GLIMPSES OF GLORY
Luke 9:18-23, 28-36
“they saw his glory.”
According to the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated this coming Sunday as a prelude to Lent. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches it is one of the greatest of the Christian festivals. The story is familiar to us all, but we sometimes forget where it comes in the gospel narrative. According to Luke, the transfiguration follows a few days after Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah. But clearly Peter and the other disciples had a different understanding of what that meant to that of Jesus himself. For them, Jesus as the Messiah was the one who would soon overthrow Roman rule, establish God’s kingdom in Jerusalem and, so they hoped, they would reign with him in his glory. But Jesus knew, as he told them, that the true Messiah would suffer, be rejected and killed, and that the coming kingdom of God would be quite different to what the disciples imagined. So Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to follow him further, they would have to take up the cross and go with him to Jerusalem. This was shattering news, dashing their hopes of an early triumph and victory, and an important place in the coming kingdom of God soon to be established.
About eight days after this episode, so Luke tells us, Jesus takes Peter, John and James, his closest companions, up the mountain in order to pray for strength for the task ahead. As he prayed “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Then the disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. Even though they were exhausted, they were wide awake and, says Luke, they saw God’s glory. It was truly a mountain-top experience. No wonder they implored Jesus to build some dwellings there so that they could stay longer and delay the journey to Jerusalem and perhaps even avoid it altogether. But no sooner had they made their request than a cloud engulfed them and, according to the story, they heard a voice telling them that they had to listen to Jesus and follow him. A moment before they were basking in glory anticipating triumph; now they were terrified. Jesus’ understanding of Messiah had been confirmed. They had to listen to him. There was no turning back, no staying on the mountain. Soon they were down again on the plain, continuing their journey to Jerusalem and the fateful events of Jesus’ passion that awaited them. They had glimpsed the glory of God; now they had to face the cross.
Religion can become a form of escape, a way of building tents on the Mount of Transfiguration where we can bask in the glory. Or it can offer false promises and hopes, of triumph without the cross, of personal glory without sharing in the struggle for justice and peace in the world, or standing in solidarity with those who suffer. But we cannot stay on the mountain tops of religious experience if we are to follow Jesus. We have to come down to earth and face the realities that daily confront us.
Our dear friend and teacher Midge was buried yesterday. Daily we receive news of other friends who are suffering from cancer or who are going through very hard, difficult and painful times. The situation in Syria has become horrific, the conflict in Afghanistan continues, car bombings recur daily in Iraq, there is war in Mali. Poverty surrounds us, corruption thwarts service delivery, and violence against women and children abounds. And we all have our own personal challenges to face, relationships that need reconciliation, afflictions that need healing. It is perfectly understandable that we might want to find some way of escape from facing the realities that confront us. That is why people seek help through anti-depressants, take drugs, or drink too much. We naturally want to turn back, or stay on some emotional or spiritual high rather than go down into the valley and onward to whatever Jerusalem faces us. And, of course, there are some forms of religion that are attractive precisely because they shield us from reality, whether the reality of a world in need, or the reality of our own need of wholeness. Lent reminds us that we cannot celebrate the victory of Easter without the journey to the cross, there is no shortcut, no avoiding the road to Jerusalem and the inevitable confrontation with the powers that seek to prevent and even crush the coming of God’s reign of justice and peace. But as we set out on the journey again as if for the first time, we are reminded of who Jesus really is as the one who fulfills the prophets, the one who is truly God’s son, the true Messiah. And, we are given a glimpse of Easter glory that will be revealed.
We come to this sanctuary day by day and week by week to glimpse the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we are soon back in the office to take those phone calls that too often convey bad news, back to our homes to care for those who are in need, back to the ordinary affairs of life seeking to make ends meet. It is good to climb the mountain and pray on its summit, good to meet Jesus, Moses, Elijah and all the company of heaven surrounded as we are by a “great cloud of witnesses,” good to break bread together. But we cannot stay here. We cannot live in the sanctuary any more than the disciples could stay on the mountain top. A glimpse of glory must suffice to sustain and help us through those times when we are tempted to turn back from the cross, wash our hands in despair or cynicism. So we dare not miss those glimpses of God’s glory when they do break into our lives in moments of transfiguration that change our perspective and give us hope and courage for the long haul. Of suffering triumphantly endured, of love transforming lives, of light breaking into dark corners, of peace achieved in situations of conflict, of broken lives made whole, of truth destroying lies, and beauty transfiguring ugliness. These glimpses of the coming kingdom of a world transformed, glimpses of the victory of Easter, are sufficient for the journey.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 7 February 2013