What is Your Glory Story?
A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Nearly ten years ago I had a mountaintop experience. It wasn't anything like hiking the mountains of Utah, which I did a few summers ago. It was unlike anything else that has ever happened to me. Although it lasted only a few seconds, something gloriously breathtaking and beautiful intervened in my life. In one mysterious moment, on August 9, 2001, I saw what I can only call the face of Jesus, and I was changed forever. I'll have more to say about this later.
But what about you? Have you had a mountaintop experience? If so, what is YOUR "glory story"? Today is the last Sunday after the feast of the Epiphany, that miraculous moment, twelve days after Jesus' birth, when the Magi were changed forever by the Christ child, not on a mountain, but in a manger. Today we hear another magical mystery story, a tall tale about a literal mountaintop experience. Peter, James and John had a mysterious moment, too.
And yet, long before those mysterious moments, those epiphanies about Jesus, Moses climbed a mountain, all by himself. Back at the burning bush, Moses had seen the fire of God, a fire that burned but did not consume. That moment was the beginning of Moses' search for God. We catch a glimpse of that search in today's story from Exodus. "Come up to me," God says to Moses. The same verb, 'halah, is used four times in our passage. This repetition - "come up," "he went up" - suggests that Moses' climb was a gradual, progressive one. Today's passage also tells us that, even though Aaron, Hur and Joshua could have gone along, Moses alone had been set apart to see God. Only Moses was called by God in that moment to go all the way up the mountain.
Mountains, in the times of both Moses and Jesus, were considered pillars in the ground, holding up the sky. They formed a bridge, between heaven and earth, creating sacred space where people dared to search for the divine. Mount Sinai is where Moses dared to meet God. While he was up there, you may remember, Aaron, Hur and Joshua and all the people of Israel got busy, making that famous golden calf. Forty days and ten chapters of Exodus later, when Moses finally came down that mountain, the people were not ready for what they would hear and what they would see. Moses had been changed forever. When Moses descended, carrying those two stone tablets of the covenant, the Ten Commandments, he had been transfigured.
This was not just an inner, spiritual transformation. Moses' physical appearance actually changed. Scripture says, "The skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God." It's not surprising that his friends were afraid to come near him. "But Moses called to them, and . . . the leaders . . . returned to him, and Moses spoke with them." Later, "he put a veil on his face," making him, I suppose, a bit less scary. "Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak," the story goes, "he would take the veil off, until he came out," and when he came out, he would "put the veil (back) on his face again . . . ." (34:29-35).
Centuries later, Jesus also went up a mountain. Unlike Moses, he had no veil, and he took three friends along. There are many parallels between these two transfiguration stories. Clouds and mountains are the setting. Both stories offer a glimpse of glory. Yet Jesus' story magnifies the glory of God in several ways. While Moses receives God's law on Mount Sinai, Jesus interprets God's law in giving his famous Sermon on the Mount, parts of which we've heard for the past five weeks. Today, ten chapters after that sermon, we hear how, on a mountain - standing with Moses, representing the law, and with Elijah, symbolizing the prophets - Jesus joins God's transfiguration team. But Jesus is changed in a different way. According to Matthew, his whole body - not just his face - was gloriously bright and shining, like the sun.
Now, here's the Good News of the Transfiguration. It's not just for Moses or for Jesus. We, too, have glory stories. God's glory also shines through the likes of us. One of the earliest saints of the church, Irenaeus, said: "The glory of God is the human being, fully alive." Christians say that, in some mysterious way, the human Jesus is also the divine Christ. Jesus Christ reveals to us, to all who wish to see it, the glory of God, fully alive. And the human Jesus shows us human beings how we, too, are God's beloved sons and daughters, filled with God's glory. Yes, God is even well pleased with us! We have a spark of the divine within us, a glimpse of God's glory. That little light of yours and mine really does want to shine, through us and into the world. Jesus' glory became part of Peter, James and John's story. And Jesus' glory is part of our story, too.
What is YOUR glory story? When have you seen the glory of God in another fully-alive human being? And how did that change you forever? Nearly ten years ago I was working as a hospital chaplain. On this particular day the hospital presented a special workshop for local parish clergy called, "Pastor, I Have Cancer." All of us chaplains, from seasoned veterans to newbies like me, were required to attend. So, I settled into my seat in the auditorium, glad to be taking a break for the day, "off duty" from visiting patients.
My chaplain buddy next to me and I were talking and laughing. Then, someone introduced one of our chaplains, someone I didn't know. She was to introduce the speaker. This chaplain went to the podium and began to talk, interrupting that delightful conversation my friend and I were having. Realizing I wasn't listening to what she was saying, I stopped talking and tried to pay attention. And then, I heard her speak these three little words: "I hate cancer."
Although she never mentioned her own bout with cancer, she spoke with great power and authority about that special kind of suffering. I realized I was seeing something glorious at work, shining brightly through this woman - something authentic and real, something honest and vulnerable, something very human. The guest speaker, another cancer survivor, also had some good things to say. But those three words and the enlightenment behind them caused me to lean over and say three other little words to my friend: "WHO . . . IS . . . THAT?"
A few years later, that woman agreed to marry me. So, I confess my initial response was more than, shall I say, just religious. My search for God continues, now, with her as my primary companion and teacher. I pray my journey with her is a gradual, progressive one. Yet I know, without a doubt, that the spiritual connection I made with Eyleen on that day in the hospital auditorium was all about the glory of God, fully alive in her, as far as I could see. That epiphany has become for me what the song Camelot calls "one, brief, shining moment."
Brief, mysterious moments of glory can happen in dramatic, mountaintop ways, or in our deepest valleys, or even when we wander in the wilderness. We human beings do need to remember that behind every glory story there is a saga of suffering. "I consider that the sufferings of this present time," St. Paul says to the church in Rome, "are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18). We need to remember that glory begins with suffering. To be human is to suffer. But to become more fully human, like Jesus, we will find ways to rise above suffering and let God's glory shine through us.
In other words, sisters and brothers in Christ, we must learn, gradually, how to allow our suffering to be transformed. Otherwise, we shall become not transformed, but transformers, unwittingly transmitting our suffering to others. Otherwise, as I have said the last two times I was in this pulpit, we will act out our anger, our pain, our suffering, instead of working our problems out. Dearly beloved, fellow sons and daughters of God, we must allow God to heal us, we must learn how to let God transform our suffering into the kind of glory made manifest in Jesus Christ. We must decide to be like those who dare to follow Christ. We must, with God's help, become more and more like Jesus.
And when we do, we will have no problem finding a glory story to tell. It may be simpler than you think. Notice that Jesus simply touches his friends. As one pastor puts it: "This is the way that God comes into the world: not simply the brilliant cloud of mystery, not only a voice thundering from heaven (or from a podium or a pulpit), but also a human hand laid upon a shoulder and the words, 'Do not be afraid'"(P. Willson, Williamsburg Presbyterian, Feasting on the Word, p. 437). Or in a human hand, offering us a bit of bread, a sip of wine, changing us forever.
Today's prayer, the Collect for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, the last Sunday before Lent, may help you and me to transform our suffering sagas into glory stories. Let us turn to that prayer once more. Please pray with me:
O God, who before the passion of your (thine) only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory: through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you (thee) and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN.