In the name of God: Source and Clarity. Amen.
In keeping with our pattern of being late to the party for just about everything in pop culture – Michael and I have recently begun watching the HBO series, Game of Thrones. A few years ago, it seems like everyone was watching Game of Thrones and talking about it, and making predictions… It seemed to take over the world. But we had nothing to do with it then. But now we’ve jumped on the bandwagon – even though that bandwagon has long ago left.
There’s a degree to which it’s something of a challenging series to watch. Its genre is what I would describe as a sort of historical fantasy. The universe in which the story is set is similar to what we imagine of pre-Christian Europe, so it’s vaguely historical, but it’s also definitely rooted in fantasy literature. There are dragons, and magical gods, and zombies… And it simultaneously follows several threads of story lines that are all of the same sort, and loosely interwoven, but each still distinct. I’m not great at keeping up with character names under the best of circumstances, and this show makes it even harder than usual.
In an episode we watched a few days ago, there was this harrowing scene where two of the characters we’re following (don’t ask me their names, I couldn’t begin to tell you) were climbing up an incredibly high, icy cliff. Throughout the climb they face unimaginable challenges. The cold is so intense that ice gathers on the men’s beards. The snow is wind-driven and blinding. At one point, when one of their climbing picks landed in the ice, it caused a great fissure in the wall, and a huge chunk of the wall was set lose to fall a thousand feet, carrying many of its climbers to their deaths.
But eventually, the two we’re following make it to the top. And just at that moment, the storm clears. Sun shines and suddenly they can see how far they’ve come.
When I think of the story of the Transfiguration that we read today, my understanding of it is always shaped by my visit to the mountain that is traditionally revered as the site where it happened. I’ve often told the story of the irony that the Christians who have come to worship at that site have actually built a great church with three altars – one dedicated to Jesus, one to Moses, and one to Elijah. We’ve done exactly what we were told not to do.
But after watching Game of Thrones, I’m reminded of another way that visiting the mountain of the Transfiguration has shaped my experience and understanding of this story. Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration says that while Peter was still speaking, “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!”
The day we visited the mountain, the clouds were hanging low, and once we reached the top, everything was covered in a wet, gray fog. Even as we approached the church, we could barely see it. It just bled through the fog as we got closer and closer.
Since that visit, I’ve always imagined that that’s how this story happened. I imagine Jesus standing there with Peter, James, and John enveloped in the soupy gray of that vista. Because that’s how I saw it, it was hard for me to imagine it existing in any other way.
But in that scene from Game of Thrones, as these two characters reached the top and everything suddenly became clear, it occurred to me that that must have been a bit more like what it was like for Jesus’ disciples. Not with their vision obscured by the presence of the divine, but by sudden, previously-unimagined clarity. Clarity about where they had been, and clarity about where they were headed.
In Advent every year, one of the main messages that I try to convey is that Advent is about preparing us to see Christ in new ways. Similarly, Christmas is very much about practicing seeing Christ in our real lives, around us. Epiphany, and the weeks since then, have been about learning from this newly-seen, real-in-our-lives Christ.
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. The last Sunday before we begin our Lenten observance – before we radically shift the way we practice this faith for a season. We have been given opportunities to see Christ in new ways, and to learn from that encounter.
The story of the Transfiguration reminds us that when we encounter God, we are changed. The dramatic moment in the reading is about the way Jesus is changed – his clothes became dazzling white. But, perhaps an even more significant change is the way the disciples began to see him differently – the ways that they began to understand their interactions with him differently, and the ways that they probably even began to understand themselves differently.
They had encountered God in a new way and were changed.
The same is true for us. When we encounter God – when we are open to seeing that God is all around us, and we really recognize God’s presence among us – we leave that moment changed. And it’s not like a dense, gray cloud enveloping you – it’s more like that moment in the Game of Thrones – new clarity and new vision; a new perspective that previously was obscured.
We’ve all had those moments in our lives that left us changed. Sometimes they’re from traumas and moments of sadness and grief. But we’re also changed by the good moments. When were some of those times in your life when you were suddenly changed? Maybe it was holding your child for the first time. Looking into the eyes of your beloved as you exchanged vows to share your lives with each other. Maybe it was sometime when you believed deeply that a prayer had been answered.
The common thread that runs through those times when we are changed for the better is that they invariably happened in the presence of love. When we encounter God, we are changed. And when we encounter love, we are changed. Because the two exist in tandem. God is in love and love is in God.
Even if the clouds around us don’t suddenly part, in the deepest recesses of our hearts and souls and spirits, they do. The clouds part and we can see clearly, in a new way.
You should be thankful that our livestreaming ministry means that I can’t play music for you, because right now the one thing I want to do more than anything else is to play Barbara Streisand singing, “On a clear day you can see forever”. But do yourself a favor and listen to the words of that song sometime soon. Imagine it as a hymn to Transfiguration. “On a clear day, how it will astound you, that the glow of your being outshines every star.”
That’s what it’s like when we meet God. It is a clear day.
May you know many clear days in your life. And may you be an instrument of clarity for everyone you meet. That’s the goal, the purpose, and the dream of this faith. Amen.