All their lives they had heard the stories: how when Moses came down from the mountain after 40 days of talking with God, his face shone bright as the sun, and how the prophet Elijah had been lifted up into heaven on a chariot of fire.
Peter, James, and John had heard these stories of human glory—and they had probably even heard that line in the eighth Psalm that says God has crowned humanity with glory and honor.
But they’d never seen anything close to human glory with their own eyes, and they’d surely never thought of themselves as being crowned with anything—much less glory and honor. They were fishermen, after all, simple people living and struggling in the backwater of Galilee, focused on little more and nothing less than getting one day’s food on the table and then the next day’s and the next’s.
What did glory have to do with them? Nothing they could see or even imagine.
And where was the glory of God? Surrounded as they were by the oppressive power of the occupying Roman forces and exhausted by the daily realities of poverty, they hardly gave it a second thought. Oh, sure, they probably believed in it—they were good Jews, after all—but on the rare occasions they had time to think about it (maybe on the sabbath and in the synagogue), they most likely considered it to be something far away and unattainable. They might even have been afraid of it.
And then one morning, their teacher Jesus invited them to hike up the mountain to pray. Honestly? They would have been happy to sleep in. But Jesus had been acting a little odd lately—talking about suffering and dying and all manner of depressing stuff—and he’d never taken them before on his regular prayer retreats, so they decided to go along. And, besides, the invitation made them feel special.
So up the mountain they went.
It would not be the last time they would have trouble staying awake while Jesus prayed, but this time—well, they could hardly believe their eyes.
Now, I can’t explain or even begin to understand exactly what happened up there—except to say that they had a true mountain-top experience. They got a glimpse of God’s glory in Jesus, the guy from just down the road in Nazareth who was also a beloved child of God. They heard a voice calling Jesus the Chosen One and telling them to listen to him. They saw flashes of light and then were enveloped in a cloud.
I find it interesting that the transfiguration—or transformation, if you prefer—happened as Jesus was praying, which is to say: when he opened his heart to the Spirit, when he put his whole self in the path of Love and Light.
We tend to think of The Transfiguration as a singular event, something so exceptional that we devote an entire Sunday to it every year. It comes at the end of Epiphany, the season of revealing, and just before Lent, sometimes described as a long walk with Jesus through the valley of human suffering and onto the cross.
But I can’t help but wonder if something similarly transformative happened almost every time Jesus went away to pray—every time he put aside his fears and doubts and asked to be made a pure channel of God’s glorious, wonder-working power.
I can’t help but wonder if Jesus invited his friends to experience these glimpses of glory in the hope that they would understand that they, too, were made for this. That they, like all of us, are made for glory.
Yes, I realize this sounds kind of far-fetched and maybe even a little New Age-y. And yet it’s right there in our scriptures: how we were made in the image of the God of love and glory, how God’s inherent glory—praise, honor, and beauty—is conferred on us by our Creator, in whose image we are made.
Granted, it’s a lot to take in. Even the psalmist has a hard time wrapping his head around it. Praising the majesty and sovereignty of God as reflected in the moon and stars and all creation, he asks, “So what are we, mere mortals, that you care for us?”
And yet the answer is clear: You have made us just a little lower than yourself; you have crowned (or adorned) us with glory and honor; you have put us at the center of your plan for loving all creation into wholeness; you, Sovereign God, have also given us sovereignty—which is a fancy world for authority and power—and made us your partners in loving and caring for all creation.
As I said, it’s a lot to take in—especially when life is constantly reminding us of our limitations, especially when we have made a mess of so many things God has given us responsibility for.
And yet this is who we are what we are made for, what our sacred purpose is—which is, I think, different from what we do. Actually, I would go so far as to say that until we more fully embrace and live into the truth and freedom of who we are and what we were made for, we will continue to focus more on doing than being and, as a result, regularly fail and, end up exhausted by, what we think we should do.
The apostle Paul said as much in his letter to the Romans, when he explained that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We fall short of glory in part because we too often forget that we are in partnership with God. Instead, we put ourselves at the center of the universe and at the top of the created order, leaving God out of the picture altogether.
I realize that it might seem audacious of me to speak of human glory even as a Russian madman and his military do their best to pillage and destroy another nation and its people. It might seem absurd that I’m speaking of humans being made for glory when the governor of Texas has embarked on yet another effort to criminalize the actions of those who would help some people—in this case transgender children—become their true selves. It might seem ironic to speak of humans being crowned with glory when so many Americans believe it is their right to go unvaccinated and unmasked, rather than their privilege to protect their neighbors.
I get it, believe me. These tensions speak to the paradox that lies at the center of our faith: that an all powerful, all-sovereign God would choose to partner with us, would freely bestow glory and honor upon us, and then, when we make a mess of things, take on human limitation and suffering to restore us to our God-given purpose and empower us to live into our original blessing.
(I’m going to say that again: Our all-powerful, all-sovereign God chose to partner with us, freely bestowed glory and honor upon us, and then, even after we had made a mess of things, took on human limitation and suffering to restore us to our God-given purpose and empower us to live into our original blessing.)
The violence, hatred, and division in the world and within our own selves cry out for a people and a church who live and minister out of a deep and joyful awareness of who God has made them to be and what God has made them for. God’s transforming love invites us—as individuals and as a church—to embrace the gift of our God-given glory and to discern our sacred purpose in this time and place.
Consider yourselves crowned, beloveds. Know that you and all humanity are created in love and for love, ranking just a little below God and the angels but with everything we are and do derived from and dependent on that love.
This Wednesday evening we will set aside our crowns long enough to remember that God has made us both great and small, that we come from dust and will return to dust before we rise once and for all in power and glory. I hope you will join us for our Ash Wednesday service and then continue on our Lenten journey together into new life, purpose, and meaning.