Church of the Incarnation
I love our reading from Exodus this morning. We hear about Moses going up on the mountain top to encounter God in all his power. How many of us long for this. Maybe not being with God per se. Maybe you just want answers to questions about why this or that had to happen. Or why this or that is the way it is. You want to know what this world is all about and why things seem to be constantly falling apart if God exists. Who doesn’t want to sit with God and get all the answers; to see behind the curtain and see everything, as it were. Instead, we spend most of our time being like Israel in the desert going about our daily routines, trying to put food on the table, trying to fix this or that situation, worrying about this or that person or relationship or thing going on. Of course there are the inevitable frustrations and worries: spent too much this month. Am I going to have enough money? What am I still doing here? Is this all there is? Why did this happen again? God, where are you. What am I supposed to do with all this?
And their in their response - in the usual fashion when you mix anxiety, fear, and probably a good dose of arrogance - the people of Israel were going about what Paul calls, the things of the flesh: our plans, our ways, our purposes, our means of doing it. But so too, at least at first, did Peter, James and John. Seeing Jesus with this light emanating from him talking to Moses and Elijah, they think, whoa, this is amazing. Okay, let’s get to work. Hey Jesus, if you want, I’m going to build you and Moses and Elijah three dwelling places. There it is again: I’m going to do it. We need a king; we need a place; we need to enforce certain rules; we need certain music; we need the liturgy this way; we need this done; we’re not doing that; I did it my way (wasn’t that some big song?).
Here comes the big moment. Maybe Peter was a bit like me and was blabbering on about his plans for how to move forward and then “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. Think about these words of God from psalm 127 for a moment: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for he gives sleep to his beloved.” And think of Jesus’s reply to the anxious disciples who want to know when and where and how everything is going to unfold so they can prepare and build: “but [about when the Son of Man will return] no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
A couple of weeks ago I told you about my dog poop incident in which I’d yelled at a neighbour for what I thought was his leaving his dog poop there. That was just the final outburst of a long, extremely long journey through the desert for me. Just like the people of Israel that Moses had led out of their slavery in Egypt were grumbling about whether God was real or effective or cared anything for them and their plight, I’d been grumbling against God and other people. Where are you? Your church is in decline, no one can afford a house or groceries; there’s violence and destruction everywhere I turn; no one seems to be good anymore, we can’t trust anyone, people are so damn selfish.
And yet right in the middle of this – when I thought I just couldn’t take it anymore, when frankly, I had given up the hope that I could ever sort through, plan out, or resolve anything, THAT, THAT is when I saw the transfigured Jesus before me. He didn’t emanate a dazzling white light as described in the Gospel. Instead, I experienced one climactic event of grace so powerful that, as in our reading from Exodus, that grace was like a devouring fire. Like Peter, James and John, I was overwhelmed by a strange mix of fear, awe, shock, frankly. It felt as if suddenly all the categories I had created in my mind to try and diagnose and fix all the ills of the world, about who deserved my condemnation, about why this or that person or group is wrong, all of it was simply released from me like condensation being released from a cloud as rain. It was a kind of cleansing fire, so hot that it immediately evaporated this condensation of anxiety. A kind of cleansing like the coal that the angel touched Isaiah’s lips with. A fire that burned away the chaff of my need to build the kingdom; to see concrete measureables like I’m used to seeing in training for sports or in scientific experiment or in business.
What was left was not fear as in being frightened, but fear as in being overwhelmed by God’s presence deeper in my heart and mind than I am in my own self. I experienced a profound sense of mercy, forgiveness, and being reconciled to the foundation of everything: not yet able to see everything, yet knowing that all is sustained in God’s being. For that moment, the core of my being was embraced by the fullness of God himself, in Christ, bound to the Father as the Father is, sustained there by the Spirit. The experience for me was such profound awe not simply because of that one moment, but because that one moment of mercy rewired how I put together every single other event in my life – the painful and joyful, the confusing and clear, the academic and pastoral, fiction and real life, the boy and the man, the plethora of relationships without a single narrative. I saw one image: mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation received and I experienced a desire and a capacity I had only grasped intellectually before: the desire to have mercy, to forgive, to love others, particularly those whom I otherwise wouldn’t.
The thing about this moment of realizing God’s presence is that it seems to occur really randomly. No one can plan for it! Jesus says, “stay awake, keep watch, for we don’t know the day or hour God will show up.” But his saying this presupposes one thing: that we follow him. Why? Because these moments of transfigured experience don’t last; we always have to come back down the mountain; to confess the stuff that will inevitably creep into our thinking again in this time when we’re waiting for the world to be fully reconciled to God. So we need to be awake, to follow him not just on Sundays or every other Sunday or once a month, but in every single thing that we do. For it’s often in the most mundane of activities and sometimes in the worst events of our lives, the times we feel like we’re at the limit and want to give up, or just don’t see the point anymore, that we are the least on our high horse guard and so most open to receiving the sudden shock of grace. And it is then out of those moments – where our own self conceived plans are stopped – that the power of the resurrected Christ can be seen, heard, and sought. AMEN.