Two boys lived with their parents in a small community. The two boys – Tommy and Jimmy – had become something like the terrors of the town. They left their marks everywhere: toilet paper wrapped around trees and bushes and strewn across lawns, dead mice on porch swings and hanging on close lines, cars clinking and clanging pulling out of driveways with strings of pop cans trailing behind. One day a few of the town folk cornered the pastor where the two boys and their parents were members. “Pastor, would you have a talk with the boys?” He was hesitant, but under pressure conceded.
The very next day he spotted, out of his church study window, Tommy, the oldest, walking down the street. He intercepted him and invited him in for a chat. Reluctantly, Tommy agreed. The Pastor decided to open the conversation with an intriguing question: “Tommy, where is God?” Tommy had no idea where God was. He remained silent. Again the pastor asked, “Tommy, where is God.” Again, no response. A third time with emphasis, “Tommy, where is God?” Tommy jumped out of his chair, raced out of the church, down the street, into his house—knocking his little brother down in the process, into his room, and then, into his closet. Jimmy had never seen his older brother in such a state of mind. Jimmy entered his room, crept over to the closet door, and as he slowly opened it, a hand reached out and grabbed him by the shirt, “Quick little brother, get in here! God is missing and they’re blaming us for it!”
Let me begin today by asking you that same question: Where is God? Where do we encounter God and what difference does it make?
W.D Davies and Dale C. Allison in their excellent commentary on the Gospel of Matthew observed some of the parallels and contrasts with another prominent story in the Gospels, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. They called the story of the crucifixion a “dark twin” to the story of the Transfiguration.
In both stories Jesus is elevated on a mountain. In one case Jesus is transfigured in light, in the other a supernatural darkness descends upon the land. In the one Jesus’ garments are illuminated, in the other they are stripped off. In the one Elijah appears, in the other he doesn’t, though he is mentioned. In the one two saints appear with Jesus (Moses and Elijah), in the other Jesus is crucified between two criminals. In the one Jesus is glorified, in the other he is humiliated. In the one a divine voice confesses Jesus to be God’s Son, in the other the confession is expressed by a Roman soldier. In the one Jesus is honored, in the other Jesus is mocked.
Davies and Allison wrote: “Together the two scenes interestingly illustrate the extremities of the human experience. One is spit and mockery, nails and nakedness, blood and loneliness, torture and death. The other makes visible the presence of God and depicts the divination of human nature. So Jesus embodies the gamut of human possibilities; he is the coincidence of opposites. . . . Jesus is the paradigm of both despair and hope; he is humanity debased and humanity glorified.”
Perhaps the starkest contrast we can draw is between the voice of God at the Transfiguration and the voice of Jesus on the cross. On the mount of glory, the Divine Voice affirms Jesus, “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” At the cross, God is silent. Jesus in anguish cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
Now, we know that Jesus was not actually forsaken. Yes, he felt forsaken, he felt abandoned, but God was with him. How do we know this? Because the rest of the story affirms it.
Jesus was executed by the Romans and died a tragic death. But then afterward, we hear the voice of God’s messenger telling the women who had come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body with spices: “He is not here, He has been raised.” God validated and vindicated Jesus’ life, message, and ministry by raising him from the dead. God had not abandoned Jesus. God was with Jesus through the whole ordeal. And when we get to the end of Matthew’s Gospel the cosmic Christ tells the disciples, “I will be with you through everything, even until the end of the age.”
The Really Real, the risen Christ, the cosmic Christ, the Holy Spirit (use whatever name you prefer) is with us through all of life, in times of joy and hope, and in times of pain and disappointment.
The whole world is God’s temple. God’s glory can show up anywhere because it is present everywhere, even though in most cases it remains hidden. In the letter to the Colossians, the Pauline writer in a very mystical passage says that in the cosmic Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:3) and later he tells his readers, “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3).
God works behind the scenes, seemingly out of the way, hidden, but present with us in the midst of all of it. In all the messiness and hurt and heartbreak God is there and we can tap into these hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
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There is a fascinating detail in Luke’s version of the Transfiguration not in Mark and Matthew’s account that I think is very instructive. Luke says, “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake (or this could be translated, when they were fully awake), they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him” (9:32). When they were fully awake, they saw his glory. Luke wants his readers to be fully awake, to be alert and attentive, to be open, receptive, and tuned in, because one never knows when and where one might encounter God’s glory. If God’s glory is everywhere, then we may encounter that glory anywhere.
Remember the story of Jacob at Bethel. After his dream and encounter with the Divine, Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – I did not know it.” Then he says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.” Well, that could be said of any ordinary place where we go about our daily routines and fulfill our everyday responsibilities.
Therefore it is important for us to learn how to be fully attentive to God in the present moment. A spiritual master once said to his apprentice, “When you walk, walk; when you eat, eat.” The disciple replied, “Doesn’t everyone do that.” The teacher said, “No, many people when they walk are only interested in getting to the place where they are going. They do not experience the walking. And many people when they eat, are more involved in making plans about what they will do after they eat, and they do not experience the eating.”
A teacher was known to have lived an unusually rich life; he always seemed to be full of life and vitality and was very compassionate and took an interest in anyone who approached him. After his death someone asked his friend, “What was most important to him.” His friend replied, “Whatever he was doing at the time.”
One way we can learn to be awake to the present moment is by practicing grateful living. Brother David Steindl-Rast has observed that we can be grateful for the past, but we can only be grateful in the present. We can be grateful that we have a future, but we experience that gratitude in the present. By practicing gratitude, by learning to be thankful, we learn to live in the present.
Did you know that if you take the phrase “No where” and divide the letters differently it reads, “Now here?” If we could learn to look at life differently, the ordinary and mundane could become the very “gate of heaven.” We might think we are “no where,” not realizing that God is right now here—with us—where we are.
So the important question is: Can we be fully awake to the Divine Presence present in the present moment—when we are eating or walking, washing dishes, planting a tree, reading a book, cutting the grass, or taking the kids to a soccer game? Luke says, “when they were fully awake, they saw his glory.” To stay awake is the challenge isn’t it?
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There are some people who actively pursue transcendent experiences; it’s almost like they’re addicted to spiritually induced highs the way others are addicted to physically induced highs. They pursue one peak experience after another. But peak experiences cannot be programmed or planned or predicted. You can’t say, “Well, I am going to climb the mountain or withdraw to a monastery and have my own epiphany experience.” You can’t order it up off a menu. And there is no need to.
There is no necessity for epiphanies. If we stumble upon a burning bush, fine, but it is a waste of time to go looking for burning bushes, because there is no evidence that such experiences actually change us.
There is no evidence in the Gospel story that the three disciples who experienced the Transfiguration were changed by that single experience. In fact, shortly afterward these three along with the other disciples get caught up in an argument over who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God. James and John, two of the disciples with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, coax their mother into asking Jesus if they can sit on Jesus’ left and right. Apparently their experience on the mountain did little to alter their ego grasping after power and position. So we have to ask, “How much impact do such transcendent experiences actually have?” Honestly, I don’t know.
But I do know that discipleship is about the journey, not the destination, and the journey leads us to the cross. Peter, on the mount, thought they had arrived. He wanted to build three dwellings so they could all hang out on the mountain. But in mid-sentence, the Divine Voice cut him off. The Divine Voice directed Peter and the others to listen to Jesus.
So what does Jesus say? Just prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus told the disciples he was going to be rejected by the Jewish leaders, that he would undergo great suffering and be killed, then be raised. After he tells them he is going to die, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:24-25).
The journey of discipleship leads first to the cross, which is the real crucible for transformation. On the way down the mountain, Jesus tells his disciples that just as the powers killed John, so they will kill him: “So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” The pattern is first death, then rebirth.
The path of discipleship that leads to real conversion, real change and growth is a path that leads through death into rebirth. That’s the authentic pattern for transformation.
The call to discipleship is not a call to ascend the mount of transfiguration, it’s a call to die to our little self, our false self, the ego-driven self; it’s a call to die to our false attachments to money and greed, to honor and prestige, to power and control; it’s a call to let go of our anger and frustrations, our bitterness and resentments and petty jealousies.
This dying to the false self and its false attachments can be a painful process. The recent film Blue Jasmine is about a woman whose false attachment to affluence and prominence becomes an addiction, and when all that crumbles, she crumbles. When our false self is exposed, when we are forced to face our demons, when our world falls apart, we have a choice. We can give up, we can sink deeper into attachment and addiction, deeper into hopelessness and despair, or we can face our demons, admit our attachments, and grow and become more. Jesus says that it is in losing life that we find life. We have to die to be reborn.
I have had so few epiphanies in my life, I can’t really assess their value. But I can tell you that my greatest insights and growth have come through my conflicts, hurts, and disappointments. I believe the valley experiences have the greater potential to transform us than the mountaintop experiences.
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Our good God, teach us to be awake to your glory that is all around us. And though this is a hidden glory, it is no less real. Give us eyes to see and the faith and courage to walk with Jesus all the way to the cross—to die to our little self, our false self and all it’s false attachments. In losing our lives may we find our lives, may we discover our true selves, the living Christ within us. And in the ordinary events, relationships, and experiences of our lives, may we behold your glory. Amen.