The Last Sunday after the Epiphany: February 26, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Leigh Mackintosh
The Gospel of Matthew uses the image of the mountain to highlight the significant moments of Jesus’ life: the struggle with temptation in the desert; teaching the Beatitudes—the way of blessing and being blessed; taking time for prayer and retreat; healing and feeding thousands; illumination and hope; betrayal, suffering, and death; and finally a call for transformation and action.
In scripture, mountains convey immense symbolic significance as places where one encounters God. Such places are what the Celtic tradition calls thin places–where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one grasps a glimpse of the glory of God. Contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description:
“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space.
Much like climbing up and down a mountain, the thin places require us to step from one world to another–to travel to a place where we have less control and where the unpredictable or even painful become a means for discovery and transformation.
As we follow Jesus along the way of the cross, we find it is in the life between these mountains that we learn the true meaning of faith and discipleship.
What would it be like to experience the reality that Jesus is the Son of God? To receive a glimpse of the resurrection, but not be able to share it? What would it mean to hold onto the vision of embodied, transfigured light knowing the reality of the dark days ahead?
After the Transfiguration experience, the disciples were never the same. It was as if they were experiencing the world for the first time.
But I wonder, what did this vision mean to the disciples when Jesus was arrested and killed? Did they struggle to remember Jesus’ words “be not afraid”? Did they forget the brightness and certainty in God’s words – “this is my Son, the beloved, listen to him”? Did they have doubts that this vision of the Transfiguration was really a vision of the resurrection? Would they ever feel ready to share this profound experience with the world? (Yes!)
Who here among us has not known moments of surprised illumination? Moments when someone we think we know fairly well is suddenly revealed in a completely new light? Often in retrospect, we realize how limited, perhaps even how wrongly, we have grasped the real character of a person. Often later on we realize how we have missed the depths of meaning that a person has shown us.
It took time for the disciples to shift their view of seeing the cross as a common instrument of torture, oppression and death to seeing it as Holy Ground where the glory of God is revealed and reborn.
Epiphanies like the Transfiguration are rarely confined to a single moment in time; indeed these extraordinary experiences of spiritual illumination usually require significant time for reflection and contemplation.
Lent is such a time for reflection and contemplation. A time to dwell in the thin places. To once again note how we see God’s light reflecting in our lives and to listen for the ways in which God’s Word becomes for us the Word of life. It is a time when we descend the mountain to re-examine the ordinary paths of our everyday lives and contemplate how we might reflect the vision of God to the world.
The moment of the Transfiguration affirms Jesus’ divinity, but more importantly, it begins to give the disciples eyes to see God’s light in the chaos to come: eyes to see God’s light in the wake of death, loss, fear and resurrection. Eyes to envision a world transfigured in healing light.
The Transfiguration offers the following paradox: while there is nothing the disciples can do to save Jesus or themselves from suffering, there is also no way they can prevent or shield themselves from the light of God that sheds hope in their darkest moments. The Transfiguration offers something to hold onto when they descend into the crushing reality of the world below. A light that remains with them in the dark places when all other lights go out.
Like the disciples, we are called to persist and persevere, to hold onto God’s light in the dark places of chaos and deep suffering until we reach the place of transcendence and illumination. To hold onto the light until we begin to understand that where there is suffering, there is Holy Ground—that God is present in the painful places, just as God is present in the promise and potential of our lives.
God grants us light in times of chaos and darkness. At first, we may not fully comprehend or understand the light, but when we like the disciples take the time to descend the mountain, to make space for God in the ordinary patterns of our lives, we see that we are strengthened to bear our crosses. The light that was once a far-off vision illumines our lives becoming one with us. As that light shines in our hearts, the incarnate God is made real each and every day.
The challenge to the disciples then and the challenge for us now is living in a world without Jesus’ bodily presence. The Transfiguration anticipates this challenge and invites us to live in “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” To be light bearers and light bringers in the world.
“God who am I but one person? What can I possibly do to turn the tides? How can I make a difference?” Remember: “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.”
Just as the persistence and perseverance of a single drop of water reshapes rock, so too the perseverance and persistence of one holy life reshaped the rough, hard edges of the entire world. If one holy man and his twelve disciples changed the hearts of an entire empire, just imagine the power of God possible if all of us choose to persist and persevere in the dark places of chaos and uncertainty. Wave upon wave of light shall wash over this world and we shall dwell in the thin places where words of faith become words of life.
As we prepare for Lent, as we prepare to endure what lies ahead…the cross…hold on to hope that a world that has the ability to break us is never beyond God’s redemption. Persist in prayer and persevere in compassion and forgiveness, let us like drops of water create holy space in the hard places for God to fill.
T.S. Eliot – “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” This is the journey of faith.
This is the great journey of lent–to explore the well-worn paths of old habits; to venture into unfamiliar, unsettling territories; to embrace the restless, wildness of our hearts; to contemplate the thin places of transcendent illumination; to recognize our own deep longing for God and discover the peace that seemed far-off and distant has been with us and in us all along. Persist, persevere, hold onto hope–do not cease from exploration–until the end where you will arrive where you began and know yourself in God for the first time. Amen.