Sunday, February 19, 2012


"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
-William Blake
 Audio of the sermon:

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I am indebted to the writing of Bruce Epperly, Kathryn Matthews Huey, and Sarah Henrick for guidance in writing this sermon.

Some theologians and scholars suggest that the Transfiguration is a later addition to the Gospels, that the event didn't really happen, or didn't happen in the way it is related, in any case. I have no problem respectfully disagreeing with that viewpoint.

Because I think that, for a moment on a mountaintop, Peter and James and John experienced William Blake's "doors of perception" cleansed and wide open.

2 Kings 2:1-12
Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, ”As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Mark 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I wonder if they remembered? James and Peter, I mean, as they stared across from their hiding place at the cross on the hill, where Jesus hung dying – John, too, from his place with the women at the foot of that cross – did they remember the mountaintop, the glory, how Jesus was transfigured before them, shining with the glory of God?

You would think such a thing would be unforgettable, of course. It isn’t every day that you get to see Moses and Elijah carrying on a conversation with anyone, let alone the man you’d left everything to follow. And it confirmed what they had all been hoping for, what they all believed, that Jesus really was the son of God, really was the Messiah!

In Jewish thought, since Moses had been buried by God when he died, and since Elijah had been taken bodily to heaven, this meant that they were both available to come back and announce to all of humanity that God’s reign was at hand. And here they were, talking to Jesus!

I wonder if they remembered? Peter, burning with shame at his betrayal of Jesus, John trying to be strong for Jesus’ mother as they watched him, beaten beyond recognition, struggling for breath. None of the disciples could put it together in their head, all those times Jesus talked about having to suffer, all those times he predicted his death, and especially all those times when he spoke of rising from the dead on the third day. Kings didn’t suffer. Gods didn’t die.

No, but that one time, when ‘way up on the mountaintop, the barrier between heaven and earth was stretched thin and drawn close, and where Jesus spoke with the prophets of old, and where God spoke aloud to Peter and James and John, that made a whole lot more sense, when you think about it. Jesus was a King in his glory, and the Kingdom was present and tangible.

That’s why Peter had said that thing about the booths. He wasn’t babbling just to hear himself talk, he actually had a point. The thought at the time was that the reign of God was to take place during the Feast of Booths, where the Jewish people remembered the Exodus by living in booths for seven days. These booths were likely a lot of work; you had to gather branches to make the frame, then gather palm leaves and such to make the sides and top, after all. These booths were supposed to be a reminder of the fragile structures the children of Israel lived in during their years in the wilderness. If they were going to bring in the Kingdom of God, why should Moses and Elijah and Jesus have to build their own booth?

I wonder if they remembered. I wonder if Peter thought back to that day, how excited he’d been that Moses and Elijah had come to put an end to all that silly suffering-and-dying talk Jesus had been making. Awesome, Moses and Elijah could get Jesus to go ahead and bring on the Kingdom right then and there! I wonder if James, probably cowering in the shadows right next to Simon Peter, remembered what God’s voice sounded like from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And I wonder if, as James stared across at that bloody, naked, dying man on the cross, he thought, “if this is what God does to the beloved…”

And John, did he remember? Sitting there, did he remember how the clothing that those bored Roman soldiers were dividing up between them had shone bright-white with the glory of God?

How would it have felt, I wonder, to remember? Bitter and hateful, like a lie told by someone you trusted, like a broken promise? Or would it have been more like a diamond in the dust, a glimmer of hope, a promise that this was not the end?

The Pew Center reports that something like fifty percent of mainstream Christians – that’s folks like you and me, in mainstream denominations like Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans – have had mystical spiritual experiences: everything from a lingering whisper, a feeling of Christ’s nearness, or a call in the night, reminiscent of young Samuel’s, near death experiences, miraculous recoveries from illness or amazing, couldn’t-be-a-coincidence deliverances from accident and death. Perhaps there was a moment in prayer, or at a youth event, or even in church, or at a weekend retreat, where the barrier between heaven and earth was stretched thin and drawn close, and maybe, for an instant, we caught the aroma of glory, of the Kingdom of God not merely now-and-coming, but here-and-now.

So we have a glimpse of what Peter and James and John experienced there on the mountain. And perhaps we also have an all-too-personal understanding of the need to remember that touch from God, when grief or fear or pain or uncertainty comes, when we know all too well what it feels like to look across and see hope hanging naked and bleeding and dying.

Perhaps it helps to know something that Peter and James and John did not know that day, as they watched the man they knew, knew was the hope of Israel, push up against the nails in his feet and catch one last breath. We know that, before the sun rises on Sunday, some women will brave the darkness and go to the tomb and find that it is abandoned, no longer needed. We know that what Peter and James and John experienced that day on the mountaintop, when heaven drew close and God spoke aloud, was a promise.

I wonder, as Peter and John run to the cemetery, and the sun breaks over the eastern horizon, do they remember? All the miracles they had witnessed, all the truths they had heard from the lips of the Messiah, will it take Christ appearing to them behind locked doors, later that afternoon, for the truth to take hold, for them to remember the glory that shone around Christ, not mere special effects, not a chance hallucination, but a promise that God has not left us alone, God is with us?

And will we remember? Because when the storms come, when the doctor calls with bad news, when the casket closes for the last time, in the risen Christ, in the empty tomb, we have a touchstone, a diamond in the dust, a point of hope: the tomb is empty. Christ transfigured is now Christ triumphant.

And what would it mean if we remembered those touches from God – what if we could hold on to our own mountaintop experiences, and gain strength from the experiences of others, as we go though our day-to-day lives? What if we treated every moment, every person, every interaction with one another, as a holy thing? Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

Will we remember?

May it never be that we walk right by the brightest lights and sweetest sounds and miss the most important moments of our journey in faith, where the barrier between heaven and earth is thin and heaven is drawing close, because we were paying attention to something else.

God spoke to Jesus directly at his baptism, and God spoke directly to the disciples at the Transfiguration, proclaiming him the Son of God, and God speaks to us, the Body of Christ, right now, and in our day-to-day life. May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and may we remember that God is with us, and follow.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff as always, friend. You have a gift for words. Thanks for posting. And no, it didn't suck.