March 2, 2014 Transfiguration Sunday
Bearing the Light
Roy W. Howard
Don’t try to explain it. The transfiguration does not lend it self to explanation any more than when you went on a retreat and discovered God there. When your friends ask you about it, the explanations you give why your life is different seem lame and inadequate to your experience. It’s no use trying to explain it. Mountain top experiences are that way. You step out of your comfort zone and find yourself on a mission trip in a foreign land with strangers who pray differently, sing differently and laugh loudly while living with nearly nothing. The next thing you know you are weeping because your heart has been unexpectedly touched at some deep level. God appeared and your heart cracked open. Your partner asks on your return, “how was the trip?” A whole lot comes into your brain and what comes out of your mouth is “it was fine.” Well, then how are you? “I’m good.” It’s just so darn hard to explain these encounters with God. They happen, they really do; and not only in front of ancient burning bushes or on cloud covered mountains.
In Marilynne Robinson’s Novel, ”Gilead”The Reverend John Ames comments: “…the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”That’s a good questions, isn’t it? Who could have the courage to see?
The Transfiguration is a teaching story that falls into two parts: the experience of the transfigured Jesus and the next steps that follow the revelation of his identity. There’s the mountain and there’s the valley; and we live in both. Though actually, we live mostly in the valley, not on the mountain.
James and John and Peter are invited by Jesus on a men’s retreat up Mount Tabor. It’s a strikingly beautiful mountain that rises up in Israel visible for miles around. That’s also true with the other traditional site at Mt. Hermon. Jesus takes them on this retreat just after he has announced to them the spiritual path that lie before him includes death and suffering. They have resisted that message, especially Peter, who has another idea of the spiritual path for God’s Messiah. Jesus makes it clear again that the path he must follow is one of sacrifice and suffering and eludes to the fact that such a spiritual path awaits all those who risk following him. All of that precedes this retreat up the mountain. Perhaps they thought it would be a good diversion from all the heavy talk of Jesus’ suffering and spiritual path that follows that way.
It was a diversion all right! You never quite know what will happen when you step away to give your full attention to God. Here is the inexplicable part of the story. Was it a vision? Who knows; but what appeared was Moses and Elijah – the Law and Prophets embodied in these two spiritual masters – with Jesus. Peter wants to freeze the frame. Then in an echo of Jesus’ baptism, the bright cloud comes along with the wonderfully terrifying voice of God: – You are my Beloved in whom I am well pleased.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said the only question that really matters is who is Jesus for you? And it’s the one we answer again and again at every turn in our lives. Jesus the Beloved is One who travels a path of sacrifice and suffering in the name of love, because he is love. And he will do that for the world, including the world that kills him.
That’s part 1 – the mountain top; the identity of Jesus the world’s Light is revealed again. The Beloved Son of God, in whom God delights.
So what might part 2 be? The Torah is gift to guide us in the way of God and the Prophets show us how to act with justice and kindness and mercy in all our ways. Then there is Jesus – on whom the Light shines so brilliantly when the others fade away. One spiritual teaching comes forth.
It’s a simple one: Listen to him. Be quiet.
Is this part 2 of the story? Once you have answered the question of who Jesus’is for you, all that remains is to Listen to him. Listening of course implies following his instructions. No retreat lasts forever. You leave the mountain and walk in the valley that is shattered by violence, by suffering, by affliction, by complexity and above all, ambiguity. Nothing is as simple in the valley as it is on the mountain. Everyone walks with the light into the darkness. Yet, one spiritual teaching abides on the path of every Christian: Listen to him. Listen to Jesus. Then Jesus adds his wonderful counsel we all need to hear: Fear not. Do not be afraid. You have seen the light, now go forward. Let your fears fall away as you become bearers of the light in the world.
I love the story Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., tells when he was a 2o something young pastor. After threats to kill his wife and children and bomb his house, he sat at his kitchen table alone afraid and ready to give up for safety sake. He was praying at that table when he described an inner light, a voice speaking to him, telling him to fear not, be strong for this was his calling. He described it as the voice of God and he never forgot it.
You walk in the valley as a Christian who bears the Light of Christ. Listen to him. Be not afraid. Bear that light in the darkness.