Sermons That Work

Close Encounters, Last Sunday in Epiphany (C) – 2007

February 18, 2007


Today’s readings take us into “close encounters” with God – the kind that don’t seem to happen too often, but when they do, they are the ones that change us. In an instant of a transfiguring experience we can fully grasp who we are and what we can create. Today’s gospel reminds us to search our past to find times when we have already experienced transfiguration, and calls us to be open in the present to transfiguring experiences in unexpected places and times.

In the natural world, the metamorphoses of tadpole to frog, of caterpillar to butterfly, of acorn to oak tree, of bulb to tulip, depend on a complex and miraculous combination of factors coming together: genetic, environmental, seasonal, and more. What’s amazing about these natural processes of transformation is that each being’s biological potential has already been programmed by God into their very genes.

Consider the growth of a bulb into a tulip. Before it is planted, it doesn’t look like much at all, something like a Spanish onion. Yet so much of what is essential to what it is to become is already lurking inside of this inanimate lump. With the right combination of soil, water, light, and weather, there will be a moment when it is transformed from something that seems to sleep under the ground into something that lives and breathes above the ground. It is in what seems to be only an instant that we notice this change. It is a change that is not a subtle one, but one that is compelling, one that causes us to double take, to catch our breath. Our imaginations are captivated because there is deep down a reordering of what the world is and what God intends for it to become.

These sudden changes can happen to us, too. Think back to a moment in your own life when you had a mountain-top experience, when you felt that you suddenly knew God better. It might have been in a place that was a get-away for you. Did you feel the temptation to stay in that moment, as a moth is attracted to a flame, as Peter did? Recall how that experience changed you.

Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, a season of light, with stories of ultimate light, the shining light of God’s presence. It is also the Episcopal Church’s observance of World Mission Sunday, a yearly reminder for all of us to reclaim our common calling as missionaries sent by God into the world to bring healing and reconciliation.

In today’s gospel, Christ came to reveal a new and different way. The story is not just about showing the divinity of Christ; even the greatest figures from the Hebrew scriptures, Moses and Elijah, acknowledge his authority – Moses representing the Law, Elijah representing the Prophets. It is about so much more – about the possibility of the transformation of ourselves and our world that can so easily be missed.

There are two important clues Luke gives us that this is the meaning he intends. First, note how the passage begins: “about eight days later.” It is highly unlikely that this is a factual reference. Instead, it is Luke’s way of signaling that what comes next will speak of a new week, in other words, a new order, a new creation. As we all know, the story goes that God made the world in seven days. Now here on the eighth day something even more amazing and wonderful is about to happen.

Second, Christ is transfigured, but, as this happens, he talks of his departure about to take place in Jerusalem. “Departure” is the English word you may have heard in your translation of the gospel, but the Greek is “exodus.” It connects Israel’s liberation from Egypt to God’s liberating us through Christ’s suffering. A new exodus, a new departure, is about to become a possibility, one that will free us from the bondage of sin and death.

Instead of a departure into an unknown darkness, we will be drawn into God’s own amazing light, into a new reality. When the voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” we know God in a new way. God will always be with us in all the wildernesses, exits, and departures that we will find in mission – not high up on the mountain, but back down on the plain where ministry happens. This was not the usual mountain-top experience you would write about in a journal, with a beautiful sunrise, gentle breezes, being with friends, and quiet time with God. The subject of this mountain-top experience was death.

What happened when the disciples went back down to the plain? How did they communicate what they saw and heard to those who had not been up on that mountain? How did they share the experience with the disciples who had stayed below? How do we communicate transfiguration or other mountain-top experiences that God gives to us?

Luke tells us that the disciples “kept silent” about the transfiguration and “told no one any of the things they had seen.” Maybe that’s our clue. Don’t run off at the mouth about it or tell people that they “should have been there.” Maybe we are better off telling the story of the transfigured Christ when we serve the people who appear in our path, those who are desperate for release from the things that seize them, maul them, and scarcely leave them. This is God’s invitation to us to become companions in transformation, partners in God’s mission of reconciliation.

Perhaps the glow of God on our lives will disturb the people around us, but now we have witnessed with the disciples an ultimate revealing, an extreme Epiphany. With Paul’s encouragement that he shares with the church in Corinth, we can acknowledge and embrace our transformed lives: “we do not lose heart.” We see the glory of God as if reflected in a mirror (in Paul’s age, most mirrors looked like worn-out brass doorknobs), being transformed more and more into the image of God. In God we become a new creation, made for mission. So instead of staying on our mountain-top, let us find ourselves back on the plain, working among the crowd that needs us so much.

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