It may seem a bit weird that we jump ahead some seven chapters from last week and focus our attention this week on the Transfiguration just as we are about to enter the season of Lent. After all, we have spent five weeks reminding ourselves that we are called to pray during the season of Epiphany that Christ will be manifest in our own lives so that we will be a light to the world. Wednesday, I will call us all to observe a holy Lent through fasting, prayer, and the practice of additional spiritual disciplines. What did the lectionary editors have in mind when they put the Transfiguration here? Why on earth do we pay attention to it now of all times? There is a day in August when we celebrate the Transfiguration, so why do we need to remind ourselves of it now? Our Collect might give us a bit of insight as to why we focus our attention on the Transfiguration before plunging into Lent.
O God, who before the passion of Your only-begotten Son revealed His glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of His countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into His likeness from glory to glory . . . Does the prayer of Archbishop Cranmer give you more insight as to what is going on today? We have spent five weeks reminding ourselves that we are called to manifest Christ’s glory in the world around us, that all those in our daily life and work will be drawn into His saving embrace. Beginning Wednesday, of course, we will begin a holy Lent. We will spend a season of the church reminding ourselves of our individual and corporate sins, our individual and corporate need of forgiveness, and of our Lord’s willingness to atone for our sins, that we might have eternal life. In the vernacular of the 60’s and 70’s, things are about to get “heavy,” culminating in our Lord’s death on the Cross and the seeming victory of evil over good, of darkness over light, and of death over life.
Who does not like mountaintop experiences? How many of us would prefer to live our lives of faith without suffering, obviously blessed, and secure in the knowledge of our redemption? Perhaps you have been blessed to have a disease that doctors could not solve mysteriously leave your body. Perhaps, when you were struggling with questions of provision, you received a timely refund check, a bank error in your favor, or a gift that met the need. Maybe you were told you were unable to conceive children of your own, only to find yourself blessed with a baby. Maybe you longed for a convenient parking place and, just as you prayed to God, the driver of the car in the perfect spot ran out to leave and give you that long-for spot. Perhaps you have been the instrument for someone else. Maybe you have prayed for someone sick and seen them healed. Maybe you have prayed for provision for someone close to you, and you have seen their need met. Perhaps you have prayed for the softening of hearts in a loved one’s relationship and have seen the Holy Spirit work in ways no less miraculous than the chariots and horses of fire from our OT reading today. I see a few nods. We love it, don’t we, when God answers prayers in ways that match our desire? We love it even more when the one being prayed for, the one being blessed, is ourselves. We love the mountain top experiences of our faith.
You know, in many ways we are not at all unlike the Apostles whom Jesus chose. In many ways, we are not unlike those men whom Christ selected to be the first bishops, the first overseers, of the Church. Peter, James, and John wanted to stay on that mountain. Peter is given the voice to utter what they desire, but make no mistake. They wanted to stay on that mountaintop with their Rabbi, with the Lawgiver, and with the Prophet. They were in the company of the spiritual Hall of Fame. Only Father Abraham could possibly add any value to this experience in their eyes. So terrified are they in the presence of these spiritual elites that they ask to erect a tent. They ask to make three dwellings because it was good to be there, on the mountaintop, basking in the glory and blessings of the Lord!
Their life and questions will teach us later that they are much like us. We do not read the next verse, but it tells us that the disciples did not understand what Jesus meant by the words “rising from the dead.” Upon their descent back into the valley, we see their failure to cast out a demon in Christ’s name. We see them arguing over who is the greatest disciple. We see them trying to forbid one outside their group from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. We see them rebuking parents for bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing. We see them reminding Jesus they gave up everything to follow Him, as if He was unaware of what they had done, walking away from net-minding or lounging under a tree, when He called. We even see them asking to sit at His right hand and at His left, thinking to earn some temporal reward and power for their willingness to follow. The love the mountaintops, but have no desrie to labor in the valleys.
The problem, at least from the human perspective, is that God’s glory is best demonstrated in suffering. The Apostles and early disciples, just like us, want so hard to get to the glory and power part. Who wants to suffer? Who wants to pick up a cross? And yet, with God, suffering is the path that leads to glory. We see it in the work in person of our Lord Christ, in the work of His Apostles, and even in our own lives. Put a different way: when do we, when do you best manifest God’s glory to the world around you? When do people ask you for an accounting of your faith? When things are going great in our lives, do people ever challenge us about our faith? No. It is in the trials of life that our faith seems most vulnerable and most appealing to those around us. How can you believe in God if He gave you cancer? How can you believe in God if you are hungry? How can you believe in God if you are poor? We believe precisely because we understand how God works. God uses our suffering to teach others about Him, just as He used our Lord’s suffering to redeem us.
We love to remind ourselves that we are His adopted children, that we are entitled to the first-born double share of inheritance. But, and here is the heavy “but” that confuses the world, ought we not expect to share, to inherit as it were, a portion of suffering in our lives? After all, if His blessed Son suffered for our sakes, does it not make sense that God might use our suffering to reach into the lives of others? Might He not use our struggles with disease, with privation, with hurt, with death, or with anything against which we seem powerless to fight on our own to manifest His healing grace, His power to redeem, in the world? Prosperity gospellers love to proclaim the glory of God and our share in them. The problem is that God leads us back down into the valleys from the mountaintops and calls us to pick up our crosses and follow Him. Put in the words of Paul, before we can share in His glory, we must share in His death and suffering.
Over the season of Lent we will focus a great deal on our sins, on our suffering, and on our need for a Redeemer. We will speak of how Jesus atones for our sins, redeems our suffering, and reconciles us to God. But before we head into those “heavy” discussions, we remind ourselves of the end. For just a moment, before we head into the shadows and sufferings and valley of life, we bask in the glory and radiance of our Lord. We remind ourselves that one day, one glorious day in the future when all of this has passed, we might well share in His glory, and be changed into His likeness, transfigured, and conversing with the saints who have come before and after, and dwelling with Him for all eternity! For just a moment, we remind ourselves that the end makes the journey worth any hardship, so long as we bear it and share in it to His glory, mindful of the promise He has made.