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The Big Picture


March 3, 2019 — Last Sunday After the Epiphany

Rev. Alison Quin

Today’s Readings:

The Big Picture

This week, I had the pleasure of accompanying my daughter and my son in law to an appointment for a sonogram of their baby at 24 weeks.  It is truly extraordinary to be able to see a baby in utero so clearly—to make out features, and hands and feet and leg muscles—to see him kicking and playing in there.

I think most of you know that the baby has some heart anomalies and so they are checking him every week to make sure he’s developing normally.  I’m happy to report, so far, so good!  He has a tilted heart but it is likely to be a benign variation.

The last time we were in that room was when the doctor first informed us that the baby had abnormalities and the pregnancy was high risk.  Needless to say, we were scared.  And what do we all do when we are scared about a medical issue?  We start Googling.

The mood was much lighter this time, and I was joking with the doctor that I had made up a new verse for Ecclesiastes:  there is a time to Google and a time to refrain from Googling.

The doctor laughed, but then to my surprise, he began talking about the Bible.  I don’t like the way Ecclesiastes ends, he said.  It’s too dark.  And he’s right.  Here’s how it ends:

And the dust returns to the earth as it once was,
    and the life breath returns to God who gave it.[v]
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
    all things are vanity!

I said, “I agree, it’s not exactly a happy ending, but it does allow for mystery.”  He said, “Yes, the book of Job allows for mystery as well. It never explains suffering.”

I said, “Only God understands why some things happen.”  And he said, “Yes, we are too small—some things are beyond our capacity to understand. Only God can see the whole picture.  All we can do in the face of mystery is put our trust in God.”

The story of the Transfiguration is about the big picture—the mystery of God and God’s purposes.   For a brief shining moment, Jesus catches sight of the big picture of God’s plan of salvation.  Even the three disciples who are with him, who don’t really know what’s going on, catch a glimpse—an experience they would remember for the rest of their lives.

Jesus, Peter, James and John climb up the mountain in order to pray.  Right from the beginning, we have a clue that something extraordinary is going to happen, because Luke tells us that they went up the mountain eight days after Jesus had predicted his death for the first time.  Eight days was significant in early Christian tradition. The New Testament says that Jesus was raised on the first day of the week, meaning Sunday, but the early church referred to it as the eighth day, the day of the Lord, to signify the beginning of a brand new era.  The seven days of the week represent time as we know it, but the eighth day represents a break with time—something brand new has arrived. As one commentator writes:  “Christ rose on the first day, i.e. on the day of the beginning of creation, because He restores creation after sin. But this day which concludes the history of salvation, the day of victory over the forces of evil, is also the eighth day, since it is the beginning of the New Aeon.” [1]

While he is on the mountain praying, Jesus’ face is suddenly radiant.  Even his clothes are dazzling.  This too alludes to the resurrection—after he is raised from the dead, Jesus will appear to the disciples transformed.  They won’t even recognize him at first.  The transfiguration prefigures Jesus’ resurrection.

Suddenly, on that mountain, they saw Moses and Elijah, symbols of Israel’s rich history with God.  Moses represents the exodus, when God freed his people from slavery and entered into a covenant with them.  Elijah represents the prophets, who were sent over the centuries to call Israel back to faithfulness and comfort them when they were oppressed.

Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about his impending departure, which he will accomplish in Jerusalem—they are talking about his death.  The word departure in Greek is “exodus” and the allusion is intentional.  Jesus’ death and resurrection will free people from the bonds of sin and fear and death just as God liberated Israel from slavery.

Just for a moment, there on that mountain, past and present and future came together.  Life and death, suffering and redemption, heaven and earth, God and humankind—all the pieces revealed to be part of a greater whole that becomes visible for a single, radiant moment. The disciples, even though they were heavy with sleep, managed to stay awake and catch a glimpse.  They must have been overwhelmed and humble to catch sight of the divine mystery unveiled for a brief moment, even if they could hardly understand it.

God gives us such moments of grace—sudden glimpses of the big picture.  For a moment, we see that all things are part of a greater whole, held together by God’s love.

Then, the moment fades just as it did for Jesus and the disciples.  Then it is time to go back down the mountain and wrestle with daily life. Jesus and the three disciples came back down the mountain and Jesus immediately had to deal with faithless disciples who were unable to heal a little boy with seizures.  He is clearly frustrated:  “You faithless and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”

But despite his frustration, he was faithful.  He healed the child, he continued to bear with the disciples, to carry out his ministry.  And he turned toward Jerusalem, to begin the journey that would lead to his death.  He trusted that God knew the big picture, even when he didn’t.

In the rhythm of our spiritual lives, we too have to come down the mountain to deal with life’s daily challenges and struggles.  Can we follow Jesus in trusting God with the big picture?  Can we be faithful in carrying out the work God has given us to do? Can we carry some of the light we have been given into our daily lives?

The final word in the transfiguration account is God’s voice saying from the cloud: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

When we are frustrated with our selves or others, listen to him.  When we are tempted to be cynical or despair at the state of the world, listen to him.  When we falter in trusting God, listen to him.  He shows us that there is a bigger picture—all things are held together by God’s love, and all things are being saved and brought to their fulfillment.

Take the light of that bright vision with you everywhere you go.

[1] Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

On the Origins of Worship on Sunday:  The Mystery of the Eighth Day*

From Chapter Two of Introduction to Liturgical Theology

(St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY; 2d ed.

1975): pp. 59-67,70.

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