SERMON Transfiguration 2018
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
We have been together a long time, long enough for you to have discovered that I’m not much of a sports fan. But as someone who lived in Philadelphia for several years long ago – and loved it – I have to admit I felt a little pang of pride when the Eagles won the Superbowl last Sunday. I wasn’t alone in that: if the news reports are to be believed, something like 2 million people showed up in Philly to celebrate on Thursday, twice as many as came out to see the pope. I saw a couple of minutes of the rally on TV; it was an orgy of raucous self-congratulation. Frankly I found it a little boring: how many ways can you say, sing or shout “we’re the greatest and now the whole world knows it.”?
I’m thnking about this because it stands in such stark contrast to the way we see God operating in the world. Sports have come to be about spectacle and noise and vast numbers of people and immense amounts of money, amplified by media to involve millions around the world. God as I have come to know him, on the other hand, mostly works in intimacy, in secrecy, and often in silence.
In terms of spectacle and noise, the event we celebrate today, the Transfiguration, is about as big as the show ever gets in scripture. It’s presented as a big deal: they climb a mountain and suddenly all around them there is dazzling superbowl stadium light, then Moses and Elijah, two long-dead superstars, appear – like having Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson back from the dead to perform together at halftime – and then the voice of God rolls in like thunder in an unimaginable thing that scripture calls a “bright cloud” (I don’t thing even the people that put on the astonishing show at the Bejing Olympics could have managed that one). And this amazing performance was seen by what is by scriptural standards a record-breaking crowd: three people, four including Jesus. Even Elijah’s fantastic exit from earth in our first lesson today had the more usual biblical audience of precisely one person. Meanwhile, according to what I read, more than 100 million people watched the Eagles beat the Patriots last week.
Doesn’t it make you wonder what God is up to? Why does God operate in such clumsy, low-tech, old-school ways? Why didn’t he put Moses on TV, why didn’t Jesus have a Twitter feed, why did God use word-of-mouth and depend on writings that had to be copied out one by one in longhand, before the invention of printing … before the invention of paper for that matter? And if not then, why not now? What up?
Well, long before the late great philosopher of media and communication, Marshall McLuhan, proclaimed that “the medium is the message”, or Pastor Longan decided that “how we do something is as important as what we do”, we had the Prophet Elijah, (who appears twice in our lessons today) opening the way into this question, standing in the mouth of his cave one day, waiting for the Lord to appear to him. Here is the story from First Kings, Chapter 19: “… Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the first, and after the fire, a sound of sheer silence.”
My point is that what God does can’t be done on TV, over the internet, via Instagram or twitter or any of our splendid contemporary media: most of the work God does is done in silence, deep in the soul. We say that God speaks, but even that is mostly a metaphor: most of what God does is way beneath speech, in sheer silence like it was with Elijah. No, God’s activity is more like a change in temperature, a shift in the weather, a glance of light, the movement of a dream. God doesn’t make much noise. God works deep in our souls, at the limits of our consciousness. It is there that God heals us and changes us.
This is true of Jesus own life and ministry. Put all of his recorded words together, add them up, and they are not many more than the number of words in this sermon. It was the healing Jesus did, mostly without words, sometimes even without touch, that brought him fame. He was born in bitter obscurity on a silent night, apparently did much of his teaching in private, wrote nothing at all, and at his trial and crucifixion said so little that it was remembered with the passage from Isaiah, Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,,, so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7) Even the Transfiguration, the most outwardly dramatic moment of Jesus’ life, is immediately wrapped in a cloak of secrecy, never spoken of in Jesus’ lifetime. Yet God’s work in that secret moment on the mountain sustained Jesus as he descended and walked on to Jerusalem, to fulfill, mostly in silence, the mission he pursued mostly in secret: to die and rise for the life of the world. Even what we call his glorious resurrection would be effected in silence and secrecy, unseen by anyone.
This is how God works, how God is working right now, in the silence and secrecy of our hearts. We can put it out on the internet, we can twitter and facebook and youtube it and make all the digital noise we want, we can stare into our phones from one end of the day to the other, but God is not there anymore than in Elijah’s fire and earthquake. This is almost as true of the clumsy, old-school –boring – worship and prayer and study that we cling to so tenaciously: its main purpose and usefulness is to shut out the noise around us so that God can be at work in us. Unlike what we find on our media, God is not here to entertain us, or excite us, or convince us of something, or persuade us to buy anything. God is working in the depths of our being, underneath all the noise, to heal us, to show us who we are, to gather us into his great heart. That is enough.
I will close with a couple of familiar lines from a beloved Christmas carol:
How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear can hear his coming,
yet, in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him,
still the dear Christ enters in.
Let us pray.