Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sermon For 2/22/09 Transfiguration Sunday: Love's True Form

Mark 9:2-9 (NRSV):

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Ever since Kiddo has been able (in theory at least) to sleep through the night, it has been my job when either of the kids do wake up at night to go to their room and comfort them. The reason for this is more utilitarian than it is chivalrous—I am a much lighter sleeper than Sweetie. When one of the kids makes noise, I’m going to wake up either way, so it makes more sense for only one person to wake up than both of us. So we’ve got the baby monitor on my side of the bed, and I keep it at a level where it will wake me up but usually not Sweetie.

The spring after Kiddo turned two, he had been waking up with night terrors. It was completely normal for his age, but when you are woken up at 3 in the morning by the most inhuman and inconsolable screaming, it can be a bit disconcerting, to say the least. When it first started, we got him a nightlight, and made a really big deal about how he has a “special light” in his room so he can see that there’s nothing to be afraid of. After that, when the night terrors came, I’d go into his room, sit down next to his bed, rub his back and help settle him down. Then we’d talk about his special light and how he doesn’t have to be scared. I’d ask him, “Does mommy have a special light?”


“Does daddy have a special light?”

“No, only me.”

“That’s right, only you have a special light. So you don’t have to be scared.” (Don’t ask me why that made sense, but for some reason it was a big comfort to his 2 year old mind.)

Then, usually, he’d be comforted enough to lie back down and go to sleep.

After he had had the nightlight for a couple of weeks, I was pretty proud of how well our discussions about the nightlight were working in helping him go back to sleep. So one night, I decided to take the discussion one step further. We went through our usual litany, and then I asked him another question, to see how well he understood what we were talking about: “so why don't you have to be scared?”

His answer surprised me.

“Because Daddy comes.”

The "theology" or even the light behind the nightlight meant nothing to him. What mattered was that in the middle of the night, Daddy comes. To his two year-old mind, Daddy doesn’t come because he ate his dinner or because he put away his toys or because he went poopy in the potty—Daddy just comes. When he is so terrified that all he can do is cry out, he knows that Daddy comes.

That, I think, is a good introduction to our Transfiguration gospel lesson.

What stands out when we read today’s gospel? It’s the light. The blinding light, Jesus’ robes shining white as snow, the glory and splendor of the King of the World suddenly walking around with Moses, bringer of the law, and Elijah, the great prophet…the one for whom a place is always saved at Passover, the one whose reappearance is said to mean that the Messiah can’t be far behind. And the voice of God, reminding Peter James and John of who Jesus is—“this is my son, the beloved,” –and following with a command, “listen to him!”

Powerful stuff. Powerful story.

But my friends in Christ, if that’s where our focus is, I think we end up missing the point.

If we take this literal mountaintop experience and leave it merely as an example of Christ’s power and glory, then all we’ve done is the same thing poor Peter did. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;” he said. “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” By the way, did you catch the author of Mark’s little editorial comment after that? It’s almost as though he felt he ought to apologize for Peter. Verse 6 reads, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” It’s like he was saying, “yeah, Peter’s idea was dumb, but let’s not be too hard on the guy. He was terrified, and just didn’t know what to say!”

At any rate, if all we see this experience as is a demonstration of divine power and glory, then we’re essentially making these nice little dwelling-places, these little boxes for the story to fit in. Jesus’ transfiguration did not happen merely to allow these three disciples to say “wow! What an amazing trick! That was great! Surely, you MUST be the Son of God.” Just like the miracles Jesus performed weren’t simply divine parlor tricks so that those around him would say “wow! What an amazing trick! Surely you MUST be the Son of God.” N.T. Wright said in his book “Simply Christian” that God doesn’t send the Holy Spirit to give Christians the spiritual equivalent of a day at Disneyland. I’d argue that The Transfiguration event falls much into the same category. There’s more to it than just an amazing light show.

There are three ideas around Jesus’ transfiguration that I want to look at today.

1. Jesus’ transfiguration reminds us that God has come to us.
2. Jesus’ transfiguration was a “foretaste of the feast to come.”
3. Jesus’ transfiguration calls us to participate in building for the Kingdom of God.

First, Jesus’ transfiguration reminds us that God has come to us. Think back to the story of Kiddo and the nightlight. There were two very important things that needed to happen for Tyler to be comforted. First, someone had to come to him. It would have done him no good whatsoever if I had heard him crying over the monitor, turned the volume down, then rolled over and gone back to sleep. He needed me THERE. With him. Second, not just anyone could have done the trick. If some stranger had walked into his room and tried to tell him everything was going to be okay, chances are it would have just made things worse. He needed his mommy or daddy. It needed to be us. We’re the ones he looked to for protection, for guidance, for help and comfort.

So what does that have to do with the Transfiguration? It reminds us that this Jesus person isn’t just some guy off the street who could do amazing things. This was God. This was God in human form, come down to us. Peter, James and John were given a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity. Yes, he was their Rabbi. Yes, he was the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. But as the voice from the heavens reminded them, this was also the very Son of God, the messiah, the one sent to reconcile all of creation. As a favorite hymn of mine goes, God isn’t in some heaven, light years away. God came to us in the person of Jesus, and God comes to us today. The same God who created the universe, who created the earth and stars and all creatures and everything that ever was or is or will be—that same God came to earth.

The light of the Transfiguration, while dazzling, wasn’t the point of the event. Just as Kiddo wasn’t comforted by the nightlight, but rather by the presence of one of his parents, so too the light of the Transfiguration points to Jesus as our Emmanuel—our “God With Us.” The one who has come to us in the darkness of our sin, our pain, and our brokenness, and who has begun the process of making all things new through his death and resurrection.

I’m reminded of the final scene from the movie Shrek. In case you haven’t seen the movie, Shrek is the story of an ogre, a big, green, fat, belching, crude creature, who rescues the Princess Fiona, who looks a lot like Cameron Diaz animated digitally and given red hair. Princess Fiona is under a curse; “By day one thing, by night another, until true love’s kiss restores love’s true form.” Every night, she becomes an ogre, every bit as green and fat as Shrek. Every day, she becomes Cameron Diaz with red hair again, and the cycle will repeat until she finally experiences true love and takes love’s true form. At the end of the movie, Shrek finally sees Fiona’s ogre persona (she had been hiding it from him) for the first time. But he loves her and kisses her anyway. Watch what happens in the clip.

(NOTE: Here I showed the Shrek "transfiguration" scene at the end of the movie--I tried to find it on Youtube to post here, but didn't see anything online. Sorry!) =)

The makers of the movie do a skillful job of guiding our expectations. After all the light and glory, we expect to see the Cameron Diaz lookalike there. But what is love’s true form? The princess wants to be like the one she loves. She takes on HIS form.

Philippians 2:5-8 reads, “5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” Christ emptied himself, was born as a human, and came not to be served, but to serve. Love’s true form shows its face by giving for the good of others, and God demonstrated love’s true form to us by coming TO us through Jesus.

Jesus comes to you.

And Jesus comes FOR you.

Which brings me to my second thought, that Jesus’ transfiguration was a foretaste of the feast to come. Do those words sound familiar? They’re part of the communion liturgy. When we participate in Holy Communion, we proclaim that we are receiving a foretaste of the feast to come. So what does that mean? We believe that Jesus is truly present in, with, and under the bread and the wine. The bread and the wine don’t change form…they remain what they are, but when we eat and drink, we experience in a very real way the presence of Christ in our lives. Holy Communion becomes, in the words of N.T. Wright, an intersection of heaven and earth. It’s a place and a time where a little piece of the Kingdom of God breaks into our everyday world, and it transforms us. It changes us. It transfigures us. Christ comes TO us, right where we are, and right AS we are.

And so we see the transfiguration of Jesus, as an intersection of heaven and earth. We receive, in the very human form of Jesus, a glimpse of the glory of the divine. And if the point wasn’t made strongly enough, God tells us “this is my son, the beloved.” There is to be no doubt as to whom Jesus is. And perhaps, for those of us who proclaim our belief in “the resurrection of the body” in the Apostles Creed, we see something of what that might look like. As Christ comes to us through the bread and wine and transfigures us through his presence, giving us a glimpse of the glory that awaits us in an eternity spent with the God who loves us, so too the disciples are given that same sort of glimpse on the mountain.

My third thought is that Jesus’ transfiguration calls us to participate in building for the Kingdom of God. And this is where the real meat for our daily lives is. We’ve seen that God comes to us, that God gives us this intersection of heaven and earth, but what difference does that make? What does it look like when God comes, when heaven and earth intersect?

The answers to that come directly before, and directly after, our gospel lesson. Mark 8:34 reads, “34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I think it’s no accident that Jesus goes from “take up your cross” to the Transfiguration in the very next few verses. Remember--the transfiguration is a reminder that God has come to us through Jesus, and is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. So what does it look like when God comes to us, what does the kingdom of God look like?

It’s cross-shaped.

It looks like self-giving love for the sake of the world.

It looks like what happens immediately when Jesus goes back down the mountain. He re-enters the brokenness of humanity. He’s immediately met by the sick and demon-possessed, and he goes right back to the work of building for the kingdom of God. He goes about the work of healing, of making whole, of restoring relationships, of taking away division, and brokenness, pain and suffering.

In other words, he goes about doing the work of the church. He gives of himself for the good of creation.

And later, on a very real cross, he doesn’t give OF himself. He gives himself.

Through the Transfiguration, we too are called to that same work. We’re called to be peacemakers, to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, heal the sick. N.T. Wright puts it this way in his book Surprised By Hope: "The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring real and effective signs of God's renewed creation to birth even in the midst of the present age." God’s at work making all things new, work that began at the cross and in the empty Easter tomb, and our call is to be a part of that.

We like to speak of mountaintop experiences, of those times in our lives that are life-changing, the highest of the high points. But be careful—mountaintop experiences change you. Are you sure you want to go up the mountain with Jesus? Your transfiguration doesn’t end when you come back down. It’s not easy having your life changed. Often, it means you feel a need to live differently than you did before. It means you see things in a different light than you did before. It may mean sensing a call from God that takes you out of a place of comfort and security, and leads you to places you never dreamed you’d go. It means that like Jesus, you become willing to enter the pain and brokenness of creation, bringing with you the promise of life and hope and restoration. That kind of change in our lives can be difficult, and scary.

But it’s oh so exciting. And it’s the very definition of what it means to live in grace. During confirmation a couple of weeks ago, Pastoral Intern Ben made a point that’s stuck with me. He said, “we’re not saved BY service, but we’re saved FOR service.” We’re not saved BY what we do when we go back down the mountain, but Christ comes to us in all his power and glory to enable, empower, and inspire us to serve others.

We spend today on the mountaintop. But like Jesus, James, John, and Peter, we can’t stay there. In fact, on Wednesday, our church calendar does exactly what Jesus does, leaves the mountain, and descends to the valley of Ash Wednesday and Lent, where we begin the journey toward the cross, the journey through our own sin and brokenness, the journey that Christ made for us and that he calls each of us to make for the sake of the world. “Take up your cross and follow.” Give of yourselves. Bring hope to the hopeless, healing to the suffering, food to the hungry, and the promise of new life to a world gripped by the fear of death.

That, my friends, is kingdom-building in its most basic and Biblical sense.

So, for the sake of our Confirmation students trying to do sermon notes, let’s summarize:

1. Jesus’ transfiguration reminds us that God has come to us.
2. Jesus’ transfiguration was a “foretaste of the feast to come.”
3. Jesus’ transfiguration calls us to participate in building for the Kingdom of God.

May you experience, through the power and the glory of the transfiguration, your own transfiguration. May you experience in a very real way Christ’s coming to you, and for you. May you participate in this foretaste of the feast to come. And may you hear and heed the call to participate in building for the Kingdom of God.


hereistand said...

"Powerful stuff. Powerful story."


Aunt Jan said...

So glad I came upon your sermon today...wonderful and so very meaningful and inspiring! Ever think about being a pastor :) You'll be a blessing to many!!!

Rev Scott said...

LOVED the Shrek illustration. Never thought of it that way myself. Nicely done!