“Seeing is believing,” or so they say. It’s not an entirely accurate saying, either. The real definition of faith, as St. Paul reminds us in his writings, is that faith is believing in spite of the fact that we don’t see God face-to-face. But there is some truth in the statement that seeing is believing, and that’s a truth that can be found in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Because sometimes we get stuck and can’t get out of the rut of our sinfulness. Or sometimes we get caught up in our day-to-day concerns and activities and can’t notice the Spirit working in us. And that’s when God needs to make a visit to his people. And he does that all the time, our God who is not some remote deity that made us and left us to our own devices. Our God is intimately involved in our world and in our living, and our God often makes entry into our world and our life events. This is what we call a “theophany.” It’s God doing a God-thing.
I hope I have your attention now. Because today’s readings seem to be screaming that we should indeed wake up. All kinds of waking up is going on in today’s readings. Abram fell into a deep sleep after preparing the sacrifice and was enveloped in a terrifying darkness. He woke up to God’s presence ratifying the covenant. Peter, John and James had fallen asleep up on the mountain. They woke up to see Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. Our readings proclaim our God doing God-things in and around his people, and we are called to wake up and take notice of it, lest we sleep through our salvation.
Because left to our own devices we are lamentably sleepy. In the eleven chapters of Genesis that come before Abram is called by God, things have gone a little off-course. Adam and Eve have desecrated the Garden of Eden by partaking of the forbidden fruit. Cain has murdered his brother Abel in a fit of terminal envy. God has drenched his creation in the flood as punishment for rampant sin and the arrogance of building the Tower of Babel. Humanity had become so used to its sinful ways that nothing seemed to focus their attention on God. The complacency of sin had led them to drowsiness and sloth. All of humanity, like Abram, was cloaked in a terrifying darkness.
The covenant that God forms with Abram is interesting. Every animal of sacrifice is procured, and cut in half. This was an ancient covenantal ritual in which the two parties to the covenant would walk down the center of the bisected sacrifice in order to ratify the covenant. The meaning of this ritual was something like, “should I ever break the covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me.” This was a very common ritual in ancient times, but here there is a significant difference. The difference is that Abram does not walk through the sacrifice. Only God does – in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. The significance of that is that God takes the initiative in making covenant with us. We have to but wake up and see it, as Abram did.
In the verses that precede today’s Gospel reading, the disciples have been sent out in pairs to heal the sick and drive out demons. Then Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Finally Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” And Peter responds with great faith that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus instructs them that his followers must take up their crosses and follow him. But even Peter misses the significance of that cross when they see the Lord transfigured before them. Waking from a deep sleep, they see the Lord transfigured in glory. And it’s that glory they want to dwell on, remaining there in three tents. They have already in their weariness forgotten that to get to the Lord’s glory, they have to get through the cross first. There is hard work to be done: diseases to be cured, demons to be cast out, hungry people to be fed. It’s not going to be easy. Everyone suffers for the faith in some way, but everyone will also be glorified by that faith. All we have to do is wake up and realize it.
We too have once been enveloped in a terrifying darkness. The light of the Gospel and the joy of the sacraments banishes that darkness, if we but move forward in faith. The problem is that so many times we get dragged back into that darkness. It’s so easy to return to sinful ways, bad habits, patterns of brokenness, the shame of addiction. We want what we don’t need. We seek easy answers rather than work through the tough times. We make Gods out of success, and money, and pleasure, rather than honor the God who compassions us through failure, poverty and pain. We see to all our own creature comforts with little regard for the poor, oppressed and marginalized. We return over and over and over again to the terrifying darkness of sin in thought, word, and deed. Lent reminds us that we cannot survive living that way. We must confess our sins and wake up to be children of light.
And we children of light have been adopted to become light to others. The forgiveness we have received demands that we become Christ to others. We are called to become conduits of God’s justice, mercy, compassion and love. God’s justice has been poured out on us so that we in turn can reach out to others, helping to make things right and alleviate the burden of the oppressed and marginalized. God’s justice demands that we see every person the way God sees them, eliminating every form of racism, violence and hatred from the earth. God’s mercy has been poured out on us so that we can reach out to others and show them mercy too. That mercy demands that we forgive as we have been forgiven, that grudges and resentments be left at the foot of the cross. God’s compassion has been poured out on us so that we can then be compassionate to others. That compassion demands that we have concern for every person God puts in our path, that we take time out of our busy and hectic schedules to listen to a hurting coworker or look in on a sick neighbor. God’s love has been poured out on us so that we can love as he has loved us. That love demands that we discipline children with patience, that we honor and respect our parents, that we go the extra mile to share the gifts we have been given. We must wake up to live as God’s people.
We are a people who have been given so much. God has reached out to us in great love and mercy and has taken the initiative to form a covenant with us, first with the sacrifice of Abraham, and in the last days through the blood of the Cross. We deserve none of this, because we as a people and as individuals have turned away from God over and over again. But over and over again, God has sung to our spirit, giving us grace, and calling us to be sons and daughters of light. But we have to wake up and receive it.