Sermon: Shadows of a Bright Cloud

There are three figures in a bright place at center. three more human figures at lower left, shadowed, display fear.

February 23, 2020
Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17:1-9

by Eric Anderson

“Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them.”

This story of Jesus, Peter, James, and John at the summit of a mountain, suddenly joined by Moses and Elijah, is generally known as the Transfiguration. In the Revised Common Lectionary, that list of Scripture readings for each Sunday of a three year cycle, we hear the Transfiguration story on the last Sunday before Lent begins.

This is one of the more mysterious texts in the Gospels, or rather, it is one that is great with mystery, with signs and symbols and supernatural happenings. Our friend Jesus suddenly shines like a fluorescent tube, a simile that would not have occurred to Peter, James, and John who lived their whole lives without ever seeing a fluorescent tube. Two people who, if not precisely believed to be dead by first century Jews, were at least considered safely out of the way into God’s heaven, suddenly appear to have a conversation with the brightly glowing Jesus.

It’s even rather mysterious how Peter identified Moses and Elijah. The gospel accounts don’t say. I suppose Peter might have just guessed. He’d recently proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, and when mysterious figures appear, well, who else appears with the Messiah than Moses, the prophet of liberation, and Elijah, the prophet who would proclaim the Messiah’s arrival? Or, I suppose, Jesus might have introduced them. “Moses, Elijah, I’d like you to meet my friends James and John. And this is Simon. I like to call him Rock.”

I can’t quite imagine Moses and Elijah appearing and Jesus greeting them by saying, “Moses, Elijah: good to see you. How have you been?”

Perhaps they wore name tags?

But if you’re really looking for mystery, it occurs in the language of verse 5: “While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them.”

How does a cloud that is bright – that is, one that is apparently glowing like Jesus – how does a cloud like that overshadow you? It doesn’t, does it? It overbrightens you, right?

So I titled this sermon “Shadows of a Bright Cloud” and went looking for mystery, for spiritual complexity, for confusing threads of theology to untangle.

What I found was… clarity.

A bright cloud doesn’t overshadow.

Peter, James, and John no doubt wondered why such things were happening and why they were happening in front of them. Jesus, however, didn’t seem to be bothered by any of it and, on reflection, neither should we. Deep encounters with God are part of the human experience. Sometimes they look like glowing clouds and sound like thunderous voices, but sometimes they are radically different. Elijah, for example, climbed the same mountain that Moses did hundreds of years later looking for a deep encounter with God. There was wind and fire and earthquake, but that’s not where God was. Instead, he found that deep encounter with God in something usually translated as “a still small voice,” but another fascinating meaning for those same Hebrew words is “the sound of sheer silence.”

A profound experience of God doesn’t have to happen on a mountaintop, though so many have that human beings revere mountaintops around the world. A profound experience of God can be found in the kitchen, at the breakfast table, beneath a tree, or even in the laundry room. Those encounters that fill your soul, whether with drama and thunder or simplicity and silence – these are the bright clouds that don’t overshadow. “Why” barely comes into it. Before the “why,” most people breathe out the thanks and the praise.

Peter didn’t do that. He popped out with an idea about setting up some shelters. Pope Francis had some ideas in a 2013 homily which are worth listening to for what he says about the human ability to run away from God:

“To put it simply: the Holy Spirit bothers us. Because he moves us, he makes us walk, he pushes the Church to go forward. And we are like Peter at the Transfiguration: ‘Ah, how wonderful it is to be here like this, all together!’…But don’t bother us. We want the Holy Spirit to doze off…we want to domesticate the Holy Spirit. And that’s no good. because he is God, he is that wind which comes and goes and you don’t know where. He is the power of God, he is the one who gives us consolation and strength to move forward. But: to move forward! And this bothers us. It’s so much nicer to be comfortable.”

(The homily is included in Pope Francis I, Encountering Truth: Meeting God in the Everyday (New York, Image), 2015)

It probably doesn’t help us much to inquire into the “Why” of Peter’s idea to set up tents or booths or shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Why do people say most things? Because it seemed like a good idea at the time, whether it was or not. In this case, there is clarity: it wasn’t a good idea at the time. The voice from the cloud actually cut Peter off.

What did it say? “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Those were the words of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. And there’s an addition, three words in English and just two in Greek: “Listen to him.”

From the shadows of a bright cloud: sudden abrupt clarity.

Listen to him.

Judith Jones writes at Working Preacher: “It is no wonder that the disciples are terrified by this theophany. As Malachi says, ‘Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’ (Malachi 3:2). Then Jesus approaches his frightened followers, touches them, and tells them not to be afraid. Though they cannot bear to hear God speak from the cloud, they can listen to Jesus. The word of God comes to them now, not as a thunderous voice from heaven or letters written on tablets of stone, but in the words and actions of Jesus. The Son of God speaks to them as one human speaks to another, and they rise and follow him.”

It is so clear, isn’t it? Listen to Jesus. You can call me Preacher Obvious again – I’m getting fond of the title – but that’s what it all comes down to. Listen to Jesus, Peter, when he tell you that his kind of Messiahship is not what you expect. Listen to Jesus, James and John, when he says that the hierarchies of God’s realm are based on service and support, not on power and might. Listen to Jesus, disciples, when he says that they can do great things. Listen to Jesus, disciples, when he says that crucifixion leads to resurrection.

Listen to Jesus, friends, when he says that love, compassion, and healing are the ways of true life. Listen to Jesus, friends, when he says that glory is vain, power is illusion, and wealth is a false friend. Listen to Jesus.

There are no shadows from that bright cloud.

Patrick J. Willson writes in Feasting on the Word, “Does anything banish our fears more perfectly than a simple, human touch? For John Calvin, this was the great genius of God. God, who made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them God, whose greatness is so vast that not even the heavens above the heavens can contain it; God, whose we are is so magnificent that God is willing to come among us to reach out, touch us, and still our fears.”

(Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 1 (Louisville, John Knox Press), 2010)

Jesus touched them to let them know it was all right, and he spoke the words that angels speak over and over again in their encounters with human beings in the Bible: “Do not be afraid.”

Clarity beneath the shadows of a bright cloud.

Do not be afraid. Listen to Jesus. Amidst all the light show, amidst the mysterious appearances of famous figures, amidst all the thunder of the voice divine, two clear words: Listen to Jesus. Do not be afraid.

Clarity beneath the shadows of a bright cloud, did I say? There are no shadows of a bright cloud. It illuminates. It brightens. It reveals.

Two simple things: Listen to Jesus. Do not be afraid.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Shadows of a Bright Cloud

This recording used a backup method, so it differs in quality from most other weeks. It does not differ in the way the recorded sermon varies from the prepared text.

The image is The Transfiguration by Carl Bloch –, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on February 23, 2020

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