February 26, 2017 – Transfiguration
The reading for today in the narrative lectionary is found in Luke 9. It’s the story of the transfiguration. Eight days earlier—one week earlier—Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying that he is. His disciples throw out “John the Baptist” and “Elijah.” Peter speaks up and says, “You are the Messiah of God; the Christ.” Jesus tells them not to tell anyone and then talks about what is coming as he makes his way to Jerusalem. He will suffer, be rejected, he will be killed and raised from the dead three days later. And he told them about what it meant to be his disciples: Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.
The writer of Luke tells us none of the reactions of the disciples other than to leave a week of silence in the story. Jesus has dropped the word of what will happen to him and what is required of those who will follow him and the next thing we hear is where our story this afternoon picks up.
Listen for the Word of God.
The following day, the disciples and Jesus come down from the mountain and are met by a large crowd. There is a man whose son is possessed by a demon and the man begs for healing for his son. He tells Jesus that his disciples have been unable to cast out the demon. Jesus is able. Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, heals the boy and gave him back to his father.
So what happens in those eight days? The days after Jesus has told them what is going to happen when they get to Jerusalem. News that they do not want to hear. Are they stunned? Are they in denial? Do they scatter? Go back to fishing? Do they pretend Jesus didn’t say what he said?
We don’t know. What we know from the story is that Jesus took three of the disciples, Peter, John and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. I suspect Jesus—who has an idea about what he will face in Jerusalem—is in need of spiritual strength. And so he takes his companions and together they go to a place away from the crowds to be in God’s presence.
Do you remember the fog from last Monday morning? A friend of mine who walks early in the morning said he was taking his regular route but at one point he lost his bearings. Everything looked so different in the fog. He was in a place where he had been before but the landmarks were obscured because of the fog. It’s a disorientating—even frightening experience—when you’re enveloped by fog. Even though you would ordinarily know what is right in front of you now you’re not so sure what is ahead.
I wonder if the cloud that overshadows Jesus and Peter, James and John is a little like that. Luke writes that a cloud overshadowed them and they entered the cloud. From other stories in the Bible we know that the cloud is the presence of God. Jesus and Peter, James and John, are overshadowed by the presence of God.
This word that gets translated “overshadow” is related to a Hebrew word that means “right smack dab in the middle” and “completely surround by.” It’s like that experience of fog all around you. Which can be frightening and unsettling. It can also be holy and mystical.
The language of overshadow also shows up in the annunciation story where an angel comes to Mary and says she will have a baby and that baby will be the Child of the Most High God. When Mary asks how it will be that she will have a baby, given some physical constraints in her life, the angel says the power of God will overshadow her.
This experience on the mountain is one of glory and wonder and awe. It is probably not what Peter, James and John were expecting and Peter, particularly, isn’t exactly sure what to do with it. He’s ready to erect an historical marker or take a selfie with Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Something to sort of concretize the experience that he knows is monumental but perhaps doesn’t really know its significance.
In the overshadowing cloud, the presence into which the disciples enter right into the middle of, the disciples hear a voice—it’s almost the same voice they heard at Jesus’ baptism—“This is my Child, my Chosen, my Beloved.”
I wonder if the disciples aren’t going to need this experience for the coming days when their life with Jesus is tested, when they aren’t sure who they are or who Jesus is. When they’re not sure whether to stay or flee. I wonder if in those uncertain moments they will remember the glory, the dazzling radiance, the overshadowing, the confirming voice. I wonder if they will remember that and draw strength and courage from their experience?
Eight years ago in January, I was on my way to fly across the country to be part of an experience that would change my life for good in some profound ways. I knew a little bit of what I was signing up for but I was also really nervous.
That January morning was snowy and when I walked out the door to go to the airport and there in the tree in front of our house was a bright red cardinal.
From the time I was in middle school, seeing a cardinal—the red song bird (not the UofL mascot)—was many times a sign, for me, of God’s presence and care. I didn’t grow up where there were cardinals but they appeared at times in my life when I was scared and uncertain and in need of encouragement.
In that moment, eight years ago, I experienced God say to me, “I am with you.”
I wonder if you’ve had an experience of beauty or love or holiness? We Presbyterians don’t talk about this sort of thing very much but what people confide in me tells me that lots of people do have these sorts of experiences. But we’re not sure what to do with them or how to talk about them.
This afternoon, I invite you to remember a time when you experience unexpected beauty or love or holiness. Perhaps something that took your breath away. And maybe you wanted to stay just in that moment.
If you’d like, you can close your eyes. You might ask God to bring to your remembrance an experience. Trust whatever comes into your heart or mind.
I’m not going to ask you to share this with anyone so let yourself be free to remember whatever it is that God is bringing to your awareness.
Be with that memory.
What is it that you felt? That you saw? That you heard?
I wonder if there is a gift you received.
In the silence of your own heart and mind, give thanks for this experience and the ability to return to it.
When you are ready, open your eyes and bring your awareness back to this place.
What we hear next in the story of the Transfiguration is that Jesus and the disciples went back down the mountain to return to their ministry. And so do we. And this presence, this memory, this awareness, this gift of God, goes with us.
No matter what this day has been like,
no matter what the days ahead will bring,
whatever the action is that we need to take,
we can return to this gift, this experience,
and draw courage and strength for whatever will come.
Blessing and sending
May the nourishment of this table
and the sustenance of this community
be part of the overshadowing presence of God
that goes with you everywhere and at all times.