How have you been keeping your faith warm during the cold wintery days? I hope you are all sound and well. In recent weeks I have been emotionally and physically challenged; during the last two weeks I have been busy and I caught a cold last week. I am still adjusting to life in Vancouver and my work in West Point Grey United.
Of course, I know I am not alone; we all face changes and challenges in our lives. Some of us are planning to change jobs. Some of us are wondering about the next step after graduation. Some of us are planning to move to a retirement or nursing home in the near future. We cannot escape change in our life journeys, but we know, from experience, that we grow and not only survive but thrive through changes.
Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday. The season of Epiphany started with a bright star leading the shepherds and wise ones to Bethlehem and comes to an end with Jesus’ face shining on the mountaintop. During the season of Epiphany, we are invited to think about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and ours. The journey also leads us from the wonder of Christmas and Jesus’ teachings to wander the contemplative practice of Lent.
Now, only three days are left until Lent; the season of Lent begins this Wednesday. So this week evokes mixed meanings: the beginning and growth of Jesus’ ministry and the suffering and mystery of the cross. Today’s scriptures reflect on the meaning of two seasons of the church year, Epiphany and Lent.
One day Jesus was teaching his disciples about the cost of following him. Knowing that his earthly ministry was coming to an end; he was beginning to set his face toward Jerusalem. Knowing that, if he continued to speak and act to reveal the injustice of the Roman colonial power, suffering and death would inevitably follow. Jesus told his disciples that if they were going to follow him, it would be a difficult journey. He continued, “You won’t be rich. You won’t be powerful. Many people will even hate you. Some people will try to hurt you. Some of you will be killed.”
Eightdays after these sayings, which must have included an intensive time of teaching, Jesus went up the mountain, taking with him Peter, John and James. Let us imagine the feelings of Jesus and the disciples during these intense eight days before the climb to the mountain top. The Gospel writers of Matthew and Mark say it was six days, but the actual time line is not important. The important thing is that they must have been days of great challenge. The disciples must have questioned many times whether to follow or not to follow Jesus. The time between hearing about the cost of discipleship and seeing the mysterious glory of the transfiguration was a very critical time for them.
What is it like for us? For us the eight days might be eight months, or even more: we do not know how long it will be, but we know that during this time of thinking, pondering and questioning, we will grow and learn. When I reflect on my faith journey, the most challenging times are the growing times, even though it is painful. The symbolic time of eight days leads us into a time of silence, prayer and reflection to examine ourselves and our relationships with God and others. Through this time of what seems like exile, we can see more clearly what is at stake and how we have to be transformed in our relationships.
After those eight days the disciples are led up to the mountain. There, they have a vision unlike anything they have ever experienced before. As Moses does in today’s reading from Exodus, they see Jesus shining. And as if the mysterious brilliant vision is not enough, Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah. After eight days filled with fear, ambiguity and anticipation, it is an epiphany moment. But they are soon disappointed, troubled by the subject of the discussion that follows. Again Jesus is talking about his exile, suffering and death. They don’t really want to hear that kind of thing again. They want to hear and see the glory. They do not want to imagine the other side of glory. Soon after this experience they are weighed down with sleep. Let us imagine why the disciples fall asleep when forced to talk again about the impending sufferings of Jesus. Does not this scene describe our human condition all too well? We all prefer the glory to the suffering. We all want to have more experiences of the mountaintop rather than our routine daily life of discipleship on the plain.
It is the same for the disciples. So Peter says to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” They want to stay on the mountaintop in the glory. After this proposal a cloud overshadows the whole mountain and God speaks, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him” (9:35). I expect you are familiar with the voice. When Jesus is baptised, he hears a very similar voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved” (Luke 3:22). Here we notice that Jesus is making a full circle as he faces his impending suffering and death. When Jesus faces the challenging days ahead, he hears the affirming voice again. This affirmation and intimacy help Jesus to endure his Journey to the cross.
After hearing the voice, on the very next day, the disciples are confronted with a boy who needed healing and their inability to do anything about it. Jesus does not allow them to linger in the brilliant transfiguration mystery. He plunges them back into the need and brokenness of the world. Jesus invites them to be transformed to become compassionate human beings. Jesus urges them to face the reality in which they live and to which they belong.
Two thousand years later, here, today, I am convinced that the God who said to Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen,” says similar words to us so that we can carry on with our journey into the unknown future to face whatever changes and challenges we find there. God stands beside us and says, “This is my daughter, this is my son, my favourite one.” In that intimate, loving voice and affirmation, we are confident that we are created by God’s love and that God is speaking to us with the same voice Jesus heard: We are, each one of us, the beloved of God.
As Jesus, confident of God’s love, comes down from the mountaintop to face unimaginable challenges and changes, we also face the changes and challenges of our lives, confident that God journeys with us. Thanks be to God for the assurance, affirmation and courage to face the future. Amen.