Sunday, February 26, 2017

Transfiguration A

Matthew 17:1–9

 

LISTEN TO JESUS

 

Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.

 

The Transfiguration of Jesus was a mountaintop experience to top all mountaintop experiences for Peter, James, and John. Matthew tells us that Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” So moved was Peter that he said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter wanted to hang on to that glorious vision of Jesus. It was so clear in that moment who Jesus was.

 

On President’s Day my daughter Rachel and her husband Andrew and I did not have anywhere near as dramatic a mountaintop experience as Peter, James, and John did. But we did have what we might call a mountainside experience. We went cross-country skiing in the Swampy Lakes area, just off the highway on the way from Bend up Mt. Bachelor. We were at almost the 6,000 foot level. We enjoyed the gently falling snow, even though it limited our views of the Deschutes River Valley and Mt. Bachelor. About half way around our route we took a break in the Nordeen Shelter. A couple of other skiers were there, and they said that on a clear day the view of the Deschutes River Valley was impressive from the shelter. Just as we were getting ready to resume skiing, the snow let up and the clouds lifted just enough for us to look out over the river valley. We did not see a vision of Jesus transfigured with Moses and Elijah beside him. Nonetheless, it was a glorious view, and such a view from on high has a way of putting life in perspective. We wanted to savor that moment longer; but the clouds moved back in, it began snowing once again, and we resumed skiing. After a beautiful day of skiing we went down the mountain to return to our daily lives.

 

Moses, Elijah, and Jesus— like many great religious leaders— ascended high mountains to gain clarity on their God-given identity and mission. On the top of Mt. Sinai Moses received from God the Law, specifically the Ten Commandments, and then came down the mountain to share them with the people of God.

 

In 1 Kings 19 we read that the Lord found the great prophet Elijah hiding in a cave on Mt. Horeb (Mt. Sinai). The people of God had forsaken their covenant with the Lord and killed the other prophets. “I alone am left,” said Elijah, “and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” The Lord told him to go up and stand on the top of the mountain. There the Lord spoke to him in “a sound of sheer silence.” The Lord sent him down the mountain to finish his prophetic work and assured Elijah that a faithful remnant of God’s people would survive.

 

Jesus often went up on mountains to pray and to clarify what God wanted him to do. For example, in Luke 6:12–13 we read that before Jesus called his twelve disciples he went up a mountain and spent the night in prayer. The Transfiguration was an opportunity to take Peter, James, and John with him to clarify his identity and mission. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed his disciples that he came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. Jesus’ appearance with Moses and Elijah confirmed that he was indeed the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.

 

Although Peter wanted to remain on the mountain and bask in the glory and clarity of that transfiguration experience, the Lord had other plans. According to Matthew, while Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased; listen to him!” This same voice had uttered these same words on the occasion of Jesus’ baptism. The only addition here was the exhortation “listen to him!” The disciples fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came, gently touched them, and said to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. The Lord could not have made it any clearer— Jesus speaks for me. The disciples were to take their marching orders from Jesus. In other words, the Lord clarified their identity and mission as followers of Jesus.

 

Today we have all sorts of voices of authority coming at us. We have never had so many sources of news and information. Social media allow us to communicate quickly with people all over the world. But it can be difficult to figure out who to listen to, whose voice we can trust— especially when some authoritative voices have a penchant for disseminating alternative facts and fake news or just have a hard time telling the truth. A couple of weeks ago I sent a “thank you note” to Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. I acknowledged that Senator Graham and I do not agree on a number of issues. But I expressed appreciation for his efforts, along with those of Senator John McCain’s, to call for sanity and truthfulness in addressing the issues before us.

 

The Transfiguration story makes clear that for followers of Jesus our primary voice of authority is Jesus himself. When the Lord said to Peter, James, and John, “listen to him!”— he addressed them and all the disciples of Jesus who have come after them. Listening to Jesus in the full sense is to hear the good news of God’s love for us, to repent of where we have gone astray, and then to live our lives accordingly. Listening to Jesus transfigures lives.

 

Coming to church each Sunday is in a sense an opportunity to go up the mountain with Jesus. Worship is intended to help us gain clarity about Jesus’ identity and mission as well as our own. The Lord wants us to come to church to gain that clarity. But the Lord no more wants us to dwell in this sanctuary all week than the Lord wanted Jesus and the disciples to remain on that mountain.

 

Most of life is lived in the valleys of life. It can be challenging to make our way through life on a daily basis. We can so easily get caught up in fear and anxiety. The level of fear in our society seems to have increased in recent months. Understandably it has increased among those subject to deportation and to persecution and discrimination. But my sense is that fear is driving so many. Fear cuts across the political and social spectrum. The Lord does not want people to live their lives in fear. Again and again in the biblical testimony the people of God are exhorted not to be afraid. Fear is debilitating. The Lord wants disciples of Jesus to listen to him and follow him without fear through the challenges of life in the valleys.

 

Following Jesus on a daily basis is no easy task. What seems so clear on the mountain can be far less clear in our daily lives, especially in turbulent times. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered Peter, James, and John not to tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man had been raised from the dead. Since Jesus has been raised from the dead, we do not have any such restriction. The Lord wants us to proclaim the vision of who Jesus is and what he is about to the whole world— and to do so in word and deed. Jesus’ vision of a community in which God’s love reigns is precisely the kind of vision needed in our time.

 

For the previous four weeks our gospel readings were drawn from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount can be challenging. But they are first and foremost meant to be life-giving. God’s raising of Jesus from the dead was a powerful affirmation of his life-giving teachings. Jesus envisions a kingdom— perhaps in our time we could say a community or a society— in which people love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, in which every human being is treated as a beloved child of God, in which reconciliation and justice are top priorities, in which no one is viewed as a second class citizen, in which no one needs to live in fear of the knock at the door, in which the vulnerable among us are cared for, in which the most diverse people are eager to eat and talk with one another.

 

Jesus’ vision of a community ruled by God’s love can seem so clear on the mountain or in church on Sunday, but this vision can become so clouded in our day to day lives. Putting Jesus’ teachings into practice can be a daunting task, even when we have the best of intentions. That is why it is so important to stay as close as we can to Jesus on a daily basis. Especially in turbulent times, it is essential to immerse ourselves in daily meditation on Jesus’ life and teachings, his suffering and death, and his resurrection; it is essential to engage in regular conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ; it is essential to devote ourselves to prayer; it is essential to ponder what it means to live out our core values. Daily devotions are not just a nice idea; they help keep us close to Jesus. Each day we need to ask: What does it mean to follow Jesus today? We are also invited to lay all our fears before the Lord. Especially in times like these, if we are too busy to meditate on Jesus, to engage in conversation with fellow followers of Jesus, to devote ourselves to prayer, and to ponder our core values, then we are indeed too busy.

 

The good news for those who seek to follow Jesus through the valleys of life, however imperfectly we may do so, is that we worship a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and eager to forgive. The last thing Jesus wants to do is to leave his followers or any of God’s beloved children behind. That is why there is nothing more important in our time and place than to listen to Jesus.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.