Last Epiphany–March 3, 2019
Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
Growing up in Atlanta we occasionally had snow, and every few years we’d have a big snow, but it was not until my late 20s that I experienced a whiteout. We were driving in the mountains of Colorado at the end of December and the storm came up and everything disappeared: the mountains in the distance, the blue sky, and the spruce and aspen vanished, and worst of all, all signs ON the road and then all signs OF the road disappeared. You all know what this is like. We were flooded by a sea of white light into which all distinctions and differences disappeared.
It is a terrifying experience to lose your known landmarks and signposts and not to know which way to turn. All we could do was stop, wait, and hope we didn’t get run over. This loss of control is terrifying. Sane folks stay home if they think a whiteout is coming.It is interesting to note, however, that in the Bible the experience of the presence of God is described as a kind of whiteout in which a person is immersed in a luminous cloud.
We see this in the story of Moses on Mt Sinai in Exodus 19:9: Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud”. We see it in the story of the transfiguration: “While Peter was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.”
We spend our lives making sure that the next moment, the next week, the next year, is under our control, happy to order people around in order to make it so. But in the whiteout of God’s Presence we realize the ability to control life is an illusion.
We have no control over where and to whom we are born. No control over being born into wealth or poverty, or being born with healthy genes or a handful of defective genes that predispose us to disease, suffering, and an early death.
But rather than find our place in this strange world we create the illusion that we are in control. This illusion is a structure built by the ego with the strategies of the world—strategies like judging others to make ourselves feel stronger and better, strategies like accumulating wealth and power to prolong our trip around the sun—but these are all tinkering around the edges. When God shows up all the strategies of control are revealed to be illusions and all we can do is be terrified, stop, and wait.
We are terrified because we realize we can no longer trust ourselves. We stop because there is nothing we can do. We wait because our only hope must come from somewhere other than ourselves. Peter wants to build something, anything, but there is nothing to do, but wait on the luminous darkness to make the next move.
Terrifying, to be sure, but Biblically this is good news, because it means we are now in the perfect position to receive the help we truly need. Now we are in a position to experience God, who knows us and loves us best.
“Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
This is the prototypical mountain top experience, but it’s not the rainbows and unicorns we had hoped for. We had hoped we could use God to get more security, safety, and control, everything the ego thinks it deserves, but what we get is a God who wants us to learn to rely on the Divine Presence as Source and Savior. This is all grace for without the knowledge of God in the depth of our being; we will continue to listen to the ego and miss the abundant life of loving others taught by our Master, Jesus.
“From the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Then the cloud vanishes and Peter and the others follow Jesus off the mountain into the valley where they run into a sick boy that they can’t heal and learn once again how powerless they really are.
We’ve all spent time in a Divine Cloud—Everyone here has been in a whiteout that left them helpless and unable to move: for some it was a death, or an illness, or a lost job, or a troubled kid, or a depression, or despair or a thousand other ways in which the ego becomes immobilized.
And all we can do is turn to the mercy of God in our heart.
But Paul today reminds us that there is more: Once we learn to daily turn our lives over to Divine Presence, we realize the Divine Light is always shining in our hearts and is slowly transforming us into the image of Christ.
In the Message paraphrase of this passage, Paul says to the Christians in Corinth: Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are—face-to-face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.
We may not be able to see it in ourselves, but we can, by faith see the light of Christ in others.
You remember C. S. Lewis’ famous statement in his essay “The Weight of Glory”: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Bishop and scholar N T Wright in response to a question as to what was one of moments in his ministry as Bishop of Durham that he caught a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
Wright replied: One parish in his diocese had 16 members who had Down syndrome and on Sundays they would sit together in the first two pews, beaming with joy, and then beaming even brighter when they gathered round the altar to partake of the Presence of Christ.
After church, they are in charge of handing out the coffee and snacks. It is a sign of the Kingdom of God whenever those the world rejects are seen for who they truly are: Children of God filled with the Light of Christ that pours out of them to others.
Remember a time in your life when you entered the cloud, lost your bearings, and you cried out to God to save you. In those moments were born all the other days in which by faith we trust that God is still with us, as Source and Savior, so that we can every day catch glimpses of the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, who is both ourself and our neighbor.