A Beautiful and Terrible Fire

Transfiguration Sunday                              February 26, 2017

Exodus 24:12-18               Matthew 17:1-8

What a strange story the Transfiguration is! It unfolds something like a dream: Jesus suddenly shining like a bright light, the strange appearance of Moses and Elijah, the bright cloud enveloping them, the disciples terror, and then, equally suddenly, it all passes and they are alone with Jesus. Beautiful and mysterious, holy and yet unsettling. What feelings does it call up in us? Confusion, perhaps, hope, awe, wonder – and perhaps some anxiety or fear at the sudden weird power being revealed.

It is an in-between kind of story, unfolding in some strange in-between place between heaven and earth. That is why we have come to meditate on this story at this time every year, in the in-between time between Epiphany and Lent. On the one hand, it caps off Epiphany, with its theme of Jesus shining like a light in the darkness of this world. At the same time it looks forward over the dark time of Lent and Good Friday, and gives us just a brief glimpse of Resurrection glory before we enter on the path of the cross. The story seems to have a similar purpose in the gospel story. It comes right in the middle of the gospel, just after Jesus has first warned the disciples about his upcoming suffering and death, just as the story enters into his long road to the cross.

One of the special themes of Matthew’s gospel is that he shows Jesus as the new Moses. We have seen that over the past several weeks, as we have read through the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew portrays Jesus, like Moses, as teaching the Law from the mountaintop. And now, as he comes to tell of Jesus’s transfiguration on another mountaintop, he clearly has in mind the story we have just heard as the Old Testament reading: how Moses met God on the mountain, how God’s glory was like a burning fire, so that, when Moses went back down the mountain, his face was transfigured and glowed afterwards.

The Old Testament portrays the appearance of God on the mountaintop as both glorious but also terrifying. The God who appeared as a bright light could also be a consuming fire, striking dead those who came too close. Faced with the terrifying reality of God, of a force and energy so much greater than they could even comprehend, it is not surprising that the people tried to tame God, to bring him down to a predictable, controllable size. While Moses was alone on the mountaintop with this terrifying fiery presence, the people down in the camp were making the Golden Calf, an image of God that they could understand and feel safe with. Apparently the encounter with the reality of God’s unvarnished presence is just that unsettling.

I think we can do the same thing, as Christians – we make images of God, images that are smaller and safer than the wild glory of God’s full presence. I don’t want to use the word “idolatry”, that would be overstating it; and the Golden Calf had all kinds of other associations that were just wrong. Whoever worships the Golden Calf – today as much as back then – is simply worshipping the wrong God. The images we make of God as mostly more harmless. As long as we keep checking our image of God with the face he showed us in Jesus, we can’t go far wrong.

But we do make ourselves images, mental pictures of God: gentle Jesus, Jesus as our good friend, Jesus as the picture of love, peace, and justice. And again, these images are not wrong – as long as we keep checking them with the Jesus who meets us in the gospels, and that’s what we come to do here together every Sunday. These images we make of God are not wrong, but they are too small. They make God too safe and predictable, too much our own little wish fulfillment. In other words, we must not lose sight of the fact that God is not just an idea, not just a story, not just an imaginary friend, not just a symbol of justice and compassion: God is also real, God is – if it’s really God we are talking about – the living force that underlies all reality. That God is bigger than we can understand, certainly bigger than we can control. That God will not always dance to our tune, will not always fulfil our expectations; that God will throw things at us that are incomprehensible and hard to accept; that God is terrifying.

I think that may be part of what is going on in the story of the Transfiguration: it is a story of an encounter with the primal energy of God. How terrifying that must have been for the disciples, for these three people who had come to know and love Jesus as a familiar friend: suddenly to see him unrecognizable, overwhelmed and transformed by this sheer weight of a strange glory.

I am fascinated by Peter’s awkwardly inappropriate response: let’s build three little houses here. Let us build a shrine, let us build a church – what is this but a panicked attempt to put this frightening holy power into a box, to tame it or institutionalize it. His words fall uselessly to the ground – while he is still speaking, the numinous power redoubles in a bright cloud and a voice from heaven, and he has to let go of his attempt to control it, as it overwhelms him and leaves him in terror.

Thinking about the transfiguration this week, I was led to revisit a book I read many years ago that had a profound impact on me at the time: Holy the Firm, by the American writer Annie Dillard. It is a short meditation on the presence of God in the world. As a keen and sensitive observer of nature, she speaks of the elusive but powerful sense of divine energy that underlies creation, breaking forth in incredible exuberant beauty at unexpected moments, like a holy fire burning hidden at the root of all created things. At the same time, she is no romantic – the book is also a tough-minded, heart-breaking meditation on the reality of suffering. How do these two things, beauty and suffering, fit together? Again and again she turns to images of transfiguration, that contain both beauty and horror: the fire of a sunrise packed with joy and energy; the grotesque image of a moth fallen into a candle, its hollow shell burning like a wick giving light in the darkness; the horror of the neighbours’ little girl, her face badly burned in an accident. It seems that when the uncontrollable fire of the divine touches the world, it can bring great beauty and inflict great pain.

And in the end, of course there is no answer to the question of suffering, no satisfactory way of comprehending the why: this life is both beautiful and terrible, and the divine fire that burns in creation is both glorious and sometimes apparently indifferent to human suffering. If we could comprehend it, it would not be God. Sometimes, when we reach the limits of our understanding, all that is left is trust: trust that God is good; trust that, while terrible things can happen, God is not indifferent, but cares deeply; trust that, in the end, the beauty and joy of creation somehow redeems its pain.

In this reading too much into that blazing light on Mt. Tabor? Perhaps. But what confronted the disciples on the mountaintop was an experience that the divine power they had sensed in Jesus was something far wilder and more powerful than they had expected, something far beyond their control. It was a power that had little regard for their comfort zone, that could well demand of them something terrible. And indeed it is no coincidence that the transfiguration comes at precisely this point in the gospel story: the point at which they first begin to realize that Jesus is not just about healing and compassion and inclusion, but that he will also demand of them to walk with him the bitter road of the cross.

And so we too, reading this story on the threshold of Lent, are reminded: following Jesus may take us places beyond our comfort zone, may require us to go to painful and sometimes terrible places, places where we walk not seeing the goodness and mercy of God, but only trusting that it is there.