Unveiled – Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday 2.19.12

February 19, 2012 at 7:59 am Leave a comment


The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS

St Paul Lutheran Churches, Loganton and NittanyValley

The Transfiguration of our Lord

(biblical texts from Vanderbilt Divinity Library)

19 February 2012

First atomic explosion, "Trinity," July 16, 1945

The area fifty miles from Alamogordo, New Mexico is a desert wasteland. It was called “Site S” by American military scientists. The native peoples who had populated the desert for years beyond count knew the place as Jornada del Muerto: “Death Tract.”

At Jornado del Muerto, on July 16, 1945, at 5:30 a.m. local time, “Trinity,” the first atomic bomb, was test-fired. The results could not have been imagined, even by those who had designed and built the weapon. Within a mile of Ground Zero, all plant and animal life, including rattlesnakes, cacti, and desert grass, was utterly destroyed. An antelope herd that had been seen from the air grazing miles from the blast simply vanished.

When Harry Truman heard of it sailing across the ocean to meet Churchill and Stalin, he muttered, ‘This is the Second Coming, in wrath.’ A writer who was a witness described the scene: “…It was as though the earth had opened and the skies had split. One felt as though one were present at the moment of creation when God said: ‘Let there be light.’”  Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientists who had created the bomb, was reminded of two passages from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst from the sky, that would be the splendor of the Mighty One,” and “I am become Death, shatterer of worlds.”[1]

Today we read verses from the Psalms that describe God in similarly powerful terms: Out of Zion, perfect | in its beauty,* God reveals him- | self in glory. Our God will come and will | not keep silence;* before him there is a consuming flame, and round about him a | raging storm. He calls the heavens and the earth | from above* to witness the judgment | of his people.[2]

And yet we modern people are not used to thinking of God in this way. Our modern-day Gods have become so domesticated, so tame, that the words of the Gospel of Mark to describe Jesus’ transfiguration and the horrified reaction of Jesus’ disciples scarcely scratch the surface of our limited imaginations: “He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them…”[3] God’s glory was being revealed to them, God unveiled, of whom the Bible said that no one could see and live. No wonder they were overwhelmed and terrified.

Part of the reason we don’t think of God in these terms may be because God seems so distant, so absent. Or maybe it is not this at all. Maybe it is not this, that God is not present, but we are not often present to him – the glory and power of God are always discernible if we but look and listen, but if we refuse to be open to him, the power and glory we deny cannot be revealed to us.

In his book Beginning to Pray, Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom tells the story of a man who came to him and demanded, “Show me God.” Archbishop Bloom said that he could not show him God, but even if he could, the man would not be able to see God, for it was his opinion that in order to experience God, one must have something in common with him. The man pressed him, and the Archbishop asked the man if there was any passage in the Bible which held particular meaning for him. The man answered, “Yes. The story in the 8th chapter of John of the woman caught in adultery.”[4] “Good, that is a beautiful passage,” the Archbishop said, and asked him to whom he related in the story: the woman with nowhere to turn; Jesus, full of compassion and mercy; the older men who knowing their own sins refused to cast the first stone; or the younger men who reluctantly followed their example. The man thought for a moment, and said, “No, I am the only Jew who would not have left but who would have stoned the woman.” The Archbishop replied, “Thank God that he does not allow you to meet him face-to-face.”[5]

“Our God will come and will | not keep silence;* before him there is a consuming flame, and round about him a | raging storm.” In Jesus, the kingdom of God has come in power, power more real than an atomic bomb: power not to destroy us, but to annihilate his enemies: to bind the evil One and plunder his house,[6] to rescue from condemnation those who are under the judgment of the Law,[7] to swallow up death forever.[8] Our God is indeed a consuming fire; He comes to consume all that would keep us from him.

On the mountain, Peter, James, and John are given a glimpse of Jesus’ glorious Power, the Power that Moses and Elijah served, the Power that eclipses the Sun, the Power that the ancient Israelites believed it would b death to encounter. Then Jesus once again veils his power in weakness and descends into the valley, into his own Jornada del Muerto, the way to the cross, the place from where we must understand his true power in weakness and humility before we encounter it in the glory of the Resurrection.

In New Mexico in 1945, power could only be measured in kilotons, in the ability to destroy. That’s how human beings understand power, as the power to destroy. The power of God is love which has the ability to create. That is why this power is veiled in weakness, in the God-become-human Jesus, in his words and deeds, and in his character so that we might be drawn to him, not to be annihilated by his glory but to be transformed by it, so that our lives might be translucent with the light of his love.

‘This is my Son, my chosen One: listen to him! the Father says. Indeed, this is our joy, to listen to him, and then to walk through life bearing his cross, preferring Jesus to the power of the world and preferring to bear with others than to cast them off,[9] to proclaim Jesus as Lord and be the servants of others for his sake, to be transfigured into the image of Jesus. ‘For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’[10]

And so God is indeed unveiled in this world, not in the flash of light, fiery blast and swirling winds of death, but in the life-giving words and deeds of Jesus and in the transfigured lives of those who hear and do them. Let us glimpse him, let us hear him, let us taste him, let us worship him today, let us allow his light to shine through us, so that this Transfiguration Day may be an anticipation of the great day of the unveiling of his life-giving glory before the whole world.

[1] Manchester, William. The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972. New York: Bantam, 1974, pp. 377-78.
[2] Psalm 50:2-4 (RSV)
[3] Mark 9:2-3 (NRSV)
[4] John 8:3-11 (NRSV)
[5] Bloom, Anthony. Beginning to Pray. Blackstone Audio, 2010. This story is related in Chapter One, “The Absence of God.”
[6] Mark 3:27
[7] John 8:10-11
[8] Isaiah 25:7
[9] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003: “Suffering and the Cross”
[10] 2 Corinthians 4:5-6

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