Why Is God’s Revelation So Unhelpful?
It’s the Last Sunday of Epiphany, which means we read the story of the Transfiguration.
“Transfiguration” is the fancy church word to describe this story of Jesus being transformed before his disciples on the mountaintop, his clothes becoming dazzling white as he talks with Moses and Elijah. The voice of God speaks out of the cloud and proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Why do we always end Epiphany with this story?
We end Epiphany with the Transfiguration, or “The Fig” as it’s affectionately known among preachers, because it is the closest anyone on earth has ever come to seeing the fullness of Christ in his divine nature.
Peter, James, and John get to see the end of the story, Jesus in all his heavenly glory, while they’re still in the middle of the story.
It’s a revelation to them about this man they’ve been following around for the last few years. They’ve seen him do amazing things—heal the sick, feed the thousands, and walk on water—but this surpasses it all.
The season of Epiphany is all about revelation. It’s about the world coming to understand who Jesus is and why he came to earth.
During this season, we read of Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple as a baby, of his baptism in the River Jordon, and of his first miracles.
The Transfiguration is the pinnacle, quite literally. It’s a mountaintop experience for the disciples.
But here’s the thing. It’s revelation, but it’s not particularly helpful revelation.
What do we learn about Jesus in this miracle?
What lesson for living an ethical life does it teach us?
How do we come away from seeing Jesus in dazzling white clothes better able to love our neighbors?
I don’t think we particularly do, which is why I hate the Transfiguration.
Well, perhaps “hate” is too strong a word. Let’s just say it’s not among my top ten miracle stories from the Gospels. I moan and groan about having to preach on it every single year.
What I want out of my revelations from God, whatever they are, is something practical.
“What am I supposed to do next?” I ask God. “What’s the right path forward? How do you want me to change?”
Reveal that to me, God, if you’d really like to be helpful.
And that, I realized this year, is precisely my problem.
If you take a look at revelations throughout the Bible, they’re never practical and helpful.
In fact, they usually make things worse.
Think of Isaiah in the throne room of heaven, seeing God high and lifted up. Think of the horsemen and letters and seals in the actual Book of Revelation. We’ve got Ezekiel’s wheels in the sky, and of course, in our lesson from 2 Kings today, the heavenly chariots of fire.
None of that helps me or you or the people at the time know what to do next.
And of course the example par excellence is Gabriel’s revelation to Mary of God’s proposal to her.
Gabriel could not possibly have screwed up Mary’s planned and organized life path more if he had tried.
And I’ve belatedly realized that that is in fact the true nature of revelation.
It’s not designed to be helpful.
It’s not intended to give us answers.
It’s not supposed to make things clearer or give us a path forward or remove confusion and obstacles.
Revelation is, first and foremost, profoundly destabilizing.
It’s meant to screw everything up.
It’s designed to throw our preconceptions out the window and deprive us of our long-cherished assumption that we know who God is and what God wants of us.
Why would God do that?
If God goes to all the trouble to reveal Godself, why would God want to make it so unsettling and destabilizing for us?
It turns out that’s exactly what we need to be prepared to do God’s work.
The men and women in the Bible couldn’t take on enormous tasks like prophesying or preaching or building a church or bearing God’s son just on the strength of their own ideas.
They needed to have the rug pulled out from under them.
They needed to be confronted by a God so strange and glorious that they let go of their own assumptions and values and really listened, with open minds.
They needed to be returned to their internal poverty to be ready to filled up by God.
And so do we.
Peter, in our story today, is famous for making himself look ridiculous at the Transfiguration.
He’s definitely destabilized.
The revelation is working. He doesn’t know which end is up.
He’s so caught off guard and overwhelmed that he makes this suggestion that they build houses on the mountain for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to live in.
It’s one of those remarks that he no doubt felt like an idiot for making half an hour later, as they were walking down the mountain.
It so comprehensively fails to sum up or grasp the meaning of what he’s witnessing that it’s almost comical.
But I think Peter gets a bad rap in this story that’s a bit unfair.
The great thing about Peter is that he’s always engaged. Peter is all in, no matter what they’re doing.
Peter has no clue what to do while they’re on the mountain, but he’s trying.
His comment may not add much to the situation, but he’s making an effort to respond to the revelation coming at him.
What about James and John? They’re up there too, but we don’t hear anything from them. They’re too scared to talk.
So what I’d like to us to take away from this episode is Peter’s example rather than James’s and John’s.
When revelation comes at us—when God shows up in a big way and it seems nothing but confusing—plunge in there like Peter and engage. Respond. Say something. Participate. It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what to do or say.
I learned that lesson for myself yesterday.
We had the St. Francis Women’s Retreat that I’ve been planning since November and thinking about for over a year.
I have to extend tremendous thanks to Megan Olson and Anne O’Leary for all their help planning and executing it, and to Father Davies, Pat, and Robert for talking me down off the ledge more than a few times in the last few weeks leading up to it.
I wanted so much for it to go well, to be meaningful for the women who would attend, that I just about drove myself crazy over it.
But then, yesterday morning, I was sitting in my apartment drinking my after-breakfast cup of tea and worrying about the retreat which was due to start in a couple of hours.
And a message arose within me: “Trust the community.”
It wasn’t my retreat, it was their retreat, and I had to trust them to run with it and make it into something amazing.
And they did.
The St. Francis women yesterday–all thirty-three of them–unleashed a torrent of spiritual creativity that was truly astonishing, and watching the bonds of their relationships deepen and grow stronger was truly life-giving.
But I didn’t know all that was going to happen, and God didn’t give me any revelation yesterday that would really help me in any practical sense.
“Trust the community.” That’s all I got.
The revelation was essentially a further deprivation of security and comfort.
Let go of control. Have faith. Let things unfold as they will. Look outside yourself for grace and truth.
Trust the Body of Christ around you to be transfigured in shining clothes on the mountaintop.
And they were, right in the parish hall of St. Peter’s Church in Lebanon.
So where do you need revelation in your life?
What Epiphany are you still waiting on in these last few days before we hit Ash Wednesday?
Be careful what you pray for, because it turns out that revelation is much less like receiving a guidebook or a compass and much more like being dropped off in Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai with no money and no language skills and told, “Good luck!”
There is a lot of color and noise and possibility, but very little clarity or security.
And perhaps that is exactly what we need to be freer and more joyful disciples.
Perhaps that is exactly what we need to do Christ’s work in the world.
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