Who is God? What is God like? What would God think of me?
These are the questions that drive us to church on Sunday morning, aren’t they? They are the questions that occupy our minds both when we are feeling lazily philosophical and when we are gripped by loss that has us on our knees.
This season of Epiphany, we celebrate the different ways in which Jesus answered these questions for us. We start with Zoroastrian priests chasing a star; see the heavens break open when Jesus is baptized. We go to a party with Jesus and see him turn water into a fabulous, party-saving vintage. We hear Jesus claim that he is the manifestation of Isaiah’s prophecies. We flinch with him as his hometown rejects him.
All these revelations about Jesus’ identity culminate today. Today we travel with Peter, James and John up the mountain. A week before, Peter made a statement of faith. He told Jesus he thought Jesus was the Christ. In return, Jesus revealed to the disciples that his destiny was to die and to rise again.
The disciples are starting to get it. Jesus isn’t just a charismatic preacher. Jesus isn’t just a wise teacher and miracle maker. Jesus is the Son of God.
Jesus lets the disciples sit with that idea for a week and then he takes them up the mountain to pray.
And what a prayer! The disciples fall asleep, of course. (The disciples seem to be excellent nappers throughout scripture, which gives us all hope, I think!) As the disciples slowly wake up, they see that Jesus has been completely transformed. He is glowing, much like Moses glowed when he came down from Mt. Ararat. And not only is he glowing, but he is having a conversation with Moses himself! And Elijah! These historic figures lean in, talking together about Jesus’ upcoming death.
The disciples are stunned. They have come to understand Jesus as the Christ, but understanding something and seeing it in person are two entirely different things. In prayer, the Lord is revealing Jesus’ holiness, his Godliness. This moment is a perfect, cosmic, intimate moment.
Until Peter butts in. Peter is our stand in here. Peter always says the perfect human, bumbling thing in almost every situation. He eagerly offers to build some tents for his ghostly visitors. And we get that, don’t we? When we have an encounter with the holy, whether during a favorite hymn, or a candlelit service, or on a mountain top, we just want to bottle it up. We want to hold on to it and stay in the presence of God and soak up the holy.
Unfortunately that is not how God works. Not even Jesus stays on the mountain. The perfect moment is just a moment. Jesus is revealed as holy, Elijah and Moses fade away, and Jesus and the disciples head down the mountain, where Jesus continues to heal those who approach him.
But in this return to ordinary life—if you can consider Jesus’ life ordinary!—Jesus is revealing himself, too. Jesus is the God who can change the laws of physics and time for an encounter with Moses and Elijah and Jesus is the God who so cares for ordinary human beings that he allows imperfect, bumbling men to be his closest disciples and chooses to heal the distressed rather than stay on the mountain, bathing in his own holiness.
The God we worship here at St. Paul’s, Ivy is all of these things. He is the powerful creator of the Universe who shows himself in shouts and whispers. He is the passionate Son who loved ordinary, lost, impetuous people. He is the God we experience in brief moments of luminous revelation and the God we follow even when we don’t feel his presence.
If you doubt that God still shows up, read Megan Phelps-Roper’s story. Megan is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps. Yes, that Fred Phelps. The Westboro Baptist Fred Phelps of the horrible, hate filled signs and the picketing of solider’s and children’s funerals. The Fred Phelps who somehow has come to believe that our God is a hateful, vindictive God interested only in our conforming and punishment. Until November, 27-year-old Meghan was the social media arm of Westboro Baptist. Her whole life has been drenched in Fred Phelp’s hateful theology. She believed that spouting his beliefs was a way of loving the world. Bringing others into the fold would save them. Jeff Chu had the privilege of interviewing her recently and wrote a beautiful article about her separation from Westboro Baptist.
Interestingly, it was a conversation with an Israeli web developer that first caused her to start questioning what she had been taught. As he argued with her about the hateful messages on the signs held at Westboro protests he reminded her that Jesus said, ”Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” This simple conversation led to a world shattering in-breaking for Meghan. She came to realize that Westboro’s message wasn’t consistent. They did not treat all sin the same way. That if Westboro truly followed Levitical law, many of its own members would have to be killed. She and her sister left Westboro and are now reading and praying and experiencing their own transfigured Jesus.
God does not always answer our questions the way we would like him to. We do not always sense his presence when we long for that connection. But God is in the business of making himself known. Throughout history God keeps revealing himself to humans – through his direct presence, through dreams and visions, through prophets, through Jesus, through the Holy Spirit.
We gather as a community on Sundays because we long to know this loving, in-breaking God. We begin to get answers to our questions through sermons and bible studies, but more importantly we encounter the living God through worship, prayer, and the Eucharist. Because what we want is not a bunch of answers to hypothetical questions, what we really want is to know God. We want to know God like we know our parents, our friends, our partners. We want to feel God’s love, to be drawn in and reassured.
This is my prayer for our time together in this place. I pray that God will make himself known to us. I pray that whatever is going on in your life, no matter how difficult, that God reveals his love to you. I pray that you would know the transfigured Christ who radiates holiness, and the Christ who heals ordinary people so they can be free to fully live.
Thanks be to God.