Sunday, March 6, 2011

Praying on the Mountain and in the Garden -- A Homily for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, 2011

Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration), Year A, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
Sunday, March, 6th, 2011
Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke Matthew 17:1-9

Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain.
--Matthew 17:1

Our Lord commanded us to pray, and in doing so invited us into a life-long conversation with him. It is one of the great privileges of the Christian faith that we are in a relationship with a loving and conversant God. Consider how remarkable it is that the Lord of the Cosmos, who created the heavens, the earth, and all that exists, beckons us into discourse on the most personal intimate level. One wonders that we should be at all surprised by this fact, for did not the Lord of the Cosmos come to us, choose to take our human nature in the form of a tiny child, subject to the limitation of the humanity of which we all share? It seems, then, that it is in the very character of God to seek intimacy with his people. One popular hymn, meant to illustrate how the events of that first Easter morning can be experienced daily in prayer, sings of a God who walks and talks with us in a garden, just like any other friend. And yet, sometimes God seems so strangely distant and his voice seems silenced.

In today’s gospel, we witness a very different sort of prayer and conversation. Jesus leads three of his disciples up the mountain for a private meeting. What was the purpose of this little gathering apart from the rest? The parallel version in Luke’s gospel tells us that it was to pray. When they reach the summit, Jesus becomes strangely changed, transfigured before their eyes. His appearance began to change and his clothes became a dazzling white. Then, two other figures appear, immediately recognizable as Moses and Elijah, two prophets of old. And if one has a hard time imagining a conversation with Jesus in the garden, how much more incredible is this story of this divine manifestation on the Holy Mount.

Yet, be it walking with Jesus in the garden, or seeing him transfigured upon the mountain, both stories can reveal to us something important about the nature of prayer, namely that we can expect that God will be with us – whether as that friend with whom we converse, or in the remarkable form of Glory that reminds of the Sinai experience of Moses. Whether it is the peaceful garden moments or the glorious mountaintop experiences, and yes, even in the deep valleys, God will be with us. The difficulty that we often find in prayer is that we think we are stepping out alone, into an unknown dark place, in the hopes that somehow, God will find us and come to us. But in actuality, where we step is into the presence of the ever-present God, who never leaves us or sends us anywhere alone. In the garden, we mistake him for the gardener, on the road to Emmaus we confuse him for a fellow-traveller, and on the mountain, we think him merely our teacher or rabbi – but each time he opens our eyes, and we see him transfigured before us and we know God is with us.

Why do we fail to see or feel his presence? Why does it seem like God is absent when we have his promise that he will neither leave nor forsake us? I think it often has to do with our expectations in prayer. We expect a garden, when God wishes to show us a transfiguration. We expect a sermon when God wishes to sing us a song. We expect a rebuke, when God wishes to hold us in his embrace. And I think that this is one of the issues at stake in this story of the Transfiguration. What did the disciples expect? We have no way to know, but probably they expected that Jesus would take them up the mountain and they would say together some of the daily Jewish prayers, prayed by all Jews in the time of Jesus. Perhaps they were expecting the ancient equivalent of Anglican Matins, or a United Church morning worship service. And what did they get? They got an epiphany. As their Lord led them in prayer they caught a glimpse of divine glory. And what is more, they received some clarification – some had thought that Jesus might be Elijah, or a new Moses. But Moses and Elijah appeared with him, and the voice of God clarified his identity: My Son, the beloved.

How do we respond to the surprises we receive in prayer? Usually, badly. This was the case with Peter and James and John. What did they want to do? They wanted to set up tents for the three holy figures. In biblical parlance, this means that they wanted to set up temples of worship, or shrines for the three holy men. But was this what God was asking of them? Was this the message of the transfiguration to which they were witnesses? No. But their response was very human. In technical terms we call it the domestication of transcendence. In layperson’s terms it is simply this: If something is amazing and extraordinary and beyond human scope we seek to make it ordinary, control it and manage it by human standards. The disciples sought to control this vision of God’s glory. What does God have to say about this? “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!”

This uncovers for us the principal problem we experience in prayer. We seek God, we lament when God appears to be absent, and then when we are granted any kind of inkling of his presence, we seek to control it, rather than let ourselves be transformed by it.

Listen to him, says the voice of God. It is a call to open our hearts to the voice of his Son in prayer. It is a call to set aside all of our presuppositions about prayer. It is a call to allow ourselves to be transformed and changed through God’s gracious self-disclosure, through our Lord’s words that enter our hearts. Should we answer the call, we find ourselves transfigured, too.

In prayer, we find ourselves talking, sometimes shouting at God, and while there are appropriate moments for this, there are moments when we need to stop controlling the conversation and remember that we have a conversation partner, who is God almighty, our maker, redeemer and friend. We need to allow ourselves to be led in to the presence of God, and simply rest in that presence, listening for his voice, waiting expectantly for his Word to transform our hearts and souls, and open to the surprises that he has in store for us, to recognize that we are his beloved. And so, after the disciples have witnessed their Lord in Glory, St. Matthew tells us that they fall down in awe. In the silence of our quietest prayers, and in the awe of his presence, so may our hearts and minds be transfigured in the presence of the transfigured Word of God, who is our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

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