February 19, 2012
When I was 15 years old, a friend and I planned what we thought would be the coolest camping trip ever. We drove a boat out to an island on Lake Sakakawea and camped overnight. We had both done a fair amount of camping in boy scouts so we weren’t novices. We figured this would be like that, only better.
Everything was great until the sun went down. At that point, everything became dark and menacing. The wind and flapping of the tent reminded us how puny and exposed to the elements we were. The sound of the waves on shore reminded us that we were cut off from the rest of humanity until dawn.
Even my dog, who we had brought along to be a friendly companion, became an unnerving presence. As soon as it became dark, the dog wanted out. There was no keeping him in. Once outside, he started snorting, grunting and tearing around the island with such fury that we weren’t even sure the sounds were coming from him.
I don’t think we slept at all. We encouraged each other through the night; but as soon as it was dawn, we loaded up and headed back to shore, humbled and exhausted.
I think we both learned and grew a bit that night from our experiences on the island, but the trip certainly didn’t turn out as we expected. We thought we knew what the trip would be like, but reality proved to be very different from our expectations.
The amazing story of the transfiguration of Jesus offers a similar lesson. On the mountaintop with Jesus, the disciples experienced something completely incredible. The curtain which separates this world from whatever lies beyond was pulled back.
The form of Jesus was transformed before their eyes. Mark doesn’t give any details regarding the physical body of Jesus, but the other Gospel writers describe how his face changed and began to shine like the sun. They all describe how his clothing became dazzling white — whiter than any earthly thing could be.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the forms of two men who had been dead for centuries appeared and began to converse with Jesus. The whole mountain became shrouded with a heavy cloud and they heard a disembodied voice address them with the words: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Wow! What an experience! Wouldn’t it be amazing to experience such a thing? Can you imagine what it would be like? It is tempting to think it would be awesome to experience something like the disciples did in today’s Gospel.
We might think that it would confirm… or even create… faith in us. “If only I could see with my own eyes something like this, I would know it’s all true.” I’ve heard many people wish they could see some kind of flashy sign… get some kind of stunning peek at the being of God so it would be easier for them to believe.
That may be what we think we want and what we think would happen, but we would be mistaken.
The disciples walked with Jesus day after day… and had already seen many amazing things in his presence. Even so, their reaction to this experience wasn’t… “Wow! Cool! You know, this makes sense.” Rather, the Gospel writer Mark explains for us, “They were terrified.”
What’s more, the experience on the mountain didn’t seem to strengthen the faith of those who lived it. In the time that followed, it doesn’t appear that Peter, James and John understood any clearer or believed any stronger than before. All three would experience great failures of understanding and faith in the near future.
Shortly after this, James and John chase delusions of grandeur. They fantasize about being powerful and ask Jesus to reserve a place for them, one at his right hand and one at his left when he comes into his glory. (Mark 10:35-45)
When the authorities and people turn viciously against Jesus, Peter denies he knows him three times in order save his own skin. (Mark 14:29-31)
All three — Peter, James and John — abandon Jesus when he comes into trouble. Even though they saw the glory of the transfiguration, they don’t trust the power of God enough to stay with Jesus during his time of trouble. (Mark 14:50)
After Jesus’ death, all the disciples fall into despair. Despite having seen the breath-taking power of God on the mountaintop, they are unable to even hope that God might still have a card to play. When the first reports of the resurrection come to them, they dismiss them as “idle tales.” (Luke 24:11) They fear the power of the authorities more than they trust the power of God.
Where was the memory of this vision then?
We often think that faith and understanding would come easier if only we could experience the glory of God as the disciples did in today’s gospel; but that’s not how it works.
Experiences such as the transfiguration, or other signs or visions can’t create faith in us. They can’t be faith’s foundation. They may be a gift and they may have purpose. But it is something else that is faith’s foundation.
Faith’s beginning and firm foundation is the result of God’s work within us, not his supernatural acts in the world outside of us. Paul,who experienced his own stunning vision of Jesus, speaks beautifully of that foundation of a vibrant faith in today’s second lesson. And it is really far more exciting and wondrous.
Paul reminds his readers how God has “shone in our hearts”, thereby reflecting in us the glory of God that is seen in the face of Christ. In our heart is where we need to look for the miracle of faith to build its foundation. That is where change begins. That is where growth occurs. That is where God works wonders that last. That is where we wait for God.
How does this happen? There is much we can do to open our hearts and our lives to God’s power. It begins with hearing the Word. We need to hear the story of God’s goodness and grace, of Jesus’ life, love, death and resurrection. This is the seed that gets planted, from which growth will occur, from which faith will blossom.
We need to open ourselves in prayer. Prayer does not need to be grand. It can–it should–be simple, direct, honest. One of the most precious things Jesus taught us is that we can speak to God as direct and open as a small child would speak with a loving parent–no reserve, no fear, no fancy words.
We need to ask God for forgiveness, for new life, for direction. We need to confess our weakness, our emptiness, our need for grace and guidance and strength… and new paths to life and healing will open before us.
We need to thank God for the gifts he has given us: for life, for time, for places, for people… and we will grow in awareness and gratitude for the good and precious things in our lives.
We also need to pay attention to our relationships with others. God reveals himself to us in the connections we have with those around us. In acts of kindness and mercy we are touched by Jesus’ love and God’s goodness… and grace stirs in our hearts.
And we are called to love others as God loves us… to comfort those who are hurting, lonely or sad, and when we do this, we begin to understand the love of God for his people. We are called to support those who are teased and tormented, who suffer the abuse of others and, when we do this, the mercy of God grows in us.
The Transfiguration was a pinnacle moment in the Gospel. In that glorious moment, Christ’s divine nature was revealed. Yet as glorious as it was, it was but a moment; its power to inspire faith, even in Peter, James and John, was limited.
But we are assured that God is at work in another, truly wondrous way; creating and sustaining faith in us. He is at work in our hearts — at work creating a “new me” and a “new you.”
Earlier in Paul’s same letter to the Corinthians, he declare
s to his readers, “YOU are a letter of Christ…written not with ink, but with the spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.”
Ultimately, the amazing wonder of Jesus’ outer form being changed before the eyes of his disciples, is a sign… a preview… of our own inner form being changed by the grace and power of God.
We are called to become new people; and it is God who works that miracle in us. He makes us new through faith. Like all growth and change among creatures of flesh and blood, growth and change in faith is a process which takes time; but we have God’s promise that he is there — in our hearts — making us new, shining forth in all who welcome his coming.