2 Peter 1:16-21
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
When’s the last time you were good and truly dazzled? Was it a big budget movie in a state-of-the-art theater, or the big game on an ultra-high def TV? Was it the majestic beauty of a sunrise or the sparkle in a beloved’s eyes? You know the feeling of delighted awe. But, we live in a culture that chases the next dazzling thing so fast that it’s hard to keep pace. We become bored so quickly that it takes increasingly more to wow us again.
The disciples were good and truly dazzled that day on the mountaintop with Jesus. Something was revealed to them that they had not previously apprehended and they reacted in powerful ways. To describe the phenomenon, the gospel accounts use words like dazzling, brilliant, whiter than anyone could bleach, and one translation uses the word glistering. Like a combination of glistening and blistering. Glistering, it makes me think of something that you can see and feel all at once. There’s a kind of excitement that sets in at first. Peter blurts out excitedly about building canopies to mark the place. That eagerness though is only a first response. Soon something else sets in. As the bright cloud enveloped them they were overcome by fear. This has turned into a very different experience than simple amazement.
Some of the artwork depicts the scene with the disciples gazing with a stoic arm up against the light, but I love the more honest depictions with some of the disciples flipped completely upside down, contorted and sprawled out on the ground, terrified.
When’s the last time you were overcome by fear? Heart racing, muscles clenched, ready to fight or flee, the primal parts of our physiology kick in and organized thought recedes for the sake of self-preservation. I was camping with some of my brothers in the woods near Emery House a while back and just as we were ready to put out the fire and go to sleep we noticed a light off in the distance. We really weren’t that far from the main house but we didn’t recognize the source of the light and our senses were heightened. We tried to work through every logical scenario, drunk teenagers wandering the woods, lost neighbors looking for their dog, police responding to a noise complaint. Nothing really made sense and it was hard to think past the adrenaline. It reminded me of a time my family caught a burglar in our house when we got home one evening. As it all unfolded with shouts down the hallway I remember my legs quaking with fear the way they do in cartoons. I have to imagine it was a feeling more like that Peter, James and John experienced that day. Holy trembling, fearful awe.
It may seem out of place to consider encountering God with a sense of fear. But the real power of God may very well be found in a visceral moment that arrests all our supposed rational thought and keeps us alert an attentive to what comes next. That most basic and primitive part of our brain could react but we grow to learn how to think and respond through it. And yet, it is still an important signal when it occurs. God does not want to leave us in fear but God’s awesome glory may trigger that response. Peter’s exhortation in his letter refers directly to that startling moment when the Majestic Glory spoke. He says, “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
We would do well to be attentive…
The Psalmist writes, “The Lord is King; let the people tremble; he is enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth shake.”
Why tremble? Because the glimpse the immensity of God, is far more than our creaturely senses can handle; but we have been joined with God in Christ Jesus who became just small enough to draw us in. To make us real enough to exist in the Divine Presence. God is not trying to intimidate us into his love. But when we perceive a shimmer of the Majestic Glory of God our finite nature cannot help but shudder and hold silence until the voice of love calms, and directs us again.
The transfiguration of Christ was a glimpse at the eternal reality of the true nature of Jesus, the only Son of the Father. It was a foretaste of the glory of the resurrected and ascended Christ that paved the way for their understanding later. The initial shock gave way to profound contemplation and companionship as Jesus completed his holy mission in their midst. We turn our senses to this revelation as we close this season of Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to all people and the invitation to follow him. And we look now toward the journey into the valley of the shadow of death in Lent.
Perhaps there is a descent back down the mountain with Jesus. But we may rather view this stage not as a descent but as setting off from the base camp of Transfiguration to the peak of Resurrection. Like the base camp of Mt. Everest, which sits at over 17,000 feet above sea level, with another 12,000 feet to the summit.
If we wish to ascend that mountain, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, we might do well to renew the wonder, awe, and even trembling fear that reminds us of the true magnitude of the Almighty’s nature. We would do well to be attentive. And the way to ascend that mountain is to stay near to Jesus, just as Peter, James, and John did.
Stay near to Jesus. It’s easy to drift away to important work, slogans that inspire, or spiritual satiety. We may need to return to Jesus, our lover and redeemer, not our employer. We might need to expand our language when we’ve let catchy phrases limit our relatedness to the Person of Christ who cannot be easily tamed. And we may need to rekindle our spiritual hunger in the light of God’s immensity. Stay near to Jesus.
Stay near to Jesus in prayer, literally. The great gift of the incarnation, of God becoming human, was to give us access to the divinity in human form. Let your prayer be in the presence of Jesus, pull up another chair and see him sitting there with you, the scarred hand that bespeak his awesome love grasping your hands. It will feel different, more immediate.
Stay near to Jesus, who is the Word of God, by dwelling in Holy Scripture. Read a whole gospel, make a study of the parables, dig into those hard sayings that confound, challenge, and intimidate you. Consider the person of Jesus who is not easily contained by simple summations but always pushes at the boundaries of our definitions.
And stay near Jesus in this Holy Sacrament, consider again the profound wonder of Christ’s body and blood mingling with your human body. “Let all mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand, ponder nothing earthly minded for with blessing in his hand, Christ our Lord descendeth, our full homage to demand.” The hymn is from a fourth century liturgy and known as the Cherubic Hymn, sung as the gifts were brought to the altar.
Beloved of God, we are caught up in a holy mystery too wonderful for words, too powerful to remain unaffected, and too dazzling not to stand in awe. In our attentiveness, may the morning star rise in our hearts; that Jesus’ transfigured light might strengthen and transfigure us in holy trembling and fearful awe of the works of God to come. Amen.
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