When I heard that image – ‘radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun’ – I had a sudden memory of my mother. I know that sounds strange, but let me explain. When mom died several years ago, I found myself wondering what it was like for her to ‘go on to another shore’, as they say. And suddenly I saw her in my mind’s eye. There she was, on a shore, just so beautiful. She was ageless; she was radiant. She exuded light, and joy. And she was saying to us – to me, to our family – she was saying, simply, “I wish you knew how wonderful this is.”
Radiant. Brilliant. Carrying joy like a flaming sun. I wonder if that’s what being in the presence of God is like? That God’s light fills us, like the sun?
There’s an Old Testament story that seems to say so. It happened when Moses was up on the mountaintop, when God gave him the Ten Commandments… When Moses came down from the mountain, the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. He was so radiant he had to wear a veil over his face! [Ex. 34:29ff]
Afterwards, the people treated those commandments like God himself was with them. They took the two tablets and built a beautiful carrier for them – they called it “The Ark of the Covenant.” And then they built a “Tabernacle” – the tent of meeting - and put the Ark of the Covenant in it. It was the presence of the holy right there with them. Wherever they traveled, as they wandered through the wilderness, they carried the Ark of the Covenant with them. They followed a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, until God led them to the promised land.
Peter and James and John knew all about the Old Testament stories of Moses and the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle. They drank in those stories with their mothers’ milk. So when they were up on that mountain with Jesus, and they saw his face shine, they knew they were in the presence of God. And they were in awe.
No wonder Peter wanted to build a Tabernacle. They were on holy ground.
But this time it was different… This time, they didn’t need a Tabernacle. This time, there were no commandments, nothing to carry down with them. This time, there was only Jesus. Just Jesus.
It was a glimmer, of course; so fleeting. Still. It was enough, enough for them to remember forever. It was a glimpse of God, terrifying and beautiful.
The Transfiguration story always comes right before Lent begins. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, when we have the sign of the cross placed on our foreheads. In seven weeks it will be Easter, and Lent is our time of preparation, a time of penitence and reflection. It’s sacred space, to look deeply at our own journey of faith. To examine again what it means to follow him.
This Lent we’ll be guided by the teachings of Jesus, to help us see our own lives more clearly. To look at the choices we have, the decisions we make, the tension we live in as we try to be his followers.
The world gives us different things to follow… other ‘shiny’ things, if you will… The world offers a way that’s all about us: Our own satisfaction, and self-indulgence; our own life plans and ambitions; our own time to use as we will. The world says it’s all about us, and what we want. And Jesus? Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses and follow him. What different message could there be? How do we live in that tension?
The Lenten disciplines can help us. They accentuate the tension, call attention to it. Some people take on a special practice of prayer, or service, or small groups. Others give up sugar, or alcohol, or meat, or take up fasting once a week. It’s not meant to be a punishment; it’s not even about self-control, and it’s certainly not for self-improvement. These are simply ways to remember that following Jesus is not business as usual.
The way of Jesus is not to build ourselves up, but to empty ourselves – like he did.
As Paul writes in the book of Philippians,
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.”
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
being born in human likeness.
And when he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Jesus emptied himself, and took up his cross. And told us to do the same; to empty ourselves, and follow him.
This week Maryna Kohut shared a reading from her devotional. It read, The moment you are empty of yourself, you are full of God. Both cannot exist together; it is either you or God and it is the foolish person who chooses himself. Choose God: disappear as an ego. Forget yourself as an entity separate from [God], and in that very disappearance you are reborn.
It is a very paradoxical state: the moment you are empty of yourself you become full, and full for the first time, overflowingly full, inexhaustibly full. Jesus said, “All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?”
This isn’t easy to understand, let alone live. This season of Lent, we’ll spend some time in this tension. In a world that tells us to ‘be something’ to ‘make something of ourselves,’ how do we let go of our egos? We live with the world’s values and Christ’s invitation; how do we live in both worlds?
There’s no blueprint, trust me. And I would say beware of anyone who offers one. But there are ways to explore this, questions to ask, ways to look more deeply. Where do you start?!
You already have. You are here. Now. You don’t have to do anything but be here, fully here.
You don’t have to do anything but be here, fully here.
Like Peter up on the mountain, you don’t have to build a Tabernacle.
There is nothing you have to do, nothing you have to prove. Just be.
Let yourself see Jesus, the way he really is; radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands. Just let yourself shine in his light. Let yourself know how wonderful it is.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church