Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36
Today we mark the Feast of the Transfiguration, as told in Luke’s Gospel. You’ve heard me say before that, at the end of the day, God’s work to create us, redeem us, and sustain us for eternal life – it comes down to mystery, that God’s truth is simply more than we can wrap our minds around. The Transfiguration brings that into high relief. If you think I’m going to stand here and try to explain what happened on that mountain, think again. It’s sort of like preaching about the doctrine of the Trinity: Some things are better experienced than explained.
That truth about experiencing God’s mystery makes me think about music. Before I got into this priest gig, I had the joy of singing in church choirs from second grade on. As a kid, teen, and college student at Christ Episcopal in Springfield; and at Trinity Episcopal in Iowa City, Iowa; at the Episcopal church in Blue Springs; and at my seminary in Austin, I was blessed to get to sing in a choir every week. It was one of the ways I first experienced the presence of God. Especially at the church in Iowa City – part of a choir that was nearly as good as ours here and that eventually got to sing at the National Cathedral – I knew moments of transcendence I really can’t capture in words. But it wasn’t just an experience of beauty; it was beauty that revealed God’s majesty. Trying to explain it sort of cheapens it, but you need to know it was there. As part of that choir, because of the music we were making and words we were singing, I first knew, for a moment at least, what resurrection and new creation actually feel like.
There are moments on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings now when that majestic glory reveals itself again for me. Officiating at Evensong and Choral Compline on Sunday nights, I’ve had times when I’ve had to force myself to remember that I’m actually officiating, rather than just getting lost listening to God’s voice. We have a treasure here, and I urge you to come and hear it for yourself. These are moments when we are blessed to hear the voice of God, and live.
That’s what’s happening in our readings this morning, too. Moses has come back from being on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law from God a second time and renewing the covenant after the people broke it by worshiping gods of their own making. Moses climbs the mountain and stands in awe as God descends in a cloud, speaks the divine name, writes the Law on tablets of stone, and lets Moses experience the divine presence up close and personal for 40 days. When Moses returns to the people, his face is radiant, literally glowing, which scares the living daylights out of the people. In the tent of meeting, Moses continues to stand in God’s presence and speak with the Almighty, and he would cover his face with a veil when he came back among the people because regular folks like us can only handle so much glory at once.
That story sets the stage for the Gospel reading, as Jesus takes three of his followers into the presence of God. They go up on the mountain to pray – just as Moses went up on the mountain to receive the Law, just as Elijah went up on the mountain to experience God’s empowering presence. There, as the disciples snooze, Jesus’ face becomes radiant, literally glowing, and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus, time and space collapsing into one heavenly moment.
But why? Why is this happening here in the middle of the Gospel story, 14 chapters before crucifixion and resurrection? Here, for no apparent reason, Peter and James and John get a preview of the end of the story, seeing the Messiah in the fullness of his glory, with Moses and Elijah representing the Law and the Prophets of Jewish tradition as they point to him as the one who completes their story. The three disciples are roused from sleep just in time to see this time-bending encounter, with Moses and Elijah and Jesus talking about his coming departure, which in Greek is exodus – completing God’s work to deliver the people from the waters of death at the Red Sea and to bring them into a heavenly country instead. And then, as Peter struggles to interpret the wonder he’s experiencing, suddenly the cloud of the divine presence comes upon all of them, like Moses and Elijah experienced on the mountain in their own days. The disciples are terrified in the presence of majesty they can’t begin to describe, and the very voice of God speaks to them, in person, and says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).
Wait. What had Jesus said? What are we supposed to listen to? He was talking with Moses and Elijah, but we don’t get to overhear that conversation. In fact, Jesus doesn’t have anything at all to say in this reading.
So, it might make sense to go back a few verses and see what Jesus says just before this Transfiguration story. As it turns out, he’s just had something pretty important to say. He’s asked his followers, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:18-20). Peter nails it for once, proclaiming Jesus to be nothing less than the messiah, God’s anointed ruler, the one who will reveal God’s presence, and rule with God’s justice for the poor and forgotten, and bring about the kingdom of heaven, uniting all of creation, heaven and earth, into the completeness and peace that God intended in the beginning. And in response to that revelation, Jesus says the very last thing any of them, or any of us, would expect to hear: that this king will “undergo great suffering, … and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22). But that’s not all. He goes on to say that this way of the cross is the path to glory not just for the king but for his followers, too: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross daily, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (9:23-24) These are the words of God’s Son, the Chosen. Listen to him.
We often hear that call to sacrifice and think, “I couldn’t give my life for God.” We hear stories of the martyrs, or see examples like Mother Teresa, and we think they’re out of our league. And when we open our hands and our hearts to the mystery of what happens at this altar each week, we remember that Jesus gave his body and blood for us and continues to give us his body and blood for us, opening eternal life to us through his sacrifice. And the voice of God, booming from the cloud, tells us to follow that same sacrificial path? Really?
In a few minutes, we’ll baptize four new members of this family, four new followers of Jesus, four new inheritors of eternal life. They’ll receive a little water on their heads, but what they’re really doing is participating in the journey through the Red Sea, going down into the water and back up again, following Jesus’ path of dying and rising, putting the world on notice that sin and death do not get the last word. And as they rise from that water, they will receive God’s own Spirit, “send[ing] them into the world in witness to [God’s] love” (BCP 306). Empowered by that Holy Spirit, they will have what it takes to die and rise daily, taking up the cross and following Jesus.
That life doesn’t have to look like the sacrifice of the martyrs or the service of Mother Teresa. We’re called to walk our own paths, not theirs. Jesus calls us to take up our own crosses and follow him in hundreds of ways, in actions great and small. They may look very different for this person or that person, from one season of our lives to the next. But what unites them all is sacrifice, the daily act of taking up the cross and following the path that, unbelievably, leads to glory. It might be in feeding the hungry, or helping poor kids learn, or mentoring a mom at the Grooming Project. Or it might be scraping out wax from the votive candles, or leading a Finance meeting, or restoring floors and ceilings after the storm. Or, it might be singing and playing God’s praise here, week after week, offering the sacrifice of untold hours of preparation and rehearsal for the moment of glory in worship, the moment when heaven opens and the glory of God lifts us where we simply cannot go on our own. Because whether our gift is the time to serve others, or the talent that puts flesh on the Holy Spirit’s gifts, or the treasure that makes the work of ministry possible, the mystery we live is this: God uses even such as us to reveal divine glory through sacrifice, and every step of the way of the Cross takes us one step higher up the mountain of life that never fades away.