Look! Listen! A Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ

Scripture can be found here

What is “glory”?

We sing it every week… “Glory be to God, Creator…,” as if it were within our power to confer glory. And, in a sense, it is… “Ad majorem Dei gloriam,” was the Latin motto of the Jesuit priests who taught me at Boston College, and it means, “To the greater glory of God.” So, all they did—whether they taught theology or Latin or physics, whether they were chaplains to the football team or pastors of congregations or choreographers of modern dance—all their work was dedicated to that greater glory.

But then, in our passage this morning, we witness two figures from the long history of God’s covenant people, appearing alongside Jesus, and they do so “in their glory.” And the three disciples who are roused from their drowsiness see Jesus, and “they see his glory.” And then it seems as if glory isn’t something we can give at all, but rather something we recognize, something we witness. A brilliance, a greatness, a holy and fearful beauty beyond our power to tell of it. And all we can say is “Hallelujah, Glory!”

Jesus is going up a mountain to pray, and, I guess it’s good to know that, like us, Jesus needs to take time to pray, needs time to refresh his body and soul through communion with God. He takes three men with him: Peter, John, and James, those who have emerged by now as an inner circle within the inner circle of apostles. Jesus seems to want to keep them close, to give them access to things the others don’t yet experience, to help them understand him.

And so they experience this. Fighting off sleep, they awaken to this vision of Jesus… in his glory, his clothing gleaming white, and the glorious sight of Moses and Elijah deep in conversation with him… talking with him about what’s to come, which he already knows. They have begun the journey to Jerusalem, the journey to the cross.

As that journey unfolds before him, Jesus encounters one, Moses, who, like him, was given power over the sea and who fed multitudes in the wilderness; and he encounters another, Elijah, who, like him, was given power to cleanse lepers and to raise the dead. And each of them shines with the glory of the God whom they each encounter, face to face.

And… just to be clear: while the clothing shines a dazzling white, and while glory is all around, let’s remember the whiteness is confined to Jesus’ clothing. This is not about white skin… white skin, in scripture, is actually alarming, a sign of leprosy in an area where healthy skin is brown. Jesus’s beautiful brown skin shines with the holiness that is within him.

And just as Peter offers a way to hold onto this moment—to keep it in suspended animation, complete with wilderness-dwellings, the cloud descends. Jill Duffield, an editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, has this to say about being in a cloud:

When fog envelops the landscape, the familiar drive up the curvy, hilly road to my home suddenly becomes scary and unpredictable, especially at night. [The road] twists and turns. Under normal circumstances, I navigate the corners mindlessly… But when the clouds hover on the ground I creep around each bend, able to see only a few feet in front of me…

Being in the cloud disorients. The gray mist casts a mystical shadow over trees, meadows and mountains. Our sense of sound becomes critical as our range and acuity of vision diminishes. Movement slows because we cannot see very far in front of us and have no idea what might emerge around us.

So now, in the darkness and fear of the cloud, the three, Peter, John, and James, who have been looking at such a stunning visual display—glory, which one Greek adjective describes as “gleaming, being flung out”—now, they have to rely on another sense. In the dark, with their ability to navigate removed, all they can do is listen.

Then from the cloud comes a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And we remember another announcement from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Listen, says the voice. Listen!

Listen: when Jesus tells us,

“I have been anointed to bring good news to the poor;

to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (4:18-19)

Listen: when he tells us it’s time to go deeper, to put out into the deep waters of our faith, and discover there what God wants us to bring to shore when the nets are drawn in. (5:1-11)

Listen: when he tells the crowds of hurting people,

“Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh. (6:20-21)

Listen: when he challenges those of us who are not poor or hungry or grieving, to know that they are rooted and planted in the love of God. (6:22-26).

Listen: when Jesus calls us to love—even our enemies—because this, and this is one of the hallmarks of his followers. (6:27-38).

But it may be that the real challenge lies in words we have not heard yet in worship this season, but which Jesus shared at the beginning of this chapter:

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (9:22)

Which, of course, is the very thing he was talking about with Moses and Elijah.

Look! Here is glory. And Listen! Listen to all Jesus has to tell us.

Maybe you have noticed this thing… that, when the news is hard, so is listening. This happens in doctor’s offices and emergency rooms and when the police come to the door… when you are having a conversation, and they are telling you something you don’t necessarily want to hear, a situation you don’t want to be in… have you noticed how hard it is to take in what they are saying? This is why it’s good to have an extra pair of ears with you, someone you trust, someone you love by your side… so that they can help you to listen when listening is hard.

Some of our kin in Christ in the United Methodist Church had hard news this week—hard to hear, but hard to watch, too. A headline in the Washington Post Outlook section read, “We queer clergy begged our fellow Methodists to love us. They voted no.”

The disciples pushed back, hard, at Jesus’ announcement of the coming crucifixion. That was hard news they didn’t want to hear; it didn’t fit in with their plans any more than a tough diagnosis or dreadful news or words of rejection fit in with our plans. And so, Jesus takes three—just three—with him, where a message from the cloud—with other senses dulled, if not removed—provides them with the powerful instruction, the command they cannot help hearing: Listen.

The disciples go with Jesus and see a momentary vision of glory that looks, for all the world, like resurrection… but this is a resurrection before the death. Maybe this is the vision they need to hold on to, so that they can be free to listen, and listen again, with ever more open hearts, to Jesus’ words: “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them.” (Luke 9:23-24, Common English Bible)

What is “glory”? It is a vision we are given to take with us into the wilderness days of Lent, as we walk with Jesus to the cross. It is the beauty that is almost blinding, leaving us breathless, the sound of our hearts pounding in our chests, even as a voice is ringing in our ears: “This is my chosen one. Listen to him!” It is the memory that remains with us—and, I pray, with our Methodist kin in Christ—of Jesus’ final victory, the victory of love over loss, and love is a glory that cannot, and will not, fade or fail.

Thanks be to God. Amen.