THE GOD WHO OBSCURES
Sunday, February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration Sunday
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
My grandmother used to have a bumper sticker on the back of her Cadillac Eldorado that proclaimed: “Jesus is the answer!” It summarizes the belief that a good dose of Jesus can clear up any problem. Are you afraid of illness or death? Jesus is the answer! Is your relationship falling apart? Jesus is the answer. Are you concerned about the direction of the country or the state of the world? Jesus is the answer! Jesus clears things up. Jesus illumines the dark places.
And he does! Jesus as the Light of the World is a constant theme during the season of Epiphany. It all begins with the bright star in the east that led the wise ones to Jesus, and our Epiphany journey ends today as we remember that supernova of an event, the Transfiguration of the Lord.
Mark writes that Jesus took Peter, James and John up to the top of a mountain for some alone time. And while they were there, the strangest thing happened. Jesus was transfigured before them. Some gospels say Jesus himself began to glow. But all Mark says is that his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly the two great patriarchs of the Jewish faith appeared: Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet. Mark, who is always short on details, doesn’t tell us what they talked about, but other Gospels report that they discussed the events that would lead to Jesus’s death and Resurrection.
Well, Peter was so blown away by this divine light show that he began to do what many of us do when we are overwhelmed. He began to babble. And he was babbling about building three shrines - one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah in order to commemorate this spectacle. But Mark says that it was his fear talking; that he babbled on because he didn’t know what else to say. But then again, what do you say about such an event? What do any of us say about luminous moments our lives? Our epiphanies come to us unannounced and we often don’t have a clue about their ultimate meaning.
So Peter is yammering away, trying to put words to the numinous (which almost always a bad idea), when suddenly that bright scene changed. Out of nowhere, a cloud enveloped them and the thick darkness scared them to death.
Some years ago, Marcos and I were driving from a Brazilian seaside village back to the city of São Paulo. We had stopped to ask for directions at a roadside stand that oddly appeared to only sell hubcaps and bananas. A rather odd woman came out to greet us. We bought some of her bananas and asked her if this was indeed the road to São Paulo. “Oh yes,” she said, “just keep going over those mountains.” And as we pulled away, in the side view mirror, I caught the rather unnerving sight of her laughing.
And so we began to drive up into the mountains, higher and higher and higher. At some point the paved road turned into a gravel road. And then that gravel road narrowed to a single lane. The higher we climbed, the thicker the clouds became until the clouds morphed into something that can only be described as wet darkness, so thick that you could only see a foot or two in front of the car. And, quite frankly, I was terrified of oncoming traffic or of plummeting off a cliff.
The disciples were terrified too. Having your vision suddenly obscured is terrifying. But perhaps more disturbing is that the dark cloud began to speak: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Now that message from the cloud is worthy of sermon in and of itself. How often do we really listen to Jesus? But what’s more interesting to me is the way that God was made manifest. Notice that God did not speak out of the light that radiated from the face of Jesus. God did not speak out of the glow coming off of the two long-dead patriarchs. God did not speak in the brilliant sunshine of a mountaintop. Instead God spoke from an obscuring cloud. God spoke from the darkness.
And that seems odd at first, except that it isn’t. God manifesting as cloud or darkness is a theme found throughout the Bible. When the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, you will remember that God’s presence guided them through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud by day. When Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, a cloud descended on the mountaintop and obscured him from the people below. When those same people erected a portable Tabernacle during their wilderness wanderings, God’s presence filled that tent with a cloud. And much later when they had settled in the Promised Land, King Solomon built a grand Temple and on the day of dedication God’s presence filled the building in the form of a cloud. God manifested as something that obscures rather than as something that illumines.
Back on that Brazilian mountaintop, as Marcos and I entered ever more deeply into the darkness; as our fears mounted, I remember that we became exceedingly quiet. Part of that was so that Marcos could concentrate on his driving, but part of it was also that in that much darkness there was simply nothing left to say.
Likewise Peter, who had been babbling about building three shrines, was suddenly quiet. The darkness left him speechless too. But once speechless he was in a position to really listen. And so are we.
When our lives are full of light, when we are on the mountaintops of success and fresh love and new jobs, we can just babble on and on. But when our lives suddenly take a darker turn, when the clouds of illness or sorrow or loss descend upon us, we are often left without words. And we have been taught, incorrectly, that God cannot be found in that gloom, cannot be part of that gloom. And so we desperately seek for any source of light to dispel the darkness. But if we can stop struggling for the light switch, if we can quiet down and pause, we might just hear God speak from the gloom.
And so we crept along that mountain top road, the gravel crunching under our tires. I remember being acutely aware of my breath. I remember looking over and being so grateful for all Marcos and I had shared. The gloom seemed to clarify all of that. Yes, I was frightened, yet in that darkness I was also somehow more alive.
After what seemed like an eternity, we began our descent. And as we did, that thick darkness began to break apart and the sun began to shine and before us there was the most magnificent green valley I have ever seen. And we literally shouted for joy. The vision of that sunny valley is emblazoned upon my memory, but it so emblazoned because we had just emerged from such thick darkness.
God is light. But God is also darkness. In the words of Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? …If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me, “even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
So blessed be the light. But blessed also be the darkness – for it is the traveling between the two that transfiguresusfrom one degree of glory to another.