A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church on Feb 10, 2013.
I don’t know about you, but this was a busy week for me.
Many of us were here yesterday as we celebrated the life of Bud Keyt. And our Presbytery met yesterday morning at First Presbyterian downtown and we voted in favor of a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. It requires approval of presbyteries to make a change to the Book of Confessions, so our vote yesterday is one good step in that direction. We’ll use parts of the new translation in worship during Lent so you can become familiar with it.
And I had the privilege to speak at the capitol this week about adding non-discrimination language to our human rights provisions in Idaho.
But in many of the things that kept me busy this week, I had glimpses of grace, I received moments of divine clarity, that were unexpected and welcome gifts. I had transfiguration experiences even.
I’ll get to those in a minute.
But first, we have some mysterious texts to encounter.
I won’t try to explain them. Each time I think I get a grasp on them, they slip through my fingers, escaping my preconceived fist. These texts are about mystery. They don’t want to be explained.
Right before we enter the season of Lent, as we’ll prepare for the mystery of Easter, these texts stand at the entrance and remind us that God is not to be easily understood or categorized.
Our passage from Exodus is the second time Moses has brought the 10 commandments back to the people. Remember the first time? He came off the mountain to discover the people worshiping the golden calf. But Moses continues to talk with God. The text says that God spoke to Moses face to face, as he would a friend. And Moses asks things of God that we would not. He asks to see the glory of God.
But when Moses comes down from the mountain, the people won’t go anywhere near him. Because his face was shining. Seeing the glory of God leaves him physically altered.
Moses gives the people the instructions from God and then he puts a veil on his face—just so they won’t be freaked out by his appearance. When he is with God, he takes the veil off. This is the opposite of what you think should happen. Moses didn’t need protection from God, but apparently the people needed protection from the glory of God that is evident on his face.
Again, we aren’t sure what the term “glory of the Lord” means, but clearly there are consequences to getting that close to God. It isn’t to be taken lightly. At the very least, it seems clear that once Moses decided to identify himself that closely with God, once he decided that the veil was more helpful when he was in public than it was when he was with God, he ended up somewhat at odds with his neighbors.
Whatever the Glory of the Lord is, it clearly leaves us dazzled and blinking from its brightness.
The authors of the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration of Jesus told their story in a way to remind you of Moses. Moses is even there. And Elijah too. The connection between Jesus and the Old Testament Law and Prophets is drawn in bold strokes. They are on a mountain. The word “exodus” is even used, although in our translation, it is “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure”, speaking of his exodus.
And Jesus face is changed and his clothes become dazzling white. But this isn’t because his momma had access to some really good bleach with which to wash his clothes. This is a reminder of what happens when the glory of the Lord appears to you.
You are transfigured.
You are changed.
And, in Luke’s gospel, this story is placed at the end of a section about Jesus’ identity. Herod wants to know who Jesus is. Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is.
And Luke answers the question, giving us a very clear answer despite the mystery surrounding the scene. Jesus is the inheritor of Moses and Elijah’s traditions. Jesus is the one on whom God’s glory has shone. Even God gives an answer in God’s own voice—“This is my Son, my Chosen—Listen to him!”
Two thousand years later, we’re still asking that question of ourselves and of each other. Who is Jesus?
He is someone who refuses to be easily understood. He changes. In their midst, even. Just when we think we know who he is, KABLAM! He is all of a sudden in dazzling white and talking with dead prophets.
And as soon as Peter thinks he has a handle on what is going on, just as soon as he suggests memorializing that particular moment with a building project… KABLAM! They hear God’s voice. Jesus is alone, no longer glowing. And what happens on the mountain stays on the mountain. They decide not to tell anyone.
Because what would they say?
Transfiguration is the reminder that we can’t fit God in a box. It is a reminder to constantly check our preconceptions and be willing to let them go if they don’t match what God is currently doing.
As we approach Easter in the coming weeks of Lent, we have to figure out what it means for us to claim that Jesus is Lord. Because he keeps changing on us, he keeps forcing us to experience him anew.
We follow a Savior who died on a cross, and who was raised by God to eternal life. This is not the narrative that the world tells. In the world’s narrative, we follow people who succeed. People who wield power. But in Christ, we follow someone who continually passed up opportunities to wield earthly power. We follow someone who was humiliated as a criminal on a cross. What does this mean for you to claim this?
We’ll enter the season of Lent this week with Ash Wednesday. I invite you to join us this Wednesday for worship at 7 pm. And I invite you to consider adding a question to your spiritual practice. As you’re reading the Bible, as you are praying, I invite you to take time in Lent and ask the question Luke answers in this text—who you do say Jesus is?
Here are a few things to ponder in your heart as you pray through that question, and here are a few illustrations of my transfiguration moments this week.
When I was at the capitol for the forum this week, I had the privilege to speak out for non-discrimination from a specifically Christian perspective. I was on the panel because I was a pastor, not in spite of being a pastor. And it was a humbling, holy gift. If my words were of any help, it was because God was shining through them, not because of anything particular about me. And I’m not trying to be humble when I say that. (Because you know I don’t care much about being humble…) Being able to proclaim a message of life, hope, and grace in the halls of the capitol gave me a glimpse of what it must have been like for Moses, entrusted with a message that wasn’t his own. Holy gift.
Another thing I observe about the disciples in this story is how tired they are. And how it is easy to sleep through the important moments in life. The disciples were “weighed down with sleep”, not before the transfiguration, but right in the middle of it, even as their teacher was now blinding white and talking with Moses. They managed to stay awake this time, but will have similar troubles on Gethsemane while Jesus is off praying.
How often do we live our lives distracted with our attention divided? I don’t know if the disciples were tired because they stayed up too late the night before watching TV or because they were wasting time watching cat videos on youtube. Maybe they were just busy from working and driving the kids to basketball games and soccer practice. Ahem. But they almost missed the mystery of the Transfiguration. While this text is clearly about more than this, I do think this text is a reminder for us to pay attention, and to be present in our lives so that we don’t miss the mysteries when they show up.
I shared this story yesterday at Bud Keyt’s funeral, but it is worth sharing again, because it is a reminder to me to pay attention.
One morning, at men’s breakfast, Bud quietly shared a powerful story about a time in his life when he faced a great difficulty. He made that breakfast table holy and sacred as he told us about how his faith helped him get through the days when he wasn’t sure he could get out of bed. I really am not overstating it to say I could feel God’s presence in the room because of his quiet testimony.
But at 6:30 in the morning, it is easy for me to miss the sacred. I’m so thankful I was awake for that particular moment. I’m so grateful I got to experience that moment of transfiguration.
And the final thing I noticed in the text is this:
There is a connection between God’s glory and suffering—both human and divine. We are seeing Jesus today at the transfiguration, shining with the glory of God. But in a few weeks, we’ll see him in the midst of suffering, suffering death on a cross.
Jesus’ story doesn’t stop here on the mountain with his shining glory and hobnobbing with Moses and Elijah. He comes down off the mountain, knowing that he is heading for the cross. And when he gets off the mountain, he is faced with human suffering too. A man begs him to heal his child after the disciples had been unsuccessful in their attempts.
Jesus does not say to the man, “do you know who I was just talking with? Do you know how shiny I was?”
Jesus just heals the boy. He doesn’t have any words for the father. But he does have words for the disciples—words for the church. “You faithless and perverse generation—how much longer must I be with you?” The disciples had seen the transfiguration with their own eyes, yet it hadn’t translated into an ability to help someone in pain and suffering.
As we ponder the question about who Jesus is and what it means for us to be the best Jesus followers we can be, we should remember this too—having the best answers and understanding of Jesus doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t translate into helping people who need it.
How does our understanding and experience of Jesus translate into how we treat the people we meet?
I don’t know why the disciples were unable to heal the child. Maybe they were too distracted by the events on the mountain. But I think Jesus strikes such a harsh tone with them because it is so important that they get this right—you have to come down from the mountain and help the people you meet.
We have many blessings here at Southminster. We are in a position to really make a difference in our community and our world. I invite you to consider your response to Jesus transfiguration. How do we need to see him anew today? How can we come down from this mountain and really heal people? I have great confidence that the Spirit will show us the way.
And may we pay attention enough to notice those moments of transfiguration, when God breaks through in the midst of the every day and reminds us we are not alone. Like the people in the ball pit, who were willing to try something odd and were open to a divine encounter with a stranger, let us have eyes to see and hearts to respond.