This past week I’ve been re-reading the extraordinary novel by Charles Dickens’ entitled A Tale of Two Cities. You may remember that Dickens begins this great epic of war and revolution in Europe by speaking about the irony and paradoxes of that time in history. And yet the irony and paradoxes about which Dickens’ speaks rather ring true to me about our own time. Dickens writes:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
My hunch is that many of us know something about how life, of how our own life, can be filled with both “the best of times and the worst of times.” Many of us, I suspect, will have our own tale of “dual citizenship” in the best and worst of times… If only life on this earth would follow a straight path. If only those things that we have hoped and worked so hard for would become real stay put. If only our health would stay good and our bodies and minds be whole. If only those whom we love would not suffer and would not die. If only there would be justice in this world and in our communities and in our jobs and in our families and in our church. If only our friends would always be faithful and never disappoint or hurt us. If only the love that we have and share with others would always be received and returned. If only our sister or brother or friend or parents or lover were less troubled and less trying. If only it were otherwise… and would stay otherwise… it would be the best of times. But, I think for many, perhaps for many of us, life is a series of the best of times and the worst of times and a lot of time spent muddled in the middle.
And do you find yourself sometimes trying to escape the moment, dreaming of better possible times in the future? It may be to dream about something that is upcoming. Something that will rescue you and hopefully change it all, make it all better: the upcoming holiday (that trip that will be your “great escape”); or maybe you dream about going back to school or graduating from school; dreaming about being transferred to a new house or changing your work or being relieved from your work. Do you find yourself trying to escape the moment, dreaming of a hoped-for visit with friends or relatives, dreaming that something coming will make it and keep it the best of times… forever? Do you find yourself sometimes trying to escape the moment, dreaming of better times down the road (please, God)?
Or do you find yourself dreaming of the past: if only you could re-live those days, those good days, when life seemed easier, when there were more answers, when there was better health, when children were children and when they seemed more innocent and less tempted – perhaps when you were more innocent and less tempted? Do you find yourself dreaming of days gone by, when you were younger, fitter, handsomer, sharper, more resilient, less fearful? Do you find yourself wandering back down roads taken in the past, longing again for that spiritual experience that, at the time, was so pivotal and life changing and now just a faint memory? Or do you find yourself longing, maybe, just for fall colors and gingerbread houses, of carefree fishing, of tea parties with teddy bears, of longing for those days when you were held, or wanted to be held, maybe to be held again in safety of your mother’s or lover’s arms? Oh for those good old days. Where have they all gone? “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove,” says the Psalmist. “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove; I would fly away and be at rest…” Psalm 55:6-8
If you know something of this hoping, this re-membering, this longing for better times, it’s not bad or wrong . I think it’s part of our being created with a capacity to remember and to desire. It’s some of what makes us human. And, I think, it’s what makes the apostles Peter and James and John so very human to us.
It’s this kind of remembering, hoping, longing for good days ahead or for the good days long past – it’s this kind of stuff that is going on with Peter and James and John as they walked up onto the mountain with Jesus – what we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. Here we have three very common people, with very common needs and common desires and common hopes, three of Jesus’ followers who had been fished out of their simple boats by Jesus and shown another way. They had seen the prophesies of old being fulfilled by Jesus in ways that they could never before have imagined. The hungry were being fed, the blind being healed, the hopeless and forgotten being received. They themselves were being fed; they themselves were being healed; they themselves were being given a place in the Reign of God. And people, multitudes of people, were listening and changing and following. And all was right with their world, and all would be right in the best of times when Jesus got to Jerusalem and finally ascended the royal throne and assumed the kingly power… and they would be seated at his right hand and at his left. It would. And it would have stayed the best of times… except for this one tragic dimension about Jesus. Jesus kept sort of name-dropping that there would be a terrible twist to his life (and to theirs!) when they arrived in Jerusalem.
Jesus kept talking about the doorway to the future having to pass over a threshold of suffering and death. In actuality, Jesus had talked about this quite an amount. He hadn’t merely hinted about his forthcoming death; he had talked about it a great deal, and in the very presence of the these three disciples… But sometimes in life you simply can’t bear to hear what you hear, and so you don’t hear what you hear. We say in slang, that “something goes in one ear and out the other…” And I think the disciples couldn’t bear to hear what Jesus had been saying all along. It’s almost as if they were pretending not to know what they knew that Jerusalem would bring to Jesus (and to them).
And so, on this particular day, there they stood on the mountain top with Jesus. And Jesus was simply flooded with dazzling, mesmerizing light. And for a fleeting moment, for the apostles Peter and James and John, this moment salvaged the best of the past and it gave hope for the rest in the future to come. And they did not want that particular moment to end. Whatever was happening to them and to Jesus at that moment, they didn’t want it to end. We call it Jesus’ Transfiguration. But it actually might be more accurate to call this the story of the transfiguration of the three apostles. Because suddenly they , too, were filled with this light: lighting their lives, lighting the darkness of their pasts, lighting their hopes and dreams and confusion and fears about the future. Suddenly the dim mirror through which they had been seeing life became clear. They saw. They understood. It fit. Everything fit. Everything was okay. Everything was going to be okay. It was an incredible experience, and Peter – I’m just guessing it was Peter who spoke for the three – Peter seized onto this experience and said to Jesus: Don’t move! This is it! Let’s hold this moment in “stop action.” Don’t change. Don’t you change. Don’t us change. “Master,” Peter says, “let’s just stay here! Let’s build some dwelling places here. Let’s stay put. Let’s keep everything as it is. Don’t move.” They had what I is called a “mountain top experience” with Jesus. And they did not want it to end, and they were afraid that it would end… And it did.
We don’t know much about when or how they came down off the mountain top. But I suspect a new set of clouds rolled in, as clouds are want to do in life. The next time they would experience that kind of light would be on Easter, the Day of Resurrection. But we know that that transfiguring light finally soaked into Peter and James and John (and the other apostles), and they were able to get on with their lives with real meaning and with real power. How? Here’s the good news they discovered… and here’s the good news for you and me. Two things come to mind.
First, they were able to hear that Jesus would be with them always. Jesus is God Emmanuel, God with us. We do not worship a God whose presence is limited to a particular experience, not to a particular place (like a mountain top, like the temple, or totem, or shrine), not to a particular time. We worship God Emmanuel, in all times and in all places. God is with us, with you. That’s one thing that soaked into the apostles: that Jesus was going to stay with them. They didn’t have to go back to a mountain top to be with Jesus. The light of Jesus was going to stay really present to them.
The second thing that soaked into the apostles was that if Jesus was going to stay with them, it was going to have to be in a new way… because he was still going to leave them. That was for sure. He was going to die and leave the dusty roads of Galilee and still be with them, but in some new way. And that’s true for us all, too. The apostles had seen the crying needs around them, and had seen the power of Jesus to transform their world, the power of Jesus working through them. And this had been their other fear: not that Jesus would leave but that Jesus would stay, that Jesus would stay with them. I think they were afraid that he would stay with them, and that he would leave power with them. Which is also true for us all. We have been given the light of Jesus to transform the dark world that surrounds us: by our touch, by our words, by our mere presence, we have been given power by Jesus to transform the world in which we live, in the very ways that Jesus spoke and worked.
The apostles had been first afraid of Jesus’ absence, that he was leaving them; and then they were afraid of Jesus’ presence, that he was going to stay with them, in new ways, in powerful ways. Were they up for it? Who were they? Simple little fishermen. And who are you? Simple little you? And yet I would say that God has great things in store for us all. God Emmanuel is with us, to transfigure our own darkness and the darkness of the world in which we live. And if you, too, shy away from this, if you don’t have eyes to see how God can be with you in these, the best and worst of times, ask Jesus for eyes to see his real presence working in you and through you. God is with you, and you have been given power.
Some years ago Nelson Mandela said in his presidential inaugural address: “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.” Mandela goes on, “We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are we not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others…”
We have been given power. Let us live boldly with the light and life and love of Christ within us, and transform the world that surrounds us.
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