direction.

And one day—we are promised—when his new creation is finished, we will once again glimpse him in that splendor from that land of eternal freedom. The veil will be removed from everyone’s eyes and the image of who God is and who we really are in relation to him will be revealed, once and for all. Transformed by his glory, we will share communion with all those who’ve travelled human footsteps before us and after us. I suppose, on some level, that seems incomprehensible, too. From here in the valley on this pale blue dot, it’s mighty hard to grasp. Yet it is true. Just as sure as the words are spoken and the bread is held in our hands, and just as sure as he stands risen Easter morning, it is true.

Let’s listen, then, to the Chosen. He is true.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

(image: The Transfiguration, Pietro Perugino, 1498)

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