f you were sitting there listening to our readings this morning and thought to yourself, “my, this reading sounds familiar!”, let me assure you that you are not crazy! Transfiguration Sunday is most commonly observed at the end of the season of Epiphany, on the last Sunday before Lent. But in the Anglican tradition, the Feast of the Transfiguration can also be observed now, in the month of August.
Admittedly, priests typically choose one observance or the other. Traditionally, you don’t choose both, but I thought it was worth celebrating again. I thought it was worth celebrating twice this year, because there are two stories unfolding in the Transfiguration. When you celebrate it only once per year, you kind of have to focus on one of the stories. You kind of have to focus on the more important of the two stories. You have to focus on the transfiguration of Christ.
After all, Christ is at the center of the story. And here, on the mountaintop, the fullness of that statement is revealed to the disciples. Before their very eyes, Jesus is bathed in a blinding light, and appears before them with Moses and Elijah, and the three of them converse together. In that moment, the disciples understand that this Jesus person they have been following is not just another wisdom teacher, not just another healer, and not just another prophet. In that moment, the disciples see that this Christ is God’s own self. They see that this is God before them, the God of their ancestors, the same God who spoke through the prophets. Yes, this is an important story we know well.
But there is a second story that makes it worth listening to this reading again. It is the story of the disciples, for on the day of the Transfiguration, Jesus was not the only one transformed. On the day of the Transfiguration, the disciples were transformed too.
Confronted with the presence of God before them, the disciples babble like fools. “Master,” they cry, “It is good that we are here! Let us build three tents, one for you, one for Elijah, and one for Moses!” Now, if that seems like a bizarre thing to say, it is because it is. When confronted with God, the disciples have no idea what to do, but they feel compelled to do something. They feel compelled to seize control of the situation. So they fall back on what they know and they offer to build a tent, a booth, a dwelling place for the divine.
It would be as if God confronted us here and now, and we were to say, “Hang on God, let us make a spaghetti dinner! It’ll be great!”
If this sounds like an absurd and far-fetched response, let me assure you that it is already happening. All around us, the world is changing, and it is changing quickly. We can send our thoughts and words zipping around the globe at the speed of light, eroding barriers of distance and national boundaries. Artificial intelligence has swept away the barriers of language, allowing us to communicate with people of many different tongues effortlessly—a return of sorts to the Tower of Babel.
Closer to home, we have become a cultural chopped salad so that on any given day we have the opportunity to brush up against people of different cultures, of different religions, of different value systems, and of different political leanings. We can no longer pretend that the whole world is like ourselves, for every day we are confronted with the reminder that we are but one expression of humanity in a sea of other expressions.
If we are being honest, this change has caused a great deal of anxiety in the church and in the wider culture because it feels like control of the world around us is slipping from our grasp. Arguably, though, that sense of control was only ever an illusion, a comforting illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.
Even more than that, the ways we have traditionally done church seem relevant to an ever shrinking population of people. God is still relevant, mind you, and indeed God is doing something new in our world. It is only the church as we know it that is becoming irrelevant. Like the disciples on the mountaintop, God is being revealed to us in new ways that don’t look like the old ways.
But we don’t know how to handle it! Like the disciples, we are at a loss when confronted with God’s new reality. We hate feeling helpless, so we try to feel in control by doing something. By doing anything. We grasp at what we know, at what is familiar and comfortable. All across the church, communities like our own are responding by trying to start new church programs that look remarkably like old church programs. Wise experts coach clergy and lay leaders on how to reinvent the church, how to revitalize the church, how to grow the church, so that it can go back to being like it was before, when the church was at the center of their world. Teams of stewardship committees and armies of bake sale organizers are working their hardest to fund the church’s return to prominence.
Christ stands before us and we are crying out, “Look, we’re building the tent for you!”
God is pouring new wine into us, and we keep trying to capture it in our old wine skins. They are what we have. They are what we know, so we keep trying and trying, until something snaps!
You know, in ancient scripture we find the idea that looking upon God directly will kill the viewer. While this idea was used to great effect in that one scene of Indiana Jones, it has nothing to do with face-melting some Nazis, because God is not toxic radiation. Neither is it about a vindictive God who wants no mere mortal to gaze upon what is divine. Rather, the treacherous danger for humans who would look upon God had everything to do with our attempt to fit God into the framework of what we know and expect.
But it can’t be done. God is so much bigger than any construct we can create and God cannot fit into the view of any worldview we have, no matter how expansive and inclusive it may be. But we keep trying. We keep trying to fit God into what we know, into what we expect and believe. We keep trying to fit God into something we can control. We keep trying until something inside of us snaps, and we either die or we are transformed.
Something snapped inside the disciples that day, and they were transformed. They were transformed and they laid aside their talk of tents and other such nonsense. They were transformed and they stopped trying to fit God inside a box of their own making, they stopped trying to control what was being revealed before them. They were transformed and became silent at last, and in that silence, they listened and they watched for God.
My friends, God is still very much relevant in the world today. Christ is needed as much now as he was when he first walked the earth. And Christ is revealing himself in the world in new ways, and Christ is calling us out into the world in new ways. But up to now, all across the church, we have been desperately trying to force what God is doing into the boxes that we know and with which we are familiar. And now we are quickly approaching the snapping point. The question is, when we get there, will it kill us or will it transform us. Some communities have already snapped and died. Others have been transformed. Which will it be here?
Can we learn to set aside the tent poles in our hands? Can we let go of what is old and familiar? Can we let go of the need to be in control of what God is doing?
Can we be transformed? Can we be a people marked, not by the programs we run or the building in which we worship, but by our silent attentiveness before the face of God?
I want to find out. I hope that you want to find out with me. So, this fall, I invite you to join me in a practice of coming together in silence before God, not to do anything but listen and watch. Together we will listen and watch for God in prayer. We will listen and watch for God in scripture. And we will listen and watch for God in each other.
Because Christ is with us, my friends, and Christ is before us. If we can only let go of those things to which we grasp so tightly, we will find ourselves transformed. We will find ourselves transformed for this new thing God is doing before us. We will find ourselves transformed for this new thing God is pouring out upon us.
Preached by Adam Yates