A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
Feb 26, 2017
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Each year, before we enter the Season of Lent, we spend some time looking at the texts of Jesus’ transfiguration—when he takes a few of his disciples and goes up on the mountainside. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell the story a little differently, and this year, the Narrative Lectionary gives us Luke’s account.
And in Luke’s version, the story is bookended by stories of Jesus’ description of what it means for him to be the Messiah, and questions about who we say that Jesus is.
When Jesus started talking about suffering, death, carrying crosses, the disciples tried to stop him, to dismiss his words.
And so he takes them up the mountain. Maybe it was to impress them with the shiny white robe. I wonder if it was more about forcing the disciples to come to terms with Jesus’ identity?
There is always a tension in who Jesus is. Fully Human. Fully Divine. He’s their rabbi, their teacher, their companion on the journey. He walks with them, and he talks with them, as the song goes.
AND he’s the guy who gets completely changed on a mountaintop and talks to two dead prophets and who God speaks about from the clouds.
And what does God say, when the Divine voice speaks? “This is my Son, the Beloved: Listen to him!!!”
It’s similar to what God says at Jesus’ baptism, but here, God’s message is clearly to the disciples. Listen to him! Jesus echoes it at the end of the passage, “let these words sink in“.
It’s time for them to focus on what Jesus has been telling them. Namely—rejection, suffering, cross bearing, death, and resurrection are essential requirements in the Messiah job description.
They are running out of time to comprehend this. And it is a tension for Jesus too. He knows the disciples don’t understand, they can’t understand. Not even the transfiguration is going to be quite enough to help the disciples see his identity clearly. Only in light of the cross will Jesus’ identity make sense and bring hope to followers who want to believe, but who just can’t see it yet.
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, heading straight for the cross. A few verses later it will say he ‘turns his face to Jerusalem’.
And when he gets off the mountain, the path to Jerusalem is blocked by a man who begs Jesus to heal his child after the disciples had been unsuccessful in their attempts.
Jesus goes ahead and heals the boy. While the disciples are uncertain about Jesus’ identity, Jesus can’t stop being exactly who he is. Jesus is the one who heals. Jesus is the one who saves.
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. To be clear, I love Jesus a whole lot and I have never successfully healed someone of a demon possession either, to my knowledge, so I look at the disciples here with some love and understanding.
Yet I wonder if 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.
This compassion that Jesus has for the man and his child is not convenient for Jesus. Jesus has somewhere to go and a crucifixion to endure.
He is headed to save the whole world and yet takes time to stop and save one child.
Helping this man will not help Jesus in any transactional way—the man can’t do anything to pay Jesus back or help Jesus in the future.
Jesus also spends zero time in this story asking if the child is deserving of healing, or whether or not he was a good student, or a legal resident, or a faithful Jew with the correct political ideology. Jesus’ call to be the person who saves, the one who offers compassion, does not allow time for any extreme vetting of the people he saves.
He is the person who saves. And so he does.
I was struck by Jesus’ compassion in this story. In the midst of his frustration and anger, in the midst of having something important to do, Jesus always takes time for compassion.
Perhaps I noticed it because of its lack lately in our culture.
Jewish cemeteries were defaced this week and Jewish Community Centers across the country received threats. Hate crimes are on the rise.
People who appear to be “foreign” are being targeted with taunts that they should “go back home”, even if they are American born children of American born children. In Kansas as a white man yelled “get out of my country” as he shot 3 people, killing one. And people are now living in real fear that they will be deported, as they watch mothers separated from their children.
Friends, no matter how we vote in elections, and no matter how we view best ways for governance of our nation, I pray we, as Christians, can at least come together to stand up for compassion, no matter how inconvenient it may be. It has long been a hallmark of our nation, and I worry we are erasing it from our narrative.
Your compassion has not been erased.
You’ve welcomed refugees at the airport as they begin their new lives in Idaho.
You’ve told people who are transgender that they are safe and welcome here.
Your session is looking at how we can best stand with people who are facing deportation for the “crime” of being here without documentation.
Each act of compassion lights the way for others. Don’t ever think they don’t matter.
There is a clear path from the mountaintop of the Transfiguration down to the lonesome valley of the Cross. While it is, perhaps, human nature, to prefer the mountaintop, as Christians, we know that without the Cross, we can’t get to the new life of Resurrection.
There are lots of ways we can walk that path. In denial—looking back toward the mountain, and ‘better days’, and hopes of glory. Or with compassionate hope—looking forward, seeing the people on our way who need our help, and knowing that in helping others, there is a possibility for our own transfiguration to occur.
Hope you can join us Wednesday evening at 7 pm for Ash Wednesday worship as we begin the observance of Lent.
I’ll end today with this poem:
A Blessing for Transfiguration Sunday by Jan Richardson
Believe me, I know
how tempting it is
to remain inside this blessing,
to linger where everything
We could build walls
around this blessing,
put a roof over it.
We could bring in
a table, chairs,
have the most amazing meals.
We could make a home.
We could stay.
But this blessing
is built for leaving.
is made for coming down
wants to be in motion,
to travel with you
as you return
to level ground.
It will seem strange
how quiet this blessing becomes
when it returns to earth.
It is not shy.
It is not afraid.
It simply knows
how to bide its time,
to watch and wait,
to discern and pray
until the moment comes
when it will reveal
everything it knows,
when it will shine forth
with all that it has seen,
when it will dazzle
with the unforgettable light
you have carried
all this way.
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