Every year, the Epiphany season, the season we are in now, ends with our Gospel reading, the story of the Transfiguration. Thankfully it is an incredibly rich story.
Indeed it is almost too rich. When the Agawam Clergy Association met early this week, I led them in a short session of contemplative prayer using our Gospel reading. We had a good session, but afterwards agreed that it was all a little too much to take in. That overwhelmed reaction is, I think, an important insight into the meaning of this story for us as contemporary Christians. Our reading is good news. But we need to work to get the good news.
So I begin in what may seem like a strange place: with my parents and my children.
My parents have always been active and involved grandparents. But right from the beginning, they were very clear that they were not the parents and that discipline was therefore not their responsibility. It was ours. My father warned me that he would give my children whatever they asked for. Thankfully, he didn’t tell them that when they were the age to really take advantage of it. But my children understood that life with Mimmy and Poppop was MUCH better than life with Mom and Dad. Mimmy and Poppop clearly wanted to indulge their every wish.
I mention that because I think many people today look at God a little bit like that kind of grandparent. We see God as loving, indulgent, forgiving, generous. That’s OK. Indeed, if we have to have only one image of God, that’s not such a bad one. It is certainly better than thinking of God as mean and nasty, as some people seem to do.
But it is a radically incomplete image of God. It is God as Santa Claus. And when we think of God as Santa Claus, we run the risk of taking God for granted, as if, no matter what we do, God will always smile, and pat us on the head, and then take us out for ice cream. Then we become spoiled children.
People often took Jesus for granted in that way during his earthly ministry. Wherever he went, crowds would follow, pressing in on him, seeking his help. Many times, Jesus tried to hide from the crowds so that he could be alone, have time for prayer, or just rest. And always, crowds found him. People constantly demanded Jesus’ time and attention, as if they thought he had nothing else to do than meet their needs.
There is obviously something wrong about assuming God is at our beck and call, that God’s sole purpose in creating the universe is to meet our needs. And yet we do sometimes act like that.
Our Gospel reading for this morning is a helpful corrective on precisely this point.
You just heard the story. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. Jesus begins to shine with unearthly glory and power. Great heroes from the ancient past appear with him. A voice from heaven speaks. A bright cloud overshadows them. Try to picture all that in your head. That is a LOT of heavenly fireworks.
And what do the disciples do? They do what any of us would. They fall to the ground, overcome by fear. Confronted with the awesome power and glory of God, who wouldn’t be terrified? This is not the kind of person you harass because you want a favor. This is the kind of person you worship in awe and reverence.
Hold that thought. Back to my children. Carrie and I were lucky. Neither of our sons ever really challenged us. (At least, not so far!) We never had to spank Nicholas. We rarely had to yell at him.
But one time when Nicholas was about two, he threw a temper tantrum. It was not his first. But his timing on this one was bad. Carrie was away, and I was in a foul mood. I’d like to think that I tried to meet whatever need Nicholas had that had gotten him so worked up. All I remember is that at some point I snapped. I told Nicholas to be quiet, and I expressed myself with great vigor.
And an amazing thing happened. It was like I had hit the mute button. Boom. Nicholas went silent.
My first thought was pleased astonishment that it had worked. My second thought was the more mixed recognition that I had terrified my child.
Carrie tells me that was a bad parenting moment, and she is probably right. But in that moment, if only for a moment, Nicholas learned a lesson that was positive. Nicholas learned that he was not in charge, that I had considerably more power than he did—things have changed, but he was two at the time!—and that he sometimes needed to do what I said even if he didn’t like it.
That is the first lesson of the transfiguration. In case we ever forget, this story stands as a reminder that we don’t want to irritate Jesus, that Jesus has the power to create and sustain the universe. I say only what is obvious when I say that we need to show considerable respect to anyone with that kind of power.
But we can’t stop there.
Back to that moment with Nicholas and me. Was it a good parenting moment? I don’t know. A lot depends on what happened next, and I can’t remember. It is not great to terrorize your child, so I hope I took Nicholas in my arms, thanked him for quieting down, and told him over and over again that I loved him. That is probably not what happened.
But it helps us to appreciate what happened during and immediately after Jesus’ terrifying display of divine power. God’s power may be news for us. But it isn’t yet good news.
So, God’s voice from heaven tells the disciples, “Listen to my Son, the Beloved!” That advice was probably unnecessary. I am guessing Jesus already had their attention!
But the voice from heaven should certainly get our attention. This is, I think, the only time in the entire Bible that a voice from heaven directly endorses the next words to be spoken.
And what does Jesus say? What is it that we are supposed to listen to? “Do not be afraid.” That line is the good news of this passage.
We sometimes think of Jesus as meek and mild. That may be true in a way. But Jesus also has terrifying power. We shouldn’t ever forget that divine power. We shouldn’t ever take Jesus for granted.
Thankfully we see here that we don’t have to fear Jesus. Jesus is good. Jesus comes to us in love. Jesus does, in fact, forgive us, and give to us, and love us unconditionally, a lot like a grandparent. Just a really, really powerful grandparent who is sometimes a little unpredictable.
And so we worship Christ as God. We approach the God we know in Christ in humility and with awe.
But we also approach God with confidence, not based on who we are or what we have done, but on who God is and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Today is the end of the Epiphany season. Lent begins next week. As we prepare to shift into Lent, our Gospel reading is a helpful reminder of who it is that we serve: a God of truly awesome power who is also, thankfully, a God of grace and love.
My prayer for us is that we can always remember both. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan