Sunday, March 27, 2011

Living Water

Third Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42
Sunday, March 27, 2011 – St. Joseph of Arimathea, Yucca Valley

Those of us living in the Southwest, and particularly those of you who live in the middle of the desert, know the importance of water. Water is absolutely necessary for life. Prior to birth we are formed in and surrounded by water, which nourishes, nurtures, and protects us. After we are born, we require water on a regular basis to survive. In fact, depending on specific conditions, a healthy person can survive up to eight weeks without food, while that same person can only survive three to five days without water.

Good old H2O serves a number of useful purposes, including cleaning and providing cooling and comfort. In addition, we know that water has the potential to wield a great deal of power. It can be the source of great energy, such as when used to operate old-fashioned mills or to generate energy via hydroelectric dams. And we see the power of water in nature, such as the way the water of the Colorado River has eroded the Arizona desert over millions of years to create the Grand Canyon.

And sadly, we know of the destructive potential of water, as well. We see it every year as rainstorms flood parts of our country, destroying homes and crops. In our own area, we see flooding and mudslides due to heavy rains, washing out roads and destroying homes and businesses. And of course, who of us have not been moved by the images of the tsunami in northeastern Japan two weeks ago, as walls of water up to 35 feet high swept up to six miles inland, wiping out everything in their path – whole villages and cities, crop fields, killing over 10,000 people and causing $300 billion in damages.

Water is so necessary to our existence, but also can be so dangerous to our fragile lives. It’s a delicate balance that we humans must negotiate. Perhaps that’s why we find stories about water in today’s scripture lessons – in both the Old Testament and the Gospel – stories that examine the importance of water in our lives, not just physically, but also spiritually; stories that look at the power of water from a different perspective.

Today’s readings certainly address the physical need for water. In Exodus, we have the Israelites grumbling about the lack of water and demanding that Moses provide for their thirst. They are concerned for themselves, their children, and their livestock – that if they are not given water soon, they will perish in the wilderness. So Moses goes to God who provides water for his people. And in John, we have Jesus traveling across the desert at mid-day. Tired out, he stops by a well while his disciples continue on in search of food. Thirsty after a long morning’s journey, he asks a local woman for some water. The physical need for water is readily apparent in both readings.

What may be a little less apparent is the spiritual power of the water in these two stories. In fact, in Exodus, the story itself contains no direct indication. But if we look back at the previous actions of the Israelites, we can see it. Here in Chapter 17 the Israelites are demanding water. But this is not the first time they have made such demands of Moses and of God. Two chapters previous, right after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea and celebrated their escape from the Egyptians, they immediately began grumbling that they had no water to drink. So at the waters of Marah, Moses threw a piece of wood into the pool of bitter water and it became sweet so that they could drink of it. Then in Chapter 16, the Israelites grumbled about needing food. So God gave them manna from heaven to eat. Here in the space of three chapters, which covers the span of a couple of months, the Israelites have grumbled about lack of water twice and the lack of food once. And every time, God has provided for them.

I think what was really going on was not so much physical thirst or hunger. Yes, that was real, but I think it was only the presenting issue. I think what was really going on was that the Israelites were unsure of God’s devotion to them. Yes, he had liberated them from Egypt, but now he did not appear to be around. They craved not so much water or food, but assurance that God was with them, in their midst, caring for them and protecting them. It’s easy to see that God is with us when we have what we need or want. But in times of scarcity, it is harder to see that God is present. So to ease their uncertainty they insisted on signs, tangible things like food and water, which became symbols of a spiritual need – a symbol of God’s presence, care, and protection of his people. The expression of tangible physical need thereby becomes an expression of spiritual need.

The physical-spiritual connection and the spiritual implications of water in the lesson from John are more apparent. And it becomes somewhat apparent to the Samaritan woman, thanks to the extended interaction she has with Jesus. As the woman is talking about water from Jacob’s well and the physical need for water, Jesus is talking about living water – that which nourishes not one’s physical life, but rather one’s spiritual life. In the course of that engagement, she comes to realize that he is the long-awaited Messiah – the one who does not just provide living water, but is the source of living water.

Now no detailed explanation is given regarding the exact nature of “living water.” The term is only used in this passage in John and one other equally cryptic reference in John chapter 7. The only thing we know, and probably all we really need to know, is what Jesus himself tells us – “The water that I . . . give will become . . . a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” – the new and eternal life that we are promised through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not only is this new and eternal life symbolized by water, but the sacramental sign of that promise is water itself – the waters of baptism. The way we receive living water is through baptism.

What I love about this story is the interplay between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, in how they deal with the various aspects of water. It’s not so much what they say, but how they need each other. This demonstrates a central truth about our lives of faith and the interconnection between the physical and the spiritual. There is a certain paradox that the Samaritan woman thinks Jesus needs what only she can provide – water from the well; whereas in reality, she is the one who needs what only he can provide – eternal life. But the truth is that they need each other. In the encounter at the well, Jesus needs the woman to have his human needs met. He has no means of getting water to satisfy his physical thirst, so he needs her and her bucket. And the woman needs Jesus to have her spiritual needs met. There is this marvelous synchronicity between physical and spiritual, that wonderfully illustrates the true nature of our faith – a faith where human and divine are united in Christ, where physical and spiritual are integral parts of who we are as followers of Christ.

We need Jesus to have our spiritual needs met. And Jesus still needs us to have his human needs met. No, this side of the Resurrection, Jesus does not need us to meet such physical needs as satisfying thirst or hunger. But he does need us to provide the human, the physical connection, to the world – connecting what he has to offer spiritually with the physicality of human existence, for which his gift is graciously offered. We talk about us being the Body of Christ, and that is quite literally true. Christ relies on us to do the physical, the human, part of his ministry. In demonstrating this, the Gospel story also shows that Jesus can and does need all of us. Jesus can and does use all of us, no matter who we are.

That’s what he does with the Samaritan woman. From where Jesus was standing, she was the epitome of being an outsider, a nobody. For starters, Jesus was Jewish and she was a Samaritan. The two religious groups disagreed on a number of things and both taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the other. Then add the fact that she was a woman, someone who had no real social standing. And then there was her questionable reputation, having been married five times and now living with a man who was not her husband. In fact, she was probably even ostracized by her own people. Normally women went out to the well in the early morning hours when it was still cool to get the water for the day. They went together for protection, but also as a time for the women to catch up with their friends. The fact that this woman was out mid-day alone indicates she was probably not accepted by the other women in the village. So she was a real nobody. But despite all of that, despite knowing what type of person she was, Jesus did not shun her. He did not turn her away.

In fact, quite the opposite. She was a newcomer to the faith. Jesus was willing to explain things to her, to help her understand what he was saying. He nurtured her. He never judged her, only loved her. And in the process, he made her an apostle – a missionary sent out to proclaim the truth she had witnessed and experienced in Jesus. She was sent back to her own village by Jesus to testify to who he is – the Messiah. In fact, she may have been the first apostle outside of the Twelve – at least as recorded by John.

Jesus stepped across many lines to talk with her – gender, religious, cultural, moral. He stepped across many lines to make her an apostle and to use her for his own purposes – connecting what he had to offer spiritually with the physicality of human existence – extending that gift of living water, of new life, to outsiders. He steps across those same lines to extend the gift of living water to each of us. And he steps across those same lines to use each of us to meet his human needs in the world around us – to help him provide living water to all who thirst for it.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Born Again Episcopalians

Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Genesis 12.1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Sunday, March 20, 2011 – Trinity, Redlands

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. (Although, frankly, it’s not that uncommon in the Gospel According to John). Nicodemus comes to Jesus and butters him up by commenting that it is obvious that Jesus comes from God because of the signs he performs. This is the type of thing Jesus doesn’t like to hear. It’s not about the outward signs, but rather about the bigger picture – the kingdom of God. So, Jesus attempts to correct Nicodemus’ position by saying “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (Jn 3.3). Misunderstanding what Jesus is trying to say, Nicodemus starts talking about “being born after having grown old” and questioning how a grown person can be born of his mother’s womb a second time. Maybe you’ve had similar experiences. You say something and the other person seems to completely miss your point and goes off in some other direction. When this happens, my initial reaction, my inside unspoken reaction, is “what are you babbling about?” I don’t know if Jesus had that same reaction, but he really tries to explain things so as to make Nicodemus understand. We don’t know how Nicodemus reacts or if he ever gets what Jesus is saying.

I don’t know who to feel sorry for: Nicodemus for not getting it or Jesus for trying and trying to no avail. Jesus is apparently talking about some spiritual birth or renewal. So why is Nicodemus babbling about the physiological impossibility of a grown person being born again? Is Nicodemus so dense that he can’t see that Jesus might be speaking metaphorically? But in reality, it is sort of understandable why there is this misunderstanding – understandable if you look at the original Greek text. When Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” the Greek word translated as “from above” is anĊthen, which actually has two meanings. One meaning is “from above,” as is translated in the NRSV text and as clearly intended by Jesus. And the other is “anew” or “again,” which is obviously the meaning Nicodemus latches onto. So while Jesus meant “born from above,” Nicodemus heard “born again.” Both meanings are technically correct linguistically. But theologically? While Nicodemus and Jesus were pretty far apart in their respective meanings and interpretations of the terminology being used, I think that theologically they were on the same page.

Now as Anglicans, the term “born again” does not generally appear in our descriptions of our spiritual journeys. In fact, many in our tradition, as well as others in our society, have a hard time with the concept, may be leery of what is meant, and have a knee-jerk reaction against the term “born again” and those who talk about the need for such a conversion experience. Now admittedly, there is a segment of evangelical Christianity that firmly believes one must have a “born again” conversion experience in order to be a true believer in and follower of Jesus Christ. While the specifics of such an experience may vary slightly among particular groups, there is, nonetheless, a special emphasis on said experience and its significance. I mean in no way to disparage our brothers and sisters who hold such views. But I think our reaction to such views is more in response to the often overzealousness with which they are expressed; to the fact that a specific and rigidly defined experience is required; and to the sense of being judged and even condemned if we have not had such an experience.

But the reality is that the concept of being “born again” has been a part of Christian history dating back to day one, perhaps in large part due to our friend Nicodemus. Throughout our history, to be “born again” was understood as a spiritual awakening or regeneration through the sacrament of baptism. So, we are all, by virtue of our baptisms, “born again.” In our baptismal liturgy, we even use the language of dying to self and being brought to new life in Jesus Christ; of receiving “the Sacrament of new birth;” that we are “reborn by the Holy Spirit;” that we are “cleansed from sin and born again;” that we are “raised . . . to the new life of grace.” It’s all there, right in our Prayer Book.

Now, of course in today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of a radical new birth from above – one that focuses on our spiritual being – not that which is born of flesh but that which is born of spirit. And maybe Nicodemus got a little hung up on the physicality of being “born again” or “born from above.” But I think there may be something to be said for Nicodemus’ somewhat mistaken notion of being “born again” as imagery for what Jesus was really trying to get at. There are some aspects of the imagery of physical birth that could apply to the spiritual rebirth that Jesus talks about and that we ourselves experience.

First, the physical birth that Nicodemus envisions is literally a birth out of water. When a baby is born, it must travel through water, the amniotic fluid, to be born. So too is our being “born again” in the sacramental sense a birth out of water. Through the sacrament of baptism, we enter into the water as a sinful being, whereupon we die to that sinfulness, where we die to self. And then we emerge from the water, “cleansed from sin and born again” through the Holy Spirit.

Second, prior to being born, the fetus lives in the darkness of the womb. At birth, the baby comes forth from the womb into the full light of day. This dichotomy of light and darkness is an important feature in John’s Gospel, where he frequently uses the imagery of darkness to represent the realm of unbelief and the imagery of light to represent the realm of belief. In the course of our spiritual journey toward new life in Christ, we travel from the darkness of unbelief that the secular world tends to promote, from the darkness of our own unbelief in God and Christ, into the full light of faith and belief. We emerge into the light and grace of God as revealed through his son. And perhaps most importantly, we move from proclaiming and practicing our faith in a dark private place to proclaiming and exercising our faith in the full light of day. We move into a place of wanting to share our faith with others and to manifest it through our actions in the world around us.

Third, when a child is born into this world, it is generally given a clean slate upon which to build its life. Of course there are cases of babies born addicted to drugs or inheriting some sort of medical condition that may impede or encumber the individual’s development. But generally we are born into a life open to unlimited possibilities. When we are “born again” in Christ, we too are given a clean slate. As we emerge from the waters of baptism, our sins are washed away and we are given a fresh outlook, as clear and unencumbered as a baby’s life. But unlike physical birth, this new existence we are given in our new life in Christ is not just limited to the remainder of our normal human lifespan. For in our new life in Christ we are promised and given eternal life. While we may not know what that really looks like, just think of the possibilities eternal life has in store for us!

Fourth, those of you have experienced childbirth, and the rest of us who have either been present or seen videos know that giving birth is a pretty messy process. There is the stress, strain, and sweat of labor. There is the water breaking. There is the newborn child emerging in amongst water and blood. There is screaming from the mother and crying from the baby. The process of being “born again” can also be messy. Not always, but it has the potential. There is not the physical messiness of corporeal birth, but more of an emotional and spiritual messiness. As we are born to our new life in Christ, as we enter into a new way of being on our spiritual journeys, there is often the mental and emotional labor involved in shifting from one perspective to another; of moving from unbelief or serious questioning to a position of belief, faith, and trust in God. There is the uncertainty and maybe even discomfort of getting used to this new way of being, of shedding old practices and taking on new ones, maybe even of ridding our life of old friends and making new ones. Screaming and crying can quite often be a part of the process.

And finally, we are not born alone. Someone needs to give birth to us. In the physical birth process, our mother obviously provides us with life, drawn from and issued forth from her own life. And there is usually someone present to midwife the process. So too in the process of being “born again.” We cannot do it alone. We need someone to birth us into our new life. And of course that happens by the grace of God. The new life that we are being born into is a gift from God that flows from and through the Spirit and is made possible only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection, Christ defeated the bonds of sin and death and opened the way for the eternal life we are to receive. And as we move into new life, we need the help of our fellow Christians, who midwife us through the process and guide us into the fullness of what it means to be Christian.

The key to the process of being “born again” is given to us by Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3.5). We know that water means baptism, and we’ve already talked about the place of baptism in the process of being “born again.” And in five weeks we will experience it first hand as Emily and Matt go into the waters of baptism and come out “born again” into the Body of Christ. The place of Spirit is a little more mysterious. Jesus uses the imagery of wind to describe Spirit: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3.8). What Jesus is saying is that the Spirit is mysterious and beyond human knowledge, and is certainly beyond human control. The way the Spirit deals with each of us and works within each of us is as unique as we are. All that we can do is to open ourselves to allowing the Spirit to live and move and have its being within us.

It seems to me that Lent is a good time to do this. As I commented in my Ash Wednesday homily, Lent is not about enduring some discipline for six weeks, but is instead about trying on and discovering those disciplines and practices that will support and sustain us over the long haul – that will support and sustain us in our spiritual lives, our relationship with God. Lent is about opening ourselves up to the Spirit, allowing the Spirit to work in the deep recesses of our lives, and seeing what happens. And I can assure you that what will happen is that the Spirit will move you ever closer to the fulfillment of God’s mission through Jesus Christ – that God loves us and all humanity so much that he sent his son so that we might be given eternal life. That’s what it truly means to be “born again.” All we have to do is accept the invitation and to be open to the possibilities of what being “born again” can mean in our own lives.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Lenten Motivation

Ash Wednesday (Year A)
Isaiah 58.1-12; Psalm 103.8-14; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10;
Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

Wednesday, March 9, 2011 (10:00 am) –
Trinity, Redlands

The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is a portion of the Sermon on the Mount that begins to get down to the nitty-gritty of what it means to worship God and to follow Christ. If I were to boil it down into one theme, it would have to be "motivation." What motivates us to do what we do when it comes to spiritual disciplines and practices?

I think this is an important consideration as we enter into Lent, a time when we customarily engage in some sort of extra discipline for the season, be it abstaining from something, such as a particular food, drink, or activity; or taking on something, such as additional study, prayer, or volunteer work. So many people chose to do such things as giving up chocolate. Don't get me wrong. Giving up chocolate is an extreme hardship. But when asked why, you often get answers like, “because I really like chocolate and it will be hard to live without for six weeks.” I don’t know if that is what is really behind the idea of Lenten discipline. As we consider what, if anything we will do or not do as a Lenten discipline, there should be some real meaning behind our decision. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us an idea of what this means.

The traditional Lenten disciplines involve almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. And Jesus addresses all three. Look at the examples Jesus uses. When you give alms, don’t do it with a lot of fanfare, shouting from the rooftops what you are doing. Rather, give alms quietly, discreetly. It doesn’t matter that other people know or what they might think. What matters is that God sees in secret – God knows and takes notice.

When you pray, don’t do it in a public place or make a big display of it for all to see and hear. Rather, pray in private, directing your prayers to God alone. It doesn’t matter that other people know or what they might think. What matters is that God hears in secret – God knows and takes notice.

When you fast, do not make a dramatic display of how much you are suffering for your faith by giving up food. Rather make no display, appearing as if all is normal. It doesn’t matter that other people know or what they might think. What matters is that God sees in secret – God knows and takes notice.

What is the common theme? That we are not to make displays so that others see how righteous and pious we are in our devotions and disciplines. Our disciplines are not for the benefit of those who might be looking on, nor are they intended to be about us. We need to remember that the theological foundation of our faith is communion with God and that we are to glorify God. Any worship or practices that cause us to think more of ourselves and how we appear to others detracts from the primary purpose of our faith – to know and be known by God.

That is the real purpose of our Lenten disciplines – to facilitate the process of knowing and being known by God. The purpose of such disciplines as fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, is to remove the focus from ourselves and to direct it instead toward God. That is what should be the motivation for our Lenten discipline – that it be something that brings us closer to God, to allow us to know God more deeply and to be known by God more deeply.

In fasting, we abstain from physical nourishment to focus on the God who ultimately nourishes us. In almsgiving, we turn our attention to those in need, focusing on those who are of special concern to God – the poor and marginalized. In prayer, we focus our time and intention on communication with God. All these things are intended to shift the focus away from us and onto God and our relationship with God.

So often, we choose a Lenten discipline, but in our hearts we can’t wait for Lent to be over so we can get back to normal life, so we can start eating chocolate again, or no longer have to do that extra charity work. When we do this, we miss the point of Lent. If this happens, we are in danger of going through the motions without learning how to live Lent.

In so doing, we contain Lent within a six week period, as opposed to allowing our Lenten practices to become a way of life. Lent is not about feeling holy or pious for six weeks out of the year, but is really about a lifelong commitment that will help us to know God more deeply, to be better followers of Jesus Christ. Lent is not about enduring some discipline for six weeks, but is instead about trying on and discovering those disciplines and practices that will support and sustain us over the long haul – that will support and sustain us in our spiritual lives, our relationship with God.

So this Lenten season, I challenge all of us to consider the motivation behind our Lenten disciplines. Is it something to be endured? Or is it something that will sustain and nourish us through this season; something that may become part of our regular spiritual practices; something that will sustain us as we continue on our life-long spiritual journeys? For the reward granted by our Father who sees in secret will be deepened and enriched relationship with him. After all, that’s what really matters.

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Sunday, March 06, 2011

Mountaintop Experiences

Last Sunday After Epiphany (Year A)
Exodus 24.12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9
Sunday, March 6, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

The season of Epiphany is the time when Jesus as Messiah, as savior of humanity, is truly revealed. Throughout this season, we have been specifically shown what Messiah means and what this Messiah can and will do for humanity. We have seen Jesus baptized and proclaimed by God, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3.17). We have seen John the Baptist proclaim, “Look, here is the Lamb of God” (Jn 1.36). Jesus has called his disciples, giving these select few an inside look at who this man Jesus is. We have seen Jesus begin his ministry of public preaching, fulfilling, interpreting, and expanding on the law, and beginning to reveal what the Kingdom of God will be like. And today, as we celebrate the last Sunday after the Epiphany, we have the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration – perhaps the greatest and most spectacular of the epiphany stories.

As we hear the story, we cannot help but notice that there are similarities with the Old Testament lesson from Exodus, in which Moses is summoned to the top of Mount Sinai for an audience with God. Both events take place atop cloud-shrouded mountaintops, obscuring from view what is transpiring. I don’t know about you, but I seem to be intrigued with mountains that have their peaks shrouded by cloud cover. You see most of the mountain, but the top is hidden, inviting speculation and imaginings about what mysteries are being cloaked. I am reminded of images of Mount Olympus, shrouded in clouds, hiding the courtly proceedings and sordid shenanigans of the Greek pantheon – events that affect humanity, but to which we are not privy.

At the time of their occurring, the events on Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Transfiguration were hidden from view of all but those present – clouds hiding the glory that was revealed on those mountains. Yet, while temporarily obscured from our sight, these events are made known to us in scripture, through the readings we have heard today – the events on both mountains being pivotal to our life as people of faith. We have the accounts of what happened on Mount Sinai and on the Mount of the Transfiguration, but what is the significance of these events? Let’s start with Moses on Mount Sinai.

In today’s reading from Exodus, we have the account of Moses being called by God to go to the top of Mount Sinai. Today we didn’t hear all of what went on between God and Moses, but they had a lot to talk about. As noted in today’s reading, Moses spent 40 days and nights up on Mount Sinai. And the account of what was covered spans seven chapters of Exodus. We commonly think that the whole reason for Moses going up the mountain was to receive the Ten Commandments. Well, that was only a part of it. In the broadest sense, on Mount Sinai Moses receives covenantal demands and covenantal signs from God. God and Moses were hammering out the details of the Covenant, as it were. Their discussions covered such things as instructions regarding construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the tabernacle, the establishment of the priesthood, instructions regarding vestments, instructions regarding construction for the altar for burnt offerings and for making the various ritual objects to be used in worship. And then, only when all those other details were finalized, did God give the law in the form of stone tablets – the Ten Commandments. In all of this, over the course of the 40 days and nights spent on the mountain, Moses receives tangible signs of relationship with God. He receives clarification as to what this Covenant with God entails and what it means to the People to be in relationship with their God.

While God had revealed himself to humanity in a number of ways up to this point, this was the most extensive and prolonged revelation to date. Previous revelations had been momentary encounters between the divine and humanity, often through intermediaries such as angelic messengers, or through such phenomena as burning bushes. But here, even for a short time, man dwelt with God on the mountaintop.

In this way, the law and all the other accompanying signs of covenantal relationship between God and humanity were presented to us, forming the foundation of Judaic law, shaping Jewish worship practices, molding Jewish societal and cultural tradition – all of which are fundamental and foundational to Christianity. In so many ways, what happened on Mount Sinai is the basis, the starting point, for our own faith tradition, for who we are as a people. All of this coming out of a cloud-covered mountaintop.

As Moses was thrust into the murkiness of the cloud on Mount Sinai, so too, are three of Jesus’ disciples overshadowed by the bright cloud veiling God’s glory on another mountain. In the Gospel reading from Matthew, we have the story of the Transfiguration, in which Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. While there, Jesus is transfigured, so that “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” In this moment, Jesus is transformed to reveal his future glory, as he would appear following his death, resurrection and ascension. The disciples are able to witness the fullness of what Jesus was talking about six days earlier when he revealed to them that he would be killed and then raised from the dead. At the time, his words would have not made a lot of sense to them. But now, seeing the final outcome that Jesus was foretelling, they could more nearly appreciate and understand the meaning of his cryptic message.

In the midst of this Transfiguration event, as if seeing their Lord and master in his future and eternal glory were not enough, two additional characters appear on the scene – Moses and Elijah. This adds significance to the vision that they had seen in Jesus, as Moses and Elijah are central figures in Judaism, representing the Law and the Prophets. Their appearance is intended to help provide greater understanding of who Jesus is. Their appearance indicates a connection between Jesus and these figures – that Jesus, standing with these two, is in a line of succession extending from Moses and Elijah. But Jesus is not their equal. Rather, his Transfiguration, the revelation of his glory in their midst, places him above Moses and Elijah in the heavenly hierarchy. He is not merely an extension of the Law and the Prophets, but is instead the fulfillment, as he notes elsewhere in the Gospels. He is the fulfillment of prophecy of the Messiah who is to come.

And then, as if all that weren’t enough, the voice of God himself comes from the cloud, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt 17.5). Just as at Jesus’ baptism, God declared him his Son, the Beloved with whom he is well pleased, God uses this event to reiterate this divine proclamation. But this time he adds a little extra punch: “listen to him!” In this Transfiguration event, in which Jesus is placed over the authority of the Law and the Prophets, God grants ultimate approval and ultimate authority to Jesus.

On Mount Sinai, Moses received tangible signs of relationship with God. On the Mount of the Transfiguration, humanity through Peter, James, and John, receives the most tangible sign of relationship with God – “this is my Son . . .” On Mount Sinai, relationship between God and humanity was revealed. On the Mount of the Transfiguration, God incarnate, God made man was revealed. On Mount Sinai, for a short time man dwelt with God on the mountaintop. As revealed on the Mount of the Transfiguration for a short time, God has dwelt with us, as one of us, on this earth.

That’s a whale of a lot to take in. What happened on the Mount of the Transfiguration took the foundation established on Mount Sinai and kicked it up – intensified it beyond imagination. The relationship with God, central to Judaism, became far more personal, far more intimate through Jesus Christ – thus forming the foundation of our own faith. No wonder the disciples fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. How could these simple men fathom the immensity of what was revealed to them on the Mount of the Transfiguration? How can humanity take in the magnitude of what was revealed about our Messiah and about our relationship with God in that one event? It’s just too much.

But for the benefit of the disciples, and also for ours, Jesus boiled it down to one simple action: “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid’” (Mt 17.7). The glory of God, mystifying, incomprehensible, even terrifying to humans, is boiled down into something that we can comprehend and that is not terrifying but rather comforting – a touch and a word. Jesus recognized that there would be a temptation to dwell on the mystical – just as Peter wanted to do in building dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But Jesus brought it back to the practical. In ordering the disciples to “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Mt 17.9), he was steering the new and future church away from getting wrapped up in this mystical event, to the reality that lay ahead – the cross and the empty tomb. And to the reality of what Christ has actually done for us – gently touched us and offered words of encouragement, that through him all will be well.

We are about to enter into a time that carries its own sense of cloud-cover, of murkiness, of overshadowing the rest of our existence – Lent. The experience on the Mount of the Transfiguration and all it means for us as people of faith steers us into this season, toward the reality of the cross and the empty tomb. It is a time of really looking at what it means for us to be followers of Christ. And what that means is not contained in deep theological statements, but rather is contained in a gentle touch and a word of encouragement from our Lord. As we go out into the world, as we encounter others, it will be a gentle touch, a kind word, that will speak volumes about who we are and about the one we choose to follow on the cloudy journey ahead – taking us to the foot of a cross, culminating in the revealing of the ultimate glory of Christ at an empty tomb.

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