Glimpses of Glory
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
You try explaining the transfiguration to a 5th Grader – how Moses, Elijah and Jesus all manage to appear at the same time in today’s Gospel reading. Such was the task I set out for myself several years ago at my first parish. I was writing Sunday School lessons for their class and, for those of you who don’t spend much time with this age group, they can be a tough crowd.
(And yes, I realize I have some 5th Graders listening to me right now who’ve been quite verbal about their need to understand what we’re really saying here in church. I’ll try to be as clear as I can.) No longer blindly accepting whatever they hear from adults, kids this age have been taught in school to ask for things like evidence and proof. They’ve been taking true/false tests for a while now, and to an extent, have been taught to view the world this way. You don’t question the nature of reality in a true/false test. Well, you could, I suppose, but teachers aren’t likely to give credit for that kind of creativity. In the teachers’ defense, the questions are usually phrased so only a simple response is needed. The problem with the transfiguration, of course, and most of life is that it refuses to reduce itself to any such test.
Before I even attempted an explanation of today’s Gospel to my 5th Graders, I needed to lay out the cast of characters. I know what some of you are thinking. Aren’t there too many fires burning in the world to be focusing on Bible stories? Well, we come here for more than just a commentary on the crises of the day. We come, in part, because we want to experience God and live our lives in that light, and that’s what these stories are ultimately about. So just in case you could use a refresher as well, here goes:
It was on a mountain, Mount Sinai to be exact, over 1200 years before Jesus (in Bible time anyway) that Moses had the experience we hear about in our first reading from Exodus. You remember Moses – he’s the one who led the people out of slavery in Egypt. Well, at this point, he’s already given them the Ten Commandments. He’s going up the mountain again for additional instructions. Only this time he brings Joshua with him, the one who will become the leader of Israel when Moses dies. We’re told that a cloud covers the mountain. We don’t know what it looks like to Moses or Joshua from the inside, but from the outside, it looks a little frightening. It’s over a month before they come back.
For the record, Moses eventually makes it back to this mountain for one more go-around with God and asks to see God’s face this time. Enough with the smoke and mirrors. He’s sick of playing hide and seek. It’s been the policy all along that you can’t see the face of God and live, so they strike a compromise. Moses hides in the cleft of a rock; as God passes, Moses catches a glimpse of the backside of glory, just enough to keep following where God leads the way.
Fast forward about 400 years, and we’re back on Mount Sinai, only this time it’s with the prophet Elijah. If there’s a second most popular figure in Israel’s early history, it’s this guy. In this story, he’s running for his life and finds a cleft in the rock in which to hide. A voice comes to him on the mountain: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah whines a bit, and God tells him to come out “for the LORD is about to pass by.” Maybe Elijah’s expecting to see whatever Moses saw. But the Almighty isn’t into pyrotechnics this time. Sometimes, and we know this, God doesn’t look like anything. It’s not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire that Elijah experiences God; it’s in a “sound of sheer silence,” or what the King James Version calls “a still, small voice.” After God allows him to pour out his heart again, the message back is clear: “Go, return on your way.” In other words, get up; it’s time to go back to work. And so Elijah goes.
Our remaining figures in the Gospel story, Jesus aside, are Peter, James and John – three of Jesus’ closest friends. And we’ve fast forwarded again – about 800 years from Elijah this time, 1200 or so from Moses. These disciples of ours - they know the stories of Moses and Elijah by heart; they’ve grown up hearing them at home, in the synagogue. They know what can happen on mountains and have to be at least a little excited to play Joshua to Jesus’ Moses. What experience of God will they get this time – Moses’ cloud or Elijah’s still, small voice? They get a little of both, I suppose.
It’s Jesus, though, who’s transfigured before them; it’s his face shining like the sun that they see. Then Moses and Elijah show up in their vision, and these two ancestors in the faith finally get the peek at God they’d been promised so long before – only it’s through the face of Jesus, the Word made flesh. Pay-up on God’s promises can take a while apparently. Peter starts fumbling for words, when they hear this: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” The thing is – the disciples already know that. They figured out that part out the chapter before. It’s the next part that pushes them over the edge. “Listen to him.” At this, they fall to their knees in fear.
What do you mean – it’s not enough to be wowed by unspeakable beauty, those glimpses of eternity we see when we’re up on a mountaintop? We can’t just get lost in the moment and leave our mystical experiences of God at that? I wish. It’s when we’re told that we actually need to listen to Jesus that reality begins to hit. What if all that talk in the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies is truly the voice of God, meant for us not merely to admire in our church clothes on Sundays but to follow in our lives? What if the end isn’t charity at hand-shaking distance for justice for all of God’s children, no matter their country of origin? What if the day of the LORD is truly coming, and we’ll actually have to answer for how we’ve treated the most vulnerable among us? I’d fall down in fear too.
In the midst of their fear, Jesus comes and touches them, speaking words we’d do well to listen to: “Get up, and do not be afraid.” They hear the human voice of God, and it’s not a rigid list of do’s and don’ts, not a perp sheet listing their crimes, not a failing grade for all they haven’t done, but this: “Get up, and do not be afraid.” For now, all they have to do is keep following where Jesus leads the way and keep this vision to themselves – at least until Easter.
Why the big secret? Wouldn’t sharing this spectacle convince more people that Jesus was who he said he was? Wouldn’t it make their job easier? Perhaps Jesus insisted on silence for now because he knew they’d be pushed for an explanation, and there wasn’t one. Words don’t truly capture any reality, much less this. Or maybe such a mystic vision is too easily misunderstood by those who want the glory and beauty of love without suffering, who want desperately to skip over the cross on their way to new life, when Jesus knew all too well it doesn’t work that way.
Besides, I’m not sure the testimony of these eyewitnesses would be all that convincing. It was a moment shared among friends, affirming what they believed already, encouraging them to put feet to their faith and not be afraid. It’s not proof for those who don’t want to see or who aren’t interested in hearing. Such a moment is too easily dismissed as a hallucination or as wishful thinking by those who didn’t want to admit that their hero died a criminal on a cross. Those who aren’t open to Easter aren’t really open to this moment either.
Perhaps it’s not my job to explain the transfiguration, any more than I’d want you to explain to me what I hear when we sing our best hymns, or what I felt in the depths of the Grand Canyon, or what I see in the face of Desmond Tutu or Pope Francis. Glimpses of God can’t really be explained. The Bible, for one, doesn’t attempt an explanation; we’re simply told what happened – whey they saw and heard and how they reacted. Maybe the transfiguration isn’t supposed to blind us with its light or overpower us with proof. Maybe it is more like how it’s described in today’s passage from 2nd Peter. This story can be like “a lamp shining in a dark place,” giving us just enough light to keep following, that is, “until the day dawns and the morning star shines in our hearts.”
So what about my 5th Graders? How do I offer this story to those conditioned to a simplistic true/false world? How do I share with these children driven by achievement and terrified by failure that faith is not in the end just another test, but a gift, that they don’t need to cower in fear before a scorekeeping God? Maybe it starts with the questions we ask and the kinds of answers we accept. Although kids at this age know how to navigate the outside world using the kinds of things we can prove, their private world is still full of imagination and play and possibility. They hold their world together with stories, be it the stories of their family or their country or their church; they find their place in the world by finding their place in these stories. They live by the stories we tell them. They can still live by the power of a good and true and beautiful story, of the love of God that became flesh and dwelt among us, a love more powerful than death – that’s good news not just for some, but for the whole world. So can we, for that matter. So let’s let their good news be our good news too: Even when we’re scared to death of listening to Jesus for what it might mean for our lives – and for who we’re called to love, we can still get up and not be afraid of the clouds or the silence or the waiting in darkness. We can keep following where those glimpses of glory lead the way. Amen.