Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sermon on the Transfiguration

The cloud we generated tonight at worship

Grace, Peace, and Mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen. 
Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, and is what is known in the church year as the Feast of the Transfiguration. In just a few days we will begin the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday and it is not a coincidence that we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday prior to the start of this season of darkness.  Transfiguration means to change from one thing to another, and that is exactly what happens to Jesus on the mountain.  Prior to this, he is a worker of miracles, and some pretty incredible miracles at that, but now his real work is beginning.  The Transfiguration is an event marked by brilliant light, but this light ultimately points towards Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his death on the cross.  The story of the transfiguration that we just heard in the reading is the point in Luke’s story of the life of Jesus in which everything begins to shift.  It comes after a series of incredible miracles like the feeding of the 5,000, but most importantly, it comes after Jesus declares that while he is the Messiah, he is going to suffer and be killed before he will be raised from the dead.  Yes, the transfiguration story points to glory, but it also points to the cross.  This is the point in the gospel where Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem because he knows what is to come.  He has been changed.
There is a lot going on in this short little story.  In today’s gospel we have Jesus praying on top of a mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John.  The text says that in the course of Jesus’ praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.  If this incandescent Jesus wasn’t enough, then we are told that two men appear and are talking to Jesus.  Not just any men, but the great prophets Moses and Elijah. Jesus and his prophet friends were talking about his coming death that was to occur in Jerusalem.  The disciples saw and overheard some pretty incredible things, and Peter turns to Jesus and says, “It is GOOD for us to be here.  Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Peter wants to stay up on top of the mountain, bathed in radiant light where things seem so clear and they don’t have to worry about what is going on down the hill and what will happen in the days to come.  He wants to keep everything simple and keep Jesus and the other great Jewish prophets in nice little boxes on top of the mountain.  The disciples are acting out of the Jewish law of building tabernacles as places for the great prophets to dwell.  In their minds, they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do and they have no way to comprehend what lies ahead in Jerusalem.  They are most likely afraid of what they have seen and revert back to what is familiar to them. 
But as Peter was talking about his construction projects, a cloud came and surrounded them.  And from these clouds comes a booming voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him.”  The disciples are getting distracted by all that they have seen, and God wants to make sure that they are actually getting the message, so God surrounds them in a thick cloud.  When some of our senses are obscured, the rest are heightened.  I imagine this cloud as the sort of thick and dense clouds that precede a massive thunderstorm.  The kind of clouds that seem to make time stop.  In order to get the disciples to understand what is to come, God needs to stop the distractions.  The disciples are terrified, yet there is hope in this cloud. 
I’ve heard a lot of sermons about what happens up on the mountain and the importance of being close to God and then taking that “down the mountain” into ordinary life. But what if this whole story is actually about what happens in the cloud?  Yes, we hear that the disciples are terrified.  But what we often miss in this whole story is that the disciples are not alone in this cloud.  They are with one another and with Jesus, but also we hear that the voice of God comes FROM the cloud. 
This got me thinking about clouds in my own life in which I feel alone.  I’ve been here in Minnesota for a little over a month.  I still feel like I am walking around in a fog most days.  It is difficult to start over in new place, knowing exactly two people in a new city, trying to navigate not only a new school but trying not to get lost every time I drive to the grocery store.  Sometimes I think I see someone that I know, but the person that I am missing is actually a thousand miles away.  Sometimes the pain of missing all that is familiar brings tears to my eyes.  It’s really easy to get stuck in this cloud of homesickness and miss what God is saying to me.  The first time I heard what God was up to here in St Paul was through the good people here at Humble Walk at Beer and Hymns in January.  We gathered together in a bar on the coldest night of the year to banish the frigid cold and darkness with our singing.  In that was hope and the first time that I felt at home in this new place.  And I am not alone. 
What clouds might we all be experiencing right now? The heavy darkness of depression? The dread that our kids are sick for the 15th time since Thanksgiving?  The sense of hopelessness that comes with long-term unemployment or impending student loan debt? The exhaustion of burnout in our work? What clouds weigh heavy upon us? 
In a couple minutes I am going to invite you to take one of the cloud-shaped note cards that you received when you entered and come over here to the table and write down what clouds are obscuring your vision right now.  On the other card, write something that brings you hope.  Then we are going to tape them onto the big cloud (also on the table) and have all of our fears and hopes mixed together as a community.  Because we are not in this cloud alone.
For now, hear this promise.  God is in our clouds with us.  God cannot be obscured.  God loves us so much that God sent Jesus, his son, to be present with us on earth and to take our sins upon him, not because we were good or would understand why, but because we needed it so badly.  When God speaks into the clouds on top of the mountain he doesn’t say, “Watch what Jesus is doing, then trust him.”  God says, “This is my Son. Listen to him.”  The disciples are not asked to do anything.  They are asked only to listen and to trust.  They are given the promise of Christ.  The promise that Jesus is God incarnate and through the gift of faith, they will be saved.  Faith is not something that we choose to have, but rather, it is something that is given to us. 
There is a real temptation to want to allegorize this story of the transfiguration.  To make it represent something else or make it into some nice little statement about what God does for us.  I am going to suggest that instead we just let it wrap around us and strengthen us for what is to come. Because we are all journeying towards Jerusalem with Jesus, and in order to share in a resurrection like his, we must also share in a death like his.  I invite you further into the cloud.  It is disorienting and maybe frightening, but we are not alone.  Thanks be to God. 

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