I was struggling to figure out how to start my sermon this morning. I didn’t think the introduction worked very well at 8:00 so I went back upstairs between services and tried again. But it didn’t help; it still seemed flat. Then as I began to listen to the choir during the psalm chant, it came to me. The setting by Thomas Atwood is one of my favorites and as I listened, I was immediately transported back to Choral Evensong at All Saints’ Chapel in Sewanee, TN. I’ve come to love Anglican chant and a beautifully sung Choral Evensong is an opportunity for me to experience God’s beauty through music. As I listened to the choir this morning, I was reminded of the power and beauty of evensong, reminded of encountering God through music, and I was left wanting to hear more, to recapture those experiences of years ago.
Where and when do you encounter the divine? Can you remember a profound spiritual experience? Does it happen in church on Sunday morning? Does it happen when you are on top of a mountain, overseeing the beauty of nature? Does it happen when you encounter the beauty of a musical performance, or a great work of visual art, when you’re visiting one of the great architectural wonders of European churches? Does it happen when you are meditating, all alone, in silence? Or when you’re reading a beautiful poem, or a great work of literature? And here’s the hard question—have you never had such an experience, the sort of thing you hear about or read about? What might that be like, to have never had such an experience?
I’m guessing that whatever our own preferred means for accessing the spiritual dimension, we’re familiar with, and perhaps even somewhat derisive of people we know who go through life searching for a new spiritual high. Those of us who are baby boomers remember all too well the days of our youth. And we probably know people who are still on such spiritual quests. It’s likely that for many of us, the idea of a search for a new spiritual experience, a new and powerful encounter with the divine retains its appeal. It’s also likely that most of us don’t expect that sort of profound spiritual experience when we come to church on Sunday morning.
We probably think that such things are something new in human history, but they’re not. We can even see in the bible evidence that human beings sought out peak experiences of the sort I’ve been talking about. Often, though, we find those stories difficult to understand because they highlight the vast chasm that separates us from the texts that we’re reading.
There are a lot of strange stories in the Bible. That shouldn’t surprise us because some of the texts of the Hebrew Bible are more than 2500 years old, products of a culture we can hardly even imagine. We expect the gospels to be rather more approachable for contemporary readers and listeners, if only because they are more familiar. So, for example, the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ve been hearing from these last few weeks, is full of Jesus’ teachings. Some of what he says is odd; but at least we see him doing something we expect. Jesus is teaching; that’s not at all surprising.
But then we come to a story like the one we just heard, the story of the Transfiguration, and we are suddenly reminded that as we approach the gospels, we are reading texts that come from a very different world and culture, separated from us by 2000 years and separated from us by some very basic pieces of our world view. The details of the story are quite striking and elusive. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain, where the text say he is transfigured—his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. If that wasn’t enough, suddenly two of the most important figures from the Hebrew Bible appeared with him: Moses and Elijah.
Then comes Peter’s seemingly odd response. “Hey, this is great, he says. Why don’t I make some booths or dwellings for the three of you so we can stay here?” Peter’s response here is often interpreted as another example of his brashness or cluelessness, but it’s worth pointing out that he uses “Lord” when he addresses Jesus, a sign of his faith, especially in Matthew’s gospel, and that the very notion of building booths or dwellings was itself a typical Jewish ritual act of the day. There’s also no sense, at this point, that either Peter or the other disciples are afraid.
It’s only as Peter continues to speak, and they are suddenly engulfed in a bright cloud, and the voice from heaven comes saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Only then does the text tell us that the disciples are overwhelmed with fear and fall to the ground. At that moment, too, things get back to normal. Moses and Elijah vanish and Jesus appearance returns to normal. Jesus touches them and speaks a word of reassurance, “Don’t be afraid.” It’s something that angels and other heavenly messengers say throughout Hebrew scripture and the New Testament. When they come to humans, they greet them saying, “Be not afraid.” It’s interesting that the voice of God from heaven frightened them; the voice of Jesus reassured them.
Ponder that for a moment. A voice from heaven comes, identifying Jesus as the Son of God, the Beloved; admonishing the three disciples to listen to him. Their response is fright; they collapse to the ground. It’s only when Jesus comes to them, touches them, and says a reassuring word, “don’t be afraid,” that they’re able to regroup and recover. What was it about the voice and the cloud that frightened them when Jesus’ appearance and the sudden arrival of Moses and Elijah did not seem to arouse their fear?
I’m not sure there’s a very good answer to that question; and it may not be a very good question at that for it distracts us from the two important elements in the story here; what the voice says and the interaction between Jesus and the disciples. The voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” It’s a confirmation of the special relationship between God the Father and Jesus; but more than that, it takes us back to the beginning of the story of Jesus, to his baptism. In Matthew’s accounts of these two events, the voice from heaven says the exact same thing: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, before he begins preaching and healing, his baptism, the voice confirms that he is the Son of God. Now, as his ministry nears its end, a voice from heaven comes again, to reaffirm Jesus’ son-ship and to challenge them to pay attention to him.
There’s another way in which this story comes at a significant moment in the larger gospel narrative. It follows almost immediately after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, and it comes during a series of three predictions made by Jesus that he is going to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. So this story of the Transfiguration, while it looks back to Jesus’ baptism, also looks forward to the cross.
We are at the same place. At the end of this season of Epiphany, we look back to Jesus’ baptism, back through all of those different ways in which God manifests God’s self to us.
But let’s go back to that earlier moment. When the three disciples fell to the ground in fear, Jesus touched them, said, “Get up; don’t be afraid.” “Get, up” the Greek reads literally, “Be raised.” His reassurance is also a call to boldness, to action, to courage. Get up, be raised!
And get up they did. After the spectacular events of the Transfiguration, Jesus led the three disciples back down the mountain. As they go, Jesus talks about what is going to happen to him. Our reading breaks off after Jesus’ warning that they shouldn’t tell anyone about this until after his resurrection, but he goes on to talk about the persecution of John the Baptist and his own death. Having seen this wonderful thing, the disciples are brought back to reality and reminded of what lies ahead for their teacher and for them. That too, must have been scary for them.
I began this morning by asking you to reflect on profound personal spiritual or religious experiences, times when you felt the presence of God around you and in you. Such experiences can be moments that we remember and cherish throughout our lives; they can be so powerful that we go through our lives trying to recreate them. That’s all well and good. But this story, the Transfiguration, points away from itself, toward past and future. It points away from itself to the events that would transpire in the coming weeks. As a confirmation for Jesus of who he was, a reaffirmation of what he was doing, it may have empowered him to continue on the path that he had chosen. But it also empowered the disciples. Be raised, Jesus told them, and as they went back down the mountain, he prepared them for what was to come. There would be moments of doubt and despair; they would fall down along the way, but in the end, Peter, James, and John would gain the courage and faith they needed to experience Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection.
Get up, be raised. Don’t be afraid. Our experiences of God, our relationship with Jesus Christ, should empower us and give us courage, too. As we begin the season of Lent with its focus on self-reflection and repentance, let us take hold of our faith in Jesus Christ, that it may give us courage and power to experience his redemptive love and share that love with the world.