“A Glimpse of Glory”
(Mt. 17: 1-8)
February 19, 2023
Dr. Daniel L. Migliore
Our Gospel reading today is the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. Transfiguration is a big word. It simply means being changed, looking different, taking on a new appearance. According to the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, he leads three of his disciples--Peter, James, and John—up a mountain. Suddenly, he is transformed in their presence. He is enveloped in dazzling light as bright as the noonday sun. Moses and Elijah join the scene and they talk with Jesus. A voice is heard from heaven declaring that Jesus is God’s Beloved. “Listen to him,” the voice says. Awed and fearful, the disciples fall to the ground. When Jesus tells them not to be afraid, they look up … and they see only Jesus.
This Gospel story both fascinates and bewilders. There is nothing like it in the Gospels apart from the stories of the resurrection. We could easily get tangled in a lot of questions we might want to ask about the story, but I want to focus this morning only on one question: What might this story have to say to us today, on this particular Sunday of the church year, the Sunday before the beginning of Lent? What in the world might this this mysterious Gospel story of Jesus’ transfiguration --his being bathed in dazzling light—have to do with us only a few days before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season?
For ages, Christians have observed the season of Lent as a time of solemn meditation. It is a time for self-examination and repentance, a time for prayers for forgiveness for all the ways we have not loved God with all our heart and soul nor loved our neighbors as ourselves. But Lent, I suggest, is also a season that calls us to ponder what we might call the nighttime experiences of life, a season to grieve and lament for our own and our loved ones’ vulnerability and woundedness. Still more, Lent can be a season to lament the wounds and losses of the entire world.
As we approach the Lenten season this year, we do not need to be told what living in a time filled with sorrow, suffering, and loss is like. Many families, congregations, communities, our society, our nation, indeed the whole groaning creation know loss all too well. After three years of nationwide and worldwide plague leaving millions dead; after daily news reports with pictures of the horrors of the war in Ukraine and the tragic loss of life from the earthquake in Turkey and Syria; after the multiple and seemingly endless mass shootings in our country of innocent human beings, including children; after finding ourselves mired in a social and political climate in which suspicion, division, and vengeance have become the new normal; after learning of the climbing suicide rate in our society and reading the reports of increasing numbers of our young people who are fighting depression because they do not await the future with a sense of anticipation but with a sense of dread; after all this, who of us needs to be told what it means to live in a time of remorse and lamentation. If this is our lived reality today, can this strange story of Jesus’ transfiguration have anything to say to us?
In the worship service Kadi and I attended last Sunday, the pastor preached on the story of the death of Moses recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy. According to that story, before Moses dies, God tells him that he will not live to enter the promised land, but God gives him a vision of the vast and fruitful land the people of Israel will soon inhabit. “I will let you see it with your own eyes,” says the Lord. The pastor who preached on this text plaintively asked a question that all of have asked at one time or another in our life, and may well be the question on our minds and in our hearts at the beginning of this season of Lent: “Is it too much, O God, to give us at least a glimpse of your glory, a glimpse of your promises fulfilled?”
My message this morning is that the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, if not an answer to the pastor’s and our plaintive question, it is at least a pointer in the right direction. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is a story of a revelation from God in which we are granted a glimpse of glory.
Now the Bible is full of many stories of revelation. Notably, many of these revelations are given to people on a mountain top. Moses--who appears in the transfiguration account—received God’s revelation of the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. Elijah-- who also appears in the transfiguration story—was the great prophet who on Mount Carmel prayed for God to send down fire to consume the pitiful idols the people were worshipping. When Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, we are to understand that they are important participants in God’s saving work culminating in the ministry of Jesus. They represent the divinely given law of God, and the irreplaceable testimony of Israel’s prophets. Yet as essential as Moses and the prophets are in God’s work of salvation, it is not they but Jesus who appears in blazing light on the mountain. Listen to him, says the voice from heaven. Look to Jesus, the story of transfiguration tells us; see the radiant light of God shining above all in him.
So what does this Gospel story have to do with us today, here and now, on this last Sunday before Lent? Well, often when you can’t fully grasp the meaning of an event, it helps to know its context. In all accounts of the transfiguration in the Gospels, what happens just before Jesus appears in blazing light is that Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. Peter replies you are the Messiah, the Son of God. Yet only a heartbeat later, when Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem where he will undergo suffering and death, Peter cries out: No way! God must not let this happen to you! In response, Jesus sternly rebukes Peter. He tells him and the other disciples: if you want to be my disciples, you will have to take up your cross and follow me. It is after these words that Jesus’ appearance is changed; he is illumined in radiant light. Set in its Gospel context, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration tells the early disciples and us: So you think you have seen Jesus and know all that is involved in following him? Look again.
Looking again. That’s the central message of this story of Jesus enveloped in dazzling light. The summons to look again. To see all things anew in the light of Jesus.
In the worship services of this congregation, the Christ candle is lit at the beginning of every service. This is a symbol of the fact that, while many candles may be lit, Jesus is the radiant light of the world. It is in his light that we learn to see everything differently and learn what it means to live in that light. The story of Jesus in radiant light challenges us to look again and to see in Jesus the height and depth and breadth of the love of God. The dazzling light that comes from Jesus, if only we let it shine on us, changes our understanding of everything: changes our understanding of God, changes our understanding of ourselves, changes our understanding of the whole of creation as destined to become the new, transformed world of God.
First and foremost, looking again in the light of the radiant Jesus changes our understanding of God. Like Peter we may routinely confess that Jesus is the Lord only soon thereafter wonder whether the Lord God, the creator of this vast universe, could possibly care for us, could possibly condescend to our broken human condition, could possibly experience humiliation, defeat suffering, and death. We hold on tightly to the belief that God is so high above us that God must remain aloof from us. We do so because the gods of our imagination are so small. The Gospels tell us to look instead for the glory of God not in what the world considers power and glory. Look again at Jesus, says the transfiguration story. How does he reveal the glory of God? The glory of God is to be seen in a child born in poverty, indeed born in a stable, and belonging to a refugee family fleeing to a foreign land. The glory of God is to be seen in Jesus’ ministry to the poor and the sick; in his befriending the outcast; in his proclamation of the coming reign of God to friend and foe alike. Not least, the glory of God is revealed in the Jesus who makes his way to Jerusalem and is executed on a hill called Golgotha. If this Jesus is really Emanuel, really God with us, the light of the transfigured Jesus shatters our assumptions about God as utterly remote and invulnerable. In his light, we catch a glimpse, perhaps for the first time, of the true glory of God.
We see God differently; we have a glimpse—a glimpse-- of the unique glory of God in the one who forgives sinners, ministers to the sick and the poor, blesses the children, dies hanging on a cross between two criminals, and promises to be with us and for us always.
The brilliant light of the transfigured Jesus changes not only the way we see God; I it also changes the way we see humanity. The humanity of Jesus shines. Jesus is human as God intended us to be and as we are called to be in him. To be sure, we are all created in the image of God. The Scripture says this clearly. Even many politicians pay lip service to its truth. But to speak honestly, we all know that our humanity has been so broken and scarred that in fact we can often scarcely recognize the image of God in it. But in the radiant light of the transfigured Jesus not only is God revealed as One who bears all our sorrows and griefs, but our true humanity in God’s purpose and promise is also revealed. In Jesus we see a human being freely and gladly loving God and others, all the different others we are inclined to ignore. In the light of Jesus’ humanity, we see our true humanity as God created and redeemed us to be. We see what we are called by God’s grace to become, truly human as we reflect the light and the way of Jesus, as we as followers of Jesus have compassion for the poor and needy, as we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, as did Jesus. In the light of his humanity, we have a glimpse—a glimpse--of the glory of all the children God who are called to be human partners of God.
And still more is revealed by the radiant light of the transfigured Jesus. In his light, the way we see and relate to our natural world is changed. Seen in his light, the natural world is far more than our dwelling place and the many resources of our daily life. In his light, the natural world is certainly far different from something we can greedily exploit for our selfish purposes. Seen in the light of Jesus, the natural world takes on a beauty that we all too often miss. Remember the words of Jesus to the disciples, look at the beauty of the lilies of the field. Look, really look. If you think you have seen them, then look again.
In comparison with them, Jesus says, the riches and adornments of the mighty and wealthy of the world don’t even come close. And it’s not only the lilies of the field that can evoke our wonder and awe-- if only we look again. Think of what you can see when you are at the top of a mountain. From that high vantage point, we see so much more of the majesty and beauty of the natural world than we see when we are at ground level. But imagine now climbing up a different mount with Jesus, the mount of transfiguration. There for a moment, catch in the light that radiates from him a glimpse of a world renewed, a world that Jesus called the reign of God. In the light of Jesus, see the world as it is promised to become by God’s grace, a new world of friendship with God and all creatures, a beautiful world of harmony and peace. This new world of God we see in the light of Jesus is not a fantasy, not something that may come in the far off, distant future. The new world of God revealed in the light of Jesus begins here and now. Don’t we catch a glimpse of it when we see Jesus feed the hungry, and we resolve likewise to attend to the hungry among us? Don’t we catch a glimpse of it when, in the light of Jesus, we look, really look again, at the lilies, and the mountains, and the starry sky, and we are able to see the whole of creation as God’s own dwelling place and gift to us, and we gladly commit ourselves to a new responsibility to care for the earth and all its marvelously diverse inhabitants?
When seen in the dazzling light that radiates from the transfigured Jesus, everything is changed. His light changes our understanding of God as aloof from our suffering; changes our understanding of ourselves as hopeless captives of our sin and forlorn victims of the injustices and cruelties of evil forces; changes our understanding of our natural world from being something to be used and exploited to being a gift of God whose beauty, so often ignored by us, can be glimpsed by us when we see it in the light of Jesus and the new creation he has set in motion.
My friends, on the threshold of this season of Lent, what all of us long to hear is good news. What we long to hear is a message of hope. What we long to see in the fog and gloom that so often surrounds us are glimpses of God’s glory right here and now that will give us hope and courage and the ability to see the way forward. And the way forward is to live and rejoice in the radiant light of Jesus.
Let us, then, enter this Lenten season not with fear of God’s wrath, not with self-loathing for the times we have missed the mark of our Christian calling , not with a cynical or hopeless spirit. Let us enter this season of Lent with the dazzling light of Jesus to illumine our way. That light empowers us to see everything differently. That light gives us a glimpse of the true glory of the gracious God who forgives sin and promises to be with us always; a glimpse of the glory of what we and all human beings might yet become as we follow the way of Jesus; a glimpse of the beauty of God’s new creation breaking in right here and now in every act of kindness, every act of mercy, every act of reconciliation, every event of peace making and the making of new and wider community. If only in the light that radiates from Jesus, we dare to look again and again and then live and act in that light. Amen.