Transfiguration Sunday, Year C
February 18, 2007
Readings: Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 1 Corinthians 12: 27-13:13
Gospel: Luke 9: 28-36
The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell
Preached at St. Simon’s Episcopal Church, and Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler
Some events define and transform our lives. Milestones. Mountaintop moments. Peak experiences.
Like graduation. All that hard work has finally paid off. We’ve reached the summit and it’s time to celebrate. But…it’s really just the beginning…that’s why it’s called commencement, right? Now it’s on to the next school or that first job. Being a newbie again. Learning the ropes, navigating relationships, working hard.
Another peak experience :falling in love. It can feel like “I and my beloved are one; our love will be everlasting. Together we can move mountains.” The inner glow we feel is visible; the whole world seems suffused in its light. But after the wedding, there’s the reality of relating to someone who’s going to change and stay the same in ways that may frustrate as well as delight you. You may not always feel “in love” with that person. You will share sorrows and struggles as well as joys.
The birth of a child – one of the great high points in life. The amazingly wonderful gift of new life. And then there’s the reality of caring for a completely dependent newborn who cries and has a mind of her own when it comes to sleeping. Who will demand a great deal from you – as well as bring you real joy -- for the rest of your time together.
We should hold on to those peak experiences of joy and certainty and wonder. But also remember that they’re not – and they’re not supposed to be – the whole deal.
Peak experiences give us strength to get back down the mountain and into the valley. We can remember the breathtaking view from the top, that amazing light…and let it bathe us on those dark or dull days when we’re hard at work in the valley.
Treasure those peak experiences. Journal them. Photograph them. Blog them. Talk about them. Make scrapbooks for them. Most of all, remember them.
But life is not all about peak experiences and milestones. It’s also about being faithful and disciplined. It’s about shoveling snow, going to work, listening to your spouse, changing diapers, and saying prayers, even when you don’t feel like it. You do it for love of God, self, and neighbor. Because it’s the right thing to do. Not just for the peak experiences, although they’re lovely. (small pause)
Some peak experiences take place in our spiritual lives…Have you ever heard or seen something hard to describe….but you know it was holy? When your heart was full of the realest love…the deepest joy…the peace that passes all understanding? Ever hear a still small voice within? Ever come across something in the Bible or another book, that gave you just the wisdom you needed? Did a loved one, or even a stranger, reach out to you at just the right time? Ever see a light or hear a voice you couldn’t explain? Something out of this world? There are moments we can feel with dazzling certainty that God cares for us and is at work in our lives.
And…we want to stay there, up on that mountain. As Peter says to Jesus in today’s gospel: “Lord, It is*good* for us to be here.” “Let’s stay here…can’t we?” But there’s always a time when we have to come back down.
Jesus had some pretty amazing peak experiences. Like the Transfiguration, described in today’s gospel from Luke. Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray, taking Peter and James and John with him. And there they encounter the Living God. While he is praying, Jesus’s face changes and his clothes turn a dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear and begin to talk with Jesus. Then a great cloud overshadows the disciples, and God speaks through the cloud, telling them Jesus is his beloved Son…and they should listen to Him.
The transfiguration pre-figures Easter. It foreshadows cross and resurrection. Up there on the mountain, Moses and Elijah talk to Jesus about his “departure” which Jesus is about to accomplish in Jerusalem. ” They don’t talk about crucifixion or resurrection, they use the word “exodus” which is Greek for “departure.” It seems Jesus is going to lead a second Exodus. Like Moses, he’s going to set the captives free. Through the cross, Jesus will set you and me free from the shackles of sin and death.
The Transfiguration also clarifies Jesus’s identity. Moses and Elijah are up there on the mountain to show that Jesus is in line with the Law and Prophets. Moses was the great law-giver, Elijah the great prophet. Yet God says about Jesus: “*This* is my beloved son. Listen to Him.” Jesus is in line with Moses and Elijah, but greater than they. And like Moses and Elijah, Jesus will be rejected.
Like Moses, Jesus has to come down from the mountain after encountering God, and do some serious work. Moses had to give the Law to his people – who were busy building idols and being lawless. He had to lead them kicking and screaming all the way to righteousness. Jesus has to come down and give people…himself. Keep giving them the gospel. Give even…his life.
Jesus didn’t become the Messiah just for the glory and peak experiences. He knew there was a cross waiting somewhere. But Jesus accepted it all, glory and cross. He accepted the discipline that went along with his identity as the Christ. And that discipline was staggering. For some of us, discipline looks like “green beans now so we can have chocolate after.” For Jesus, discipline looked like cross now, resurrection later.
Yet he still chose not to stay up on the mountaintop – he headed down the path that would eventually lead to Jerusalem and the cross.
You and I didn’t become Christians just for the mountaintop moments, did we? And so we shouldn’t approach our spiritual lives that way. Along with our identity as Christians comes a certain discipline. We pray, share communion, love our neighbors, and follow Jesus because….he asked us to. Not for the peak experiences, although they’re lovely.
After this Sunday of the Transfiguration, we leave the season of Epiphany, the season of light. The light has been steadily growing from the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi’s visit through Jesus’s baptism and the wedding feast at Cana. It’s gotten brighter as Jesus has performed many miracles and attracted many followers. Now the light overwhelms us at the Transfiguration. Soon it will be time for us to head off the mountaintop and into the valley that is Lent.
Lent has a darker, more sober focus than Epiphany. It’s a penitential time. The spiritual life is not all peak experiences. It’s also about discipline and routine. In Lent, many Christians choose a discipline to help them feel closer to God. Like extra prayers or Bible study. Some fast. Some choose to examine their own hearts, alone or in the company of a confessor.
As my colleague Tripp reminds me, these spiritual disciplines aren’t necessarily going to give us brilliant flashes of illumination and instant closeness with God. Every time we pray we’re not going to get…the transfiguration. Sorry. We do them because they are part of our identity as Christians. But spiritual disciplines can transform our lives over time. They can gradually empty us of preoccupations with our little “self” and help us join more and more with the Great Self, God.
What gives us the strength to be faithful to our identity as Christians? What gave Jesus the strength to be faithful to his identity as Messiah? Discipline, yes, but underneath that discipline is love. The kind Paul talks about in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians: Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love that doesn’t insist on its own way.
Christ’s primary motivation was love. And so it needs to be with us. Otherwise we can become bitter and resentful, trudging along cheerlessly through our duties. Our responsibilities – and spiritual disciplines -- are best undertaken in a spirit of love. And love is closely linked to discipline.
If we truly love God, ourselves, and our neighbors, we live disciplined lives, not lives of carefree irresponsibility. If we really love our children, we discipline them in healthy ways so they will grow up to be disciplined adults. Love and discipline allow us to grow up, work hard, go through the milestones of our lives. They get us to those mountaintop moments. And help us accept when it’s time to come down.
Can we, as disciples of Christ, have the kind of love Christ had? And out of that disciplined love, do the work God has given us to do, down here in the valley?
Paul calls us to spiritual maturity as disciples of Christ. He asks us to put aside our childish ways. Now we see through a glass dimly. We can’t always feel the joy and certainty of God’s presence. But we can be loving and disciplined, listen to Jesus, pray, and follow his example. And perhaps sometime we too shall meet God face to face and know with a dazzling certainty what we need to know.
Today is the Transfiguration. A mountaintop moment. It would be nice to camp here. But On Wednesday, Lent begins and we descend into the valley. There will be some work and discipline involved, but if undertaken with love, we will find joy in it. We’ll go up to the mountain with Jesus at Palm Sunday, and then again at Easter. Are you ready for the journey? It’s bound to be a roller coaster ride of the very best kind, with some amazing vistas. Shall we?