Opening Skies - Reflections 2-24-2022

Texts for February 27, 2022
Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Cor 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

Note: this was written before Russia invaded Ukraine. Light a candle for Ukraine.

There is a verse in one of the hymns we sing around here that says
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
no angel visitant, no op'ning skies…

To some extent, I am not truthful when I sing those words. My husband and I have even talked about it. He and I both think it would be great to have a dream, a prophet ecstasy, a rending of the veil of clay, an angel visit, or an opening sky. How spectacular! How inspiring!

This week’s Gospel is the final one for the season of Epiphany. If you remember, the season of Epiphany is when we are on the lookout for God sightings in the world. And that verse of that hymn from above lists some definitive manifestations/revelations of God’s presence aka epiphanies.

The very day of Epiphany included God-inspired dreams to save the life of the infant Jesus. The next Sunday featured an opening sky at Jesus’ baptism. The rest of the Sundays were more subtle. Jesus taught with authority, he healed, he spoke of God’s love for the vulnerable and he showed God’s generous abundance with wine one week and an overflowing fish net the other.

But we’ve saved the most “epiphanous” epiphany for last. Jesus, who often slipped off to pray alone, invited 3 disciples to go with him up a mountain to pray. The disciples begin to nod off. During prayer, Jesus’ appearance suddenly changed and he, well, started glowing, was dazzling even. You could say, and many have said, that he was transfigured. Then Moses and Elijah, both famous from Israel’s history, appeared and began to have a conversation with Jesus about his departure – the word is exodus – you know, like Moses leading the people to freedom out of Egypt. Or like Elijah who instead of dying was whisked into heaven by a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire (2 Kings 2:11). I find it fascinating that the groggy disciples knew who these two other luminous people were. How? However, oh, for a cell phone and Tik Tok! This departure was to be accomplished in Jerusalem (note that clue for later this year).

After Peter’s offer to host the three figures for a while, the shocked disciples end up terrified and overshadowed by a cloud which says “This is my Chosen; listen to him”. The cloud left and regular Jesus was standing there with them. Wow. That’s what I’m talking about. Spectacular!

But is that the point?

The Transfiguration event was book-ended by real life. Right before this text (eight days before according to Luke), Jesus says that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And right after it, Jesus came down to a crowd waiting for him and healed a boy who his disciples could not heal. Shortly after that, he started his journey to Jerusalem. He was manifested in the chaos of daily life. The Transfiguration was... a moment of which the purpose isn't clear. Perhaps the disciples listened more carefully? Perhaps it was something for the disciples to ponder after the resurrection? Or during the crucifixion?

What the book-ends tell me is that my yearning for a totally undeniable and spectacular God-manifestation misses the whole point of God’s presence through Jesus, aka, the incarnation (becoming human). Looking for the spectacular tends to set God apart from suffering and sadness, mess and muck of life. It is as if God is far removed from life’s miseries, which is pretty close to blasphemy, I think.

I read about a woman whose son was really sick and failing fast. She was not moved, perhaps even turned off, as she thought about this story of the spectacular transfiguration on the mountain. All she heard in that story is that God is obviously totally out of touch with real life. But then she heard that Jesus came down in the crowd to 
to be with an angst-ridden parent. Jesus (on level ground) is there in the midst of the anguish and sorrow of life. Jesus knows anguish. Jesus knows sorrow. And she heard comfort in that.

I know from experiences that “God in the midst” of shadow-times of life is hard to feel sometimes; ok, most of the time. At those points in my life, I hear one of the phrases from my contemplative prayer days. God is most present when God feels most absent. Sometimes that phrase's comfort takes more trust than I have, but it knocks around in my head and heart anyway. 

That hymn I started with has one more line in that stanza:
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
no angel visitant, no op'ning skies…

But take the dimness of my soul away.


(Spirit of God, Descend upon my Heart, public domain)

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Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Iowa City

Gathered by grace. Scattered for service.

123 E Market Street
Iowa City, IA 52245