By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 17:1-13
Our days are getting longer. Tonight the sun will set at 6:32. Though a Pennsylvania native, I have little confidence in the predictions of that furry rodent from Punxsutawny. I hate winter but I do appreciate the tradition behind Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day, or Candlemas, is a syncretistic thing. Fun facts… Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox but it also marks the 40th day after Jesus’ birth which, according to Jewish custom, would have been the day when Jesus – the light of the world – would have been presented in the Temple. The gospel of Luke tells us that “When the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.’)”[i] And so, Groundhog Day or Candlemas, is one of those times when we are reminded that, in Jesus, the light of God – the one who first said, “Let there be light” – in Jesus, God’s light has broken into our world in ways we cannot ignore or overlook. The Son shines the Light of God into our world.
[i] Luke 2:22-23 NRSV
This morning marks the conclusion of this current sermon series with its focus on vision, light and revelation. This is the last Sunday in the Epiphany season. And so it is appropriate that, today, we hear the gospel story of this special occasion when the light of God shone through Jesus in a clear and dramatic way defined as Transfiguration; the day when, on the mountain, Jesus was fully revealed as God’s Son.
Now transfiguration is a big, churchy word and a somewhat confusing phenomenon. Even religious experts can’t provide you with a clear, concise definition. The Greek word used in our gospel reading is metamorphoo from which we get our English word metamorphosis, “a marked change in appearance, character, condition or function.”[i] And so, up there on the mountain with Peter, James and John, Jesus changes in an clearly discernible way. Each of our gospel writers describes it a little differently but, perhaps the easiest way of understanding it is this: up there on that mountain something happened to Jesus that caused his “God-ness” to come through in a way so bold and unmistakable that even those thick-headed disciples couldn’t miss it. And that change, accompanied by the voice of God from the heavens, was so dramatic and overwhelming that the disciples are seized with fear. When the voice of God Almighty speaks to them, directly to them, it is more than they can handle. And we really shouldn’t blame them, should we? I mean, we all talk about wanting to hear God’s voice. We say how much we wish God would speak to us – right out loud, plain and clear so we wouldn’t have to work so hard at figuring out what God is trying to tell us. But, let’s be honest. If it really happened, it would just freak us out. It would terrify us. And it certainly terrified Peter, James and John.
According to our gospels, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it is fear; crippling, debilitating fear that settles over us like the dark of night. While doubt often propels us forward and outward as we seek answers and understanding, fear is a defensive posture that draws us inward. I’m convinced that fear is the underlying reason for the mess our nation is in right now. Leaders of government, business, healthcare, and even many religious institutions, have cultivated fear as a means of control. Fear destroys any sense of community. It places us in a state of hyper vigilance; we cannot let our guard down. We lose all sense of security and stability.
Fear is a recurring theme in our gospels. At the start of Matthew’s gospel, the angel counsels Joseph about Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, instructing him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.[ii] Later, in chapter 10, as Jesus sends the disciples out on their first solo mission, in six short verses, he exhorts them four times not to succumb to their fears.[iii] When Jesus comes to his disciples in the midst of a storm, walking across the water, they are terrified, and again he must encourage them not to be afraid.[iv] On Easter morning, when the angel appears to the women at the tomb, the first words out of his mouth are, “Do not be afraid.”[v]
And that day long ago as Jesus is transfigured before his disciples’ very eyes and they are seized with fear and confusion, Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus responds to their fear. He doesn’t ignore it; he addresses it. Jesus reaches out and touches them. He tells them not to be afraid. That intimate touch, those reassuring words, those are details that only Matthew provides. Jesus, the embodiment of the awesome glory of God, is also the gentle hand that touches us and reassures us not to be afraid. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells the disciples. And they will need that comfort and encouragement in the days to come because they are about to undergo some pretty scary stuff. Jesus has already warned them, tried to help them comprehend that they are nearing the end of their ministry journey; they are inching closer toward Jerusalem where he will be put to death. Jesus, the one who is Emmanuel, “God with us.” Jesus, the one who is Savior, delivering us from our sins. Jesus, the one who announces the dawning of God’s Kingdom. Jesus, the one who is the embodiment of God’s glory and righteousness. Yes, he is the one who will be put to death on a cross. And yet, they are not to be afraid of any of this. They are called to trust.
This Wednesday, my friends, Lent begins. I don’t think Lent is a very popular season. We don’t much care to hear the refrain of Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Talk about a downer!
And yet, even in the season of Lent, there are still signs of God’s glory all around us; there are still reasons to trust; to press forward and cast off fear. Even in the seasons of our lives that seem dry and empty, cold and dark, the signs of God’s glory persist. Last Sunday Pastor Willio shared with us the powerful message of God’s work in his life. How his grandfather’s life was spared when he escaped through the river and was taken in by a pastor in Haiti; how Willio’s father taught him to trust and give thanks even when their family did not have food to eat; how a teacher gave of her own salary so Willio could attend school. Willio and his family did not have an easy go of it and yet, as he reminded us last week, even during the most difficult times, God was still at work and God’s glory was still visible.
So despite what we hear or see or feel in this and every season of our lives, we need to remember that the glory and light of Christ is stronger than our fears, stronger than our sin, stronger than our sorrows and stronger than our suffering. Even during Lent we are still an Easter people, people who stubbornly believe in glory and light and life even if others cannot see it.
The light of the Son – God’s Son with an “o” – is still shining. And we who have witnessed it – as those disciples long ago – are called to reflect it to a world in darkness. When we ourselves have been changed by the light of God’s glory it can’t help but shine through us. We undergo our own transfiguration, our own metamorphosis. God’s grace and glory change us from deep within in ways that cannot help but show through, transforming our words and our actions. Perhaps the apostle Paul said it best when he told the Christians in Corinth that “all of us, with unveiled faces, see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror. [We] are being transformed into the same image”[vi] that is the image of Christ. In other words, even today we still witness the same glory of God those disciples saw on the mountain long ago. And we can see it today in one another. As followers of Jesus, we are called to flood the world with God’s glory, with his light. We are the light of the world and we ought to stand out in a very conspicuous way, shining boldly and brilliantly to overcome the world’s darkness; the sin, the sorrow and the suffering.
God’s glory enters the world not only through brilliant clouds or a thundering voice from the heavens. God’s glory enters the world through us as we care for one another in those times when we face our greatest sorrows, when we endure our most painful suffering, when we wrestle with our deepest sins, when we feel that our lives are shrouded in darkness and despair. It is in those times that we reflect the light of God’s glory to one another, a light so powerful that nothing can overcome it. We are called to let our lights shine when those around us find themselves shrouded in darkness.
Years ago, I had eye surgery. For the first week after surgery, my eyes were stitched shut. My world was, quite literally, in darkness. And during that time the church that I was serving in Gary became light for Britt and me (and even for our dogs) as they sat with me while Britt was at work, read to me, brought over groceries, picked up dog food, cooked meals, drove me to appointments. They were the light in the midst of my darkness.
And that is what I often see us do for one another. When we face challenges of poor health or broken relationships or economic struggle, we care for one another and shine the light of Christ to dispel the darkness of discouragement and despair. That is what we are continually called and summoned to do for one another and for the world. You are the light of the world for those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death… and rest assured there are many.
You know the Christian Church has long had a custom of giving something up for Lent. But I want, this morning, to encourage you to take up something new this Lent. I want to encourage you, to challenge you, to find someone whose life is filled with darkness and discouragement, suffering and sorrow; someone who has lost all hope. Perhaps it will be a co-worker or a classmate or a neighbor or a relative. And I want to encourage you to seek out ways to reveal the glorious light of Christ to that person. Find tangible ways to care for them that bring light to their darkness, peace to their turmoil, comfort in their suffering, and hope for their discouragement. Show them, really show them, what the light of Jesus looks like. Bring a change into their lives by shining Christ’s light into their places of darkness because you are the light of the world. Amen.
[i] American Heritage Dictionary.
[ii] See Matthew 1:20
[iii] Matthew 10:26-31
[iv] See Matthew 14:22-33
[v] Matthew 28:1-10
[vi] 2 Corinthians 3:18
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