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Transfiguration Sunday

Preaching
Lectionary Preaching Workbook
Series VIII, Cycle B
Revised Common
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

Roman Catholic
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
2 Peter 1:16-19
Mark 9:2-9

Episcopal
1 Kings 19:9-18
2 Peter 1:16-19 (20-21)
Mark 9:2-9


Theme For The Day
Let us be alert for the rare, visionary experiences when God allows us to glimpse something of glory -- experiences which can sustain us through darker days.

Old Testament Lesson
2 Kings 2:1-12
Elijah Is Conveyed Into Heaven

Using his rolled-up mantle, Elijah strikes the waters of the Jordan, parting them. He and Elisha cross over, and shortly afterward Elisha asks for a double share of his mentor's spirit. Elijah says it will soon become clear whether or not his successor will be blessed with such a gift. Then, a chariot of fire with flaming horses appears and Elijah is taken directly up to heaven in a whirlwind.

New Testament Lesson
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
To See Christ Glorified Is A Divine Gift

"... if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ ..." (vv. 3-4a). God, says Paul, is the giver of light, and it is only by inward illumination that we are able to perceive "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (v. 6).

The Gospel
Mark 9:2-9
The Transfiguration

Peter, James, and John, on a mountaintop with Jesus, see him "transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them" (vv. 2b-3). Moses and Elijah appear also, and the awestruck Peter suggests that he and his fellow disciples construct temporary dwellings for all three of these mystical figures. A cloud "overshadows" them, and they hear a heavenly voice speaking a blessing similar to the one conferred upon Jesus at his baptism: "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" (v. 7). With that, the vision ends, and Jesus is restored to his normal state.

Preaching Possibilities

Today we end the season some call Epiphany, and others call Ordinary Time. This Wednesday, Lent begins. This season opened with the baptism of Jesus, with a voice from the clouds saying, "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased." Now, it ends with that same voice, spoken from the mysterious cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration: "This is my beloved son; listen to him."

Both events, baptism and transfiguration, are epiphanies. The word "epiphany" means "appearance" -- a sign of power emerging out of darkness, unexpectedly. Yet even with its glorious imagery, the Transfiguration Of Our Lord is one of the most difficult Sundays of the Christian year for preachers. First, its subject matter is baffling -- a mystical experience, difficult to describe in words. Because the group of witnesses (Peter, James, and John) is so small, the story of the Transfiguration is very close to a personal spiritual experience, that has been made public only through the telling of it. Second, the Gospel Lesson is more or less identical each year -- meaning that no matter what cycle of the lectionary the preacher may be working with, he or she is presented with essentially the same text. (There is a parallel, less-detailed recollection of the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:16-18, but it's not much help.)

Even so, there is something universal about the Transfiguration imagery. A figure glowing with light, as Jesus is here portrayed, has an iconic resonance in the hearts of worshipers. Hollywood has long known this: numerous science-fiction and fantasy films -- from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Ghost to Lord of the Rings -- have portrayed characters who are visually transfigured in one way or another. When the good wizard Gandalf the Grey reveals himself to his companions as Gandalf the White in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, his computer-generated special-effects aura is a more-than-obvious allusion to the biblical imagery. It is precisely the light-and-darkness interplay that makes the Transfiguration imagery resonate in believers' hearts.

Peter, James, and John have just heard Jesus tell them of things to come: "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (8:31). The disciples have never heard Jesus talk this way -- so intense, so passionate, and at the same time, so weighed down with care. He sounds like a herald of doom. Even more ominous are the words he goes on to utter: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (8:34).

For the past eight days, Peter and his friends have felt surrounded by gloom. Their holy quest, begun so cheerfully in the bright Galilean sun, has become overshadowed by ominous clouds. Each night, as the disciples lie down to rest, sleep eludes them. They stare into the night, until exhaustion overwhelms them.

This night on the mountain is different. As Peter and his companions look over to their master, still engaged in prayer, they see him change before their very eyes. Praise to God for sustaining visions of goodness and light, that sustain us through dark times!

Prayer For The Day

Lord, you created the light. Into the dark, swirling chaos you spoke the word of creation: and darkness retreated. There are times in life when we fear that darkness will have its victory. May we never forget that, in the gift of your Son Jesus, you have given us light not only by which to see, but through which we may triumph. Amen.

To Illustrate

I can remember, as a boy, hiking the Appalachian Trail with my scout troop. One of the things we used to do, from time to time, was hike at night. Our leaders would take us out, away from the reassuring glow of the campfire, to a place where the only illumination was the moon and stars. Then they would tell us to turn off our flashlights.

Instantly, the group was plunged into darkness. It was a little unsettling, to say the least -- to be suddenly stripped of our hand-held electric power, our ability to push back the darkness with the click of a button. Without flashlights, the night surrounded us, as the sea surrounds a swimmer. For a time, we would stand in silence, startled by each snapped twig and every wind-rustled leaf, until finally we achieved the promised state called "night vision." When the pupils of our eyes had become fully dilated, we would find to our amazement that if we were fully attentive, the light of moon and stars were sufficient to pick out the white-painted blazes on the trees. We could navigate the trail, even by night.

The irony is that, with night vision, you can see much better than with a flashlight. The flashlight brilliantly illuminates a single point, but it dazzles the eyes. If you turn away from that projected circle of light, your eyes have lost all power to pierce the darkness. Night vision is dim vision, to be sure, but it extends 360 degrees around. With just a little help from moon or stars, it is enough.

In the "dark nights of the soul" we all experience, the way of discipleship is to stop trying to pierce the darkness by artificial means. It is to put aside our lanterns and flashlights, and to trust the night. It is to feel the darkness surrounding us like a cloak, and to allow it to do so -- knowing that God, who is Lord of darkness as well as light, will provide us with the light we need to see.

***


Oceanographers tell us that deep-sea divers pass through several worlds of darkness, as they descend into the ocean depths. The first is "the world of fishes," that bright, sun-dappled world near the water's surface, where harlequin fish dance in reflected sunlight.

The deeper the divers descend, the more murky the waters become. The fish become fewer. Light becomes dimmer. The divers pass through a somber, gray-black curtain into "the world of the abyss" -- an undersea void, containing nothing but deep darkness and bone-chilling cold. Only the strongest and most persistent venture into this world, and then only with special equipment. League upon league they descend, penetrating further into the gloom, until they reach another world altogether.

This is a world rarely seen by land-dwellers. It is "the world of luminous darkness." In this world, the sea is just as dark, and colder even than the worlds above, but everywhere there are lights -- phosphorescent fish, glowing, luminous, casting their weird, colored lights into the void. An anonymous diver who has often penetrated this world has written of the experience:

... the diver discovers that the fear has lost its significance. It is possible to see in the darkness, if you are still. At the level of the luminous darkness, you begin to understand what God meant when God first spoke. You hear the sound of the genuine in yourself and in the world.

***


The poet, William Butler Yeats, tells of a visionary experience he had -- and in a very ordinary place indeed, a coffee shop:

My fiftieth year had come and gone.
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body for a moment blazed,
And twenty minutes, more or less,
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed, and could bless.
-- "Vacillation, IV"


Another poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, recalls a similar transfiguration -- that of Moses' burning bush -- in these famous lines:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush aflame with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
-- Aurora Leigh, Book vii

And again, the mystical English poet, William Blake, captures the true visionary's talent for wonder:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
-- Auguries of Innocence

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