Sunday, February 26, 2017

If Only We Knew Then . . .

Matthew 17:1-13
Transfiguration Sunday
February 26, 2017
William G. Carter

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

Well, I warned some of you about the weather. You thought spring was here already, and I told you it was a scam. We’ve been tricked into seeing something that hasn’t happened yet.

It reminds me of a really bad church joke. Ever hear about the kid who keeps misunderstanding all the Bible stories? Little Joey means well. He shows up every week but he keeps getting the stories mixed up. The teachers kept asking him questions, but he kept getting the answers wrong.

He would say things like, “God got tired of making the world, so he took the Sabbath off. Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark. Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day, but a ball of fire by night.”

So one day the topic was Easter. Who knows what Easter is? Joey shot up his hand, the teacher groaned. “Yes, Joey?” And Joey said, “Easter is the day when Jesus wakes up again.” The teacher said, “That’s pretty good, but tell me some more.” Joey said, “Yes, Easter is the day when Jesus wakes up again. He comes out of a hole in the ground. Then he sees his shadow and we have six more weeks of Lent.”

For us, the time for us couldn’t be more appropriate, not just because of the weather, but because the season of Lent is almost here. It comes on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and lasts until Jesus comes out of the grave. And wants any more Lent? Lent is six weeks of self-denial, six weeks of reflection on suffering, six weeks of hearing about the cross. Who wants six more weeks of that?

Yet it appears that Jesus knew that self-denial, suffering, and the cross were all going to come. He didn’t run away from the demands. He did not turn aside. The Gospel of Matthew says, he knew all of that was coming on the day when he was transfigured.

Now, that is an odd truth about a very odd moment. There was nothing ever like the transfiguration. Jesus takes his inner circle, Peter, James, and John. They hike up a high mountain. Suddenly Jesus begins to shine. It wasn’t the glistening perspiration on his brow. He really began to shine. Like the sun, like a flare, like something they had never seen ever before. It’s such a strange moment, the Gospel writers have to invent a word. It’s the word “transfiguration.”

Did Jesus become a solar flare? Or was he always that way, just disguised? Matthew doesn’t know. I don’t know. Who knows?

In one of her poems, Madeleine L’Engle says, “Suddenly they saw him the way he was,” the way he always was. Yet he was veiled in flesh, disguised.

Others say, no, it wasn’t quite like that. Rather, Jesus was busy doing the work of God. In a momentary pause, God honored him, God rested on him – or in him – or something. You have to agree it’s a moment that defies explanation. And then it was over, just like that. Who can describe what happened?

The artists, the poets, and the musicians among us may try. They labor at their crafts for years and years. The painter picks up the brush, dabs the colors, and tries to touch the beauty before it slips away. The poet bounces rubber words against the wall until a metaphor is shaped, then scratches it down on paper before it disappears.

The musician breathes through the scales, playing them up and down four octaves, so that when the right moment comes, they can play the right note in the right way, and then the note evaporates like perfume, leaving behind a trace of transcendence. Then it’s gone.

People with imagination know exactly what this transfiguration is. It’s the a-ha moment, the moment when the sun slices through the clouds, the moment of deep insight and profound awakening. And even if you thought you could capture it, like Simon Peter wanting to build a monument, you can never quite do it.

Like the man who ran up to Louis Armstrong after he blew some hot notes, and said, “Mr. Armstrong, was that music recorded?” Pops looked at him and said, “It was only recorded on your heart, baby.”  

So Peter, James, and John are there for the moment, for the solar flare moment, for the sunburst on earth moment. Moses is there, too, because time and space don’t matter in a moment like that. The great prophet Elijah is there, too, but nobody asks him to speak a new sermon. All that matters is that they are all there. They’re there!

And then it’s gone.

The most surprising thing for me as I hear the story this time is what Jesus says when it’s over. “Don’t tell anybody about what you’ve seen.” Keep silent for a while. Guard the vision in your heart. Don’t give it away quite yet.

Doesn’t he remember that visions evaporate after a while? That a-ha moments slip away? That a burst of insight gets rusty? That ecstatic events diminish in a half-life? I don’t know.

But he does say, “Keep mum about this until my resurrection.” Wait a second, what’s a resurrection? He has mentioned it only once so far in this Gospel, and he certainly doesn’t explain what it is, how it happens, or what it looks like.

Yet that seems to be the key for grasping what they have just seen in that vision. When Jesus started catching fire, it’s a glimpse of they are going to see later on. The moment will come again when they see the fullness of his glory, when everybody everywhere will see the fullness of his glory. They will perceive that he is the One who was before all things, and he is the One before whom all things will be finished.

And when the gazillion-watt spotlight snaps off and they see plain old Jesus again, when they hear his unamplified voice, when they feel his familiar tap on their shoulders, when they hear him say, “Don’t be afraid,” they have the invitation to believe it. I think that’s the key.

I used to think this was some kind of fantasy, a thin slice of science fiction tossed back into a 2000-year-old book. Now I think it’s so much bigger than that. At very least, Matthew is trying to point to the truth about Jesus, that contrary to all observations, Jesus is both human and divine. It would take the Christian church another 350 years to get some language together to talk about that.

Even then, the language just points. Our creeds and confessions never capture the truth of the Christ that is bigger than human words. Suffice it to say Jesus is more than we thought he was and he is just like us. That’s a pretty good Christological statement.

But there’s a helpful word in this for us too. “Don’t tell anybody about this vision until after the resurrection.” What are you saying to us, Lord? He goes on to say it plainly: “I’m going to suffer. The Son of Man will suffer at their hands.” He knows that, he says that, but he is not afraid of that. For he know there’s so much more than suffering.

How else could he come down from that mountain to carry a cross? How else could he knowingly or willingly face rejection by his own people? How else could he continue his work unless he had the clear sense that there’s something more?

There’s something more than pain.
There’s something more than illness.
There’s something more than lingering sadness.
There’s something more than hostility.
There’s something more than division.
There’s something more than suffering.
There’s something more than death.
There’s something more than the heavy cloud of grief.
There’s something more than darkness and confusion, even if we’re not totally sure what it is.
There’s something more.

Picture the clarinetist that saw in Preservation Hall. He hobbled onstage so slowly, I didn’t think he was going to make it. He sat in a wicker chair, fiddling with his reed. The drummer announced the tune, began to count it off, and this ancient, withered man sat completely still. He closed his eyes. Then the melody started and he played. Oh, did he play! And when he blew a solo, he began to sway, and then he danced. I never thought I’d see anything like it. He was so completely alive.

When the music was over, he was back in the wicker chair, eyes closed, completely still. The set was over, the Bourbon Street tourists were being ushered out, but I wanted to say something to him. I didn’t know what to say. His eyes opened in thin slits as he began to dismantle his horn. I pushed forward to say, “Thank you.” The thin slits opened a little wider, the irises connected, and he said, “I play it every time like it’s my last.”

Where did he get that passion, that energy, that excitement? I think you know.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson tells of old Reverend Ames. Near the end of his hard and complicated life as a preacher in Iowa, Rev. John Ames writes a letter to his young son. At one moment he writes,

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light… I have reflected on that … and there is some truth in it. But 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?[1]

And then, a bit later, he declares,

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

If only we knew. If only we knew in moments of suffering what we see in the glory of Christ. If only we knew when times are difficult that there is something more, so much more. If only we could have the courage to see the glory and trust that it’s there. If only we knew that the day is coming, when through the love of Christ, every last one of us will be “bright shining like the sun.”  

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 2004, p 245.

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