Endless Forms Most Beautiful
A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 11, 2018
Text: Mark 9:2-10
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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 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.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.
9As 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. 10So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
“Peter, James, and John followed Jesus up a mountain and there experienced his transfiguration. This uncreated light surrounded Jesus – the very light of God illuminating his form and consciousness. The story is told to confirm Jesus’ unique identity and purpose.
From an evolutionary perspective, the entire universe is a transfiguration. All life on our planet began as a simple cell, and from this relative simplicity emerged what Charles Darwin called ‘endless forms most beautiful.’ All that we see around us, including our own bodies and minds, are transfigurations of the originating Fireball. The entire universe is an ongoing transfiguration of the light and heat of the big bang 13.7 billion years ago. On the mountaintop, then, we can think of Jesus being bathed in uncreated light as the spiritual dimension of an evolutionary transfiguration that never ends.”
Bruce Sanguin, If Darwin Prayed
As we have already noted, today is “Transfiguration Sunday.” It’s a Sunday that functions as a sort of lesser sibling to “Reign of Christ Sunday.” Each serves in a similar role – to mark the transition from one liturgical season to another. “Reign of Christ Sunday” is actually the final Sunday of the liturgical year. It is the culmination of the annual journey with Jesus from beginning to end. The Sunday after it is the first Sunday of Advent and a new liturgical year commences. “Transfiguration Sunday” comes at the end of the Epiphany season. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent. Each of these Sundays is meant to be a celebratory day before we enter into a time of reflection and taking stock as we prepare for the great celebration of Christmas and Easter, respectively.
So, here we are on the mountaintop with Jesus, sharing with Peter, James, and John the Transfiguration. But, really, just what is transfiguration? When you hear that word, what comes to mind? What does mean to you to be transfigured? The dictionary says to transfigure means “to change in outward form or appearance; to transform; to change so as to glorify or exalt; to change the appearance of a person or thing very much, usually in a very positive and often spiritual way; a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.” Sample sentences include: “As she gazed down at the baby, her face was transfigured with tenderness.” “The assassination somehow transfigured Kennedy into a modern American saint.” “In this light the junk undergoes a transfiguration; it shines.”
Transfiguration, then, is more than transformation. It is not just a matter of change of form or appearance. Transfiguration characterizes change or transformation into something greater. Clearly, on the mountain that night, Jesus was changed into something or someone more wonderful than those three disciples had ever encountered before. His status was elevated in their eyes and lives in a powerful, mystical manner. Mark says they were awe-struck by the experience, terrified, really. It is no small thing to find oneself so close to the heart of God; to see so deeply into the mind of Christ; to be so thoroughly caught up in the Spirit as the wind whips across the mountaintop.
Process theologian, Bruce Epperly reminds us that “Historically mountaintops are seen as places of revelation. They are literally, figuratively, and spiritually closer to heaven than the flatlands. They are places of perspective and vision of the far horizons of Divinity.” This is exactly the sort of place you would expect a transfiguration to take place. Epperly continues, “The disciples are invited to see Jesus’ quantum reality, the reality disguised by his flesh and bone. On the mountaintop, divine light shines through his cells as well as his soul” (Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary – The Transfiguration of Jesus – February 11, 2018,” patheos.com).Remember in today’s Opening Prayer how another process thinker, Bruce Sanguin, calls the Holy One “the uncreated light that is lighting all…the flame burning within…the radiance in all creation”(Bruce Sanguin, Praying with Darwin). This is what Peter, James, and John encountered that night on the mountain with Jesus – his quantum reality, the core reality disguised by his flesh and bones, the uncreated light, the radiance inherent in all creation.
Have you ever had such an encounter? Have you had a mountaintop experience that rattled your bones and shook your soul? The word going around is that such encounters are rare these days. It seems that God may have retired to heaven, leaving us to our own devices. Perhaps there are too many of us who think we have it all figured out or who want to be in control and run the show ourselves. Who needs God when we have the security and comfort of wealth and power, of scientific and technological knowledge, when we have Google and Apple and Amazon, when Elon Musk can send a Tesla to Mars? God is pretty antiquated, right? Mountaintop mythology hardly moves us when everything we could possibly want or need is at our command. Just tell Alexa or Siri what it is and it will appear before you know it.
But is that really all there is? As wonderful as our scientific and technological accomplishments are, do we sometimes wonder if they are enough, if there isn’t more to life? Cosmologists and physicists posit an expanding universe and process thinkers speak of an expanding God. We come again to William James notion of God as “The More.” Whatever we say about creation and the Creator, it is inadequate. It is fraught with our very human limitations (no matter how powerful or wealthy or brilliant we may be.) There is always more.
I have been touched by those brilliant scientists who hold a place for mystery and wonder, even as they unravel complex dimensions of the universe and existence. Thinkers like Einstein and Loren Eisley who made room for “The More,” who understood the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning who saw “earth crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God,” or Gerard Manley Hopkins who wrote that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” that “nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things…” Whatever these brilliant minds discover or uncover, they never lose sight of the beauty of nature, of the possibilities of transfiguration, if you will.
The title for today’s Reflection on the Word comes from our Words of Preparation. I was touched by Darwin’s belief in “endless forms most beautiful.” That is the universe I believe we inhabit, one in which the transfiguration of the Christ is a model for the potentiality of transfiguration in all that is. Bruce Sanguin, again, proclaims, “From an evolutionary perspective, the entire universe is a transfiguration.” He says, “All life on our planet began as a simple cell, and from this relative simplicity emerged what Charles Darwin called ‘endless forms most beautiful.’ All that we see around us, including our own bodies and minds, are transfigurations of the originating Fireball…On the mountaintop, then, we can think of Jesus being bathed in uncreated light as the spiritual dimension of an evolutionary transfiguration that never ends” (Sanguin, op. cit.).
An evolutionary transfiguration that never ends and we are part of just such a reality. If we will, we may be transfigured into those beings that God intended when God breathed the breath of life into the dust of the earth, bringing forth humankind in God’s very image and likeness. Remember God blessed us and called us very good. Will we yet be so? Bruce Epperly concludes his reflection, “While we seldom see the inner light of our companions, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration invites us to look for ‘more’ in ourselves and others.” He claims, “There are angels in boulders and revelations in the commonplace. The whole earth is filled with God’s glory, and charged with ‘God’s grandeur’” (Epperly, op. cit.).
Let me close with this experience you’ve likely heard before from Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. He recalls this experience of transfiguration, not at midnight on a windswept mountaintop but in the middle of his mundane daily routine, right downtown. “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world…
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
The peculiar gift of “endless forms most beautiful.” It is past time that we accept the peculiar gift God gives us to see the endless beauty of the forms of creation in ourselves, in others, in the whole creation. It is past time for us, bathed from the beginning in the beauty of uncreated light, to recognize our power to walk around shining like the sun and, in the process to put an end to war, hatred, cruelty, and greed. The time is now to make it so in our lives and in the world around us. Today is the day of transfiguration. Amen.