Many years ago, my father and I took a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. We started at the peak of Mt. Mitchell, the highest place in the Eastern United States. We traversed a long saddleback ridge to a nearby peak. Not as tall as Mt. Mitchell but still looking down on the Appalachian range below. We camped that night, got up the next morning. The clouds had come low the night before, into the valleys and bottomlands, so that the peaks of the Blue Ridge emerged from a vast field of cloud, like an island chain in heaven. Everything was blue in the predawn light. The air was blue, the clouds were light blue. The trees on the mountains were deep indigo. And in the east, a trace of orange, with a flash of yellow dawn. It was glorious.
In the verses before our Old Testament lesson for today, Moses asks God to show him God’s glory. God says “No, I won’t show you my glory because if anybody looks at my face, they die.” It’s not because God gets mad at people for seeing God’s face and punishes them or anything like that. It’s simply because God is so much bigger than we are, so much more real than we will ever be, that we are knocked out of existence. So God says “I’ll tell you what, I’ll put you in a crack in the rock here, and cover you with my hand as I pass by so you don’t see my face. But after I pass by, you can see my back. So presumably that’s what happens. Moses hides in a crack in the rock. God covers Moses with God’s hand, walks by. Moses peeks out and sees God’s back. And his face shines from it. His face shines from seeing the glory of God’s back.
Have you ever seen anyone’s face shine? At a wedding, at a home-coming, when someone is holding a baby, when someone is taking a walk on a sunny afternoon. Glorious.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus brings Peter, James and John up on the mountain to pray. Prayer is a big deal in Luke. Thing about prayer is that when we pray something happens. It’s not always what we pray for or what we want or even what we expect. But prayer changes things. In this case, while they’re praying, the appearance of Jesus’ face is transformed, and his clothes become dazzling white. The Greek here doesn’t just mean bright fabric. It is the brightness of a lightning bolt, the brightness of the sun. It leaves an afterimage on the back of your eye. You can’t look at it except for only a bare second. Glorious.
And now Moses and Elijah are standing there talking with him. These towering figures from Israel’s past and identity. It would be as if Jesus were talking with Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. It would be as if Jesus were talking with Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa or Harriet Tubman and Mohandas Gandhi, somebody like that, somebody glorious.
They are talking about Jesus’s departure, which he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem. In other words, they’re talking about Jesus death on the cross, and resurrection and ascension. They are talking about his glory.
Matthew, Mark and Luke, all three tell this story. In all three, Jesus gives what we call his first passion prediction immediately before he brings Peter, James and John up on the mountain. He says “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Very soon after this account of Jesus’ glory, he predicts his passion again. The Gospel of John does not include the transfiguration, but it is enchanted with Jesus’s glory. In chapter one of John, it says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” Remember what happens when we see God’s glory? We are annihilated. And yet, in Jesus, “We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Later, Jesus is in Jerusalem and he says “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” He is talking about the cross.
No wonder God’s glory knocks us out of existence. It is so very, utterly, completely outside anything we understand or know. God’s glory appears at the cross, an instrument of humiliation and torture and execution. God suffers humiliation and torture and execution not because we are worth it. Not because we are righteous, but because God loves us. Period.
All true glory comes from love. What makes the super bowl glorious? Is it the cheering crowds and the millions of viewers? I don’t think so. Is it the hype and the money? I think those are motivating factors, but quite frankly they get in the way too. What is glorious about the super bowl? Doesn’t it come from these people in this moment putting everything they are into this run, this throw, this catch this block, as a team. And more than a team, to be an athlete, to push beyond the limitations that you thought you had and on into the dreams God has for you. To inspire others to push beyond the limitations they think they have and on into the dreams God has for them. That is the gift of an athlete. That is the glory.
Standing on an overlook near Mount Mitchell, with the Blue Ridge Mountain peaks stretching out beneath you to the horizon like a string of islands in a sea of sky, a sea of heaven. Is it glorious because it’s pretty? Cause you could take a picture of it? I don’t think so. It is glorious because we are tiny and mortal and human in a vast universe of wonder, because we are also part of that universe, breathing its cool dawn air, standing on its rocky soil. This beauty is greater than we are, and we will give of ourselves for it. Give deeply.
Because we love it.
Being an athlete is a worthy thing to love. Creation is a worthy thing to love. Jesus comes to us at the cross even when we are not worthy, because Jesus loves us, even when we are not worthy. That is glory.