Six days later ...
| Exodus 24:12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
|Sun, February 14, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Let's see. There are only a few dates on the calendar that most everyone can identify. December 25th is one. In Canada, July 1st is another. In the British Commonwealth most everyone knows what May 24th is. And February 14th. Everyone knows what February 14th is ... right? Transfiguration Sunday. Oh ... you had something else in mind? You missed buying your 'Transfiguration' cards and sweets and gifts this year? You were busy with something called 'Valentine's Day' instead? Don't feel badly. Transfiguration Sunday only lands on February 14th every so often. It is, you see the bookend to Epiphany Sunday ... the day when the Star of Bethlehem lightens the journey of the magi to infant Jesus. Today Jesus, the light of the world, shines on the lives of his inner circle. And, since the season of Epiphany expands and shrinks depending on where the lunar festival of Easter falls, the date of Transfiguration Sunday is unpredictable. You are forgiven if it caught you by surprise this morning!
There is, to be fair, a 'strangeness' about the 'Transfiguration' to the modern eye and ear. For a culture which is fond of thinking of him as a wise teacher all this talk of Jesus' face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming dazzling in intensity is a bit of an embarrassment. Not to mention surreal visions of ancient characters like Moses and Elijah suddenly appearing out of nowhere in order to engage in deep conversation with Jesus. And, of course, there is that Cecil B. DeMille sequence with the bright cloud and the voice of God overpowering the disciples so that they lie, cowering on the ground in terror. Given the choice, perhaps it is not surprising that most all of us circled today as Valentine's Day. Plain old fashioned 'love' seems so much more relevant ... fun ... straightforward ... even, perhaps, more 'Christian' than does this event called the 'Transfiguration'.
But, of course, their are no red hearts in the Bible. And what we know of love in the Bible is communicated in stories like this one. We've seen it before. There goes Moses up the mountain to receive the commandments from God. There he goes into a cloud ... into the glory of the Lord ... a cloud that is like a devouring fire. And there goes Jesus up the mountain. There he goes into a bright cloud. He has been up on a mountain before ... to deliver a sermon on the mount, a new set of commandments. Later, after Easter, he will gather once again on a mountain to send his disciples out into every corner of the earth. God is 'met' in some unique way in these 'mountain top' experiences in the Bible. Here we are given the commandments which describe what it means to love God and to love one's neighbour as oneself. Here Jesus describes the unorthodox law of the kingdom in which love means turning the other cheek, loving even the enemy and forgiving seventy times seven. The love described and called for in these stories is not a 'generic' love ... not everyday love ... it is love that must be revealed and learned.
No doubt that is why Moses ends up staying on top of the mountain for forty days and forty nights. Surely it is the reason that Jesus retreats into the wilderness for forty days and nights after his baptism. To glimpse the mystery of God's love is to realize how much in need one is of 're-education'. That is how I would describe most of my own experience of theological education ... as 're-education'. Whether at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California where I entered theology as a 'green' twenty-two year old in 1976 ... or here at the Vancouver School of Theology where I graduated in 1980 and where I have been re-educating myself ever since in the library and in a variety of classes ... or at Columbia Theological Seminary near Atlanta where I have recently chosen to continue my 're-education' ... I have always found my encounters to be as much about 'unlearning' as about 'learning'. Predictably I arrive thinking I have everything pretty well sorted out ... only to discover that the God of Abraham and Sarah ... the God revealed in Jesus Christ ... is not to be so easily tamed. Over the years I have often heard people describe such places as 'Ivory Towers' by which I gather that they assume that theological schools are somehow divorced from the 'realities' of the world ... that they are safe places for theologians to speculate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Instead, in my experience, theological education is often the most intense and terrifying of journeys into the clouds of mystery where God's voice speaks in tones that cannot easily be controlled or silenced. I can relate to Peter's babbling invitation to build Jesus and his two esteemed guests lodgings so that they can stay on longer. Leaving Atlanta last month, my classmates and I found ourselves striving to do just that ... to construct some way that we could keep the 'mountain top' experience of our time from slipping away.
I know, I know ... this is beginning to sound a little too much like an 'ad' for theological school ... which is always the danger of preaching on 'Theological Education Sunday'. Besides, as you well know, 'mountain top' experiences are not unique to theological education in a theological school. Thank heavens for that. In fact, for some students theological school is too much like the 'real world' of slogging through courses and books and exams to ever be a transfiguring experience. Why, just this past week, folks here at VST were interviewing three applicants for the position of Field Educator at the school. And Field Education implies that education in theology ... learning about what God is up to in the world ... does not happen only 'up here' on a University Hill but, also, 'out there' in the field! The 'holy' is not reserved for theological schools ... or for churches, for that matter. God is to be encountered on the campus ... in the workplace ... in the household ... and, yes, even on actual mountain tops! In fact, we live in a culture in which such possibility of 'spiritual' experience and 'spiritual' encounter is an increasing fascination and preoccupation. If people are not here on Sunday morning it is not necessarily because they do not believe in the possibility of 'transfigured' experience. The 'strangeness' of the story of Jesus' transfiguration is not so strange anymore to many. In fact, rather than avoiding such mystical stories there are many who are eager to enter into just such a mystery. There are many people who, told the story of the Transfiguration, would be able to describe some similar 'spiritual' experience ... some mysterious, otherworldly, transformative moment or dream or event which sounds 'crazy' but is nonetheless, for them, profoundly and undeniably true.
All of which might well lead to a sermon that is all about the transfiguring events and 'spiritual' moments in our lives. But it won't ... because it can't. It can't because, as the children will be able tell you after reading the crisp new Bibles that they received this morning, the story is not a 'generic' one. This is not a story about any old mountain top experience ... but about a specific kind of mountain top experience. The first clue comes in the first three words of the story: "after six days...". After six days. It seems a minor detail. But notice ... notice two things. First notice that this is the same detail provided in the story of Moses' trip up Mt. Sinai: "and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud". These narratives point to a transfiguring day ... the seventh day. They assume that God is revealed on the sabbath ... on the day that is to be set aside for worship and rest and study of scripture and theological conversation and shared meal times for all. This is the pattern of theological education for the whole community that is set down in the fourth and longest commandment (Exodus 20:8-11): "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy". In a world in which our time is 'used up' and in which our schedules are 'full' there is hardly any time for theological education. We hear of something called the 'Disciple' bible study program and take one look at how much time is involved and say: "Can't be done". So we send a privileged few off on a three year sabbatical called a Masters of Divinity degree ... and content ourselves to live off of their learnings. But the Bible imagines something else. It imagines that every seventh day holds the possibility of the transfiguring presence of the holy God overwhelming our lives and speaking a transforming word.
Is it ever a transforming word. Ask Peter. That is the other thing about the words "after six days". They assume that something has happened six days earlier. To read the 'transfiguration' by itself is to watch one scene in a play or read one chapter in a book on its own, out of context. Transfiguration Sunday is not simply about the glorification of Jesus. It is about glorifying a particular Jesus with a particular message. For, if you back up just a few verses, you find that in each of the gospels the story of Jesus' transfiguration occurs at the turning point of the plot. It is as if the transfiguration is the opening scene in act two. And, as any theatre-goer knows, the opening of act two makes no sense if you missed the curtain closing scene of act one! You know it ... Jesus asks who they say that he is. Peter gets it right: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God". Jesus announces that "on this rock ('Petra') I will build my church". But then he goes on to introduce a new refrain in his teaching ... he begins to show his disciples that suffering and death are in the cards for him and for them. In response, Peter takes his master aside, saying: "God forbid it, Lord!". You remember Jesus famous rejoinder as the curtain falls? "Get behind me, Satan! ... If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.". The audience, like Peter, is stunned. So see how act two, scene one takes Peter and the audience up the mountain where Jesus is seen in company with Moses, the greatest teacher of the law, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. And then hear God's voice: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!". No wonder Peter and James and John are terrified. They are not only awestruck by the brilliant light and the overshadowing cloud and the voice of God ... they are terrified of what lies ahead if they actually listen to what Jesus is saying and doing.
I heard this week of a five year old girl who was balking at the urging of her parents that she be baptised. "Why" they asked, "why don't you want to be baptised?". "Because", she replied, "Jesus was baptized ... and they nailed him to a cross". This is precisely what Peter is afraid of - some kind of cause and effect relationship in which following Jesus inevitably leads to sharing in the suffering of Jesus. Like Peter we, too, want to forget that the font at the entrance of the chapel is intended tolead us to the table and to the cross that stand at the front of the chapel. We are not alone in our amnesia. A mass advertising campaign inviting people into Christian community - surely this cannot be a bad thing - features beautiful, successful people promoting a life of peace and the 'Power to Change'. But the campaign conveniently mentions nothing of Jesus' instructions that his followers 'deny themselves and take up their cross'. Because, you see, if people were to know that this is what lies in store then, like that five year girl, they might well say "Sorry ... not for me".
Maybe that is why Jesus commands his inner circle not to say anything about any of this for now. Wait, he says, wait "until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead". Then ... then it will no longer be a story of tragedy. Then it will no longer look like a wasted, lost and unsuccessful life of suffering. Then it will be a life of faith in God ... a life that loves God and loves neighbour as God loves you. Then it will be a story worth learning and telling and living. Which is, so the story goes, how it came to be that February 14th is Valentine's Day ... St. Valentine's Day. As legend has it, bishop Valentinus had been sentenced to death under the rule of Claudius II for his refusal to worship the pantheon of Roman gods. While in prison his jailer had been bringing his blind daughter to the educated Valentinus for lessons. During one of those visits her blindness was healed. In a note given to the girl before his death, Valentinus is said to have written "Stay close to God. Your Valentinus". His feast day is the day of his martyrdom - February 14th.
See how our understanding of the love of God is transfigured by the story of the cross. No longer is it a generic 'feeling' ... a heart shaped wish ... a sweet romantic sentiment. Now it has become a force to be reckoned with ... a force stronger than death. The love of God for the world that is seen on the cross and revealed in the resurrection is so strong that we dare let go of all of our striving to be someone and to do something. Instead, trusting in the power of God's saving love we dare to sacrifice for one another ... to suffer with one another ... to bear one another's burdens and carry one another's crosses. Happy Transfigured St. Valentine's Day.