A terrifying darkness with smoke and fire and animals torn into pieces. A mountaintop brilliance with burning figures out of legend and a voice booming from a darkening cloud.
What do these two moments, one from the Hebrew scriptures and the other from the Christian, have in common. One thing is terror. Abram is terrified. The disciples—Peter, John, James—are terrified. None of them knows what’s hit them. Or maybe they do know and that’s why they are in terror. Suddenly, in the middle of their lives, when they least expect it, they find themselves having a close encounter with something way beyond them, something uncontrollable, something that might do anything to them. Suddenly they know power, raw power, and they know glory, dazzling glory—and it takes their wits away. Wouldn’t it do the same to you? Who in their right mind would want to see the face of God unveiled?
What else do the two stories told this morning have in common? Sleep. Deep sleep. Abram has been taken on a journey. Abram has exhausted himself slaughtering and sawing up all these animals and now he is asleep in the dark. Peter and John and James have been taken on a journey. They have exhausted themselves climbing a mountain and now they are asleep.
At least we have that in common with our heroes today. We might not have seen terrifying visions of God but we do know what it is to be asleep, to be exhausted and to fall asleep. Maybe we are even better at sleeping than they are because they wake up in the middle of disorienting terror to a world transfigured beyond recognition, a world gone wild. Wouldn’t it have been better to stay asleep? To linger in the shadow kingdom of dreams where all the wildness disappear without trace with daylight? What would they have lost if they hadn’t been awake to be terrified?
Abram wakes to see a pillar of smoke and a pillar of fire, angels of God’s presence, moving between the scattered carcasses of Abram’s sacrifice. In Abram’s day this is how contracts were made. Both parties walked between the split bodies of heifer and goat and ram as if to say “let this be what happens to me if I am not faithful, if I do not keep my word.” But here, as Abram watches in terror, God alone walks the contract into being. Abram has to promise nothing. He has no oath to swear on pain of dismemberment. He only has to witness the oath God swears. “Look to heaven, Abram,” God says, “count the stars. So shall your descendants be.” And God seals the covenant by offering to be torn apart like dead meat if his word should be broken.
On the mountain Peter and co wake to the terror of glory all around them, to the sight of their friend Jesus burning with fire, speaking with long dead prophets, and to a voice calling to them out of a cloud of smoke. “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him.” The same voice which had spoken to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my son, my beloved. My favour rests on you.”
If Abram had slept on he would have missed the promise of God. He would have missed seeing God put God’s very life on the line for the sake of the chosen people. If the disciples had slept on they would have missed the promise of God. They would have missed seeing God claim Jesus as his own beloved child.
If they had slept on they would have missed the terror but they would have also missed the promise.
Who knows what promises we have missed because we have been asleep. We may have missed the terror but at what price in glory? If Lent is about anything it is about waking up. That’s all the fasting and penance and alms-giving are for—like pinching yourself to make yourself wake up. Not because we don’t need sleep but because we need God more. God has a promise for each of us this Lent, a touch of glory. Will we be awake to hear it?
March 15th, 1998