By Jacob Smith
The season of Epiphany is rightly all about revelations, especially, the revelation that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, for without that, as St. Paul tells us, we are perishing. The Season of Epiphany always begins with Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan and ends with his transfiguration before Peter, James, and John.
So far the disciples have heard Jesus teach as one who has authority. This is stated over and over in Mark and his authority is confirmed by the miracles. The disciples have seen Jesus cast out demons, cure a paralytic, heal the sick, cleanse lepers with his touch. In the previous chapter, chapter 8, Jesus feeds four thousand with a couple of fish and some loaves of bread, and he gives sight to the blind. So, just when Peter, James, and John think they’ve seen it all, Jesus takes them to a high mountain, hearkening every reader to Mount Sinai, and changes his appearance. Jesus metamorphizes; he transfigures before them. Mark tells us his clothes were whiter than anyone could bleach them, and Matthew and Luke tell us that his face shone like the sun.
This is my first point: What we are hearing about at the transfiguration is the epiphany, the revelation, that Jesus is not some demigod or super human. Rather, Jesus is both fully man and fully God at the same time. What the apostles saw and what we hear today is the preview of His divinity literally shining through his humanity. As we confess in the Nicene Creed, he is “God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God.” Jesus’ divinity always working through his humanity.
I have had mountaintop experiences in my life, and I am sure you have had them too: that moment you fell in love. I remember when my kids were born. I was on 10th floor of Beth Israel Hospital. Nevertheless it was a mountain top experience, and I was so overwhelmed that I could not speak… and that is a rare thing for me. However, for Peter, James, and John, this must have been a moment, a moment like no other.
Usually, I am like Peter, I blurt out the first thing that comes to my mind. But Mark tells us that Peter’s statement about three booths is the result of being terrified. For Jesus is not only transfigured, but he is with two of the key figures of the Old Testament who had been dead for a long time. Moses, who represents the law, and Elijah, who represents the prophets. What this moment is conveying is that their lives and their words pointed to Jesus. And this promise manifested now in Jesus, which Moses and Elijah had only hoped for in faith. Now for a moment, they bask in his glory to bear witness once again that this is the One they were pointing to. Luke tells us that they were speaking of his departure, or his exodus, and how in his death and resurrection he would fulfill the law and prophets. So this is a profound spiritual experience.
Over the last couple of years, I have read article after article about people leaving religion because they want an authentic spiritual experience. Nobody is really becoming an atheist in this country. The studies from Pew Research, Harvard and UVA and everyone in between show that 80 percent of millennials believe in God and identify with statements such as ‘a deep sense of wonder’ when it comes to engaging in spiritual things.
I get it. Who wants to sit through a liturgy where the priest is phoning it in, or it is all about being cool and relevant? I get it, and that is one of the reasons we exist at Calvary-St. George’s. However, when people start asking for beatific visions, I want to say you have no idea what you are talking about. I remember a couple of years back a group of us went to Union Square and asked people about what would get them to believe in God and come back to church. Several people said they would definitely believe in God if he appeared to them right now. One person – he told us he was raised in the church – said, “I need a Shine, Jesus, Shine moment to get me back into the church.” I gave him a high five and said, “I doubt it.”
This is my second point: To see Jesus transfigured like the apostles would be terrifying. To experience God in all of His glory now would kill us. The sight of him is too brilliant, therefore Jesus now comes to us hidden. He comes to us as a babe in a manger, he comes to us as a Nazarene (can anything good come from Nazareth). He come to us as a man on the cross. That is all the spiritual experience you need of Jesus, who although his divinity is there, it is hidden. And now Jesus comes to his church by the Holy Spirit through Baptism, the Eucharist, and the words of sermon from the voice of a fellow sinner.
The truth is you and I are not made for the mountain top. As Paul tell us in 1 Corinthians 15, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Mountain top experiences are great, but they are not where you pitch your tent. I could have stayed at Beth Israel Hospital forever in those moments with my newborn children, but I would have never experienced the pains and joys of seeing them grow.
Jesus tells them to say nothing of this experience until after the Son of Man rises from the dead, because all of this – conception, birth, baptism, transfiguration of Jesus – points to his death and resurrection. That is the greater glory, not Shine Jesus, but dead and risen Jesus for our justification before God. Not Mountaintop Jesus with Moses and Elijah to his left and right, but Jesus on a cross flanked by two criminals. That is his glory.
This is my third point: The Glory of God is not some big glittery Pentecostal experience; it is not found in the warmth of a transcendent sweat lodge. The glory of God is not in the shining but in the darkness and the dying. The hidden strength cloaked under weakness, the power of God to save sinners from sin and death. So our song today is not Shine, Jesus, Shine, but “Come to us, Lord in your death and resurrection; come to us, Lord, in the promise of the Gospel; hidden in water and words, bread and wine; where we won’t be terrified, or pining for the next big experience. We can be assured that Christ is ever present where we live, on the level plain of our day-to-day existence.
The Rev. Jacob Smith is the rector of Calvary-St. George’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan and is the co-host of Same Old Song, a lectionary preaching podcast.