II Corinthians 4:1-11
Fred Craddock, a widely respected preacher and teacher of preachers, said of the story from the Gospel of Luke that we just heard: “There’s not much here that relates to our world.”
So I guess we’ve got our work cut out for us this morning.
I like it when scholars and preachers talk like this. It means that I am not alone in my confusion. It means that you’re not alone, if, after listening to the scripture lesson this morning, you were asking yourself: “What was that all about?”
It’s hard to see what’s going on here.
Maybe it’s hard to see because of all the light.
The Gospel of Luke tells this story as a way of illustrating the “glory” of God. The word “glory” points to the radiance, the fullness, the beauty of God. When we speak of the glory of God we point to an ecstasy that includes joy and happiness, the thrill of great power and meaning, the overflowing of all that is cherished and desired.
Theologians suggest that it is something like the feeling aroused in us by bright, concentrated light—something that can only be described by pointing to that feeling.
What does this mean?
Well, that’s hard to say, isn’t it?
After all, God’s glory is greater than any glory we would know ourselves. Our most splendid moments or achievements are fleeting occasional. They are tarnished. Our own longing for glory is a witness to our finitude, our limitation, our dependency.
So we listen to Luke’s story of the transfiguration of Jesus. We look as heaven and earth meet. We encounter a scene that is both beyond our understanding of reality and in some way also close to our hope for life.
“There’s not much here that relates to our world.”
But relating to our world is mostly what we’ve been doing here in the last couple of months. In adult education sessions we sought greater understanding of what it means to be right here on this planet so threatened by our actions. In worship we took our place before God as creatures among the rest of creation, confessing our lack of responsible stewardship, looking for hope, listening for our call.
You know, in a way, this congregation did not need more information about climate change.
We knew that we are called to be stewards of the earth.
We knew that the earth is threatened by its human inhabitants.
We knew that something must be done. We did not need to be convinced.
We needed something else.
What we needed—what we need, I think, is a new vision—some kind of change in how we see ourselves, in how we look at this world that might change how we act as well.
So I remember the scientists—the astronomers, physicists, and others—who tell us that thermonuclear reactions in stars could slowly seed a universe with the elements from which life is derived.
One person put it this way: “Every one of our chemical elements was once inside…the same star. We came from the same supernova.”
Or in the words of Joni Mitchell, “We are stardust.”
The brilliant radiance of the heavens gives birth to life.
Krister Stendahl, the late Dean of Harvard Divinity School, once said: “We cannot know why God created the world. But,” he added, “we can and may speculate, provided we don’t claim certainty for our speculation….One could say that God could have avoided many worries and much pain by remaining in splendid isolation. But there seems to be something at the very heart of God, in God’s very essence, that desires community, desires giving and receiving, desires communication….Perhaps there is more to be learned about God as love already in God’s act of creation.” [i]
We, the creatures of this earth, find ourselves embraced by the love of the Creator—who brought all things into existence that we—each one of us and all of us—might live in love. This same God calls us to love one another and to love this creation.
Paul gives us some grounding, reminding us that we are nothing more than earthen vessels, cheap clay pots. And yet, in Paul’s time precious objects were regularly kept in such pots. So he tells us that here in our flesh is something of great value.[ii]
Paul even went so far as to write elsewhere that the human body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Think about that: our bodies are the place where God dwells. Paul pushes that image of Jesus as God incarnate and discovers God’s Spirit in each one of us—earthen vessels holding a treasure.
The treasure that we hold, Paul claims, is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Each one of us carries this treasure beyond price.
Something like glory fills our lives. And we are called to let that light shine through our actions in the world.
What we see in Jesus is the very light of God. And when we see Jesus transfigured on a mountain top, shining with glory, we catch a glimpse of our own present and future as well. Yes, you and I, we’re just clay pots—but what a shining treasure is found inside!
So Paul says “We do not lose heart.”
This is the encouragement of the good news: Do not lose heart. Do not quit the good and valuable work that you are doing. While it may feel like it at times, especially at times like these, what you are doing here matters.
The story of the Transfiguration gives us a glimpse of light—of glory—before the shadows of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus. It gives us a hope for the future that will bring us through a time of suffering.
David Wallace-Wells begins his new book, The Uninhabital Earth: Life after Warming, with the sentence: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”
Now that sounds like it foreshadows a lot of suffering and shadows.
But he also looks beyond this, telling his readers: As horrifying as those scenarios are, they are also just a mark of what we can do from here until the year 2100…Everything about our climate future is entirely within our control. I think that can be an empowering message, even as we understand that there are all these obstacles to action, that our politics is too inert and too slow-moving, that we have all these status quo biases and are reluctant to take radical action of the kind that's necessary. Even so, it's possible. The tools are there. We could do it if we decided to, collectively… And that means that at any point, no matter how bad it gets, it will still be up to us to determine the next decade, the amount of warming in the decade after that, and we will always be empowered in that way. Even as we feel possibly quite pummeled by some of the more harrowing possible impacts, we'll still be empowered to take action. [iii]
The light still shines, calling us to work in hope toward a future that is, as I suggested last week, durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, robust—you know, sustainable.
Let us be honest. We do not spend our days in the halls of power. We do not attend the meetings of world leaders. But here is our advantage if we are to address climate change as a spiritual issue, if we are to come at the problem as stewards of creation: it’s up to us. We can pray and we can act. I know that this congregation will never be satisfied with being told to simply sit quietly and pray. And we shouldn’t be.
Pray by all means.
But act as well:
Vote. And keep in contact with the people we elect to serve us in Congress—whether they received your vote or not. Our legislators need our support and encouragement to pass bold legislations addressing climate change. Join with others to press for action.
Continue to make the changes in your own life that move toward a sustainable environment.
Luke’s story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is puzzling at best.
There is no immediate connection between this story and our lives—and maybe that’s best, because it coaxes us to stay with Jesus on that mountain awhile longer, to wonder a little more than we might otherwise.
Peter and James and John are our role models. Or at least reasonable examples of how those who follow Christ behave. We fall asleep, praying or acting. We speak without knowing what it is we are saying.
Do you see one reason that we might want to hear this story on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent? One of the messages of Ash Wednesday is that we are dust.
But we are stardust. Something like glory—something like the light of God, something like the image of God—fills our lives. Glory is our source and our destiny.
The Christian life is about glory and dust. It is about the ordinary and the extraordinary. The Christian life is about the obvious and about the cloud that overshadows us that we don't understand. That is to say that the Christian life is very much about love.
God’s love transfigures us in strange and wonderful ways.
May our love transfigure our world so that its strange and wonderful beauty will be cherished for generations to come.
[i] Krister Stendahl, Energy for Life, pg. 10.
See discussion in Interpretation commentary on II Corinthians.