A cloud of glory.
That was always the sign of God’s presence. When Moses led the people of God through the wilderness, they knew God was with them because of the pillar of cloud moving ahead of them.
When Moses met with God on Mt. Sinai, he was enveloped by a cloud, and spent days there. When he emerged with his face glowing so brightly he needed to cover it with a veil. He had glimpsed—just glimpsed–God’s glory.
When Israel built a tabernacle, they knew God’s presence was there, because a cloud gathered and filled the tabernacle. For generations, they carried that tabernacle ahead of them, trusting that God was with them. Later, when Solomon completed the temple, the holy of holies—the innermost sanctuary was filled with a cloud—the glory of God. Once a year, a priest would enter that sanctuary, with a veiled face, bringing offerings directly into the presence of God. The veil protected the priest from the overwhelming brightness of God’s glory. In fact, they often tied a rope to the priests leg, in case he was overcome, and had to be dragged out.
A cloud. Bright whiteness. God’s glory. They always came together.
So, when they are startled from their sleep-heavy stupor by a gathering cloud, Peter, James and John know what it means. God. God’s glory.
They already knew something unusual was happening, because Jesus seemed to be glowing, and there were two men with him, who somehow, in their liminal state, they identified as Moses and Elijah. They were talking, but it was all so confusing. Something big was coming, Jesus’ glory was coming, but how? They couldn’t understand. But then the visitors are leaving, and Peter scrambles to hold on to this strange and wondrous event—“Wait, Jesus, let us build tents so everyone can stay—tents that harken back to the Exodus—tents that let these visitors of yours know that we honor their presence.”
No sooner has Peter stuck his neck out, than the cloud appears. The voice speaks around them, “This is my Son the Chosen. Listen to him.”
And Peter, James and John are no longer heavy with sleep. They are wide awake, staring at Jesus, who is now alone. He begins to walk back down the mountain, and the three disciples follow in silence, trying to understand what just happened.
Cloud, God, Jesus, glow. Somehow, Jesus was associated with God’s glory—he had access to it, and was a conduit for it, and the disciples were in awe. They knew Jesus was special—they were even pretty sure that he was the Messiah, but this—this kind of transfiguration into a glowing image of God’s glory, surrounded by a cloud, named by a voice as God’s Chosen…it was beyond their wildest imaginations, but not as far beyond as what was coming. See, what the disciples almost forgot about that mountaintop experience was the discussion about Jesus glory and all that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.
It turns out that Jesus’ glory was seen most clearly, not on that mountain top, but on another—one on which pain and death seemed to win out, as Jesus hung, lifeless, on a cross. But they didn’t win. Not even for a moment. The whole experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection redefined glory for them. It redefined God. And it redefined them, too. The glory of God—that brilliant, bright cloud—was no longer contained—no longer boxed in to the temple sanctuary.
No, by the time Paul wrote the letter we read this morning, he had a new word to talk about God’s glory—“Spirit,”—and this Spirit was within each person—not a cloud hovering, but an in-dwelling of God that caused a transformation—a gradual transfiguration into glory.
It wasn’t just Jesus, any more. It wasn’t just Moses on the mountain whose face would begin to glow. No—each person reflected God’s glory, and day by day would shine brighter with God’s glory in their own lives.
Today we will be installing and ordaining officers for the coming year, and we will pray for this same Spirit to empower them, but the power of the Spirit is not just for those who are up here today—it is within each of us, and some of our prayers today will be for all of us—for each person in this church to be filled with God’s Spirit and empowered to serve the church. Each of us reflects God’s glory. I look around this room, and am just stunned by all the ways God’s glory is reflected and refracted and revealed in your lives. In the dedication so many of you brings to every project you tackle. In the magic of Thomas juggling. In the playful twinkle in Howard’s eye. In the gentle touch our Sunday School teachers bring to our children. In the quiet, steadfast integrity of someone like Elsie throughout her life.
We are here, in a transition time—the last day of Epiphany when we begin to lean into Lent–and what is revealed today? Glory. Breath-taking glory. The glow of God’s presence, glimpsed on the mount of transfiguration, made concrete through the loving sacrifice of the cross and the powerful strength of the resurrection. The Spirit of God, dwelling not in a tabernacle, or temple, but in each one of God’s people. And it is here, in each of us. Thanks be to God.