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The Wonder of Wonder -- Matthew 17:1-9 (Transfiguration Sunday)

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

This is a strange story. The disciples are traveling along with Jesus, as Jesus teaches, and feeds the crowds, and argues with the Pharisees. And then one day, Jesus takes three of the disciples – Peter, James, and John – up onto a high mountain. And Jesus is transfiguredthere – it’s the Greek word metamorphosis– he is changed. His face begins to shine like the sun – his clothes become a dazzling white – “white like the light” – it’s as if Jesus is lit from within. And then, suddenly they see Moses and Elijah – talking with Jesus. Jesus and Moses and Elijah. And then, a bright cloud overshadows them, and a voice out of the cloud says, “This is my son, the Beloved One. Listen to him.” The disciples fall to the ground terrified – and when they look up – all the bright lights are gone – the dazzling cloud, Moses, and Elijah, and the Voice – all gone – just Jesus himself alone. And as they walk down the mountain together, after all this, Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone about this until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” It is a strange story.

And it makes you wonder – why this story? Of all the stories – why this one – with its bright lights, and visions of prophets, and heavenly voices. Why write this story down?

Especially in those first days, and then months after Resurrection, The disciples – the early Christians – must have been unpacking a lot.

So much had happened. They had experienced the whole life of Jesus – with Jesus – Jesus in their midst – but not for long – Jesus was among them teaching and healing with urgency, almost as if he was running out of time. And then they experienced the trauma of crucifixion; Jesus was tried, tortured, and then publicly executed. Then three days later, they experienced him again, in Resurrection. And then, they experienced the Spirit of Christ at Pentecost – with tongues as of fire and a mighty wind and everyone speaking in languages not their own, but yet understanding. And then, as they moved out into the world, they found Jesus’ words in their voices – his healing touch in their hands.

Each experience of Jesus was an epiphany – an experience of God made manifest in the midst of us – each was an experience of wonder. And epiphanies take some time to unpack. One writer says, “Epiphanies are rarely confined to the moment of their original occurrence,” by their very extraordinary nature, “they require significant time for contemplation.”[1] They shared these epiphanies, these moments of wonder, as they tried to figure out together how to live in the world without Jesus bodily in their midst.[2]

And so they told these stories to each other again and again – over the years – and they wrote them down:[3]Do you remember the time we were on a high mountain – and Jesus’ face shone like the sun – Moses – Elijah – that voice – and then Jesus himself alone. That experience of wonder, carried and then handed down over the years.

In the life of the church, Transfiguration culminates the season of Epiphany, as we tell our stories of wonder – God made manifest in the midst of us. Think about our own Epiphany journey these past 8 weeks. We started out with the Magi – just after Christmas. They saw a star in the sky – and they followed it – not sure where they were headed – and we followed our curiosity too into this new year – looking for “light enough for the next step.”

Then, even as we looked for the light for just the next step, we also thought about genealogies and the expanse of time and ancestors. And we placed our lives, our work, in a 200-year present: From the oldest person who held us when we were infants, through the lives of the infants we hold now – our lives have been held by and will touch 200 years of life.

And as we considered these experiences of God in the midst of us, big and small – we also entered into the big issues of our day – issues and challenges so much bigger than us. American structural racism still alive in our world – and God’s justice rolling down like a mighty stream. Rev. Yolanda Norton helped us think about how we might be participating in that, and how we could “stop the pursuit”; and Rev. Annanda Barclay encouraged us to consider and join our ancestors who have engaged in the work of dismantling those systems. And climate emergency: We said true things about the destruction we’ve wrought on this planet – and we thought about how we experience God present with us in our groaning – and how we find deeper connection in that groaning – God, us, all creation – groaning – and we find there the work that is ours to do.

And because these Epiphanies can be exhausting – so much to take in – we also sat for a while with Elijah in a cave – when our get up and go had got up and went – and we experienced God’s always-providing, always-renewing love in a still small voice.

We’ve traveled through Epiphany with each other – and with the Magi, and with Elijah and Moses, and the disciples – and we end up here.

What began with a star in the sky, has moved through the generations, across distance and time, through the wilderness, into a cave and back out again, through parted waters, and ends up here – on this high mountain, with these disciples, and Moses, and Elijah, and Jesus.

And there’s a lot to take in. So much to wonder. Let’s just notice a few things. First, we can’t help but notice all the light – dazzling light everywhere we look – radiating out from Jesus’ face, shimmering in his clothes, and blinding them from a cloud. Something’s happening here. Up till now, they’ve been walking their daily life with Jesus. Peter, James, and John are on the road with Jesus. Jesus has been teaching, and they’ve been learning. Jesus asks questions – sometimes Peter gets the answer right, and sometimes not. Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus says, Blessed are you!!” But then Jesus starts talking about how he – the Christ – will suffer and die – Peter says, “No!” and Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus is the Christ, but what does that mean?

And then Jesus takes the three of them up on a high mountain – and there’s all this dazzling light. Jesus is transfigured – his face and his clothes radiate light. A bright cloud of light overshadows them, and a voice says this is my Beloved son, listen to him. All this light – the glint and gleam and glimmer – and the voice – all of this confirms that there is something of the divine here – something of God – in Jesus – God’s own son – the Christ. What we glimpse is the dazzling divinity of Jesus in the midst of them.[4]

And notice how Peter responds: “Jesus, it is good for us to be here.” In the incandescence of this moment – light beyond what eye can take in – truth beyond what the human heart can grasp, Peter gets this: “It is good for us to be here.” And he offers to set up some dwelling tents. Now some folks give Peter a hard time about this – as if he is fumbling around not knowing what to do – but these are tabernacle tents – like the tent where the presence of YHWH dwelled with the people in the wilderness. Peter gets that God is present in the midst of them – that this is holy – and that it is good for us to be here. May we have that good sense when we stand dazed and confused in the presence of God – when we wonder. First, may we let it sink in: “It is good for us to be here.”

Because we have these moments of wonder too. And they may be different for each of us – those moments that bring us to a holy “Wow!” For many of us, I expect we experience that out in nature. Standing at the ocean’s edge. A couple weeks ago, I mentioned the full moon that filled the night sky – and I heard some gasps – because you saw it too. And just this week, now that the moon had waned, I walked outside and the sky was lit by brilliant stars. The deep darkness of the night, with the sparkle of the stars. Wow. It is good for us to be here.

Maybe we’ve experienced it in each other. I’m not a parent, but I can’t imagine the wonder for a parent in that moment when they place a newborn baby in your arms.

Maybe we’ve experienced it in each other in moments of service – serving in the REST shelter – as everyone settles in at table to share a meal – in a world gone so wrong you get a glimpse of something that is a little more right.

We experience wonder in music and art – beauty alive and embodied in the creative human spirit. And we wonder at it.

And maybe we’ve experienced that wonder – that presence of God— in visions or dreams – bright visions like this transfiguration scene. Because I don’t want us to over-rationalize this, we’re all different, and we experience God in different ways – throughout Scripture and history folks have direct experiences of God – mysterious, but vivid nonetheless.

And so we wonder with Peter – at God in the midst of us – as Peter says, “It is good for us to be here.”

And I want us to notice one more thing – after all this light – after they see Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus – after the voice sounds from heaven – they fall facedown to the ground. Jesus comes to them. And Jesus touches them. And when they look up, they see Jesus himself alone. His hand on their shoulder. What they see next is the dazzling humanity of Jesus – the presence of God – in the midst of them – in a tender touch.

And we know what that is like, too. That kind of epiphany. I can still remember – all these years later – a night when I was child and sick with the flu, and my mother placed a cool wet cloth on my fevered brow. Maybe you’ve held a hand – and that touch has conveyed so much love – more love than words can ever express. Or maybe, when you were most broken when your heart hurt, someone has rested their hand on your back, just between your shoulder blades, and sat there with you, in steadfast and loving quiet.

After the flash and blaze of all that dazzling light, Jesus comes to them, and touches them, and they look up – and what they see is Jesus himself alone – his hand resting on their shoulder. It’s not that all the light has disappeared – all the divinity – all the stuff of God. It’s that all that is now present in Jesus, in his hand on their shoulder. What began with a star in the sky is now all there in the sparkle of this tender touch – God manifest in the midst of them. Like that.

God is so very big – God’s love for us so vast – the world so much more than we could ever comprehend. And God is near. One writer puts it this way – what we find in Jesus and in each other is “just as much of God as a hand can hold.”[5]

And that’s really all I have to say this morning. We’ve called this Epiphany series: “The Work of Wonder,” and each week, we’ve talked about the experience of wonder, and how, in it, we find the work that is ours to do. Because worship should always give us something to do. This week, the invitation is to Wonder. If you want, you can take your bulletin, and in the space that says, “Something to do...," and you can write one word, “Wonder.”

Go out in the world and look and listen for the presence of God – anywhere and everywhere – in sunrise, in sunset, in the dimming of the day, in the deep dark of night. Wonder. Wonder at God manifest in the midst of us – in justice rolling down like a mighty stream – in compassion that comes to us in the whisper of a still small voice. Wonder.

And while you move through the world in wonder, take some time to be dazzlingly human. Offer to the world a tender touch, radiate to the world God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, carry to the world – in your life – “just as much of God as a hand can hold.”

© 2020 Scott Clark

[1]Douglas John Hall, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.1 (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2010), pp. 452-57. [2]Mayetta Madeline Anschutz, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.1 (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2010), pp. 452-57. [3]My understanding of how the gospels are formed and shaped in community, as oral tradition comes to be written down is indebted to Professor Ann Wire’s teaching at San Francisco Theological Seminary. [4]Anschutz, p.456. [5]Patrick J. Willson, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.1 (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2010), pp. 452-57.

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