a sermon on Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36
preached on February 7, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Transfiguration Sunday is one of my favorite days of the church year. It is one of those church holidays that will almost certainly never get taken over by commercialism, in part because different parts of the church celebrate it at different times! It brings us to a story that seems to be incredibly important in the three synoptic gospels and that carried over into the celebrations of the church for many centuries in art and life. And it takes us to a mountaintop to see incredible and amazing light, helping us to see our faith and our world more clearly as we enter the season of Lent.
Our two readings this morning offer us two visions of this very clarity of sight because of God’s light on the mountaintop. First we hear of Moses’ strange shining face after encountering God on the mountaintop. After receiving the law from God on top of the mountain, Moses came down to meet with the people. The people were taken aback when they saw Moses. His face was shining with great light as it reflected the glory of God after his encounter on the mountaintop, and they were surprised and afraid. They knew their God as a fearful and vengeful God, as one whose glory they could not glimpse, as one who knew them and their foibles and flaws all too well, and when they saw Moses’ face aglow with even the reflection of that glory, they wondered and worried what might be coming next for them.
But this was not what Moses intended. He came down from the mountain hoping to engage the people in what God had shared with him. He wanted them to get a glimpse of the glory he had seen so that they might understand God’s presence better in the everyday. In sharing the light of his face, he hoped that they would join him in reflecting the incredible glory of God that had led them out of Egypt and would guide them into the Promised Land. But Moses’ shining face after his encounter with God on the mountain ended up being an incredible distraction for the people, so he covered his face with a veil when he was speaking with the people because they just weren’t ready to experience this light from the mountaintop quite yet.
Our second unique encounter with God and light on a mountaintop comes in our reading from the gospel according to Luke, where we hear of the transfiguration of Jesus that gives this Sunday in our liturgical calendar its name. As he prepared to begin the journey toward Jerusalem that would result in his trial and execution, Jesus took three of his disciples with him up on the mountain to pray, and suddenly “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” In the midst of this strange moment, Jesus was joined by two men, immediately recognizable as Moses and Elijah, and together these three “were speaking of [Jesus’] departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
As this light broke on this mountaintop, though, Peter, James, and John were barely able to keep their eyes open. Even amid their exhaustion, their glimpse of this glorious sight led Peter to utter one of the most bumbled lines of the New Testament: “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
As Peter was fumbling for words and actions to hold onto this moment of glory rather than to share it, a cloud overshadowed them, leaving the disciples filled with fear and trembling all the more, especially as a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” After this voice, the visitors disappeared, leaving Jesus alone with the disciples on the mountain, the strange radiance of the moment quickly dissipating as they all returned to the plain, recognizing all the more clearly that Jesus would soon be turning his face toward Jerusalem.
These two moments of light on the mountaintop give us glimpses of God’s glory shining into our world in incredible and surprising ways, but they also give us insight into the ways that we respond to this glory breaking into our midst. In both of these stories, the witnesses to this transfiguring light are taken aback. With Moses, the people shrink back when they see his face aglow and demand that he keep it covered up, and with Jesus, the disciples just want to find a way to hold on to the moment so that they do not lose it.
It seems that whenever we come close to the light of God, whether it be on the mountaintop or in the valley, we end up cowering in fear, seeking to avoid it and run away or to capture it and control it to limit its real effect on our lives. I suspect that this fear and anxiety around this light of God on the mountaintop probably comes less from it blinding us or showing us too much of God’s glory. Instead, it may be that this light illuminates us for who we are, showing that we are not the people God has made us to be, that we are not the people we claim to be, that we are unwilling and therefore unable to reflect the light of God’s glory into our dark and weary world.
All this may be what makes the story of the transfiguration so difficult for us. As much as we want God to change things in our world, we are so very deeply hesitant to change ourselves. As much as we want light to shine into the darkness, the glimpse of glory that comes from this light on the mountaintop leaves us speechless and fearful as it illumines our lives more than we might like. And as much as we want God’s glory to shine in us, we see in these stories that the reflections of God’s glory that can come in us might also require us to recognize the glory of God in others around us, to set aside our assumptions, stereotypes, and fears, to see our fellow humans as equal bearers of God’s image, regardless of the color of their skin, the understanding they carry of their gender, the form of their religious practice, the identity of those they love, or any other human characteristic.
Yet in spite of our fear, God’s glory still breaks into our midst, beginning with these encounters of light on the mountaintop, slowly but surely extending even into the dark valleys where things seem to be hidden but light slowly breaks in. The light of God’s glory shines upon our world in ways beyond our understanding, peeking through the clouds of hatred and anger that seem to overshadow the hopeful and joyous light of our lives, sending hope and life even into places where these seem to be so far away. And by God’s mercy, the wondrous light of God reflected in Moses’ shining face and Jesus’ changed appearance is reflected in us, for even when we resist God’s call to bear this light into our lives and our world, God guides us to overcome our fears and break through our uncertainty so that we can reflect the wonder and hope of this glory into our world.
The light on the mountaintop shines far and wide. This light begins in these incredible and beautiful places, illuminating faces with tremendous glory, glowing with wonder and hope for our weary world. This light shines on us and reflects through us into our broken and fearful world, giving us hope for all the difficult journeys of our lives and guiding us through the challenges of the Lent that lies ahead. And this light opens the pathway for us, showing us that even the darkest pathways will lead us to light, for even Jesus’ journey through death ended with an empty tomb.
So may God shine this light on us on this mountaintop, at this table where we gain another glimpse of this glory, and in every place on our journey, so that we might reflect the wonder and hope of God’s new life each and every day of the coming Lenten journey and beyond, until the joy of the resurrection is real for all as the whole creation is made new in Christ Jesus our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.