In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The lights are out. Maybe this has happened to you: you wake up in the middle of the night, and there’s a brief moment of panic because you can’t see anything at all. The power’s out. No light anywhere. And you realize in that moment how much you take for granted even the smallest lights: glowing numbers on a clock-face, or the streetlight shining in through the slats in the blinds, or the nightlight in the children’s bedroom. And you also realize that we are rarely, rarely completely in the dark. Even when we think it’s dark, it’s really not. You also notice how long a night can seem when the power’s out, especially if it goes out before the sun goes down. When the sun goes down, it’s dark. You might light some candles or turn on a flashlight, and the light sort of draws everyone in toward it, until their faces are glowing in the light. But there’s not much you can do by candlelight, so pretty soon, one by one, everyone goes to sleep, to wait for the morning.
St. Peter says that the prophetic word is like a lamp shining in a dark place, around which people gather until the day dawns. The prophetic word, which points to Christ, which speaks of Christ, is a sure thing. The word is the thing to which people should pay attention, around which they should gather in the darkness. This from Peter! Who was an eyewitness to what happened on the mountain, where Jesus’ face shone like the sun, so bright you couldn’t look at it; who heard with his own ears the voice of God speaking from the cloud: “This is My Son, the Beloved, with Whom I am well-pleased. Listen to Him.” The voice that terrified Peter, James, and John, so that they fell on their faces.
Peter says that this word is made sure, but not by the Transfiguration. It is made sure because Jesus is risen from the dead. He had commanded them not to tell anyone the vision until the Son of Man was raised from the dead. And now Peter’s telling it, but he’s not telling it so that people will trust the vision. He tells it so that will people will trust the Word to which even the vision testifies: the Word made flesh. Sometimes, to our poor eyes, the prophetic word seems to flicker. We have only its promises to hold onto, its glimpses of the coming dawn. And imagine Israel, gathered around that word in the darkness of idolatry that surrounded them, in spite of the darkness within them, and waiting, waiting. It is hard to wait through the night with only a single lamp, and some fell away. But others kept being drawn to the light, until it reflected off their faces. It was hard for them to wait, but that lamp in the darkness, that prophetic word, made them long all the more for the coming morning.
And, finally, the morning dawned. Peter, James, and John saw it in all its glory; they saw the day break in the person of Jesus. But only for a moment. In an instant, they were on their faces, and the light was gone—or so it seemed. Jesus came to them and touched them, and said, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, it was just Jesus—no longer shining, no longer bright, but in His old clothes. Jesus, Himself, only. Now: wherever Moses speaks, wherever Elijah speaks, wherever the prophets and the psalms—the entire Scriptures—speak, they hear Jesus only (John 5:39-40 et al.).
And then they went back down the mountain, as we, in a sense, are doing this week. We have reached the height of Epiphany—of Jesus revealing Himself—with the Transfiguration. Now the alleluias are going to be extinguished, and the white is going to be darkened into violet. We’re going with Jesus back down into the valley, as He makes His way always toward Jerusalem; down one mountain, into the valley, only to go back up another mountain—God’s mountain—where the disciples would once again see Jesus Himself alone, alone on the cross. In all that darkness, Jesus shines again—but the glory of this God is strange and dark, a crucified glory. But the cross has always been the goal of Jesus’ glory. He had said it to Peter just before they went up on the mountain. Jesus shines in the middle of darkness: the darkness of our petty squabbles, our flesh-bound desires, our weakness, our idolatry, our suffering. On the mountain of the skull, the Father who spoke at Jesus’ baptism and at His transfiguration would turn His face away from His Son. But not before He said, “This is My Son, the Beloved, with Whom I am well-pleased. Listen to Him. Listen to Him.”
Listen to Him as He goes out into the wilderness to destroy the devil’s kingdom with a word; listen to Him as He speaks the word of life to Nicodemus about being born from above by water and the Spirit; listen to Him as sits by a well and gives living water to a woman who’s been drinking only dust; listen to Him as He speaks a blind man into sight and worship; listen to Him as He calls Lazarus from the tomb; listen to Him as enters the city of God triumphantly—on a donkey, triumphantly to die; listen to Him as He hangs alone on the cross; listen to the the silence, as He rests on the seventh day after the completion of His work; listen to Him on the eighth day, in His new creation, as He says, “Do not be afraid; I was dead, but I am alive forever.” And listen to Him today, the Jesus who put His hand on your wet head and said, “Rise, do not be afraid;” listen as He forgives your sins; as He says, “This bread is My Body and this wine is My Blood, and it’s all for you.”
Listen to Him, because He is the prophetic word made flesh. He is the Light shining in the dark world, made absolutely sure by His resurrection. It is hard to wait through a long night, and sometimes we take for granted the light we have been given; sometimes people drift from the light. But it is never completely dark. He is here, drawing all people to Himself, gathering us around Himself, until our faces shine with His light in the world, making us long all the more for the morning to dawn. Even now, Christ, the Light, still shines, as He promised never to leave His little Church. One by one, we will all go to sleep, but not without hope. We sleep in the joyful rest of Jesus until the morning breaks—until the Day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts; until Jesus comes to us and puts His burning Hand on our cold and decaying bones, and says, “Rise! Do not be afraid!” And we will look on Him with new eyes, dirt still dropping from our newborn flesh, and we will see Jesus Himself, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. And then, then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Reign of their Father, shining with the brightness of the morning star, sharing in the resurrected glory of Christ.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/23/17