A friend from seminary had as his Facebook cover photo a picture of himself seated in the quire of Christ Church Oxford. In the picture he is holding a book in his hands and the pages are reflecting a bright light that illuminates his face.
The picture is so captivating that when I found myself in that same Cathedral during the time I was studying at our sister seminary, Ripon College Cuddesdon, one summer, I found the location and attempted to recreate the same effect.
My photo was less than successful. The pose was so completely dependent on the time of day and the amount of light coming through the windows that my picture paled by comparison.
What is so compelling about his picture is the brightness of the light and the pose of a book, maybe a bible, maybe a prayer book, reflecting a glorious light in such a beautiful, holy and ancient space.
Of course it made me think of the transfiguration, the story from the first part of our Gospel reading today. The Transfiguration is always the theme for the Sunday between Epiphany and Lent.
It is the bookend that sets opposite the Incarnation, with Christmas and Epiphany in the middle. Christmas tells us the story of the birth of Jesus and Epiphany invites us to ponder the significance of that event, to the world and in our lives.
The Transfiguration is a time for us to acknowledge God’s glory in creation and in all God’s creatures.
We are prepared for the Gospel by our other readings this morning.
The Hebrew Scriptures tell us of a similar story when Moses has returned from the Mountain a second time with the two tablets that contain the Decalogue or what we know as the Ten Commandments.
You may recall that on his first return from his forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai that he found the people had made a golden calf to worship. In a rage he broke the tablets that God had given him and also destroyed the idol that the people had made from melting their jewelry.
It was not lost on me that it was Aaron, Moses’ brother and the one who would become the head of the priesthood, who led the people in this exercise of worshiping a false God.
It’s also interesting that when Moses returns to ask God for the laws a second time, God tells Moses to craft the tablet himself instead of handing him the laws already inscribed on the stone. God then writes on the stone that Moses provides. For me this is a sign that the law must not only come from God, but be a product of human labor.
After Moses returns to the people the second time, he sets a tent for meeting with God apart from the people. We learn that his face glows from when he is in the presence of God. This then becomes a sign of when Moses speaks with God. He speaks with God to seek the remainder of the law for the people. Moses veils his face from this sign.
The story from Exodus contains some severe punishments for the people who have strayed from the initial covenant with God. Among other things, apostasy was the basis to be condemned to death. This level of punishment is a survival technique. When we move into a survival mode, we often adopt drastic and deadly measures instead of the life-giving lessons we learn from the Gospels.
The relationship with God seems in Exodus to be reserved for Moses, but in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians we hear:
…when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
This seems to be telling us that we are all called to see the glory of God and by extension then to let it shine for all to see. And indeed this is why we heard in our Psalm a song to the Glory of God’s power.
The temptation for a preacher and all of us in our lives is to leave it there, God’s glory shining out in our happy relationship with God. But this is not enough.
The Gospel reading actually has an option. The option is to only use the first part about the Transfiguration and not share the story of the healing of a demon possessed boy.
But the reality is that we are called to praise the glory of God, but also to respond to those we find possessed by demons, demons like addiction, poverty, racism, and oppression.
Jesus is speaking to us when he says:
"You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”
Just like Peter, John and James who are with him on the mountain, we want to build dwellings, houses, shrines to try to stay in those times when we feel we are blessed and feel we can show God’s glory in isolation.
We want to be like Moses who did not experience human needs and did not eat or drink for the forty days he was in God’s presence. And who came to have a radiant luminosity as a sign of that presence.
We want to stay in our churches and not look outside our doors to see who outside is in need of God’s healing presence. As one commentator said, the radiant Jesus is the one we want, but the Jesus that calls us to have faith to heal things is the one we get.
Meanwhile, I read several commentaries that advised to drop the last story and only focus on the Transfiguration because this Sunday should only be about the Christology of Jesus.
What that leaves out, is our Christology. How we are called to be Christ’s body in the world. We can’t have one without the other because even when you cut the reading or stop before the inevitable uncomfortable story, when you pick up the book again, Jesus is there calling us faithless and perverse.
It’s more comfortable to take the stories out of context and to hear only the pretty stories that make us feel good, but that is not what the Gospel is about.
As Paul wrote, “seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror…”
Mirrors in those days provided a distorted image. We can’t know exactly who God is, but we can be transformed by the ministry we do and not lose heart.
At this point in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has performed many miracles and told many parables. All of these have been to show that Jesus fulfills the prophets predictions of the Messiah.
Peter has only just told us that he sees Jesus as that Messiah, the Holy One of God. Jesus tells all the disciples to tell no one. Isn’t this a strange reaction for a man who has come to save us?
But Jesus knows that his role is not to be the savior of the world, but to be the one who shows us the way to the salvation of the world.
And we humans still do this today. We want to elect a leader who will solve all our problems and we complain when after we elect leaders that they do not.
The tradition in Judaism is that both Elijah and Moses did not die, but were taken up into heaven. Our Gospels also tell the story of Jesus being taken up into heaven because this satisfies this human desire to sanctify those who lead us.
Even in todays story the disciples want to build shrines to their experience of seeing Jesus transfigured into a glowing light. They want to put it all on him and stay on the mountaintop. But this has never been the way of human progress.
Jesus came to show us the way, to lead us to become his body in the world, bring us the knowledge that humankind working with God in creation can bring about God’s glorious kingdom on earth.
As we leave the season of Epiphany and enter this Holy Lenten time, I bid you to think about how you might honor our life in Christ by taking on a Lenten devotion that is more than a personal sacrifice, but that is one that makes a difference in how you interact with our world.
Take on a new behavior that you think will make the world a better place. Give up a behavior that you see as destructive to your relationships with others.
Above all do not rest in the Glory of God, but seek to be God’s own in the world in a way that transforms the world and transfigures you in the eyes of those around you.
In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom
That transfigures you and me
As he died to make men holy
Let us live to make men free
While God is marching on