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February 27: Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24:29-35

Luke 9:28-43a


I didn't really start wearing sunglasses until I was in my early 30's. I just didn't think they were necessary. I've worn glasses for my whole adult life, and I've discovered that I like seeing clearly, and I don't like contacts, so wearing sunglasses wasn't really on the table as an option unless I got prescription sunglasses. And, when I was in my 20's, wearing prescription sunglasses felt like something that only old people do. So, I avoided it.

But, then, my sister, who at the time worked at a company that sold glasses, spent one family holiday convincing me. You need to start wearing sunglasses, she said. It'll change your life. It's better for your eyes, and you'll be less sleepy on sunny days.

So, I took her advice – mostly because she got me a good discount with her company and found me some aviators that allowed me to pretend I was a character in Top Gun. I got the sunglasses and I moved on. And then, that summer, we took a family trip to visit my mom at her cabin in Maine. It's a long drive – somewhere around 10 to 12 hours in the car, depending on a bunch of variables – and every previous trip, I had found myself exhausted by the end of it – in particular, I could feel my eyes struggling to stay open. But, this time, I wore my sunglasses, and it was a totally different experience. I mean, 600-plus miles of driving wasn't exactly fun or rejuvenating, but it was WAY less exhausting. It turns out that my little sister was right – wearing sunglasses really does help protect your eyes, it keeps them from getting too tired – it makes a real difference. Too much light can overwhelm you. We need light to see, but too much light can actually blind us, endanger us. Have you ever been driving and all of a sudden you're looking directly into the sun, with no protection, and you can't really see where you're going and you're kinda just praying that you don't hit something? It's scary. Light is good. But it can also overwhelm our senses and leave us disoriented.

Today's Scripture readings are stories about light – light that blinds people, light that confuses people, light that disorients and terrifies.

Our first reading is a story of Moses, from the Old Testament. God's people, Israel, are in the wilderness, after God has set them free from their slavery in Egypt. On their way out of Egypt, God leads them to a mountain – mount Sinai, also called Horeb, the same mountain where Moses first encountered God, when God spoke to Moses out of a burning bush and called Moses to help lead the people to freedom. Anyway, at Sinai, God gives the people the gift of the law. Now, sometimes when Christians talk about "the law" in the Old Testament, we talk as if it was a bunch of oppressive rules and nitpicky stuff. But faithful Jews understand the law as a gift – it is sort of like their people's constitution. You need laws, rules, guidelines for a community in order for it to function. In our society, here in America, we depend upon the rule of law – and when people think they're above the law, or the system fails to enforce the law, or plays favorites, or the law systematically harms a group of marginalized people, or whatever else – in those situations the system, our society, begins to fall apart. Laws, if they're doing what they are supposed to do, are tools to build up community, equality, justice, peace, and the common good. That's how Jewish folks understand the laws that God gives in the Old Testament – these are gifts, to help their community be the kind of community – to help them be the kind of people – who live justly, who embody love, who live in a way that is aligned with God. Relationships require boundaries, rules you might say – in a family, having your own assigned bedrooms, knowing when to wake up and when to sleep, who is responsible for which chores – all of these are rules that give us freedom – that enable us to flourish and have healthy connections with each other, enable us to be who we are called to be. It's true that too many rules, enforced abusively or without space for mercy – that can be oppressive; but, on the other hand, the absence of rules isn't freedom – it's chaos.

Anyway, my point is, the people are in the wilderness, at Sinai, and God is giving them the gift of the law, so that they can live in a healthy relationship with God, so that they may live in a way that shows the world the beauty of who God is, so that they can fulfill their mission of shining God's light for all the world to see. And, so, Moses is up on the mountain, communing with God, receiving this message from God to give to the people.

So, Moses is up there for forty days, in God's presence, listening for God's voice. He returns to the people with the gift of the law, with this message for them from God. But, when he returns, there's something unsettling about him. His face is shining, and the people are afraid to come near him. All that time in God's presence has done something to him – the light of God seems to be reflecting off of him. The people don't know what to do, they don't know how to respond. They are desperate for a pair of sunglasses, because God's light, reflecting off of Moses, is blinding, it's disorienting, it's terrifying.

But, Moses, it seems, doesn't even realize that he's shining. He's been standing, living, in God's presence, and it's changed him, but he doesn't know it. It's nothing intentional on his part – it just flows out of him, reflects off of him. He doesn't see it, but the people around him, they can't help but notice.

The second story we read today is another story of God's radiance – and of people who are overwhelmed by it. In our story from Luke, Jesus invites a few of his disciples – his inner circle – up onto a mountain – much like the mountain where Moses met with God, and received the law, and was given that overwhelming glow – they go up to this mountain, and while they are there, Jesus is transfigured. All of a sudden, he's shining with blinding light and the disciples are overwhelmed. They are, again, desperate for sunglasses – terrified of this light they can't explain. They don't know how to respond, and in the midst of their confusion, they hear a voice from heaven, saying "this is my Son, listen to him." And, then, almost as soon as it began, it's over.

These are two stories of – two encounters with – the glory of God. The glory of God, it seems, is intimidating – it causes the people who see Moses and the disciples who see Jesus to cower in fear. God's glory is still overwhelming – it challenges our comfortable ways of living, it threatens our attempts to grab at power and control, it reminds us that we are not self-sufficient, that there is a God who is greater than we are, who is more powerful than we can imagine.

These are also stories of closeness with God – of what it means to stand in God's presence. Moses has spent 40 days with God – he is described as "speaking with God as one would speak with a friend." Moses is the mediator, the intermediary, the go-between for God and the people of Israel. His whole life is built around communion, around being close with God. And, that closeness, that time spent with God – it does something to Moses. When he leaves God's presence, he leaves it changed – and people can see it. Part of what this story is doing is reminding us that leadership among God's people is not about the leader's own personal gifts or achievements or power – faithful leadership among God's people is based on, dependent upon, spending time with God. And all of us are called, as disciples of Jesus, help nurture, care for, lead in God's work. And we can't do that if we aren't spending time with God, paying attention to God, putting ourselves in God's presence. Moses spends time appreciating, paying attention to, looking at God's light, and when he goes out into the world, he reflects that light, without even thinking about it. Everything he does as he leads the people through the wilderness, into the new homeland that God has established for them – all of it is made possible because he attends to the light, seeks to be in communion with the God who is the people's true leader.

When the disciples go up onto that mountain with Jesus, what they see is who he truly is. For a moment, they catch a glimpse of the glory of God that's hidden in this seemingly ordinary teacher from the middle of nowhere. For just a moment, they catch a glimpse of the glory that will be revealed on Easter, in the resurrection. On the other side of the cross, Jesus is revealed as the one who conquers death, the one who holds the keys to eternity, the one who is life itself. The disciples are going to have to walk through hell – through suffering and pain and fear and death – in order to get there – in order to get to Easter. And so, before all that, Jesus shows them who he truly is, he offers them a holy moment in his presence – in God's presence – to empower them, to equip them, for the journey that is ahead of them.

And, then, notice what they do next: they go down the mountain, and they get back to work. Having seen the light of God – a light that almost blinded them – they wander down the mountain and join Jesus – or at least try to join Jesus – in his work of healing, of caring for the outcast, of putting God's love into action. The work we do as Christians, the work of following God faithfully, loving our neighbors, building up justice and practicing mercy and hospitality – none of that is possible by our own work, on our own merits, just because we have a can-do attitude and good intentions and a strong work ethic. Being close to God, standing in God's presence, looking at Jesus – even through the blinding light – and seeing who he really is – that is what makes it possible for us to do God's work, to follow where God leads.

We are about to enter into the season of Lent – a season of spiritual preparation, a time when we are invited find new ways to connect with God, grow in faith, deepen our spirituality. It's a time when we are reminded, encouraged, every year, to spend time in God's presence. That's why we are offering our digital Lenten devotional, our church-wide book study, and the guide we mentioned earlier with suggestions for Lenten practices. All of these are ways, opportunities, for us to spend a little more time in God's presence, and hope that it does something to us, that it shapes us – that we get a chance to be overwhelmed and transformed by God's glory.

Because, here's the thing: as Christians, standing in God's presence is essential to our identity, it's essential to our survival, it's essential to our purpose as God's people and our hope in a broken world. Standing in God's presence enables us to reflect God's light in a world that is often very dark. Standing in God's presence prepares us to live faithfully in a world where love and justice and mercy seem to be constantly rejected in favor of control, division, and power. Standing in God's presence reminds us that the world is not hopeless, even if it sometimes feels that way. Even when God's work doesn't get done, even when we fail, God's light still shines on us, God's light still shines through Jesus. The people of Israel, even when they saw God's light reflecting off of Moses, they still screwed up, they still were sometimes faithful and sometimes faithless. They still fell into sin. The disciples, even after they saw Jesus shining on that mountain and heard that voice identifying him as God's Son, they still denied him, betrayed him, abandoned him as he went to the cross. The church throughout the ages – we, throughout our lives – get it wrong, turn our backs on God, don't reflect God's glory with our actions. And yet, God still shines. Our failures do not - cannot – make Jesus shine any less. The story we tell this time of year is that Jesus has the power to overcome even our worst failures - even death itself!

That's the things about God's glory – it is a strange kind of glory. God's glory chooses broken people, works in upside down ways. God's glory is strange – God's ultimate glory takes the form of suffering and death – death on a cross – and yet, even in the darkness of the cross, God's glory shines, breaking forth in resurrection and new life.

We are invited to spend time in God's presence, to absorb God's wondrous light, and to return into the world to reflect God's glory by living the way of love – continuing the work of Jesus – being, like Moses, go-betweens who bring God's message to a world that desperately needs it. But even when we fail to reflect God's glory, even when we fail to shine with God's light – even when we fail, Jesus still shines. And nothing can ever stop him from shining. So, with the season of Lent beginning on Wednesday, my invitation to you is simple: take some time to stand in God's presence, to be overwhelmed by the light of God's glory, and trust that it will transform you. Even if you don't feel it, the light of Jesus still shines.

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