The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
March 3, 2019
Readings: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-37
From the Gospel according to Luke, “A cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I find that one of the greatest joys of living here in the High Country is watching the movements of the early morning fog each day. There is something mystical that seems to unfold as those cloudy fingers reach across our valley and meander through the mountains and hillsides in their quest to reach for the sky. It is truly a sight to behold: a sight that often creates a sense of wonder in my soul.
Mountains and clouds are familiar images throughout scripture and most often serve as a reminder of the presence of God. When the Israelites began their Exodus from out of Egypt and headed into the wilderness, God’s presence was made known to them in a visible way: a pillar of fire by might, and a cloud by day. Scripture tells us that whenever they became frightened, hungry or thirsty, and needed reassurance that God was, indeed, with them, all they needed to do was look at that cloud.
When Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandment from God’s own hand, a cloud descended upon the mountain. That cloud was so dense that the people looking up from below could no longer see him, nor what was going on. When God instructed the people to make a portable tabernacle, God’s presence filled the tent in the form of a cloud. And, we might recall that centuries later when Solomon built the great Temple at Jerusalem, a cloud filled the sanctuary.
In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, we hear yet another cloud story that begins with a vision witnessed by Peter, James and John. They see Jesus standing between and conversing with Moses and Elijah. That image of these three men is most telling: Moses, the Law Giver, and Elijah, the chief among the Prophets, stand with Jesus whom, scripture tells us, came to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets. Jesus, in this scene on a mountaintop, is affirmed by the presence of Moses and Elijah, the presence of the Law and the Prophets, that he is the promised Christ: the redeemer of the world. Well, that sight was so spectacular that Peter suggested building some sort of monument to mark the occasion. But, we soon learn that there was something even more going on here.
After this marvelous interaction between Jesus, Elijah and Moses, everyone present was enveloped by a cloud – the cloud of God’s presence. Then God’s own voice is heard from the cloud proclaiming Jesus as God’s Son, the Chosen, the redeemer. And that voice of God urges that they listen to him. This is a wonderful and awesome story that is so very affirming of the Hebrew people’s experience of God’s presence as told time and again throughout scripture. Nevertheless, the presence of that cloud, Luke tells us, absolutely terrified Peter, James, and John. As I said my prayers and meditated on all of today’s scripture lessons, I kept wondering why they were so afraid and, frankly what on earth this story and all of these scriptures have to do with us today. I believe the answer is found in our own experience of clouds.
See clouds don’t usually make things clear. In fact, they hide things, they obscure our vision, they create a sense of the unknown. Sometimes they trick us into thinking that we are seeing one thing when, in reality, it is quite another. And that sense of unknowing, that sense of mystery, often makes us uncomfortable because we live in an age that dismisses mystery. Mystery begs us to realize that maybe we really don’t know everything there is to know about God and even our own selves. And that flies in the face of a culture that wants everything to be explained. The truth is that in our quest to know all the facts – especially the ones that back up our opinions – in our quest and desire to know everything just like Adam and Eve desired, we risk missing out on the mystery of God and God’s constant invitation to step into the unknown. To step into the unknown, to step into that cloud, means letting go of everything we think we know about God and everything we think we know about ourselves and putting our trust in God alone. To step into the unknown, to step into the cloud, is also a risk to encounter God in new ways; to reach out to the stranger and discover Christ in them; to see the presence of God all around us in the midst of our everyday ordinary lives and then let that presence change us.
Peter, James, and John stepped into that cloud, they let that cloud enfold them, and they returned from that mountaintop experience changed men. Not because they knew all sort of new facts. In all honesty, they probably had more questions than answers. But like Moses, as told in our lesson from Exodus, they met the living God in that cloud and that is what changed them, and encountering that living God should change us still today.
St. Paul, drawing upon the gospel story of the Transfiguration and the story of Moses in Exodus, reminds the Church in today’s Epistle reading that when we encounter God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, Christ’s light begins to shine through us and reveals, through how we choose to live, the redeeming, forgiving, and grace-filled glory of God. But Paul also says that this same light of Christ shining forth from us also shines deeply within us to reveal our own shortcomings, our own secrets and mysteries about who we really are. Paul urges the Church to remember that none of us is perfect, that all of us continue to be shaped into the image of Christ, and yet, nevertheless, regardless of where we are in our own stories of transfiguration, we remain equal children of God worthy of God’s grace and welcome.
And that brings us to our decision to add that additional verse to today’s gospel reading. The story could simply have ended with Jesus, James, Peter and John basking on that mountaintop. But that wouldn’t have been a true depiction of life, would it? See, we all have our mountaintop experiences. Like Peter, we want to just stay in that presence of Jesus, stay where we are. But no, the needs of the world are always around us. This week, we saw our need to hear the truth and our need for discernment so that we can separate fact from fiction. The hearings in Washington were painful just as they were revealing and who knows where all of this will end. Internationally, we saw our need for the assurance of peace. We had hoped for progress in our talks with North Korea but, understandably, our President had to walk away – at least for now. And in the Church, we saw the need for the love of power to be overcome by the power of love and grace as we watched our United Methodist sisters and brothers struggle to address matters of human sexuality – a heart breaking struggle our own denomination knows all too well – and the outcome may split their Church.
No, as Jesus, John, James and Peter experienced firsthand, no matter where we go there is always a crowd, always someone who needs to know truth, that they are valued, that they matter, that they are loved, and what it means to be truly welcomed and forgiven.
And that is one of the deeper truths of the Transfiguration story. It reminds us, just like those clouds remind me every morning, that we are on a journey – a journey of continuously changing priorities, abilities, openings and closings, of encounters, and yet forever surrounded by clouds: the cloud of witnesses, the clouds of our own unknowing, our clouds of fear and bewilderment, but most of all, the cloud of God. Whatever the source of our own clouds, the Transfiguration affirms, God is always present to us, and with us, and in us. And as Christians, being in God’s presence and then being God’s presence to everyone we encounter is what it means to truly listen to and follow Jesus Christ.
As the Season of the Epiphany now draws to a close and the Season of Lent beckons us to reflect more deeply on what it means to listen to and follow Christ, may God grant us the grace to step into that cloud and be changed. Amen.