Today we close out this season of Epiphany, the season of “aha” moments with the story of the Transfiguration. This is one of the few Gospel stories that is called to be read twice during most lectionary years. We get the story on the day of Transfiguration – commemorated by the Church on August 6th – and on this last Sunday of the season of Epiphany. Obviously, to the compilers of the lectionary, this story must be pretty important to have it come up two times during every cycle of readings. And it IS an important story for many reasons, as evidenced by the fact that it appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke in almost identical language.
But frankly, while the Church has always recognized the importance of this story, explaining it has been somewhat more problematic. Theologians and Biblical scholars are all over the map on what the seminal importance of this story might have been in Jesus’ time and they agree even less on the importance of the story to Christians today. All that being said, I’d like to weigh in with an extension of the message that you’ve heard from this pulpit during the entirety of this Epiphany season; namely that God is a great and wonderful mystery which we will never be able to explain. And sometimes God’s grace grants us a glimpse of something behind the veil, an amazing preview into the Kingdom of God. In Celtic spirituality there are places called the “thin places,” where the curtain between our world and the next is so thin that we can see through it, if only in brief glimpses. While the Celts referred to these as actual geographic locations, I would submit to you that they are also occurrences in our lives. And these occasions when we get to glimpse God’s face through the thin curtain cannot help but be agents of transformation, calls to discipleship, if we will let them.
When Peter, James and John went up on the mountain with Jesus that day, they expected to sit with their Master while He prayed. They had done that before and they knew what to expect. But when they got there, something so amazing, so “other worldly” happened, it frightened them badly, and changed their lives. What happened on the mountain that day was a moment in which Jesus completely disclosed who and what He was to the disciples. In the blink of an eye, they became absolutely aware of the fact that they were looking into the face of God in all its grace and glory. I’ve read that, “Transfiguration is the lifting of the veil that shrouds this mystery of faith. [It] declares that the rabbi Jesus, the prophet, healer, and companion, is God present in human form reconciling the world to God’s self (Donald G. Dawes, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XIII, No. 3, p. 10).” According to Matthew, only six days before this trip to the mountain, Peter had confessed that he knew Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16).” But even Peter had no idea what it would really look like to see God face-to-face.
What did the disciples see that day? We cannot really tell from the description we get in Matthew, “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” That really doesn’t tell me much about what it looked like to see God’s face. In fact, that’s about as helpful in trying to imagine what they saw as it might have been to ask Ray Charles to describe a sunset. Ray couldn’t see a sunset. But if you ever heard him sing, you knew what a sunset felt like – and what it felt like to live without the sun. Ray Charles’ great gift was to make us feel, not to make us see. And what Ray Charles provided for fans of his music, was a glimpse at the face of God – a look at God’s beauty as it shown through the music.
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Do you remember the first time you saw a great work of art or heard a particular piece of music (or whatever it might be that really moves you) – when the hairs on the back of your neck stood up and you got goose bumps and involuntarily shivered – those are glimpses of God’s face; things that touch you so deeply and in such a memorable way that if you allow yourself to be, you are transformed.
When I first heard Chet Atkins play guitar, it made me want to be a better guitar player. The intricate way that he played made me want to learn his style and to try to make a guitar sound that way myself. But the first time I heard B.B. King play guitar, one simple note at a time, hung out in the air, sighing breathlessly or screaming in pain, it made my heart hurt – and it made me want to ease the pain that caused that sound. When I see the babies who are brought to the altar rail here, I have to smile at them. They make me want to touch them and to tell them how beautiful they are. But when I saw my own children as babies, they made me want to be a better person, so that I could be what they deserved as a father. Glimpses of God call us to alter our lives and to begin to see and do things differently.
As a priest, I’ve spent a good deal of time in hospital rooms, with people who have been very ill – and with their loved ones. And I have visited those thin places, through others’ descriptions and through my own experience on numerous occasions. When people near the end of life, often times they will do and say things that medical people refer to as dementia. But very often those “demented” ravings turn out to be very meaningful to some family member or friend. These are examples of God communicating through the thin curtain to someone who really needed to hear what was said but for whatever reason, didn’t hear it while the person was well.
A few years ago, I was with a family at a hospital in Austin. The matriarch of the family was dying. All of the children had been called and over about a day and a half, four of them had arrived and said good-bye. Their mother was comatose and the physicians had said that she would go as soon as life support was discontinued. One child, the black sheep of the family had not made it into town and none of the other four siblings wanted to call and see where she was, so they made the decision to disconnect the ventilator. We stood around the bed and held hands and prayed. And nothing happened. The matriarch continued to breathe on her own, until the final daughter arrived. When she got there, she walked to the bedside, bent and kissed her mother and apologized for all she had done to disappoint her mother. Then she apologized to her siblings and said she couldn’t stand to be separated from them anymore. And their mother quietly stopped breathing. The face of God – the compassionate face of God – showed through to that family in the thin place of that hospital room that day.
God reveals to us in little epiphanies all the time, but mostly we don’t see them; at least not for what they are. I don’t usually struggle with sermons, but I did with this one. No matter how many times I started it, it wouldn’t come together, which they usually do quite easily for me. Yesterday I checked my email and I got one of those forwarded posts from an old friend. This email came from someone I practiced law with in the 80’s and 90’s and I hadn’t heard from him more than twice in the last several years; and here was an email that didn’t even have a message for me, just some forwarded thing, but I opened it. And the end of the slide show that it contained had a picture of a couple of little girls whispering to each other, and they were wearing angel costumes. After that slide, came the following message – an epiphany if you will –
• Have you ever been just sitting there and suddenly you felt like doing something nice for someone you know? That’s God, talking to you through the Holy Spirit.
• Have you ever been thinking about someone you haven’t seen for a long time and suddenly you hear from them or run into them? That’s God, not a coincidence.
• Have you ever received something wonderful in the mail, an unexpected check or a gift of something you really needed? That’s God, who knows the desires of your heart.
• Have you ever been in a bad situation that you could see no way through, and then suddenly you’re looking back at it in the past? That’s God who’s there to see us through times of tribulation.
• Do you think this email was sent to you by chance? I was thinking of you.
What amazes me is NOT the wonder of seeing God in the thin places – it is NOT that these epiphanies continue to happen and to bring such grace and peace with them – what amazes me is that people have epiphanies; they get to see God’s face in their lives, and they still choose not to be disciples. To me, THAT is truly amazing.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2009, John Bedingfield. Used by permission.