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Flesh Made Flame

Mark 9:2-9

Mark 9:2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

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When I read this week’s Scripture I couldn’t help but remember a story from a collection of wisdom called The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: There were two monks living in the wilderness, Father Lot and Father Joseph. Father Lot went to Father Joseph one day and said, “Abba as best as I can, I say my little worship service, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as best as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Father Joseph looked at him for a moment, then stood up and stretched his hands to the heavens and said, If you desire, you can become all flame, and his fingers turned to fire and burned like candles, but they were not consumed.

This bizarre little story comes out of an ancient tradition that God is like a great fire—living and moving and beautiful and dangerous—and if that’s the case, then holiness, becoming more like God, means catching fire ourselves.

In our Scripture this morning, when Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain to be transfigured, to show us who he really is, this is exactly what we see happen. As Mark grasps for words to describe what they saw, he uses imagery that over the generations has reminded many of fire: And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. Jesus becomes white hot like the very heart of a fire, like the sun if you dare to look directly into it.

At the Transfiguration, Jesus burns and is not consumed. So in that moment we see the truth of his life, that he is like the burning bush in Exodus, divinity as fire and humanity as kindling joined together in one person so that God can catch our eye in the middle of this dusty world.

It’s really too bad that most of us have come to associate flames with hell and torment. Fire can be destructive and painful, but it can also make things new, it can burn away things we don’t need and leave behind what’s precious. Fire is beautiful. In the Bible, it’s even an image for God’s love, as Solomon tells us in Song of Songs, Love burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame, many rivers cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. God burns with love for creation, and so God guides the people of Israel as a pillar of flame, God’s Spirit comes upon the early Christians in tongues of fire. During the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah come to meet Jesus: Moses, who met God smoldering on Mt. Horeb and Elijah who called down God’s fire on the offering atop Mt. Carmel. These two figures who meet Jesus, the teacher and the prophet, have gone up the mountain to meet God in the fire before and they do the same thing with Jesus here. Jesus is the fire of God’s love made flesh. 

If you can’t tell, I’m a bit of a pyromaniac. I’ve always loved building fires, cooking with them, sitting next to them on a chilly night with friends, watching the flames dance and hearing the coals crackle. It’s fascinating to me, the way that dead sticks can become something so beautiful as they burn and turn to coals. If you’d never seen a fire before, you’d never look at a pile of dried wood and think it could be transformed into something so wonderful. But that’s how God works. God made the world so that the ordinary stuff of our lives, which we might not think much of at all, could take on the glow and the warmth of God’s love. In Jesus, God takes on flesh to show us the way to God, but also to show us the possibilities for flesh, that the ordinary stuff of our lives—our eating, our washing, our resting, our work—can glow with the beauty of God’s love.

Of course, we don’t always see our lives in those terms. If there is a fire at the heart of our lives, often it seems to be banked in ash. Other concerns cover it, maybe even smother it.

When Jesus is transfigured before the disciples, Peter responds, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” On the surface of it, this might sound like Peter is trying to honor the three of them as best he can. We’ll make dwellings, Temples, that are worthy of your glory…But really, Peter’s talking to fill the silence because he doesn’t really know what to say. He, James, and John are terrified. And out of his fear, even while hoping to honor Jesus, Peter can’t help but try to cover up the glory in front of him. Get it behind doors, under wraps. Put it somewhere so I know where it is, and then I don’t have to worry about it being anywhere else. Jesus you go to your proper place, and Moses and Elijah, you do the same. Peter wants to take the light of the world and put it under a bushel.

The Transfiguration is scary. The fire of God’s love is dangerous because it’s unpredictable. Once it gets going it might catch anything, even things we’d rather hold onto. When you read the Gospels you realize pretty quickly that Jesus has this habit of telling the rich to give away the things they love, of challenging the most deeply held stories we tell about ourselves. So it’s best to keep Jesus in his dwelling, divide life into spheres where you’ve got the God stuff in it’s dwelling place, the family stuff over here, the money stuff here, politics here, science here, work here. Even if occasionally they rub up against each other, each area of life goes in its separate dwelling. Each sphere has it’s own rules that are supreme on their own turf. In church, there’s grace, forgiveness, we turn the other cheek and the meek inherit the earth; but out there, it’s nature, survival of the fittest with the spoils going to the victor. Nature and grace, church and world, individual and society, flame and ash, all the world divvied up into bits we can manage.

Kept in its own dwelling, faith becomes a private matter, an individual feeling, and it’s not supposed to have any bearing on the other spheres, your politics or your economics or the way you do your job (except that you’re supposed to do it “well”). Those day to day matters eventually become like the ash that hides the fire. I remember when I was in high school, we would go on retreats or mission trips and there would be these exhilarating moments of spiritual awareness, but then a couple of days later, when we were back home we’d always find ourselves wondering where that “spiritual high” had gone. There was this sense that ordinary life, our daily routines, the alternations of work and rest, choke out faith. Real faith shows itself in these special times when day to day life gets put on pause.

When faith is sequestered in its own sphere, it’s own dwelling, everything else becomes a distraction, a burden, a worry, rather than another opportunity to know God’s love and to love our neighbors in turn. The stuff of this world chokes out the fire instead of giving it fuel. As we’ll say to each other on Wednesday, From dust you have come and to dust you will return.

Now, I don’t want to ignore the fact that there are times when our lives take on an ashen character, when it’s hard to imagine anything truly lovely or beautiful coming up from the fear, the grief, the sadness, the shear monotony of some seasons. But my friends, ash can preserve flames as well as choke them. The driest tinder is the best for building a new fire. The stuff of this world, that some days weigsh on us so heavily, can become the very source of a new flame. The ordinary can quite unexpectedly, in the twinkling of an eye, flash like fire.

When Peter suggests hiding Jesus’ glowing body in its own dwelling, a shadow passes over the mountain, and the voice of God sounds from the heavens, This is my son, the Beloved; listen to him. Peter, O Peter, stop talking for a second and listen. You’re looking at my Son, the one I love and through whom I show my love for the whole world. Listen to what he has to say. You’re trying to make a dwelling for him but he’s saying The Kingdom of God is at hand, a kingdom that knows no dwellings, borders, or boundaries! A kingdom that comes to you like a mustard seed, like the leaven your mom used to make your bread, like a lamp in the corner of your room. Don’t hide the lamp.

These distinctions between sacred and secular, nature and grace, are really our own invention. God’s kingdom doesn’t ask holiness and beauty to stay in their proper places, but asks us to practice faith in the ordinary matter of our days.

This scene, with God calling Jesus the beloved Son takes us back to Jesus’ baptism when God said the very same thing. John baptized with water and Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t mean we stop baptizing with water. The Spirit hovers over the waters so that after you’ve been baptized all the water in the world takes on new meaning, in some dim way connected to its baptismal possibilities. Jesus comes to us in the flesh and gives his flesh and blood to us in the bread and the cup so that we know God in those ordinary vessels, and in some dim way every other meal is a moment of eucharist, thanksgiving. Our lives aren’t divvied up into faith and everything else, but all can be one just as God and humanity are one in Jesus. From dust we have come and to dust we shall return but beneath all the dust, the fire burns still.

So my friends, as you go about your week, be on the watch for flashes of flame among the ashes. Whether you are at work, or the doctor, at the gym, in the store, getting the newspaper in your socks and robe, getting splashed by a vaguely baptismal puddle or eating a meal in the cafeteria, keep watch! Jesus doesn’t stay in safe dwelling places but might be anywhere in the world. Don’t let your heart grow cold and grey to the possibilities of the ordinary stuff in your life. Look for God there because there is nowhere that God is not present, there is no matter that God cannot transfigure. Say your prayers, fast, and come to church, eat and drink and bathe, go about your business ever mindful that if you will it, you too can become all flame. Amen.

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