God with us...when the way is Unclear


The Transfiguration

(Mt 17:1–8; Lk 9:28–36; 2 Pet 1:16–18)

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.

Today we wrap up a series of sermons that we’ve been going through since Christmas, where we’ve been exploring how God is with us. God, in the form of Christ, Emmanuel, becomes one with humanity, comes close and is with us. We have seen how Christ is embodied in our world, how Christ takes on our human understanding and lives in the world as we do. We see how Christ continues to do so, living as one “with” us as we are the living vessels of Christ’s presence in the world even now.
We close with this series today and look forward in the week ahead to the beginning of Lent. During Lent, the 40 days preceeding Easter Sunday, we will journey the road to the cross with Christ, a journey to the heart of what it means to be with Christ ourselves. God with us, us with God. The foundation of Christian discipleship is the formation and growth of this relationship, God with us.
And today, we end with a text that focuses on the very truth of God’s presence with us. Like, but different from, the story of Jesus’ baptism, where God arrives and speak into the moment, naming God’s son beloved, so God also shows up here. Because where Christ is, so God is, so Spirit is. It can seem a bit messy, at times, as we try to conceptualize of the relationship of the Triune God. Who is where and what’s happening?
To help us this morning, I want to explore a couple of key theological concepts that deepen our awareness of God’s presence in and among us. The concepts are a bit heady, but when we play with them, dance with them, a bit, we realize they are the bedrock of our thinking about God and form the practical ways we encounter God here and now.
The story of the Transfiguration is a story of “Immanence” and “Transcendence.” Immanence and Transcendence. The question is: Is God Immanent or is God Transcendent? The answer…yes.
Before moving on, let me define the terms.
Immanence: noun
the state of being inherent or exclusively existing within something:“Place” is a fundamental concept; it has evaded theorizing because of its immanence and omnipresence.
Theology. the state or quality of a Deity exclusively existing within the universe, time, etc.: A horizontal axis stretches from God’s immanence in the world, on the left, to transcendence of it, on the right.
We would say that Jesus, the Christ, is/was immanent. Fleshy, close, in time and space with us in first century Palestine. The closeness of Christ is key here, it’s what we tell of when we share the Bethlehem story, think of the baby in the manger, or remember the bread and wine being shared at table and the blood of Christ on the cross. It is the humanity and nearness of God.
Then, Transcendence: adjective
going beyond ordinary limits;
surpassing; exceeding.superior or supreme.
Theology. (of the Deity) transcending the universe, time, etc.
We often think of God the Creator as the transcendent part of the Trinity. Out there, big, above all things, below all things. Like I mentioned last week, the Ground of all Being. The transcendence of God positions God outside of time, fluid. We conceptualize God this way, often, when we think about prayer.
Consider the child’s question: How does God listen to all our prayers when so many people are praying at once? It is God who is transcendent that we are curious about here.
So immanence and transcendence. Are you with me?
Why does this conversation matter?
Well, how we conceptualize God matters with how we expect God’s presence to show up in our lives. Many times, we think of God in one category opposed to the other. Perhaps we’ve grown very comfortable with thinking of God as transcendent. God is big, God creates, God forms the foundation of all things, all things are held in the hands of God. This is super important and helpful for us, especially in a world when we often wonder if anything has meaning, if anything is “bigger” than just our current struggles or standing in life.
Or, perhaps we’re very comfortable with the idea of God as immanent. God is close, intimately connected to us. We lean into the concept of God walking with us each day, knowing our humanity and our earthiness. We explore the stories of Jesus and place ourselves in among the disciples — God with us makes sense.
Now, neither is a better concept. And each have their faults or can become maladaptive if we prioritize one over the other. There must be interplay. For instance, if we become too settled in the immanence of God, God up close, we may struggle to have imagination for or experience of things that stand outside of our everyday experience as humans. Like the miraculous or the spiritual. If God is only fleshy like us, how could we even imagine that God could heal the sick or walk on water. Hogwash.
Or perhaps we lean more into transcendence. Also, this is good, but it can also lead us to conceptualizing a distant, removed God. God who does not know our human experience and who sits in judgement far beyond us. God who only interacts on a metaphysical level, but never up close. In this way, we start to wonder if anything of our particular, singular existence matters to God. Why would God care about little old me?
Here is where we meet our texts this morning. Here is where we encounter the necessary interplay of God with us, immanent and transcendent.
First, with the Old Testament reading. In Elijah’s departure, we see how immanent humanity becomes transcendent and is swept up into God’s presence. God with Elijah and Elisha looks like God welcoming Elijah home into God’s Holy Presence. The Old Testament concepts of God were often very focused on a Transcendent God and humanity’s relationship through the Law to that God who spoke to prophets like Elijah and Elisha.
Then, with our reading from Mark, we find a flipping of this script. The earthy, grounded disciples — Peter, James, and John — were working with the Old Testament story of a transcendent God, but also were wrestling with what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah, the Holy One of God. And so when they encounter Jesus on the high mountain, transfigured, their concepts of God are both confirmed and all mixed up. Peter gives the perfect reaction — “Uhh…let’s build altars…that’s the right thing to do, right?” Peter wants to honor God in the way he knows how, in the ways Moses and Elijah had. He didn’t know what else to do, he was terrified. He came into contact with the Transcendent God in a very Old Testament kind of fashion.
And here’s where Jesus throws them for a loop — the voice speaks, the cloud swirls, but then…it’s just Jesus again. Just Jesus. Intimate, close, immanent presence of a human, but God. Jesus again tells his friends to not make a big deal about what they’d seen — because this is a whole refashioning of their concept of God.
Ok. So what?
The Helper, the Holy Spirit, assists us here. How, why? The Holy Spirit knits this together. I said earlier, which is better, Transcendent or Immanent — the answer is yes!
And it is the Spirit that helps us bridge this divide between one or the other. God is with us, close and God is with us, above and with all things. The Spirit is the intermediary, the in between, the both/and.
I want to offer a couple of helpful examples that I hope illuminate the sense of difference within God and the fluidity and power that we can find when we hold God’s immanence and transcendence in a healthy tension.
The first relates to concepts of race. Defined racial categories, black, white, brown, are often too stark to fully explore a person’s identity. What we know about human DNA is that while there are obvious variations in a persons melanin levels, there is much that all humans share in the genetic code that makes it very clear that while we look different from one another, there is so much that we share. Stark categories of black or white end up dividing us. They are important concepts in that they help us identify and connect as people groups, but they are also limiting in that they do not encapsulate the whole human person.
Another example is related to gender identity and fluidity. We are living in a time where we are greatly blessed to witness the stories of transgender, sharing their concepts of gender. With a transperson, we see that gender is not necessarily fixed — while I may present as a man, outwardly, I may also have within me many pieces of my gender identity that would be traditionally understood to be feminine. By listening to transpersons or those who identify as gender non-binary, we begin to recognize that there is so much more going on in us than a simple binary category can summarize.
These examples are also backed up by our growing understandings in psychology and neurobiology about how our identities and brains work. Psychologist Daniel Siegel argues for an understanding that the self, the me that I am, can actually have many different states. I am me, but I also am me in different ways in different contexts or times in my life. Multiple self-state theory is so helpful as we try to look at the complexities of human emotions and relationships. I am Seth — Seth the pastor, the father, the husband, the son, the brother, the runner, the introvert, the public speaker, the writer, the musician. These different forms or states that I take on related to the multiple states within me that exist. Now, obviously, there is overlap to the me that I am. I’m a conglomeration of Seth. That’s my self.
And you are too.
And what we’re seeing here, is that God is too. Now, I’m not trying to take us down a path that says “God is all things” or “God cannot be defined.” We know from the Scriptures that God is unchanging, the same yesterday, today, and forever. But…that concept doesn’t have to limit God to a fixed category of how God is. Rather, God’s unchangingness is seen in how God is faithful to us. God shows up in many, many ways throughout the Scriptures and in our traditions — but that God is still God.
What our texts today offer is a broadening of our imagination for what can sometimes seem unclear. God, found in the cloud. God, near to us, walking with the disciples. Which is it? God with us in the Spirit, enlivening our hearts each day. So which is it?
Yes. God is. As God told Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”
I’ll close with an encouragement and challenge.
As we approach Lent this year, I want to encourage you to explore how God speaks to you in both immanent and transcendent ways. Where do you see God show up? Where do you feel close to God? Where does God manifest in big, remarkable ways? What if these moments are not about me fashioning God in my own image, how I want to see God, but rather, what if this is the multivalent, transcendent/immanent God being revealed to us in ways that make the unclear clear.
I witness God in creation — God is not the creation, the creation is a place where I encounter that manifested presence of God.
I witness God in music — God is not the music, God’s voice speaks through the music to teach and strengthen me.
I challenge you to consider how God is showing up in your life. We’re going to do a weekly practice of the Prayer of Examen on Wednesday evenings through Lent. This is exactly what this practice is for — to notice how God’s self is showing up to you in the daily, immanent and transcendent ways.
I hope you’ll join us. I hope you will seek God on the holy mountain, knowing that God will reveal Godself to you. And I hope that you will hold your concepts of the Divine loosely enough to be surprised at the ways God’s goodness does show up.
Let us pray.
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