Image: Mosaic inside the Church of the Transfiguration (Mt. Tabor, Galilee, Israel).
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’
Matthew 17:5-7 (NRSV)
O Lord, take our minds and think through them;
take our lips and speak through them;
and take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you. Amen.
Here we are on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, a season where we focus on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ “a light to illuminate the nations of the world and the glory of God’s holy people, Israel.” Throughout this season we focus specifically on the Light of Christ, a light that was kindled in the obscure manger of Christmas and that we pray is kindled in the humble temples our hearts each and every day.
And yet, try as we might, it is impossible to live in the fullness of the Light of God each and every day. Sometimes we are called, invited, to walk through the shadow. The 23rd Psalm, arguably one of the most well-known pieces of scripture, begins in the light:
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want,
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters,
He restores my soul for his names’ sake.
There are times in our lives when this rings true. Everything we touch turns to gold; every relationship is flourishing; every aspect of our lives meets or exceeds our expectations and desires; and we can deluded into thinking this lasts forever.
…until we encounter an unexpected illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the crumbling of a loving relationship, or the slow-cooling of our once warm hearts.
…until the brooding darkness of the scary world around us begins to break through our defenses, until the world seems to suggest to us that our lives, or the lives of our loved ones don’t seem to matter.
…until we witness human cruelty, masking deep human fear and suspicion of those considered “other,” turning the Dream of God into a nightmare.
It is in these moments that we hear the second part of Psalm 23 a bit differently:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil.
For you are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
These seemingly polar opposite experiences of life are not separate, but really one-and-the-same, a singular experience of the complexity of human existence. Nothing on this side of eternity lasts forever – the good or the bad.
When I consider the Transfiguration, the event recounted in our Gospel reading this morning, I think this message of singularity in duality is present. The Transfiguration is not an isolated event in Christian scripture. It is not an anomaly. It is not an outlier. The Transfiguration is the precursor to the Crucifixion and cannot be understood outside of the cross. It is the foretaste of glory divine that we carry with us as even as turn our faces towards Lent and share in the sufferings of Christ.
After setting his mind to go to Jerusalem for his final showdown with the civil and religious authorities, Jesus takes three of his closet disciples – Peter, James, and John – up to the mountain. He knows that in setting his face to go to Jerusalem, he is facing down sure death. He is going to Jerusalem armed with the justice of God to put the civil and religious authorities on cosmic trial to reveal, once and for all, that the corrupt powers of this world are feckless in the face of the power of God and that, despite all the propaganda to the contrary, Roman and every other empire that rises up against the justice and peace of God has absolutely no credibility. He takes three disciples up the mountain to reveal to them, unequivocally, that they are not following any ordinary man. They are following the Son of God, clothed in terrible majesty, “awesome in renown, and worker of wonders.”
Scripture says that when the three disciples see Jesus “transfigured” they “fell to the ground overcome by fear.”
Quite honestly this is a perfect, human response in the face of pure, unobscured divinity. So often we have the tendency of sanitizing and domesticating the wild and rambunctious spirit of the Living God. We gerrymander God down into bite-sized, palatable pieces that conform to our worldview: a God who loves what and who we love and hates what who we hate.
But in the Transfiguration we are given a reminder that ultimately God is mystery – both consuming fire and flickering candlelight – and we who have responded to God’s call to follow in the Way of the Cross are called to enter the mystery of God. The great preacher, theologian, and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School, the Rev’d. Dr. Peter Gomes, says this:
The deep things of God of which the Bible speaks in nearly its every breath are not problems waiting to be solved but a mystery into which we are invited to enter, discover, explore, and indeed to enjoy, forever.
If God is to be relevant for this post-religious, post-Christendom, post-truth age, God must be more than facts and figures; and if the Church is to be relevant for this present age, we must be willing to wrestle the deep things of God and the hard things of this world.
We must speak of a God who not only kindles fires in the humble temples of our hearts, but a God whose consuming fire purifies the injustices of our world. We must speak of a God who not only cares about how we live our lives privately, but also how we live our lives publically – radically loving and supporting our neighbor whether they be Muslim, or Transgender, or refugee, or poor, or prisoner. We must speak of a God just a little too big for us to handle with words too small to it justice.
The Transfiguration is God pulling a fast one on those who think they have God completely figured out. It is God pulling back the curtain of acceptability and revealing God’s awesome glory that stands opposed to oppression in all of its insidious forms and who vows to take upon himself that oppression in order that we all might be free.
The Transfiguration is God reminding us that, despite how dim it gets, the glory of God walks with us through the Valley of the Shadow of death and even takes on Death itself in order to open the way to freedom and liberation for all of Creation.
The Transfiguration holds together parts of our lives we would rather keep separated – light and dark – but when we enter the mystery of a God who is equally present in both, we are better able to become bearers of the Gospel of God in a world stuck somewhere between the night of one world and the dawn of another. We become bearers of hope: that the cross cannot extinguish the crown, that the darkness cannot extinguish the light, the wrong cannot triumph over right, that the radical, compassionate, wild, unruly love God wins no matter what manner of evil temporarily prevails against it.
The Transfiguration makes clear that the cross is a comma in the story of Christ, not a period. The destiny of Jesus will not end in suffering and humiliation on the cross, but continues forever in the eternal glory of God.
And guess what? The same is true for us.
 Peter J. Gomes. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, 343.