Sermon: “The Cloud of Unknowing” (Luke 9:28-36)


Last week, we heard the familiar and powerful words of 1 Corinthians 13—the Apostle Paul’s famous writing about love.

And I admit that over the last few days, I’ve had some of the words from that passage continuing to reverberate in my head.

In particular, I’ve found myself hearing the words near the end of the passage, when he writes:

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Co 13: 11-12).

You’ll recall that what he means there is that things that seem so important and impressive now are actually only a small part of a much larger picture.

From where we’re standing now, love may not seem like much, especially when we compare it to other things. Things like knowledge or like particular spiritual gifts known only to a few. But eventually we’ll see that love is far more important, far more enduring, and far more powerful than we could ever realize here. And available to us all.

Our vision of the world is partial—seeing through a mirror dimly—or even akin to a child’s vision—compared to what our vision will be in all its fullness and maturity one day before God. Then we will know for sure that what he says about love is true.

And so what’s been rattling around my head for the last few days is Paul’s image of that mirror—that mirror that we see through “dimly,” as he says.

I’m struck by this morning’s story from Luke’s gospel—the story of the Transfiguration—which is a story that is all about seeing Jesus uncloaked…or better yet, Jesus cloaked in all his glory…dazzling white…the Son of God…it’s a story about seeing him at last for who he really is, face to face.

We religious people are supposed to want that—the people driving by this church at this very moment hope of seeing God assume we’re in here, trying to work on.

Seeing God is supposed to be a big deal, right?

Paul promised it as a kind of coming confirmation of our hopes.

So you would think that these disciples with Jesus, there on the mountain, the crème de la crème, the key three, his hand-picked executive committee…you’d think they would be more on top of that, somehow.

That it would be more of a confirmation of what their faith, or that what each of their hearts had been telling them was true all along. That Jesus was not just some wonder-worker or sage teacher, but the Son of God himself, come at last.

You might expect a quiet fist-bump between them, or something, but not genuine astonishment. Not fear.

Now if you keep reading along in Luke’s gospel, it becomes clear that later on, the disciples eventually do get it—eventually, they do, indeed, have that “lightbulb” moment about Jesus when they can’t believe they hadn’t put it all together before.

But that’s not this moment.

And so part of what this morning’s Scripture is trying to say is that no matter how closely we may think we’re paying attention….no matter how carefully we try to work out how it all works…God always has this capacity to surprise us…to astonish us…to jump out when we least expect it.

In that same spirit, the other thing that I think we need to take away from this morning’s Scripture is that faith is not so much about finding certainty, but rather about learning to embrace mystery. And mystery is hard to embrace.

Remember what we’ve just heard.

When Peter sees Jesus in all his glory, speaking with Moses and Elijah, surprising as it is for him, he recovers quickly and says, “Great! This is amazing! Now we know where God’s great prophets dwell! Let’s build three churches, for starters.”

It’s all very pious of him, really.

But it’s then that the cloud overshadows them. It’s then that they hear the voice from heaven.

It turns out that God doesn’t want that.

What God wants is for them to listen to Jesus, which is actually much harder when you think about it.

Because when it comes to building a church, you know when you’ve finished the job. You know when it’s done. You finish the building, you hire Tony Izzi to handle the plowing, and that’s it. It’s done.

But when it comes to listening to Jesus, there is no such thing as being done.

There’s no point where it stops.

Because love doesn’t stop. Care doesn’t stop. Justice doesn’t stop. Serving the greater good doesn’t stop. Offering our talents to make the world a better place doesn’t stop.

These things take on new meanings. They lead us into new situations or entire new chapters of our lives. They bring us into relationship with new people.

The cloud descends, and what had seemed so crystal clear a moment before now becomes shrouded in mystery all over again. The way to be faithful and to see God in the work becomes something we need to discover in a whole new way.

It may even seem as if we’re back to seeing through a mirror dimly.

When that cloud descends, it can be hard to see. It can be hard to listen for Jesus all over again.

But time and time again, as we look back later, even at the hard times, we realize that it was so important we entered the cloud and were forced to wander for a while.

Because in that wandering, God surprised us in ways that, before too long, we can’t imagine living without.

This isn’t for everyone, I know.

I once went to a day long conference for teachers and one of the other conferees was actually wearing a t-shirt that said, “Oh boy another growth opportunity.”

So…yes, let’s not put a smiley face on how hard won some of our wisdom can turn out to be.

But this morning’s Gospel reminds us that what matters is not how rigidly we hold on to God, however much we might want to, and however deeply we may love God.

What matters is that quietly, mysteriously, God is holding on to us.

Now don’t get me wrong.

When it comes right down to it, I’m not that into uncertainty, myself.

When I was younger, for example, I couldn’t get very far in a new book before I had to read the last two or three pages, just so I could proceed with at least some sense of what was ahead.

I couldn’t stand that feeling of not knowing what was going to happen.

And even today, in those moments when I am challenged to walk once again into a cloud of uncertainty, my instinct is to try to look ahead—to read or study myself back onto terra firma.

What I’ve learned is that this only gets me so far. Because staying on terra firma is like trying to swim with one hand on the side of the pool at all times. It’s safe, but you don’t end up getting anywhere.

Others, of course, respond to uncertainty in their own familiar ways—usually with a tried and true way of reducing it. Even banishing it.

You probably know how it is you tend to do that. If you don’t, believe me, your spouse, your sister, your coworker, your doubles partner, or the morning cashiers at McDonalds would be happy to fill you in on exactly what it is you do. Try asking: there’s a way to start off Lent with a bang.

But the thing is that unless we learn to embrace uncertainty, we will never learn what it is to embrace mystery.

And mystery, like uncertainty, doesn’t lend itself to our preferred techniques or tendencies. But it is so often the making of us.

We talk about walking once again into the cloud. And the cloud into which we’re walking is the cloud of our own unknowing. Our own blind spots. Our own anxieties and insecurities.

So however it is—whatever it is you do to cope with your own insecurities, that’s something to pay attention to during Lent.

Because it isn’t that God is so intent on hiding. It’s that so often, we are. Even if we don’t mean to, we hide from God and from ourselves.

And yet, through it all, quietly, mysteriously, God holds onto us.

To our astonishment, God appears in places and in ways we’d least expect. And so often, it turns out that those are places and the ways that we most need to heal and to grow.

Transfiguration reminds us not only of God’s dazzling uncloaking in Jesus on that mountaintop.

It reminds us of our own clouded understanding, and the challenge of learning to look up, anyway, remembering the power of the sun to burn through the fog.

Transfiguration reminds us that God is out to surprise us constantly, and that as we learn to embrace mystery, it is God who draws us tighter into his embrace.



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