Last after Epiphany: The Transfiguration

When I was a child my family used to go out west in the summer. We’d pile into the car – three kids in the backseat; no seatbelts; no DVD’s; no hand-held electronic devices; no radio even! Certainly no air-conditioning: just 3 kids in the back of the Ford for 4 days, windows down through the dust of Kansas and the dog days of South Dakota (104 F and no shade, me sandwiched between my two brothers to keep them from killing each other, counting license plates and playing I Spy…) until we arrived crumpled but somehow happy in northern Saskatchewan, in a little town called Nipawin, where my grandparents lived. My Grandpa was a Free-Methodist pastor; on Sundays we’d go to the little white church next door and my grandpa would pray and the piano would start to play. And the people would open their mouths and sing. It is the singing I remember. Just a piano and a congregation, but the song would roll out like some kind of thunder, four-part harmony made up on the fly and my young aunt soaring into a descant. It was the most glorious music in that little church, farmers and housewives and the corner store owner lifting up their hearts to God. The ordinary day, the ordinary people, suddenly extraordinary, suddenly singing in the midst of their problems and failings, glory, real glory to God.

How is this possible? How is it that we with our ordinary lives and our foibles and failings and problems—our sin—may become the place of grace, this weekly song of glory to our God?

It begins, our Gospel tells us, with Jesus Christ. Our Gospel today from Luke talks about glory too; it locates that glory in the face of Jesus Christ. “And while he was praying the appearance of his face was changed, and his garment became shining white.” This, God says to the startled disciples as the cloud of God’s glory descends upon the mountain; this is my Son, the chosen one. Again and again in his Gospel Luke tells us that it is God whom we know in Jesus the Christ; that in Jesus’ hands and feet God reached out and touched the world—really touched it: one day near Gennesaret, for instance, when Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper, and the leper was clean; one day outside Bethsaida, when Jesus took five loaves and 2 fishes and blessed them and broke them and fed 5000 hungry people, or in the synagogue at Nazareth when he announced to his people the salvation of God in his own person, and his people tried to kill him. It is the glory of God that touches the world in Jesus the Christ: in Nazareth, in Capernaum, in Israel long ago, and now, here, today in Toronto, in our ordinary lives.

“Precious Lord, take my hand,” the people used to sing in the little church in Saskatchewan. They were singing the mystery: that God is with us in Jesus; that Jesus is Lord. That is why their song rose up; because they knew that Jesus is Lord.

And this is the one thing our generation—my generation most of all perhaps—does not want to admit. We like Jesus a lot. We like his justice and his compassion, his heart for the poor. We like his pithy sayings and the way he thumbs his nose at power. As this good man and rabble-rouser, he is our Man of the Year. Academics and archbishops alike invite us to be part of the Jesus movement, to be good people like Jesus, working for justice—as we drive to the rally in the second car, picking up a coffee on the way.

We like this Jesus, the good man, the prophet like us. But is this who Jesus is?

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus says to the man who asks him for wisdom. “No one is good but God alone.” Indeed.

Jesus is not a good man, safely dead. He is not safe, and he is not dead. He is the glory of God.

And while he was praying, Luke’s Gospel tells us, The appearance of his face was changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

The disciple woke up and saw his glory, and

A cloud came and overshadowed them and they were terrified when they went into the cloud. And a voice came from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, my chosen one; listen to him.”

On the mountain, from the cloud, God names Jesus his son, and the glory of God not only rests upon him, but is seen in his face.

Jesus is Lord, and it is as Lord—and not as prophet or peasant or even good man—that he leads us on.

This is our hope. That it is God who is with us and not we ourselves, that this faith of ours is not just another movement, but God’s salvation.

That is what this transfiguration, this glory on the mountain, declares.

Listen: Moses and Elijah meet him, the prophets of Exodus and the eschaton, of Israel’s deliverance in the past and Israel’s deliverance still to come, in the time of God’s final appearing. Moses and Elijah, prophets of salvation for God’s people come to Jesus and they talk about his exodus.

The word the NRSV Bible translation renders as “departure” is “exodos”: it is the Exodus Jesus goes to Jerusalem to fulfil. As Moses led the people out of bondage in Egypt, so Jesus will lead the people out: out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

Jesus leads us out, as God led Israel out, through the Red Sea, out of bondage into life.

Only Moses raised up a staff over the waters to save his people from death. Jesus will himself be raised up. On the cross God’s son hoisted toward heaven, carrying our death on his back. In his Exodus, ours too; in his departure, our freedom, freedom from the black beast on our back; life for the world.

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand: through the torrent of sin and death, the failures and foibles that dog us, through the distance, the unbridgeable distance between us and our God. Lead me on, precious Jesus, let me stand.

This is our song. We sing Jesus the Lord, because it is Christ’s lordship that is our hope. We sing Jesus transfigured with the glory of God, because it is God who saves. Lord, take my hand. This too is our song: take my hand. For that is what God does, in Jesus the Christ. He sends no fiery angel or emperor; this Lord is born in a manger. He sends the servant-son.

“This is my Son, my chosen one,” Luke’s Gospel says.

These words quote Isaiah 42.

Here is my servant (my child, the Greek text says),

my servant whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights.

I will put my spirit upon him.

So God says through the prophet Isaiah to God’s people in exile in Babylon, when they wait for another exodus. So God says today, to us, in Luke’s gospel. Here is my son, my chosen one, who brings forth justice as a servant, humble and riding on a donkey. He will not cry or lift up his voice, Isaiah says, …a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. Jesus is the gentle one, who takes his struggling people by the hand and lifts them up and carries them through. He is servant, AND he is Lord.

This is our hope. For we who were so far from the glory of God, we from whom God’s glory was veiled, covered over by cloud and judgement dread; we all now with unveiled face gaze as if in a mirror on the glory of God. In Christ Jesus, we gaze upon it. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 speaks with a luminousness born of love, love of the one who was blind and now can see, who was lost and is found.

Take my hand, precious Lord. We must allow Jesus to be the Lord. Because that is the heart of our song. The glory of God that rested upon the mountain in the days of Moses—and the people could not look even on its reflection, so that Moses veiled his face—the glory of God now shines in the face of Jesus Christ, now reaches out and takes our hand, and draws us in.

Glory and servant-hood are inseparable, in Jesus Christ. God’s glory and God’s love are one.

It is fitting that the transfiguration stands right up against Ash Wednesday. Because it is there in the place of ashes, in the place of our need, that Jesus comes to join us. Take my hand, precious Lord. In Jesus: God’s glory, and God’s outstretched hand.

 

ART: Transfiguration Icon, by Theophanes the Greek (15th Century)

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