Blinded by the Light Lk 9:28-43a 3-3-19
From the time I was born until I was 6, my family lived in Manila, a very hot, sticky, port city in the lowlands of the Philippines. Often our family made the five-hour drive up the mountains to Baguio City for vacations. At an elevation of 5,000 feet above sea level, in the middle of a pine forest, Baguio was a little like a Filipino version of Leavenworth. In the final hour of the drive, as our car traversed switch-back after switch-back to reach this refuge, there was a noticeable change in the air. Clouds tumbled down the mountainside to meet us; we made sure to unroll our windows so we could breathe in the cool, pine-scented air. It was the beginning of vacation while we were still in the car. When I was six, we actually moved to the mountains, and from then on, that welcome shift in the air came to mean we were coming home. To this day, the smell of pines and cool mountain air are vivid sensory memories that signify a sense of welcome and hospitality to me.
Today’s Gospel reading takes place in rarefied mountain air, where the disciples and Jesus are covered by clouds. What happened up there isn’t exactly clear. We just know that Jesus suddenly shone with light and that two figures—who seemed to be Moses and Elijah—were speaking to him. Then a voice from Heaven echoed the words we heard God say at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Beloved, my chosen one. Listen to him!”
This perplexing but glorious event wraps up the church season of Epiphany—a season of “thin places,” where we caught glimpses of who Jesus really is and what his identity means for him and for us. It makes sense that Epiphany culminates with a mountaintop experience, because mountains are where the flat plane of the earth intersects with the divine plane of heaven. They are pivotal locations for revelation and fresh perspective—though what happens on this mountaintop is not exactly a flash of clarity and understanding. Instead it’s a scene of splendor and transcendence—the sort of moment where logic goes out the window and we are driven to our knees in awe.
Which makes many of us uncomfortable. In a world where we are quick to dismiss things we don’t understand as unimportant, irrelevant, or old fashioned, the story of the Transfiguration is jarring. It’s a peek at a situation we cannot fathom or explain. Here, the Scriptures seem to say, “Look again and see that the light of Truth doesn’t always lead to new understanding—except the understanding that sometimes Truth’s brightness reveals the limitations of human eyes and minds.”
Imagine how tempting it would have been for Jesus to stay on that mountaintop, a place where his divinity shone brightly, where his companions are Moses and Elijah, dignitaries who represent God’s presence throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. For a glittering moment, Jesus shone brightly, revealing him to be the Lord he is. Peter must have felt this too, because he offers to prolong the experience by building little tents so that Jesus and Elijah and Moses can remain in this otherworldly atmosphere. (And, I imagine, so that he can soak up all the goodness around them.)
I think most of us understand Peter. In the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen (though mostly remembered for Manfred Mann’s cover of the hit single)—we are “blinded by the light.” We have trouble seeing the splendid and then adjusting our eyes back to reality. I know I never enjoyed the drive back down to Manila after we left Baguio, probably because going down the mountain meant vacation was over.
Maybe we have a similar experience when we leave worship sometimes. We have come here, hoping to encounter the other-worldly mountain air, where Jesus shines in radiant beauty, where love is central, forgiveness is abundant, and hope and peace are celebrated in gorgeous singing and precious companionship. It can be hard to walk out that door after it’s over.
But Jesus works differently. Jesus does not float off into another world and leave the disciples to their own devices. He doesn’t stay up on the mountain conversing with God and Moses and Elijah. Instead, the very next day, Jesus leads his friends back down into the valley, into their everyday world. His face does not shine like that of Moses, distinguishing him from the masses. He doesn’t need a veil. He is completely himself.
At the base of the mountain, the first person they encounter is a man whose son is possessed by a demon so fierce that not even the Jesus-followers who were present were able to give assistance. Wouldn’t you know that Jesus would leave the holy mountain and go straight to hell? It’s just like Jesus not stay in a place of honor, but to come right where humanity needs him the most.
If we are tempted to camp out above the fog, inside this stained glass retreat, lost in the company of Jesus and the Law and the Prophets, we miss out on a lot. Jesus does not live in this building. He is not found only on mountaintops. Jesus is also in our homes, our schools, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our world. Jesus spends time not just with saints at prayer, but among addicts and liars and cheaters and sad, lost, mean, crazy people—by which I mean us, of course. And it isn’t necessarily because we are inviting him to with us. It is because that is where Jesus chooses to be—the place where God’s Good News is most needed.
Even when he is in agony about the state of the world, the proliferation of demons, and the struggle of his disciples to remain faithful, Jesus is clear-eyed and compassionate. It can’t have been easy for him to return from the rarified air of his meeting with Moses and Elijah to a world where despair and doubt seem to run rampant. I doubt much has changed. His cry of frustration at the foot of the mountain could easily be one Jesus might utter today: “You faithless and perverse generation!”
McCormick Seminary professor Claudio Carvalhaes observes, “Our world is dashing the poor against the rocks of despair, hunger, and abandonment every day. The economic beast controlled by few demons is making our people convulse day and night. The homeless, the immigrant, the incarcerated, those mothers who work three jobs to make a minimum wage to feed three, four kids, they are like that boy, thrown into the shadows of our society, convulsing day and night right in front of us! And we, who seem to not know anything about the transfiguration of Jesus or our own transfiguration (metamorphoses) are looking at these people while asking Jesus: can we dwell in our worship tabernacles basking in your glory, away from the people and their pressing needs?”
No, we can’t stay on the mountain. Not if we want to follow Jesus. Jesus won’t abandon the people beset by devils, nor leave his followers to stumble around blindly, unable to deal with reality or mystery. Though we may be dazzled by the reminder that we are in the presence of God, we cannot turn a blind eye to the hurting places of the earth. Since we are baptized and called to follow Jesus, we must leave the sanctuary and go shine our lights where we are needed. Periodically, we may be lifted above the fog to encounter the glory of Christ again—enveloped and transformed by moments of inexpressible beauty and clarity—perhaps infused with the smell of pine trees—but then we have to descend again. Vacation is not forever.
The Good News is that when we leave the mountain air and come face to face with our messy world again, the divine encounter does not end there. Christ does not remain behind. When we descend to the valleys–even to the darkest, deepest valley of the shadow of death, Jesus goes with us there too. Jesus is as present at our kitchen tables Monday through Saturday and he is in the Sacrament at this altar. When we cannot touch God, God touches us.
We who are named and claimed, washed and empowered to be God’s family, cannot abandon the world God so loves. We are called to go to the places where there is suffering, bringing healing and reconciliation, to speak the truth about sinfulness and grace, and to embody the promise that God loves each one of us, on our good days and on our bad days.
The light of Christ shines not only on the mountaintop, but also in the eyes of a little child who is made well, on the face of a father who can finally rest because his child is taken care of, and in the embrace a community that nurtures both of them.
Come, let us go with Jesus up to the mountaintops and down among the demons. Amen.
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 3-3-19” name of the sermon.