Transfiguration C sermon
February 7, 2016
Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Keep Calm and Carry On.”
This is a slogan that began appearing in recent years on everything from posters to coffee mugs. Traditionally the message is printed in neat, white lettering on a red background, and there’s a little crown on the top. How many of you have seen something like that?
When I first began to notice Keep Calm and Carry On appearing all over the place, I had no idea what was going on. It turns out that the slogan was originally printed on thousands of British motivational poster from 1939, printed and kept by to be posted in the event of an air raid. One of the original posters was unearthed in 2000, and sparked a revival…and parodies. Now, in addition to your “Keep Calm and Carry On” wall hanging, you can have doppelgangers reading:
Keep Calm and Dream Big.
Keep Calm and Drink Tea.
Keep Calm and Have a Cupcake.
I confess that I don’t fully understand all the aspects of the parodies—but I couldn’t help but have the slogan leap to mind as I read through today’s scripture readings.
Take, for example, the people of the Exodus in our first reading, assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai. How did they get there? It started with God’s great and wondrous and terrifying determination to free them from slavery, beginning with plagues and peaking with a pillar of clouds and fire and a parting of the seas. “Keep Calm and Carry On” could have been the mantra thundering through heaven as the people of Israel passed through the Red Sea with unmoistened foot.
Then the people get across the sea, and the dynamic changes. The Israelites, who have only ever known slavery, are thrust out into the wilderness, and they do not like it. Every time the going got rough, they cried out in complaint, and God, with varying degrees of patience, answered their needs. Keep Calm and Carry On.
Eventually, the Israelites carry on all the way to Mt. Sinai, and God tells Moses it’s time for the people to finally meet God. So God speaks to the Israelites from the mountain…and instead of excitement and rejoicing, the people tell Moses that God scares them, and please could they not talk directly to God ever again. So Moses goes up the mountain to talk with God. And in the meantime, he tells the people, “Keep Calm, and Carry On.”
But the people don’t. Moses is gone for forty days and forty nights, and while he’s gone, the people get antsy. And they build for themselves a golden calf. A god that they don’t mind looking at. One that doesn’t scare them.
God sees all of this, and is understandably upset. God just want to wipe everyone out and start over again with just Moses, but Moses asks God to reconsider. And in response, God gives Moses the tablets of the law, and a new covenant. God does start over, but remarkably, decides to do it with the same stiff-necked people that there were before. This new start isn’t for God, but for God’s chosen people.
And Moses, equipped with that good news, and with the tablets, and oh, by the way, with a face that shines—though he doesn’t know it—comes down from the mountain.
And the people? The people are terrified.
In that moment when his own people turned away from him in fear, perhaps Moses knew just a little bit about the pain in God’s own heart.
So Moses, in order to keep the calm and let the people carry on, gets a veil, and wears it to cover the shining skin of his face. And apparently, this works, in spite of the fact that the people still knew full well what was going on under that veil.
But this is also true: in the midst of a people whose God commanded that no graven images be made; in the midst of a people who were afraid to stand in God’s presence, God’s presence walked among them anyway, in a way that they could tolerate. God, whose brilliance was so powerful that it could not be looked upon directly, made Godself smaller, and smaller, and less frightening, and less, until at last, God consented to let divine light be hidden beneath a veil, just so that God could be among the people anyway; obscured, but still shining.
Does that remind you of anything?
Might it remind you, perhaps, of time that God entered the world in the form of the baby of a poor family, born in Bethlehem, laid in a manger?
I once heard a theologian say that the gift of Christmas is so wonderful and so complicated that it takes the entire season of Epiphany to unwrap. We begin with the baby in the manger, and then gather Sunday after Sunday to hear the stories of little revelations: the magi and the star; the water into wine; the Holy Spirit at the river—until finally we arrived at today, and take off the last layer of wrapping, the last veil, and see Christ shining on the mountaintop.
But then, in a rather strange twist, everything goes dark again.
Here on the mountaintop, the disciples see Jesus as the Son of God, the one who fulfills the law brought by Moses and completes the prophecies told by prophets like Elijah. He is glorious. He is God.
And the disciples think, this is as good as it gets. Let’s stay here forever.
But then out of nowhere comes this huge bank of clouds, rolling and roiling toward the disciples in what is quite clearly a not-normal way, and they are terrified. And the cloud rolls over them, and they’re surrounded the grayness of fog. They peer toward the light of glory that was Jesus, and it grows dimmer and dimmer as the fog grows thicker and thicker until there is darkness, impenetrable darkness all around. And in the midst of that darkness, a voice speaks, seeming to come from all around them, from the air, from the ground, from inside their own heads, and it pronounces an epiphany to cap them all: “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.”
And suddenly, the fog lifts, and there’s Jesus, standing there alone, looking the same as he ever did. And he just smiles at the disciples like nothing has happened, and starts walking down the mountain, down to the demon-possessed boy and his panicked father, down to the perverse and faithless generations who don’t see the glory lying just beneath that human skin, down to the path that will lead to the cross.
Keep Calm and Carry On.
What happened up on that mountaintop? Somehow, someway, God was equipping Jesus to go to Jerusalem.
And God was equipping the disciples too. They came down off that mountain different because of what they had seen. Before they walked by faith: now they walked by sight. They knew what they had seen, and even if they didn’t fully understand it, they had been changed by it.
And maybe, like Moses, they didn’t even know that they were different. Maybe the reason the voice on the mountain spoke to them in the midst of a cloud was so that later, when a different darkness came over the earth, and the ground shook, and Jesus died, they would remember that revelations do happen in darkness. They would remember that even when the light is veiled—by Moses’ cloth, or Jesus’ flesh, or by the shroud of death—the light never stops shining. The darkness does not overcome it.
Keep Calm and Carry On.
Actually, in the wake of such a magnificent epiphany as the transfiguration, I find that “Keep Calm and Carry On” doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
May I suggest to you, people of God, that we try “Keep Calm and Listen to Jesus”?
It was God’s suggestion, after all—at least, the “listen to Jesus” part.
Actually, I’m not at all sure about the “Keep Calm” part. There are evils and ills in this world that can and should disturb our calm. So let’s add this caveat: If we keep calm, let it not be the kind of calm that comes with dispassionate living or determined apathy. Let it be the kind that stands at the foot of the cross, in the place where the world was breaking, and remembers what happened on the mountaintop, and is not shaken. Let it be the kind of stillness that comes because it is built on Christ, the Rock.
Let it be the kind of calm that quiets the voice of the world, so that we can listen more closely to Jesus’, in prayer, in silence, in meditation, in song. In the quiet moments before we fall asleep, in the frenzied moments of the workday. In the midst of peace, and in the midst of great injustice. Keep calm and Listen. Listen. Listen to Jesus.