From the Cloud Came a Voice

Preached by Will Brown, February 7, 2016
Taken from Luke 9:28-43a

Rafael 'Transfiguration'

Don’t you feel sorry for Peter, John, and James? They bumble through today’s story looking rather foolish, but it’s really not their fault. They have been traveling with Jesus on his whirlwind tour of Galilee, with stops for telling parables and performing miracles. Crowds have met them all along the way, and when our story today begins, they have climbed a mountain in an attempt to get away for a while, to pray. Peter, James, and John can barely stay awake, they’re so exhausted, and then they have what must be one of the strangest experiences of their lives, which leaves them completely awestruck and dumbfounded.

While Jesus is praying, his face begins to change, and then his clothes start to glow a dazzling white. Then, out of nowhere, Moses and Elijah appear and have a little chat with Jesus. This is odd… Peter looks around, not sure what in the world he is supposed to do, and so he rather awkwardly says, maybe I’ll put up three tents for you guys? So you have somewhere to stay…? Luke’s Gospel dismisses this idea completely, with the side note, “He did not know what he was saying.” Well, of course not! Can you blame him? This has been a bizarre day—Moses just appeared over there! Moses! And just when it seems things can’t get any more confusing, a thick cloud comes and completely covers them up. They can’t see anything, and they are terrified. These poor disciples: confused, scared, and overshadowed by a sudden cloud. What a day!

Reading about the thick, overwhelming cloud, my mind immediately jumped to Afton Mountain. I still remember the first time I drove over Afton Mountain in heavy fog—perhaps like the fog described in today’s story, so thick that you can’t see. I had driven down Interstate 64 many times before and noticed all the warning signs posted along the road, but now I understood what they meant. The fog was so thick I could barely see a car’s length in front of me. I’m sure many of you have experienced this. Watching the white dashed lines in the middle of the road, you can only see one at a time. It’s amazing—and terrifying. You don’t want to go too fast, because you might hit something; and you don’t want to go too slow, because something might hit you. It’s a dangerous situation, but all you can do is keep going through it, with as much focus and courage as you can muster, hoping for the best.

In a way, that feels to me like where we are as a congregation. On this first Sunday without our Senior Minister, we are stepping out into the unknown. We can’t see what may be ahead of us. We don’t want to go too fast and crash, and we don’t want to go so slow that the rest of the world crashes into us or leaves us behind. The unknown is a frightening place to be, one that feels dangerous and disorienting and exhausting.  All we can do is keep going with as much focus and courage as we can muster.

In one of his poems, Robert Frost wrote, “The best way out is always through.” So in the months ahead, as our church considers our future and the challenges we face, we will go through. Not “around” or “above” or “beside”, ignoring our challenges or pretending that everything is perfect, but “through.”

This book by Howard Newlon [A People Called] traces the history of our church, through all of its changes and developments. This morning, we find ourselves at the start of a new chapter in our church’s life and as is always the case with the beginnings of chapters, we don’t know what the rest of this chapter will hold.  We don’t know what’s coming next, any more than we can see what’s ahead through the fog on Afton Mountain.

And I know that we arrive at this new chapter with a range of emotions:  hope that the new chapter might be better than the last, fear that it may not be, sadness that the Cheuks have gone, relief that the page has turned, or regret, anger, disappointment, ambivalence—probably some combination of emotions that are not neatly sorted out, a fog of emotions that makes it difficult to see.

And it’s not just UBC. In each of our lives, we face the challenge of looking at an unknown future. The cloud of unknowing takes a different shape for each one of us: a new stage of life, perhaps a daunting new semester, a life-changing diagnosis for ourselves or a friend, an unclear career move, a shifting relationship that leaves us uncertain about the future. In a variety of ways, we know how it feels to be surrounded by a cloud so thick we cannot see in front of us. It is from the heart of that cloud that we as a congregation gaze out toward our future, seeking the path God is preparing for us as we travel together through what may feel like a wilderness.

How fitting it is, then, that this new chapter of UBC coincides with the beginning of Lent, the liturgical season that remembers the forty days and nights Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and praying. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season that culminates in Holy Week and Easter. But before that joyful Sunday, we—like Jesus—go “through the wilderness.” “Through the Wilderness” will be our theme for this season, which you will hear about each week during Lent.

Before that Lenten journey begins, however, the church calendar prepares us with Transfiguration Sunday, today’s observance of this strange, marvelous, confounding story.

I’ll admit, when I first checked the lectionary and saw that today’s lesson would be the transfiguration—a passage that has always seemed strange to me—I did not jump for joy. Our first Sunday after Michael’s leaving, and we have this?? Really?? But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that this may be exactly what we need today. Before stepping out into the unknown, before venturing into the wilderness, what we need is a story about the mystery of God, a story about the unknown and the unknowable, a story about bumbling disciples who don’t know what to do, a story about a cloud so thick that no one can see anything at all. “A cloud came and overshadowed them,” verse 34 tells us, and “they were terrified.” Who knows what terrors might lie hidden out of sight, as the cloud swirls around them? Unable to see, minds racing, fear welling up inside, disoriented, scared… what’s out there?

And then, from the cloud came a voice. What’s out there in the unknown? God.

In this story, God appears not in an act of worship, or a Scripture reading, or in the Temple. God speaks from the unknown—a divine voice from the impenetrable fog. Do you and I have the courage to look out expectantly into the unknown, listening for God there? For in this story, at least, the disciples hear God speak on a day when they have no idea what’s going on, have no idea what to do, and finally can’t even see what’s around them. That is when God turns up. The message God speaks? “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” When they are afraid and confused, they are reassured by God’s voice pointing them back to Christ.

On the front of your bulletins today, you’ll find Raphael’s beautiful depiction of the Transfiguration. Take a look at this painting. What catches your eye? In the top half of this image, we see Jesus, floating in the air, glowing, with Moses and Elijah by his side, and three disciples lying awestruck on the ground. But look what Raphael places in the bottom half of the painting. This chaotic scene depicts the verses immediately following the Transfiguration, the story of a boy seized by a demon.

This is a story that is easy to overlook, an afterthought to the much more dramatic event on the mountaintop. In this episode, there’s a boy who is possessed by a demon, and the disciples have been unable to cast it out. Jesus, coming down the mountain, encounters this crowd of people, hears the plea from the boy’s father, and cures the child.

These two scenes are starkly different in mood and content, yet as Raphael realized, they are connected. A painting of only the mountaintop would miss something critical, for the transfiguration of Christ did not take place in a vacuum. Jesus and his disciples descended the mountain and entered the story that was taking place below. As Sharon Ringe has put it: “The glory of God’s presence and the pain of a broken world cannot be separated.” (in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 457)

And so Raphael presents both of these scenes together, reminding us visually of that connection. In particular, notice the two figures in red who are pointing back up at the mountain. In the midst of the confusion, among the disciples who could not heal the demon-possessed boy, they pointed back up to the one from whom healing would come. Through the chaos, they pointed to Christ—just as the voice of God called out through the blinding cloud, pointing to Christ: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

We too need that vision, a vision that gives hope. As a church, when the path forward is unclear and the future is hazy, we need that vision to look beyond ourselves to the Christ on the mountaintop. In our personal lives, when things just don’t make sense: when someone is suffering who doesn’t deserve it, when we feel lost and unsure what to make of ourselves, when we don’t know how to act or what to do, we need that vision, that voice pointing us back to Christ, saying, “listen to him.”

Listen to him, and follow him, for Christ is on the move, striding down the mountain, entering the chaos below, and transforming it into a scene of healing, wholeness, and new life. In the end, the transfiguration is not a story about what happens on top of the mountain, but the story of how the Christ revealed there transfigures the world below.

Driving on Afton Mountain in the fog, you can only see a few feet in front of you, but little by little, you make your way through. As one writer has said, it’s “like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” [E.L. Doctorow].

Whatever clouds may cover us, as a church and as individuals, may we take heart as we gaze into the unknown, remembering that sometimes what’s out there is actually the voice of God, beckoning us beyond ourselves and beyond what we know, pointing us always toward the one revealed on the mountaintop, the one who will lead us through. Let it be so. Amen.