Sunday, March 02, 2014

Illuminating the path to the cross…a sermon on the transfiguration, Matthew 17:1-9

A.Hanson, Minnesota 2014
Grace, peace and mercy are yours from God who is the light of the world.  Amen
Sometimes I like to imagine bible stories acted out on a stage.  I imagine the backdrops, the scenery, the actors, the scripts. And I think that the Transfiguration story falls more within the realm of bizarre performance art or something like Cirque du Soleil than anything else.  There are a lot of things happening with bright light and clouds and booming voices and ascents and descents of mountains. Let us set the scene…
            Just before we catch up with Jesus and the disciples in today’s Gospel, we have the group walking through the desert.  Peter has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, but Jesus has sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone.  I imagine that the disciples are eagerly trotting after Jesus, attempting to take in as much as they can.  One day as they break from their long hours of walking, Jesus begins to teach his disciples that he will have to undergo suffering and die before being resurrected. Peter, whose eagerness often gets in the way of his listening, says, “Lord, this must never happen to you!”  Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah, and so cannot fathom why he wouldn’t just destroy his enemies and take control of things. The normally gentle Jesus snaps at Peter saying, “Get behind me Satan.  You are setting your mind on human things, not divine things.”  It is six days after this dramatic revelation that we find Jesus and three of his disciples on top of a mountain.
            Jesus is lit up from within with a brilliant, painful white light. Transfiguration means to change in form or substance, particularly in a spiritual sense.  When the disciples get their bearings, they see Moses and Elijah there with Jesus.  The three of them are sitting around having a conversation like this is the most normal thing in the world.  Somehow the linear timeline of life on earth has gotten all jumbled together, and past, present, and future are in a glorious mess on top of this mountain. Peter recognizes that something pretty exceptional is taking place, and has the most human response of all, a desire to box up the entire experience and keep it contained there on top of the mountain. He offers to build tabernacles, or little structures, for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to live.  As Peter blathers on, a huge cloud rolls in.  Imagine something like the thunderheads that roll over the prairie with a summer storm, with cloud-to-cloud lightning, and this massive cloud surrounds the disciples.  A voice rumbles from within it saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”  The disciples shudder in fear and fall to the ground.  The cloud rumbles away, and Jesus is left standing over his three disciples who lay in the dirt.  He gently touches them, saying, “Get up.  Do not be afraid.  Let us go down the mountain.  There is work to do.”
            This is the last Sunday before Lent begins.  It is not a coincidence that Lent is marked on either end with mountaintop experiences.  Strange things happen on top of mountains in the Bible.  Encounters with the divine. And this story is no exception. God shows up to make the definitive statement about who Jesus is, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” Transfiguration is the point where Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and what awaits him there. The light from the transfiguration is illuminating his path all the way to the cross.  Because as you know, Lent ends on top of a mountain as well.  Golgotha, the mountain with the cross.  
            The transfiguration story is a pivotal point in the life and work of Jesus.   He has been definitively claimed by God for the salvation of the whole world.  But this is a new thing.  This is a terrifying thing.  It does not make one bit of sense to the disciples. It doesn’t make one bit of sense to us. But in a way, isn’t this kind of what it is all about? Since when has anything that the God of heaven and earth has done in Christ Jesus made sense? The transfiguration is about us seeing, in searing brilliant light, the sort of God that we have, not the one that we wish that we had. It is about seeing the beauty in the absurd.  It is the crazy revelation that God came to earth fully human and fully divine to keep company with all of us sinners and loves us so much as to die on a cross for our sake.
            But God also knows that we, like the disciples, fall down in fear and shield our eyes from this truth carved out in brilliant relief from the bright light of Christ.  The most hopeful part of this Gospel story for me is Jesus reaching out to the disciples in their fear, actually physically touching them, and saying, “Do not be afraid.”  We too are so very often afraid.  Uncertainty threatens to devour us.  Financial insecurity and job loss..  Aging parents.  Illness. The creeping darkness of depression in a winter that never ends.   War and violence around the world.  
The disciples are wrestling with what it means that their Lord will suffer and die and the crippling fear of things to come that they cannot understand.  As we enter into the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, we too dwell in fear with mysteries that we cannot understand.  But God reaches out to us again and again and again and again through the Word, through bread and wine, through the waters of baptism, and through one another, touches us, and says, “Do not be afraid.” 
            Let us pray:

Dear God, you come to us in mystery and in ways we cannot understand.  Bear with us and continue to make yourself known when it seems like you are far away from us in our fear. Amen.

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