August 7, 2016
Feast of the Transfiguration (transferred)
2 Peter 1:13-21
A Hidden Light
One of my favorite opening prayers for Sunday worship comes from the second Sunday after Epiphany. It says to God, “Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.” The idea is that our exposure to the Word and Sacraments should have an illuminating effect on us—that our time listening to the Scriptures, and feasting on bread and wine, should light us up and make us glow long after we leave here. That opening prayer fits today too, the Feast of the Transfiguration. Today we remember the way that the light of God’s presence illumined the lives of people who experienced it—especially Moses and Peter—and we expect that light to have effects on our lives as well.
In our first reading, Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with two tablets of the law in his hand. He doesn’t realize it, but his conversation with God has made the skin of his face shine. He puts on a veil so that the glow doesn’t overwhelm or frighten other people. It might be a good spiritual exercise to imagine ourselves glowing just as brightly after our own conversations with God.
Our Gospel passage today shows Jesus radiant and transfigured in a unique way, and the few companions who see it carry the experience like a light in the coming days. Peter, James, and John go up a mountain to pray with Jesus, and although they’re very sleepy, they get to witness how prayer transforms Jesus: his face changes its appearance, his clothes become dazzling, and he talks with Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone about what they’ve seen until after he has risen from the dead. But in Luke’s version, as we heard today, they intuitively keep the secret to themselves. The Scripture says, “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” They kept this vision to themselves, maybe letting it sustain them through Jesus’ crucifixion and death, through their own disappointment and fear. And later, this vision would confirm for them that Jesus’ ministry ended not in shame but in glory. Following the example of these disciples, so often our job is not to tell or to shout, but to glow from our exposure to Christ the beloved.
In our readings from Exodus and Luke’s gospel, witnessing divine light on a mountaintop is an unusual experience. But the author of 2 Peter wants to share the light, and to pass it on to new generations of believers. Second Peter is written in the form of a testament, the last words and advice of a significant person. In this case, that person is supposedly Peter, and the author is very insistent that he’s reporting exactly what he saw and heard on a mountaintop with Jesus. There might be a little tension, though, between this account and the gospel versions. The author of 2 Peter reports that he and his fellow eyewitnesses saw Jesus Christ in his majesty, and that they heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And he insists, as we heard this morning, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” But if we look over at the gospel passage, we hear the voice saying something slightly different. Luke’s gospel describes the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen: listen to him!”
It seems like we have different oral traditions about what exactly was said. Or maybe we have a reminder of what the voice from heaven said at Jesus’ baptism and its confirmation at Jesus’s Transfiguration, without recording the voice’s exact words in the latter case. But worrying too much over who said what when misses the point. The author of this testament known to us as 2 Peter most deeply wants to hand on to us this experience of divine light and glory revealed in the face of Christ. So many centuries later, these words about the Transfiguration are sacred advice: He writes, “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.”
“Be attentive to this,” he writes. Be attentive to this hidden light. Be attentive to a light that can shine through dark places. Be patiently attentive to a light that foreshadows change and glory.
In each of our Scriptures today, someone deeply desires to capture and pass on their encounter with divine radiance. They don’t always use the best containers: Moses holds two tablets of laws, Peter wants to build three dwellings, the author of 2 Peter tries to record God’s exact words. But the light isn’t always something that can be fixed in a legal tradition, enshrined in a building, or captured in the precise wording of written records. What we pass on through our faith is light. It’s a light that transfigures us and transforms our world. This light changed the face of Moses and sustained the hearts of Peter and the other disciples who saw it. And the author of 2 Peter wanted, perhaps at the end of his own life, to pass that light on to us.
Of course, we may not always feel like we’re glowing. But we may be surprised to know the ways that this light is visible in us and through us. Whether or not we see it in the mirror, it’s possible that we are illumined by our exposure to the Word and Sacraments in this place. As we continue to seek the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus, maybe, like Moses, our faces are shining—and we don’t even know it. Amen.