Sermon: The Dazzling Dark

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

The question before the one about what might this story mean to us is what is it doing here on the last Sunday before Lent. It’s time, we’d all agree, to take down the lights of Epiphany. You either believe or you don’t. But what do we believe or not? What did Jesus and the disciples do or not? Yes, the story takes a new direction once Jesus “turned his face toward Jerusalem,” but what might that have meant to the disciples who lived and worked with him when the times began to change?

Peter had proclaimed: “You are the Messiah…the son of the living God.” But then, Jesus told his squeamish friends that “ whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” Now that’s serious talk – especially when you live in an violent and autocratic country.  Maybe it was still a step too far for Peter. Or maybe he needed time to live with it and so, six days later the story goes, he saw the transfigured Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah.

The first thing we need to remember before we try to figure out what this might mean is that an experience is always different from its explanation. An experience is time-bound, so first-century experiences will always be revealed in first-century thought forms and vocabulary. Whatever happened on that mountaintop can be passed down to us, but only in whatever form it was held in the memories of Peter, James and John.

The next thing to remember is something we said last week – that perhaps it’s enough to focus on Jesus’ humanity and what it means to be truly human as the church leads us toward the mystical stories of Lent.

So what do we know? The four of them went up to a place apart to pray and Jesus appeared very different to them. In the circle of his inner light, two figures appeared — Moses and Elijah – both long gone heroes from two separate times in the past, showing up in the present as if time were not limited by death, but more like a light that could be stepped into and out of.

Whenever the Bible speaks of dazzling light, the hope behind the words links the light to the true presence of God’s Spirit – God’s Glory or God’s Shekinah, the rabbis would have said. So there they stood and talked within the light – Moses the Lawgiver, Elijah the Prophet and Jesus the Messiah – all wrapped in such dazzling light that it is  wonder enough that Peter, James and John could see at all. They talked, only Luke tells us, about a departure, an exodus – not Moses’ exodus, but Jesus’ exodus.

But Peter, James and John did see, Luke says, and then they did not see anymore, because of the cloud and the voice saying again those words that had come before at Jesus’ baptism. Listen to him.

What we do not need to do with these words is to build a building, or an order of worship, or a way of speaking of God – that suites us and – in the doing – makes us feel like we have some control of the story. What Peter was suggesting was a plan that tried to freeze the moment – and cut its meaning down to a manageable size.

What we do need to do – is to see this otherworldly story in context, as part of ongoing life. If Jesus had mythically ascended into heaven with Moses and Elijah, he would have been an abnormality, not a Messiah, and it would have been impossible for us to see what he had in common with us before or after death.

As it did happen, he would die very much like those on either side of him, one of them begging to be saved from what was coming, and the other asking to be remembered when Jesus got to where he was going. He could not do anything for the one who wanted to be spared, but he did do a great thing for the other. Jesus told him that the darkness was light, dazzling light, a new way of living for both of them.

It might have been something he learned on the mountain, when light burst around and through him and showed him that humanity is more than flesh and bones. It might have been because the power of the One who first said “Let there be light,” is bound, like the light and the splinters of the cross, always and forever to undying love.

It is a lot to believe: that his path of love will lead down into the valley, through the dry cinders of Ash Wednesday and the tears of Good Friday. But from here on the mountaintop, we can look to the days ahead and remember that the journey through ashes and sorrow is never for its own sake. That God’s life includes and surrounds death itself. That, in the wholeness of God’s reality, even the darkness can dazzle.   Amen.

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton

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