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Bible readings:

Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (February 15, 2015)    

St James', Peace River

Today brings us to the end of the season of Epiphany. If you remember, the word Epiphany means “revealing” or “manifestation” - so the season is one of remembering how God was revealed in Jesus' life and work. Most of the stories we've told in this season have been about what you might call the meat and potatoes of Jesus' ministry, which is usually summed up as healing, teaching, and proclaiming the kingdom of God. But just as we began with something a little more out of the ordinary, at Jesus' baptism, so today we end with something out of the ordinary, in his transfiguration – this moment, witnessed by his closest disciples, when the glory of God shone out from him clearly and visibly.

The truth is that, if we look back to the healing, teaching and proclaiming, they were a bit out of the ordinary too. When Jesus healed, it wasn't the practice of medicine as people knew it then or know it now. When he taught, there was something more to it – an authority and an authenticity that people didn't encounter in other teachers. And when he proclaimed the kingdom of God, it wasn't just a good sermon, not even the best one you ever heard. As Jesus spoke the words, the kingdom actually came.

But not everyone saw that. You could look at Jesus, and you could see just a healer, teacher and preacher if that's all you came to see, or all you wanted to see. Some didn't even see that – they saw an enemy to the establishment, a demagogue, an illusionist. And of course some saw more – they saw the person who had made them well, shown them truth they'd never seen before, called them to be his disciples, changed their lives. But on the high mountain, Peter and James and John saw something else altogether. They saw someone who belonged with Moses and Elijah, they saw the glory of the Lord, they saw the Son of God.

The story of the transfiguration has a supernatural dimension that some people find hard to swallow. And then there would be some who find it hard to swallow others' discomfort with it! But I think there are a couple of aspects of the story to keep in mind, that make it more than “just another miracle” or “just another story”. The first of those pieces of the puzzle is the audience. This climactic moment when Jesus shines with the glory of God – happens in front of a grand total of three people (not counting Moses and Elijah). And it's the three people who already know Jesus best. So whatever impact it had on Peter and James and John – and we can imagine it must have had a big impact – it wasn't to persuade them that Jesus was worth following. They were already there.

Instead, we can see that in some way the vision on the mountain connects the dots for those three disciples. It puts everything into perspective. What Jesus has been doing and saying has inspired them and engaged them and empowered them – but the moment they see him talking with Moses and Elijah, they realize that this is big. Elijah was supposed to return only when the day of the Lord was ready to come. Moses was the greatest prophet of all – except for the final prophet God promised to send who would be “like Moses”, and I suspect this is when the penny dropped for the disciples that that's exactly what Jesus was. It goes even beyond that. Suddenly they are in the cloud, the same cloud that caught up Moses when he went to receive God's Law on Sinai. And God is speaking to them, naming Jesus as his Son. It turns out that all this ministry and discipleship they've been doing is really about what Jesus told them it was about: they felt that before, but now they know.

While the transfiguration moment is unique, I don't think we can look past it as though this kind of encounter with God was just for those three special disciples. I was curious enough to look up recent statistics about how many people have an unexplained God moment in their lives. One poll said that 71% reported what they would consider a supernatural or miraculous experience. Another poll said that more than half had at least two different kinds of experiences: 55% rescued from danger; 44% called by God to do something; 23% witnessed unexplained physical healing; 20% heard God's voice. The figures were higher amongst people whose religious beliefs easily accommodated these experiences, but you can read that either way – I expect there are plenty of people who have had similar experiences but have rationalized them away or repressed them when they don't fit their world view.

The point of those statistics, for me, is that if they match our experience at all, that means there are many of us who have had significant encounters with the presence of God outside our everyday routine. And there are also many of us who haven't. So we need to be able to ask and answer questions about scenes like the Transfiguration in ways which make sense of both sides of the story. Probably the most significant of those questions would be “What is this for?” Why did Jesus take those disciples up the mountain with him – and why do some of us, sometimes, have similar out-of-the-ordinary experiences?

In the gospel story, I think the answer to that question only comes after the passage we read today. What we read marks a turning point in the whole story of the gospel. From there on, Jesus is heading back towards Jerusalem, back towards confrontation with the governing authorities, back towards trouble. I think that's actually part of the reason why we now remember the Transfiguration just before we enter the season of Lent – in a way that mirrors the turning point and the focus of Jesus' journey from this point on. And it's important that the transfiguration happens at just that moment. Important first of all for Jesus, for whom this is also a unique moment – he goes to Jerusalem with the Father's voice ringing in his ears, knowing that what is going to happen, on his way to the cross, is not just senseless injustice and tragedy, but rather a whole different way for God's glory to be revealed through him.

It's also important for the three disciples. It plants the seed for them to see the glory of God shining out in the difficult moments down in the city, just as they saw it on the mountaintop. They stick to Jesus, right through to (almost) the very end, because they know God is up to something. And I think most of our out-of-the-ordinary encounters with heaven serve the same purpose. They are God's way of saying to us, “Watch me; stay close; I am about to do something even more extraordinary.” Because, in the end, the truly extraordinary thing that God does is not the signs and wonders, not the mountaintop experiences, not the bright light and the voice from the cloud. It is the transformation of the things we think of as our “normal” world. The transformation of death itself, Jesus' death with all the perfectly normal human evil that caused it piled on top of it – the transformation of that into the revelation of God's total self-giving love for the salvation of the whole world.

In the light of that glory, there is absolutely nothing that does not shine with reflected radiance. And this, I think, is why we don't in the end need to rely on special mountaintop moments. There is nowhere you can go where you can not see the glory of God revealed and hear the voice of God speaking to you. For us, now, after Jesus' death and resurrection, every moment is a moment of transfiguration. The created world, the people you love, the moment of discovery or insight or achievement, the encounter with someone who needs your help – they are all places and times when you can see God's glory shining, God's plan in motion, God's love in action. If God has come to you in a distinctive way in order to help you see that, all well and good – and if not, it's only because the glory of God is right there in front of you in your everyday life, ready for you to see and treasure with joy and amazement.

That conviction, that God is close to us with veiled glory in every moment of our lives, is one we will need to carry with us through the next few weeks. We will encounter the other side of the story there: the intractability of sin and evil and lack of faith, in the world around us, in the community of disciples, and in ourselves. But today we know that nothing can hide the glory of God for long. Quite the opposite. It is in the darkness and difficulty, in the deepest challenges to our faith and faithfulness, that the glory of God is most ready to blaze out in the face of Jesus, walking with us to the cross and beyond.