As an amateur photographer, I have a great love for images. Images are very powerful. Certain images can stay with one for a lifetime.
Some because they are so disturbing: a white girl with a contorted face screaming at a black girl during the Little Rock schools integration, the naked napalm girl from the Vietnam War, the falling man from 2001.
Some because they are fun: Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate, Einstein with his tongue stuck out, Beyonce photobombing a fan’s selfie at a concert.
Some because they are inspiring: the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, Rosie the Riveter, Pope Francis embracing a disfigured man.
Today we are presented with another image. The transfiguration of Jesus. We are given this image every year at this time.
This is the last Sunday in the season after the Epiphany, during which we have been considering the theme of illumination, of the light that shines in the darkness, the light of the world, on a lamp stand giving light to the whole house, the light we are to reflect as we join in God’s mission.
So today we have this image of Jesus, filled and shining with all of the light that has been gathering throughout this season, where we see as much light as we can stand, so much light that it should knock us down in wonder and awe and yes, even a little fear.
And we have the disciples, realizing they are in the presence of the holy, falling to the ground, for the holy is so powerful it can be dangerous.
This unmistakably holy vision and holy moment, shining with heavenly light, Jesus with his face like the sun, is held up like a beacon before us today as it is every year.
And why today?
Because it is an image meant to sustain us as we head into the wilderness of Lent, which begins this Wednesday. To remind us who is all powerful, infused with the glory of God Almighty, just as it was to sustain the disciples as they headed into the part of Jesus’ journey that would end with a much more disturbing vision, the sight of Jesus dying on the cross.
The transfiguration affirms Jesus’ identity, his divinity. We see the light and the glory. And that light and glory is there to sustain us when things begin to get dark. When life turns the wrong way. When the clear air of the mountain gives way to the confusing noise of the world that calls us this way and that way but not God’s way.
In Exodus, God is located in the tabernacle and on the mountain. In the Gospels, God is located in Jesus. No longer hidden in a cloud, God has come to us as one of us and yet still is God. This is the image we are to carry with us into Lent.
But it isn’t just a vision, as powerful as that vision is. There is also the audio that goes with this holy scene. It’s the sound of God’s own confession. God says, Look! This is my son the beloved! Listen to him!
Since we are at the edge of the season of Lent, Jesus is about to go into the wilderness, and we are invited to join him there as a spiritual discipline. The wilderness is not a peaceful place. There’s lots going on in the wilderness, but much of it can be threatening. Snakes and bears and desert, no water at all or else raging rivers with no lifeguards, woods with no cell reception. Expanses of wild beauty and barren wastelands. There are sounds in the wilderness, too - not only chirping and trickling but keening and howling and hissing.
Now maybe you don’t think of Lent in that way. Or maybe you think of all of life that way - a journey into and hopefully through a place that is confusing and full of all kinds of sounds that are hard to decipher. But here is this audio and video for us: Jesus infused with as much of God’s power as we can stand and God’s voice, louder than all the other sounds in the world, saying, Look! This is my Son! Listen to him.
Listen to Jesus instead of those other voices that tempt us. Voices that try to sell us hate as “freedom” and fear as justification for violence. Voices that assert that some lives are worth nothing and whole groups of people need not be treated with dignity. Voices that tempt us to create golden calves from our own stuff and then to worship it, just as the people did while Moses was up on that mountain with God for 40 days and 40 nights.
Have I made Lent sound scary to you now? Couldn’t we just give up chocolate and that would be enough? Well, wait, there’s more as they say on TV. Let me add another detail and another dimension to this image with voice over to make it complete - a simple and loving touch.
Jesus goes to his disciples who are afraid, overwhelmed by this experience, bewildered, and he touches them. He touches them to reassure them of his love and of his presence. He is after all Emmanuel, God with Us. The disciples have seen something terrifying, and they are soon going to see something very disturbing, and in between they are going to see things that are just confusing, so he comes to them where they are, lying there on the ground, and touches them and tells them to be not afraid.
Maybe Lent is just a practice for you this year. That’s ok. It’s good to practice and to have practices. Or maybe your life is messy and confusing. Maybe you are being crushed by something that makes your life a wilderness right now. Maybe you are just skating on the surface and whistling in the dark. Wherever you are, God is inviting you to take this image with you, to take that heavenly voice with you and the knowledge that God will be present with you so that you can, when it comes your time to do so be it during Lent or any other time, because of school or unemployment or illness or family stuff or whatever, so that you can look upon it and find both strength and comfort.
So let this image stay with you. Jesus overflowing with God’s light and power, awesome and mysterious and wondrous.
Let this voice stay with you: Look! Listen to him and not to hate and greed and fear!
Let this touch stay with you: the bread of heaven, in your outstretched palm; a fragrant chalice on your lips; a hand on your shoulder or on your head in blessing.
Let this multi-dimensional scene be an icon for you and let its power give you both strength and peace, let it inspire you to really listen to and for the voice of Jesus, now and tomorrow and next week and for a lifetime.