A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
2024.0211.EphLast.B.Blinded by the Light
[2 Kings 2:1-12; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9]
She is the godmother of our youngest child, Lucy. Having initially met as priest and parishioner, Daryl’s integrity, faithfulness, and personal care made it clear that our family would be greatly enhanced by including her in this deep web of faithful connection. For you see, all of us inherit family through biological bloodlines, but I have found that choosing family members frequently surpasses the connections that mere biology offers.
So it was that as a young mother herself, Daryl began teaching Sunday School to a group of young elementary school-aged children. And it just so happened that the gospel lesson for that year’s last Sunday in the season of Epiphany was (as it always is) the “Transfiguration of Jesus”. In passing conversation that previous week, Daryl and I joked about the challenge of conveying Jesus’ Transfiguration to those young, Sunday School kids. What I remember of that chat from decades ago was that I was no help to her preparations. I had my own challenge in preaching the same subject to the adults on the upcoming Sunday.
But never underestimate the creativity of a committed Sunday School teacher because what was reported to me about Daryl’s lesson for that Transfiguration Sunday still holds a special place in my memory. When I checked with Daryl about these reports, she sheepishly confirmed them. Her lesson plan for Jesus’ transfiguration consisted of Daryl entering the classroom wrapped from head to toe in those little white Christmas lights. When she plugged herself into the classroom’s electrical outlet, voila! She became transfigured with dazzling white light. Talk about a picture worth a thousand words!
As I said at the outset, this “Transfiguration” gospel lesson always occurs on the Last Sunday of the illuminating liturgical season of Epiphany. It is one of those moments in the Church’s worshipping experience by which you can set your watch. This is so because the story of Jesus’ transfiguration stands as the threshold, over which we pass in order to enter Lent and all that Lent offers. From the time of the Magi’s star-gazing, “Christmas” visit to the holy Family to this prescient transfiguration scene, Epiphany has been about the Light of the God-life shining in our midst: a Light that guides and directs; illuminates and reveals; and can also blind and terrify.
In Mark’s ordering of his gospel narrative, this “Transfiguration” story follows on the heels of another pivotal scene. At the end of Mark’s eighth chapter, we have what I envision as the decisive conversation between Jesus and the Twelve. Just outside the town of Caesarea Philippi, at the end of a long day, the Lord asks his chosen followers: “Who do you say that I am?”1 This is the moment when Peter blurts out the correct answer: “You are the Christ!” But this is an answer to a question Peter neither understands fully nor can live completely, and that is a serious problem. So, in response to this problem of living into the questions so that our lives reflect the answer, Jesus begins to untangle the various threads of his messianic identity, speaking directly about his crucifixion. Peter and all of us who claim to follow Jesus balk at such an unthinkable definition: namely, that God’s Messiah can’t be executed and still reflect God’s victory of life.
So it is that the implicit question that all of Jesus’ followers (then and now) consider at least once is, why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t there be another way? These question sit like a stone in the guts of our faith; and it is in this perplexingly painful context that today’s “Transfiguration” experience occurs.
Mark tells us that Jesus took his inner circle of disciples (Peter, James, and John) up a high mountain – just the four of them, where the Lord went to pray and was unexpectedly and mysteriously transfigured. A dazzling, white light shone from Jesus; and in that overwhelmingly terrifying light, Peter, James, and John saw Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah. That this Transfiguration story is chocked full of imagery and symbol almost goes without saying, for this scene itself is worth a thousand biblical words.
For instance, the sight of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah is indeed a revealing picture. For it conveys the answer to Peter’s involuntary response at Caesarea Philippi. Yes, Jesus is the Christ of God, the Messiah; but within that proclamation lies the deeper insight that Jesus is also the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, which Moses and Elijah symbolize. There is a fulfillment, a completion, a resolution implicit in this illuminated sight, one that Jesus own death and resurrection will vindicate and convey.
Nonetheless, beyond the important symbolism and beyond even the implied warning that such mountaintop experiences are not where followers of Jesus are to remain, I am taken by a much more mundane element in this story. In the light of Christ’s transformation, Mark tells us that Peter, James, and John were terrified by the heavenly light. And I wonder why.
Beyond the obvious answer that all of us would be stunned and prone to hide ourselves by such an extraordinary event, I am wondering if this commonly registered fear might have more to do with the fact that most of us are not prepared for such illuminating light in our lives and how that God-light can burst upon us without warning.
I think that this is something like what Peter, James, and John experienced on the Mount of Transfiguration. They were more than surprised by God’s bright light bursting out in the midst of their ordinary routines. Perhaps in response to the dazzling, white light, Peter’s desperate suggestion to build three separate booths (one for Moses; one for Elijah; and one for Jesus) was an understandable attempt to mitigate (even control) the blinding light: to contain it in in three locations’ perhaps even to bring other spiritual tourists to the sight.
My point is that there are times when illumination does emerge from times and places we do not expect and perhaps do not want. A mountain top experience is not a prerequisite to catch a glimpse of life transformed. Such a transformational experience is not necessarily a matter of blinding light; nor is its illumination necessarily long-lasting. Yet, in the ordinary moments, when our minds are released from the pressing routine, some sort of light can emerge to reveal something beyond our expectation. In St. Paul’s case, for example, that unexpected, break-through light knocked him off his horse and irrevocably transformed his entire life. But I think for most of us, it seems that our encounters with God’s transforming light are much smaller in scale and, truth be told, easier to miss.
What I’m trying to get at are those moments when, in the well-worn words of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, we realize that we were “blind but now we see”. In my own experience, there are very ordinary times when the familiar scene outside my window or in my garden or walking the dogs suddenly contains – what? – a momentarily clearer picture, as if a refining filter has been added to my eyes; and for an uncontainable second, I catch sight of a deeper texture of what has been right in front of me day after day. For that moment (and this clarity is limited only to a moment), it is as if I see what God sees. Yet, as with Peter’s instinctive response to build some sort of shrine, I am wont to take a photo of the moment with my phone, which somehow always fails to capture what has been revealed.
But the truth is that I can’t see what God sees – not for very long. It is too bright to hold my gaze. More to the point, to stay with the sight brings the risk of too much change – change from what I am conveniently used to. Which is to say that the harder truth is that I cannot bear to see what God sees. At best, I can only absorb brief glances of the Holy One’s glory. So, I readily avert my eyes; or sadly, most of the time, I am blind to the reality of this illumination and don’t notice at all.
Where does this take us in our life of faith? On Lent’s doorstep, how might we use that season’s sober time to de-clutter and notice God’s light breaking in on us? I do know this: That until we have the capacity to adjust our eyes to this illuminating God-light, at best we will continue to wince and turn away from what there is to see; or worse, we will confirm the habit of not noticing at all and, thereby, denying ourselves the very thing we so badly need.
The ultimate vision to see in God’s holy light is the Holy One standing before us with extended arms of deliverance, welcome, and new life. That redeeming light is meant to be seen as illuminating and guiding and strengthening; but if we settle only for wincing at the light, and shading our eyes, we miss the very thing we need: namely, seeing God in our midst. And that willingness to see in God’s light, I think, provides the crucial difference between seeing heaven in our midst or living in the hell of our sameness. Amen.
1. Mark 8:27-37