Dazzling Reign

Matthew 17:1-9

 

Here we are. We’ve come full circle through the Season of Epiphany.  Epiphany has taken us from the visit of the Wise Men, to the Baptism of Jesus, continued with the calling of the disciples, lead us through the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, finally landing us today, smack-dap in the middle of the Transfiguration.

You know, this sequence is important because there’s a natural connection between the baptism and the transfiguration. They’re bookended. In both instances, God’s voice affirms Christ’s mission. “This is my Son,” God’s voice says, “marked by my love.” But in the Transfiguration text, if you read carefully, you’ll notice that Matthew adds something. He adds: “listen to him.” Those present at the Jordan River witnessed the anointing of Christ’s mission, but those select few who were on the mountain with Christ that day were privy to the deeper challenge his mission entailed.  And as we dive into this teaching today, that’s our challenge as well.  We are called to listen to Jesus in a sense that goes beyond only hearing the words, but also invites us to live them out in our everyday lives.

So, what does this deeper challenge look like? Well, in a word, Jesus was about seeing that God’s justice was done.  God’s justice means making sure that the hungry are fed, that the oppressed are set free, that sick and lonely and depressed are visited and cared for and healed, and that the widows and orphans and the immigrants and the refugees have someone to watch over them.

And this wasn’t a new idea. This same understanding of God’s justice was present in the Hebrew Bible as well. So, it was not accident, when Matthew penned his account of the Transfiguration, that he included characters that his hearers would have immediately associated with transformative justice. Moses and Elijah weren’t necessarily a “reflection” of Jesus’ experience, but rather a “pre-flection” Yes, I made that word up but it really fits, doesn’t it? “Pre-flection.” Remember now, both Moses and Elijah had transformative experiences of God’s presence prior to Jesus.  And these experiences, like Christ’s, were on a mountaintop.  Also, in Exodus, after the Golden Calf incident, you recall that from Sunday school, when the people worried that Moses wouldn’t come back from the Mountain so they created a golden idol to worship? Moses then broke the tablets and he went back up the mountain.  But here’s the key thing. When Moses came back after conferring with God, the writer of Exodus tells us that “the skin of his face was shining” Sound familiar? In our reading for today Jesus’ face shone after the Transfiguration. Our test today says that “Sunlight poured from his face.”[i]

So, it’s easy to see, when you lay the full context of the Hebrew Bible and Gospel lessons side by side, that the basic template from the Moses story in Exodus is repeated in the Transfiguration account.  Both mention “six days,” have three named companions in addition to the central figure, both happen on a mountaintop, both result in shining figures, and both have God speaking from a cloud.[ii]

That’s the literary context of this passage, but the important question for us today is the practical application of this text. In other words, how do we begin to reflect on what Practicing Transfiguration might look like in our world?

Well, there’s a quote that immediately comes to mind. Marianne Williamson in her book A Return to Love gives us a ‘jumping off point.’ She writes: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.”[iii]

Isn’t that interesting? “We are born to make manifest” in other words, “make obvious or apparent” the Glory of God or the light of God that is within us. Fear, she postulates, is the thing that keeps us from allowing God’s light to burst forth. Williamson goes on to say, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”[iv] Practicing Transfiguration then, is overcoming our own fears, our own self-imposed limitations, so that we can become an example of courage and action and faithful living to others.

Now, that leads to one of my central convictions as a person of faith. And that conviction is that following the way of Jesus is more important than admiring the Christ. Let me say that again because this is key. Following the way of Jesus is more important than admiring Christ from afar.  It’s not that admiring Christ is a bad thing, it’s vitally important to connect on some level with the Christ of Faith.  But as James points out, “a faith without action is a dead faith.” And I think Williamson’s words reflect James’ understanding of an active faith. Her words illuminate not only a way of being awe-struck by a mountaintop experience 2,000 years ago, but also the importance of following Jesus — along with Moses and Elijah— in a practice of transfiguration: the practice of allowing the light of God’s love to shine through us.

Francis of Assisi is a wonderful example of practicing transfiguration. Born into wealth in the 13th century, Francis, as a young man, wanted to be a knight and fight in the Crusades. But God had other plans for him. The legend goes that like the Apostle Paul, God appeared to Francis on the road and called him to a life of service. Francis resisted for years, but finally God’s call was overwhelming.  Now, his friends and family thought he was nuts for giving away all his earthly possessions and leaving a life of comfort to serve the poor. But Francis understood his transformation, his transfiguration, was something that needed to be lived out in a very practical way.  Here’s an example. It was reported that if Francis met a stranger on the road whose clothes were more worn and tattered than his own, Francis would trade with him. And if he had any food, it was equally shared with all who were hungry.

In a very real sense, I think Francis lived a life committed to his understanding of God’s justice.  And this same invitation was given to each of us. Practicing Transfiguration is about living out or reflecting God’s justice in our lives. It’s about practice. It’s about relationship. It’s about the fairness that makes it possible for all people to thrive equally.

This is something that was “established” in the Hebrew Bible, so it should come as no surprise to us that Jesus set about establishing God’s justice.  Seeing that God’s justice was done could very well have been a “mission statement” for Jesus. Except that in Jesus’ case, he expanded the scope of who could receive God’s justice.  There was a strong and consistent theology of “taking care of the alien, the stranger, the refugee” in the Old Testament.  But there was a problem. This theology wasn’t being practiced in the everyday lives of the people of Israel. The outsider was most often ignored, chased away, or outright killed.  But Jesus was determined to “see that justice was done everywhere.” And the way he “established” this new understanding of justice was by living it out. And when this new way of being was about to cost him his earthly life, he challenged those around him, and those of us who would follow him still today, to see that justice is done for everyone, everywhere. Especially, in our day and age, justice for the immigrant; for the refugee; for the stranger.  My friends, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel are very clear on this, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love your neighbor, all your neighbors, as Jesus loves them.

One final thought this morning on practicing transfiguration. The text says that “sunlight poured from Jesus’ face” and that “his clothes were filled with light” These are images of what was going on up on that mountain. They are colorful images that indicate that change was afoot.  “His appearance changed from the inside/out, right before their very eyes.”[v]  Even for the Messiah, the Divine incarnation of God on earth, change was possible.  Jesus changed from the inside/out on that mountaintop that day. From the inside/out.  This is important of us as well.  As we go forth from this service today, and go about practicing transfiguration, as we go about participating the Dazzling Reign of God on earth, as we go about sharing God’s justice with our neighbors; it’s important to remember that it all starts on the inside.  Change, a new attitude, a new perspective, and transformed heart and a transfigured soul.  These things are possible, even in situations when change may seem improbable.  Through grace and with abundant patients, transfiguration is possible.  But it must start on the inside. Change comes first from the heart and then, then the Light of God, the brilliance of Jesus Christ, and the illumination of the Spirit can shine forth for all to see.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen.

[i] Eugene Peterson.  The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.      (NavPress, 2002) Matt. 17:1-3

[ii] Carl Gregg.  Practicing Transfiguration (www. pathos.com) 2011

[iii] Marianne Williamson. A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles (New York: Harper Collins) 1992

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Peterson Ibid.

 

 

 

 

 


[i] Eugene Peterson.  The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (NavPress, 2002) Matt. 17:1-3

[ii] Carl Gregg.  Practicing Transfiguration (www. pathos.com) 2011

[iii] Marianne Williamson. A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles

(New York: Harper Collins) 1992

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Peterson Ibid.

 

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