Sermon
March 5, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Mark 9:2-9     Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

    9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (NRSV)

 2 Corinthians 4:3-11 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. 6 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.

    7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (NRSV)

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Sermon: A Glimpse of Glory

 This morning I would like to declare an official end to the greater Christmas season.  The greater season includes the four weeks of Advent for preparation, the twelve day celebration between Christmas and Epiphany, and the season of Epiphany.

 

Epiphany actually ends this coming Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, but today is the last Sunday of Epiphany.  So if you are like me, today is the day to go home and take down the last Christmas wreath, remove the illuminated three kings from the roof top, take Chevy Chase’s Christmas tape out of the VCR, and pack it all away for another year.

 

To make the transition from Epiphany to Lent, the church puts before us today the story of the Transfiguration of Christ.  I would like to examine this story by looking at several items on our communion table and reflecting on the spiritual lesson they teach in light of the Transfiguration. And for this reason we’ll begin by considering the candles.

 

Each Sunday we begin our worship with the invitation for our acolytes to come forward and light these candles.  Sometimes we say “to bring the light of Christ into our midst”, or sometimes we say “to proclaim that Christ is the light of the world.”

 

Light is such an important element of our religious language, art, imagery, and architecture.  Think of how we use light in this church - especially with the stained glass windows that are quite uncharacteristic of a congregational church but really a beautiful addition to our worship space. 

 

The light of candles is something that we use in only a minimal way compared to some traditions, although on Christmas Eve we do break out the supplies and try our best to make a blaze of glory against the dark of night.  The candles we’ve used the past two Christmas Eves are these thin beeswax tapers called reading candles made at the Holy Nativity Convent in Brookline, MA.

 

Holy Nativity is a Greek Orthodox convent, and if you’ve ever been in an Orthodox church, you’ve seen how candles are abundant in their worship services.  I was amazed during a trip to visit Orthodox churches in Russia to see how many candles would be lighted in the course of one service.  At some of the churches we visited there must have been 500, even a thousand, candles burning at any given time.

 

During the course of the service parishioners would purchase different sized candles at the back of the church and then pass them forward through the congregation to the acolytes up front who would find a place for them in huge candelabras that at times glowed so brightly you could barely look directly at them.

 

The whole idea of Orthodox worship with its candles, icons, chants, vestments, and liturgy is to give the worshipper a glimpse of God’s glory, the glory which came to earth in Jesus Christ, and which is offered to the believer as an inheritance that can never perish.

 

The central place of Glory in Orthodoxy might explain why the Transfiguration of Christ, which we recall this Sunday, is second only to Easter in their church calendar.   The Western Roman and Protestant churches do not make so much of Transfiguration, but the Eastern Orthodox churches make it central to their theology and spirituality.

 

A basic paradox of Christian belief is that God is by nature unknowable, and yet we say we know God.  One Orthodox approach to this is to assert that we know the energies of God, but not the essence of God.   Basil the Great, one of the early so-called early Fathers of the church, wrote: We know our God from His energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to His essence.  For His energies come down to us, but His essence remains unapproachable.”

 

An example of this principle is the story of Moses and the burning bush.  

Exodus 3:1-6     Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.  Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up."  When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am."  Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."  He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (NRSV)

 

In one line of Orthodox thought, this light, this flame that burns but does not consume, this energy of God is the single most important goal of our worship and prayer life.   We, like Moses, must notice, must turn aside, must look and see. 

 

God is light, and the believer experiences God’s energy in the form of light.  This is not a vision of sunlight, starlight, candlelight, or any created radiance, but an experience of God in divine light.  Through worship, prayer, and meditation the believer can gain a glimpse of this light, can gain a glimpse of glory. 

 

It is a basic Christian doctrine, a basic Christian retelling of the human story,   that humanity, through free will, decided to not to stop, not to notice, not to turn towards God, but rather to turn away from God.   This separation from God became greater than humanity could repair, overcome, or get across.   So out of loving kindness God overcame, God crossed over, God became human in Jesus Christ.  The task of humanity now is to turn and see, to be mindful and appreciative of this great act of love;  the task of humanity is to recognize the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

During the life of Christ this glory was hidden, veiled, difficult to recognize.   It was hidden by humility, it was hidden by suffering.  But it did break through and no where more clearly than in the moment of transfiguration and in the reality of resurrection. 

 

So the candle reminds us that the glory of God shines in the life of Christ; and once we know it’s there, it transforms and transfigures our vision and understanding of everything about Christ - not only of the moments of glory, but even those of humility and suffering that seemed before to hide the glory. 

 

Now the humility and suffering only magnify the glory, only make it more wondrous, more luminous, more powerful, more challenging, more promising.

 

So then these elements of bread and cup that sit in front of the candles, these symbols of the broken body and shed blood of Christ - these too become messengers of love and glory.  And when we are invited to partake of them, it is to remind us that not only did Christ share our human form, but that through his death on the cross, he invites us to share in his glory.

 

Christ brought the glory of God down to share in the life of humanity so that the life of humanity might be lifted up to share in the glory of God.

 

How did St. Paul say it?

 

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.   But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

 

I know I’m on a track here today in this sermon that doesn’t lend itself well to a 10 minute talk.  Religious people have devoted their lives to meditating on these mysteries, and they will not be unveiled with a couple of historical references and bible verses. 

 

Indeed, even when we know the history, even when we know the scriptures, that’s just the beginning.  The words, the symbols, the sacraments, they are only tools to help us be mindful of God’s love and open to a glimpse of glory.  In the end, we are not looking to know something, we’re looking to meet someone;  we’re not seeking information, we’re opening our hearts to an encounter with the glory of God in the face of Christ.

 

I would like to consider one more aspect of this table setting, one you cannot see but is visible from the front.  Inscribed on these candles and on these covers are the names of someone’s beloved departed.  They have been inscribed in the hope of resurrection, of reunion, of glory.  They represent the desire of a generation now gone to find around this table the faith, hope, and love offered to all who seek a share in the community of Christ.

 

They lived and died in the hope that the glimpse they had of God’s glory was but a foretaste of a glory yet to come, an eternal glory in a kingdom that has no end.

 

Let that hope be in our hearts, too, as we share this sacrament.  Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

 

I don’t know what thoughts are in your mind as you hold the bread waiting to eat or hold the cup waiting to drink.  But today, as we think of the Transfiguration of Christ, as we watch the candles flicker and remember the fellowship of believers who have gone before us, let our thoughts today be of hope and joy.  Joy at God’s great love and hope of sharing in the glory of Christ’s resurrection.  May this sacrament give us a glimpse of glory and transfigure our lives in the image of Christ.  Amen

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