The World Is Charged With the Grandeur of God
The World Is Charged With the Grandeur of God
(Transfiguration Sunday) Feb. 11, 2018
This is one of the most remarkable and puzzling experiences in all of Jesus’ ministry. All three of the Synoptic Gospels–Matthew, Mark and Luke–tell this story with a great deal of consistency.
The story begins with the words, “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter, James and John and went up on the mountain to pray.”
Eight days after these sayings….What does that mean? Eight days before Jesus had told them that he would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the leaders of the Jews, and be killed.
I think Jesus goes up on the mountain top to confirm his decision to make his way on to Jerusalem. As you study the life of Jesus, you see that there are many turning points, and he has to struggle and pray at each of these defining moments to discern the will of God. So when we are peering out into the murky future, wondering what’s next, wondering what decision is good for us and our loved ones, wondering what decision would meet with God’s approval, it’s comforting, I think, to know that Jesus also struggled with the same uncertainty. He wasn’t some pre-programmed robot, destined to follow a certain course his entire life. He came to many forks in the road, and each time he would go off by himself to meditate and pray about which road to take.
And as he was praying, the appearance of his face changes, Luke tells his, and his clothes became dazzling white. When Moses went up on Mt. Sinai, and returned with the Ten Commandments, it is written that “he knew not that his face shone.” To enter, as Moses and Jesus did, into the presence of the Holy One of Israel, to stand in the white, windy, presence of eternity, to hear the Word of God directly and personally, is such an enlightening experience, that a person’s face must reflect a radiance as never seen by human eyes.
The old American preacher, Jonathan Edwards took this as the basis for pastoral care evaluations. He would assess from someone’s countenance how much they had been impacted by the beauty of God in Jesus Christ.
And Friedrick Nietszshe, who was a preacher’s kid and knew the church up close, knew precisely that this was clearly not happening. “Christians,” he said, “ought look more redeemed.”
But before we leave this point, we ought to note in passing that Christians like Mother Teresa literally brought people back to life and health just by looking at them through the eyes of Jesus.
Back to our story: While Jesus is in prayer, his disciples fall asleep. The poor disciples. They are always portrayed in the most unflattering light. They never get who Jesus is. They are competitive, selfish, and dull. Here in one of the most dazzling moments of their life, they are fast asleep. So take courage, if you are like me, having slept through and missed some of the greatest opportunities to see and know God
But they are awakened by an uncanny voice saying, “This is my son.” When they looked uphill, there was Jesus dressed in the purest white and standing in the midst of Moses and Elijah, Moses the supreme lawgiver of Israel, and Elijah, the greatest prophet. Jesus and Moses and Elijah are in conversation. James and John, known for their blunt excitements…Peter known for being brash and outspoken, are totally speechless.
Moses and Elijah began to fade. And though his clothes and face were still shining unbearable, Jesus walked toward the three. He was still not himself–not the man they had known, yet each of them privately came to believe what they would tell one another after his death. When Jesus reached them, he held out his hands, still streaming light and they must have thought, “We will never be gladder than this.”
And whatever else this mountain top experience means, what it meant to Jesus is clear to see. It gave him strength to go on to Jerusalem, Gethsemane, the Judgment Hall, and the Via Dolorosa.
And the disciples were transformed by this mountain top experience as well. Oh, not immediately. It came much later for them, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but they realized–looking back upon this day, that is was one of the most glorious experiences of their lives.
As a mountaineer, I’m interested in mountain top experiences, both figuratively and literally. There’s something awesome about standing on top of a mountain. I have a friend, a mountain climbing buddy named Dick Miller, whom I have climbed with many times. One day, as we were sitting on the summit of Mt. Hood in Oregon, after a long and grueling climb, this is what Dick said:
“When the mountaineer returns to a low-world occupation on Monday morning, associates often believe they are in company with a lunatic. Face swollen from sunburn, feet tingling with frostbite or sore with blisters, muscles and mind limp from fatigue, eyelids heavy from lack of sleep, what is the answer to the question, “Did you have a good weekend?” Says the thick tongue, still dry and swollen, “Very interesting climb!” ON the following Friday, when the same mountaineer becomes lost in maps and weather forecast, it is no wonder that associates, who are planning a picnic at the beach or an exciting day watching hydroplanes race, look at one another and slowly shake their heads. The mountaineer is unquestionably insane to those of the low world, but sanity is relative to time and place.
In the high world it is raving madness to talk about sewer taxes, the late movie, and presidential ejections. Who can think about mowing a lawn and pruning roses while walking through meadows beyond the skill of the massed energies of every garden club in America plus all the Bonsai artists of Japan? Who can be agitated by the high cost of living while trying to start a fire in a downpour or rig tent in a July blizzard? Who can lay waters on the world Series while listening to the winds, and the silence, of high altitude? Once you have been startled by the brightness of stars or even frightened by the realization they are points of fire in a space that extends around and below, as well as above the world; once you have stood in the sunshine on a rock summit above an ocean of moving clouds, you can never again be entirely sane by standards of the low world, nor will you ever want to be.”
What have been your mountain top experiences? If you would answer, not many, I mainly live in the flat lands, that would be true of most of us. But, if we think about them, there are many mountain top experiences, experiences of glory and grandeur that we miss because like Peter and James and John, we sleep through them. The Jesuit priest, Gerard Manly Hopkins contented that the world is charged with the grandeur of God.
And who on this spring morning, with Bradford Pears lining the road way, daffodils asserting their yellow heads above the earth, and forsythia beginning to wear a yellow coat, can deny that? Who can deny the glory of the world, the glory of human beings, the glory of every moment of every day.
Whenever we travel to Holland I nearly always visit the Van Gogh museum. Two hundred and fifty of his seven hundred and fifty paintings are on display there. Van Gogh began painting at the age of 27, and by the age of 37 he was dead, a suicide. He battled depression his whole life, and to compound his depression, his art was not well-received. He tried to hurt himself by cutting off one of his ears.
And yet this mad genius gave us some of the wildest paintings imaginable. He lived with a burning desire to “grasp life at its depth.” One night he looked out his window, and the sky was spinning with glory. His painting “The Starry Night, is composed of vivid indigoes, yellows, golds, greens, blues and blacks. A tree of the left ripples up like flames. Chimney smoke from village houses connects with the stars. And the sky! The sky is filled with mammoth stars that whirl across the canvas like living things.
That kind of glory is around us, if we can open our sleepy eyes to see it.
One last story, told by my friend, Susan Andrews, a Presbyterian pastor. It happened when she was spending a summer of Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. One of her wards was a medical/surgical ward where the patients were both mentally ill and recovering from life-threatening illnesses. Most of the patients were poor, black, and victims of addictive behavior.
It was not a pleasant place to behold, for a young woman, young in years, young in ministry. One morning there was a new patient in her ward–a man in isolation–all alone in his room–suspended between life and death. Both legs amputated, but gangrene still creeping through his body . She could smell the stench of decay even before she entered the room. The man moaned and sweated in miserable delirium. For an hour she wandered up and down the hall, seeing other patients, resisting going in to see him, nauseated by his disease and at a total loss as to what to do. What could she, a 25 year-old white woman, possibly do or so to ease this man’s situation.
Finally, she walked into the room, took the man’s hand, and prayed the Lord’s prayer. And that’s when it happened, when the holy broke into the human, when God took over and grace flowed through her. The man stopped moaning, his eyes stopped rolling, his body stopped shaking. He looked at Susan and began repeating the Lord’s Prayer with her. For a moment, all was still, and a peace that passes all understanding filled the room. A few minutes later, after Susan left the rom, the man’s suffering ended. He died, finding peace at last.
I can’t explain moments like that any more than I can explain the transfiguration. I can’t explain why Moses’ face shone every time he was in the presence of God.
But I do believe those experiences happen, even though I don’t fully understand them. They happen on the mountain top and down on the plain. They happen in high moments of our lives and in moments of deep sadness. If we stay awake, if we pay attention, we will find that grandeur of God, which electrifies the entire world.