Sermon from the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Last Sunday of Epiphany Year B: February 11, 2018
We began our service with a prayer containing these words: “O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. Grant to us that we may be changed into the likeness of Christ from glory to glory. Are we serious about this prayer? Do we really want to be changed into the likeness of Christ?
Looking at the Gospel text, we witness Jesus going up to a high mountain with his inner circle of disciples, Peter, James, and John. There, on top of the mountain, Jesus undergoes a radical alteration of appearance. His clothes are brighter than anything imaginable. He looks less like the human Jesus and more like a god.
We might think that the disciples would bask in Jesus’ glory, that they would revel in this holy moment. No, the scripture tells us they are terrified. Peter just starts running his mouth, he has no idea what to say, he is so afraid. Why? Remember that in Jewish theology, to look into the face of God was a death sentence. No one looks at God and lives. Seeing Jesus transfigured before them, the disciples probably thought their lives were over. It was not an unreasonable fear. But their fear reveals that they still have much to learn about Jesus. They have a limited understanding, and it means they cannot see the greater reality.
Most of us would probably not know what to say either, if we saw Jesus in all that glory. It would just be too much outside our understanding. Too much outside our reality. The problem of the disciples, the problem we have as well, is that we operate generally in the reality that feels comfortable to us. We operate with a limited understanding about life that makes sense. We have stories we tell ourselves so that our world is not too overwhelming. And Jesus challenges the stories we tell ourselves. Even Jesus without the glory and bright shining clothes rocks our world. We say we want to follow Jesus, but only as long as it doesn’t mess with our reality too much. There come points where, given the choice between being changed into the likeness of Christ and keeping our reality the same, we are likely to choose keeping things the same. Too much glory can be too much. A little bit of glory, a warm glow, that’s okay. But if being changed into the likeness of Christ means we are going to catch on fire with the Holy Spirit, we might just prefer to stay like we are, thank you very much. As much as we admire the great saints, most of us do not really want to be one of them, because they had to surrender their lives.
There’s a famous quote by spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson which says, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” So I would like to render this in Christian terms, “Our deepest fear is that Christ is powerful beyond measure. It is the light of Christ, not the darkness of evil, that most frightens us.” Even those of us who call ourselves Christians are often afraid of the light of Christ, because it is a light that will change us. It is a light that will demand that we see and not hide our heads in the sand. But more importantly it is a light that will make us shine in glory too. It invites us to be transfigured. And many of us like our appearance the way it is or at least the way we think it should be according to our reality. We are willing to change, but not too much. We are afraid of accepting the power of Christ as our own, because it will mean surrendering the comfort of our limited reality.
It’s okay that many of us are not ready to be changed into the likeness of Christ. That’s just where we are. I will admit, there are days when I hesitate to fully embrace Christ, because I am afraid of where Jesus will take me. I like my life the way it is. But we do not have to stay stuck in this limited reality, in resistance to our own transfiguration. In the Gospel text, the disciples are terrified witnessing the glory of Christ. God has mercy on them and overshadows them with a cloud. Out of the cloud, God’s voice speaks (is it a booming voice or a whisper? I like to think it was more of a whisper). “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him.” Listen to Jesus. And then the cloud lifts and Jesus is back to normal. He takes Peter, James and John down the mountain and the first thing he says to them is not to say anything about what they saw until after the son of man rises from the dead. Jesus basically tells them he is going to die and rise again. Just when they think things are back to “normal,” Jesus is rocking their world again. The same beloved one of God that we just saw clothed in divine brightness will suffer and die. And then, he will rise again. The greater glory is still to come, and it will come through love and surrender.
We can hear the whisper in the cloud speaking to us as well, “This is my Son the beloved. Listen to him.” Don’t listen to the voices of inadequacy and fear of being glorious in Christ. Don’t listen to the story of our limited reality that we tell ourselves just to keep comfortable. Listen to the beloved One of God who invites us on a path of greater glory. Priest and activist John Dear has said, “If we try to follow Jesus, our lives will be transfigured, because they are no longer our own. Jesus will lead us to new places, new people, new truth, so the journey is no longer a journey from crisis to crisis, death to death but life to new life, peace to deeper peace, glory to greater glory.” Jesus is transfigured on the mountain not to impress the disciples but to invite them into glory as well. Glory that is more than a mountaintop experience. Glory that is not afraid to descend into the valleys of despair and death to bring hope and new life. Glory that is even more glorious, because it has laid aside the power of this world and taken up the power of God which is revealed in love. Jesus is transfigured so that our lives and our life together in community may also be transfigured, changed from glory to glory, changed into the likeness of Christ.
This week we begin the holy season of Lent. It is a time when many of us look for some ways to grow closer to God, to grow deeper in our faith and in our connections as brothers and sisters in Christ. We give some things up. We take some things on. This Lent, I invite us to consider what is keeping us from embracing the likeness of Christ. What story are we telling ourselves that serves our limited reality but is not serving the reality of God for our lives? How are we afraid of the glorious light of Christ shining into our hearts? How can we listen to the Beloved One of God and let Christ lead us to a metamorphosis of the soul? A reshaping of the heart? What do we need to give up, what do we need to take on that will open our hearts to be changed into the likeness of Christ’s heart? Do not be afraid of the power of the beloved. Listen to him. Let us pray: Grant to us, O God, that we, beholding by faith the light of Christ’s countenance, may be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. Amen.