Sermon February 27, 2022 by Rev. James Rausch

“Glory, Holiness, Transcendence, Transfiguration,

and other Bibl-y Sounding Words We Aren’t Sure What to Do With”

Rev. James Rausch

It’s Transfiguration Sunday, so you know what to do.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.   (pause)

You’re acting like you don’t know what to do on Transfiguration Sunday, what’s the problem?  You know on the Sundays of Advent we light candles.  On Christmas we sing carols.  You know what to do on Palm Sunday – we wave palms – and Easter.  We say “Christ is Risen…”  (Wait for response, “He is risen indeed.)”  On Souper Bowl Sunday we have a soup fundraiser.  Pentecost, we wear red… I could keep going.  

So, are you telling me you don’t know what to do on Transfiguration Sunday?  Well, let me tell you what you need to know then.  I don’t know what to do either.  Honestly.  I have read about the Transfiguration and preached about it.  Heck, I even saw Mount Tabor in the Holy Land where it was said to have taken place.  But I have yet to experience anyone who has come up to say, “Thank you, pastor, teaching us about the Transfiguration.  It was life changing.”  

Perhaps I should lower my expectations.  

The fact is, every year, on the Sunday before Lent begins, the church reads the story of Jesus’ glorious transfiguration on the mountaintop, where Moses and Elijah were seen with him in a way that left the usually-confident-and-well-spoken Peter stuttering and dumbfounded.  Judging from how I have felt about my preaching and teaching on the Transfiguration over the years, I have been equally dumbfounded and stutter-prone. 

I think part of it has to do with the words used to tell the story – words that we don’t use very often, if ever, anymore.  And the ones we do use have acquired different nuances of meaning over the centuries.   Let’s start with glory.  From my childhood in the church to this very day, I get uncomfortable with the word Glory and with people who use it with all kinds of enthusiasm.  I don’t get the big deal about glory.  Now one of the commentaries I studied was helpful.  It said this. “Glory. The word has become a bit tarnished by associations with false and, especially, self-seeking glory. In the human sphere, it connotes glitz and glamour, the cheap glory of those who achieve Andy Warhol’s predicted fifteen-minutes’ worth of fame. Even reference to the glory of God may not mean what it once did, as some people articulate a discomfort with the notion of God’s glory. They fear that speaking of God’s glory makes God too remote from human experience.”  Wow, they’re really singing my song!

It goes on to say, however, “The texts for Transfiguration Sunday insist that glory is, whether comfortable or not, the right word for God and even for those who are touched by God’s presence.”  So, I guess we’re stuck with the word glory.  But we’re not stuck with our present understanding of the word.  That’s good news, because I think, if we’re willing, we can recover the understanding of the word that our ancestors in the faith had.  

If we look at a related word, holy or holiness, it might help us to regain some understanding.  What do we mean when we say that something is holy?  We have difficulty with that word because, like glory, it too has become tarnished in modern thought.  The phrase “Holier-than-Thou” might be the first thing many people think of when the word is used today.  

The Greek word is  ἅγιος, and it can be defined by words like otherness and distinct.   Our biblical forerunners understood the temple to be holy because it was entirely different from other buildings.  We say “Holy Bible” because it is different from other writings.  God is holy because God is entirely other from God’s creation.  A lot of people make a mistake when they worship some part of the created order as God.  But there is a distinction between Creator and the created.  God’s nature is revealed in creation, but we don’t worship rainbows or trees or frogs.  Instead, we see them as evidence of our creative and artistic God. 

Now God dwells in and among us, so we all are instructed and invited to ask the Lord to live in our hearts.  The Lord is in Donna’s heart, but I don’t worship Donna.  The Creator is distinct from the created.  So, holiness is partially defined by the words, different, distinct, and otherness.  

The word ἅγιος can also be understood in English as being set apart, and therefore made unique, usually for a specific task or purpose.  How do you hear it when you hear the phrase, “God’s chosen people?”   Do your egalitarian red flags start flying in protest when you begin to have thoughts like, “all people are God’s beloved children.  None are favored over others?”  Your instincts are correct, however the understanding of the words needs correction.  God’s chosen, or God holy ones, οἱ ἅγιοι, are not chosen to status and privilege, they are set apart for a task and a purpose.  

According to Paul and others, as a result of God’s action in sending Jesus Messiah to enact the New Covenant in God’s great plan of salvation, the church has become “the set-apart-ones” – God’s chosen people.  Not for privilege or status, but for a task and a purpose.  The church is to be holy, distinct, living by kingdom values as opposed to worldly values.  The Bible refers to the members of the church, the followers of Christ, as οἱ ἅγιοι, the holy ones.  Another word for that is saints.  Did you know that in the Protestant church the word “saints” refers to all believers?  We are set apart, distinct, different, and charged with a task to imitate Jesus and reflect his love in the world.   

You know what that means, though, don’t you?  According to the church, Larry is a saint.  When I first arrived, Larry gave me a little card with his name and contact information on it.  One of the titles he listed on it was elder.  I bet after today he’s going to reprint them!  

So, holiness doesn’t necessarily mean perfect or spotless, it can be applied to those who are still on their way to that state by the grace of God through our Savior, Jesus.  Here are some more big, Bibl-y words that we can put on our learning list.  When we first respond to God’s grace we are justified.  Throughout our lives we are guided toward a Christlike nature as we are sanctified.  And in the heavenly realm when we are transformed or transfigured into the fulness of our perfected humanity, we are glorified.  There’s that word glory again.   What will this all look like?  I really don’t know, but we got a glimpse when Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop, it says that he, Moses, and Elijah, appeared together in glory.

Stories like this one test the boundaries of our belief.  Do we accept that God’s ways of acting can sometimes go beyond anything we can explain or contain?  In Bible study we boiled it down to three ways of approaching such questions.  You can choose atheism, which says that there is no God or anything supernatural.  You can be completely agnostic, which asserts that there is no way to know if there is a god or anything supernatural, and even if there were, humans don’t have the ability to know anything about these things.  Or you can take the church’s position:  limited agnosticism.  This affirms that we cannot know everything about God and God’s supernatural abilities, we can know some things about God.  We can know these things through revelation, and it would be a great loss if we missed the opportunity to learn and know what we can in this life. 

Now since we are this far into the weeds with the big words of our faith, we may as well get out our weed-whackers and go a bit further.  In Bible study, the people are learning that Pastor Jim is big on encouraging a balanced approach to our learning, understanding, and living.   In the first class we learned that, if our ultimate goal is to know God and God’s will, we do best when we balance our pursuit and study by relying on Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and our humanity.    

We then looked at the question of whether Jesus was human or divine?  While the answer turned out to be a paradox, we affirmed, along with the Nicene Creed and the church through the ages, that Jesus was and is both fully human and fully divine.  Not either/or, but both/and.  Balance.   

Because of this we were able to affirm that the nature of the Word of God written, the Holy Bible, is also both human and divine!  A balanced understanding helps us to grow and trust.  

A similar paradoxical truth confronts us when we consider God’s nature.  This brings us to the last of the $10 words for today, “Transcendence” and “Immanence.”   Is God Transcendent, which means far removed, out there, existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe, beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience?  Or is God immanent, which means close at hand, involved, existing within, indwelling?  The answer is again paradoxical.  God is both Transcendent and Immanent.  And if you know anything about Pastor Jim, he is going to encourage us to try to balance our understanding of God to include both words.   Throughout history, it has been evident that human understanding of God has sometimes gotten significantly out-of-balance. 

In the time of our Old Testament ancestors, their understanding of God’s nature was almost exclusively Transcendent.  God ruled from above, and God’s nature was mysterious and terrifying.  God was understood to be holy in such a way that all created matter was unholy and tainted.  God’s name was too holy to be spoken.  That was the understanding of the people in today’s reading from Exodus.  There are elements of God’s transcendence that go beyond human capacities of encounter, and it was known to all at that time that no human could see God’s face and live.  Yet in Exodus 33, it says that the Lord and Moses spoke face to face, as one speaks to a friend.  There’s some mystery to unravel there, but for today’s topic, it will suffice to observe that when Moses came down from God’s presence on the mountain, his face shone with glory and the people were terrified.  They still understood God to be totally transcendent, and God’s immanence was not something they were ready to grasp. 

This was true of much of primitive religion.  A major turning point for the Hebrews came in the revelation of God to Moses in the burning bush.  There the God who was thought to be far removed only became manifest and understood to be close at hand and involved.  Do you remember what God said when Moses asked for God’s name?  I AM THAT I AM.  Do you know that we really can’t translate the Hebrew of God’s answer there?  The ancient Hebrew language has no verb for “to be.”   So, our translations end up being our best guess.  My Old Testament professor shared with us that the Hebrew suggests something more like “I become” or “I come.”  With this announcement, it is understood that God is revealing God’s immanence.  “I come into your history to bring deliverance.” 

Throughout the Bible, there is a growing indication of God’s immanence until it reaches the pinnacle of revelation: The Word was God, and the Word became flesh and came to dwell among us.  

I wonder if these days our understanding of God’s nature has now become out of balance toward God’s immanence to the point where we have largely left behind the concept of God’s transcendence.  The supernatural holiness and glory of God seems like so much superstition or legend.  We tend to believe only in the things we can explain or control.  Have we left any room for the inexplicable and uncontrollable in our outlook?  On, Transfiguration Sunday, can we allow our imaginations to bring us to a place of contemplating God’s glory, and the promise that in Jesus God allows us to participate in that glory?  

That’s ultimately what the Bible tells us.  The glory of God first terrified the people when Moses received the Law.  So, they made him veil his face to hid the glory.   Later, Moses wore the veil to conceal that the glory was fading.  Paul said that the peoples’ understanding was veiled until Jesus came to reveal God’s glory in a way that the people could see, experience, and receive face to face. 

Jesus’ appearance on the mountain was transformed into dazzling brightness, and Moses and Elijah appeared, representing both the law and the prophets.   The event represents something I cannot explain or recreate.  I can only listen and believe in awe and wonder.   Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do on Transfiguration Sunday.