Transfiguration Sunday Sermon
II Corinthians 3:12-18, Matthew 17:1-13
When I first imagined the tents in this passage, I was brought back to my days when we pitched canvas tents that I used to spend a couple weeks under as a Boy Scout at Camp Orr, along the Buffalo River in NW Arkansas. These tents weren’t like the well ventilated, lightweight tents that we have today. I think they were left over from Vietnam. The dark canvas soaked up the Arkansas 95 degree sun. They were musty from the humidity and rain that accompanied the heat in the summer. Despite these defects, I have a fondness in my heart for those tents.
To the modern reader, Peter’s suggestion to build three tents on such an occasion seems like an interruption in the flow of the story, and to Mark and Luke, both gentiles, the idea of erecting tents on such an occasion must’ve seemed equally silly, because they both make excuses for Peter. Mark comments on Peter’s idea by saying, “he did not know what to say, because he was terrified.” Luke shortens Mark’s comment simply to “not knowing what he had said.” Matthew seems to be the only gospel writer to think Peter is up to something worthwhile, because he leaves out commentary entirely.
When the disciples react like we would react to the sight of the transfiguration unfolding before their eyes, God appears in a cloud. Perhaps this cloud is a visual ignorance--A veil of missed comprehension. Christ stands before us transfigured, and all we can do (through Peter) is to suggest our tent-building. God doesn’t seem to be too interested in our tents. God seemingly interrupts Peter without justifying his idea with a response. Instead, God is bubbling over with adoration. “This is my son, IN whom I am well pleased.” Should we make a tent for him then God? No---“Listen to Him.” Listening to him involves us confronting our fears. Are we afraid to live our lives the way that he perceives is possible in us? Matthew tells us that 6 days before Before the Transfiguaration event, Jesus confronts his disciples with the question, Who do you say that I am? I imagine that the emphasis is not on the “I” but on the “you.” Christ’s love for us can make us quite uncomfortable. Jesus loves us outside the tent. Jesus walks through the cloud of our ignorance and touches us.
I believe that these tents in some ways symbolize our impulsive response to the divine. When the divine becomes apparent, we try to build it shelter. Instead of basking in the light of the transfiguration, we want to put it under canvas. Sure, we think this is best for the divine. God is in need of our protection!
We want to protect God under the tents of our dogmas, our customs, and our explanations. Humans are naturals at tentmaking. Douglas John Hall writes in a book I’ve been reading, The Cross in Our Context….“One suspects that our Western concepts of God are the answers that we give to depth experiences that are too basically unsettling to remain undefined, unnamed. Better name it straightaway—otherwise what control can we claim?”
The tents that we build as a response to the divine experience are our attempts to define and name the divine. Our human tendency is to feel uncomfortable with the divine. We can’t just stand with our mouths agape. Though ignorance breeds fear, the inverse is true as well: We are afraid of our ignorance—or at least I am anyway. I don’t like to think that “I don’t know.”
Far superior to “I don’t know” is to pretend I know. Many of us latch on to a few ideas that are comfortable to us, then we construct our self-centered realities around these comfortable ideas. God hates this or that is a lot more comfortable because it takes the spotlight off me.
The world is just so much more manageable if I can stake my claim on the idea that God hates something rather than the idea that God loves everyone. If I can build my identity around something I might find in scripture that God “hates,” some abomination that doesn’t apply to me, then I can point my finger instead of claiming my own sinfulness. Building walls to keep the “other” out is a lot easier than letting Christ in. Why? Perhaps this is why in Romans, chapter 2, after describing the apparently sinful culture the Christians find themselves in, he asks those disciples, who are we to judge—perhaps we should just leave that up to God and concentrate on loving our neighbor.
Christ isn’t waiting for us to put a box around Him so that we can define and control Him: the Christ of the Transfiguration grabs our hearts and wrings them out. Sometimes Christ approaches us with arms open—other times Christ overturns our tables.
Christ’s love is a transformative love, it is healing love. I can’t open myself to Christ’s love without being transfigured myself, and frankly the sight of that scares me to death. The transfiguration burns our worldly eyes. IN a later experience of the transfigured Christ, Paul experienced this transformation as so reformative that it blinded him. After seeing a bright light and being questioned by the Risen Christ, Saul “could see nothing, and had to be led by the hand to Damascus,” where he was healed by Ananias and scales fell from his eyes. Our eyes are burned by this vision as well. The love of Christ transcends our worldly vision. Of course we hear and nod our heads that the Christ is present in the whole world—in the “least of these,” but the actual vision of that reality has the power to dumbfound us.
When we open our hearts to the transforming, transfiguring love of Christ, we’re blinded by the light—when we recover from this life changing event, it oftentimes means that we may find love in our heart for the very people we THOUGHT God hates. Saul knew with all his heart that God hated the Christians. The scriptures tell us that he held the coats of those who stoned the early Christian martyrs. He was right there cheering them on, and probably even participated. Then Christ shows up, blinds him with a vision of love he can’t quite wrap his mind around, then when the scales fall from his eyes, he loves the Christ so much that he ends up finding him in groups of people that the early Christians didn’t even imagine could be possible! Do you recognize this?! Are we ready and willing to be changed by and then bear the transforming power of Christ in the world? I’m not talking about Christ’s blinding power changing other people—I’m talking about that blinding power changing you!!!! And me!!!!
We don’t have any business saying someone else should be changed and healed and transformed by God until we step up to the plate and take a swing at what that means for us---for our rigid notions and our usual habits and our sacred cows. God smashes those things up and makes them into ashes and smears them on our face. That’s what we’ll do this Wednesday—swallow our own finitude and accept God’s gracious everlastingness. Grace lasts forever—walls crumble!!!!!
For Matthew, the tent probably symbolizes the Tabernacle, where the Shekinah, the fiery cloud of the continuing presence of God with the people that dwelt over the Ark of the Covenant, is kept. The Ark is the container of the Tablets containing God’s Law. The tabernacle is a symbol of God’s presence with the Jewish people while they are on the Exodus from Egypt to the promised land. Even when the people of God are settled, God prefers the mobility of the tent, perhaps as a suggestion to Israel that their people are going to be on the move throughout their collective history.
Paul realizes that Christ is the tabernacle—the reality of God’s abiding presence with us. Putting Christ in our heart is the same thing as building a tabernacle in our heart—but one difference. We had to build the tabernacle. God gives explicit instructions for a few chapters of Exodus; meticulous details of the tabernacle are given. An artist is selected because of his ability to detail the tabernacle.
Instead of building a tent and carefully putting Christ in our hearts, we open our hearts to Christ’s presence. Christ coming into our hearts is God’s doing, God’s grace. Christ explodes into our hearts. Are you afraid to live your life the way that I perceive?, Christ asks us. That’s how Jesus enters our hearts: that introspection that causes us to see what Christ perceives is possible in our lives. Christ challenges us to do all that he has done. He perceives greatness in us when we perceive weakness. Christ is the fulfillment and potential for all humanity.
Paul writes about the transfiguration in 2nd Corinthians “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Christ perceives Christ in our hearts, and that’s how Christ enters. The law is written on our hearts. Christ’s coming into our hearts isn’t a move into empty space, it is an unveiling.
Jesus shows the disciples the glorious nature of the Christ. Even though we are Disciples of Christ, we can never quite wrap our minds around the simple light and beauty of the transfiguration. It is out of the ordinary. Right when we think we have the right answers to the question “Who do you say that I am?” the reality of the Christ melts our minds and envelops us like a cloud. We try to build appropriate shrines, and we don’t even begin to get it. The cloud forces our knees to buckle. What is this grand vision? This awe inspiring light? Is it a taste of some transcendent deity? No—it is pure humanity. It is fearless, unbounded love. Christ never lets us disciples off the hook—He asks us if we would like to join him on Golgotha. He tells us that we will do all he has done and more. Christ’s radiant face is the potential for all creation.
Are you willing to believe the miracle? Are you willing to look for the shining face of Christ when you look in the mirror? With the awesome beauty of our true nature comes an awesome responsibility, an awesome task on this earth. We walk down the mountain with Christ—back into the valleys of the shadow of death. But with this vision stamped fresh in our minds, we will fear no evil, for Thou art with us! Christ’s presence is just as divine when he is tenderly touching a prostitute or a leper as when he is in the company of Elijah and Moses. Christ shines brightest in the world in the company of those we think are unworthy to be brought to light. Christ may blind us and if we go and seek out the aid and counsel of those who are compassionate enough to receive us, we may just find ourselves loving those we don’t think God loves. In so doing, we may even uncover the beauty of God’s love for us! Amen.