[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]
One of my favorite preachers, Gerald Mann, tells a joke about a televangelist who went skiing. He had never been skiing before, but he was full of himself and, stupidly, simply strapped on some skis, climbed onto a ski lift, and headed up a mountain.
He passed the green and blue stations, spots where inexperienced and intermediate skiers, respectively, were to have gotten off the lift. Instead, he rode all the way up to the black station, confident that despite his inexperience, he would do well.
When he reached the top of the mountain, he jumped off the chair and down the hill he went, end over end through the first turn. He flew over a cliff into a gorge.
About ten feet down, he grabbed a tree branch. There he held on tightly, suspended over certain death. He yelled out, “Is anybody up there?”
It just so happened that a minister who the televangelist constantly criticized in his broadcasts had seen the whole thing. The minister stayed out of the televangelist’s line of vision and called down to him, “Yes, there’s someone up here. It’s I, the Lord your God. The time of your testing is at hand. If you really believe as you’re claiming to believe all the time, let go and I will catch you.”
There was a pause from below. And then the televangelist asked, “Is anybody else up there?”
That’s not a true story, of course. But there is a lot of truth in it. As Mann writes after telling it in his book, When the Bad Times Are Over for Good, “We would all like to really let go and trust God…But we’d like something more than a disembodied voice.”
Interestingly, there is a disembodied voice in our Gospel lesson today. It comes from a cloud that has descended to a mountain. And this voice, which we can take to be God the Father, tells us that God is more than a disembodied voice. We all would like to trust that. But can we? And if so, how?
Throughout this Epiphany season, which began on January 6, we’ve said that the Gospel lessons on these Sundays have all presented epiphanies, manifestations of Who Jesus is and what He can be for us when, by faith, we let Him be.
In Epiphany, our picture of Jesus has been unscrambled and we have seen that He is more than a man, more than a great moral teacher, more even than King of the Jews or Savior of the world.
But you and I have the benefit of hindsight. We live on the other side of Good Friday and Easter. We know that, though the world tried to kill Him off on Good Friday, Jesus rose from the dead on Easter, guaranteeing the truth of His promise that, “Those who believe in me, though they die, will live.”
The three disciples who Jesus took with Him to the top of the mountain in our Gospel lesson probably had no clear idea of why they had followed Jesus in the first place or why they were now on this mountain with Him.
Peter, the one quickest to speak of the twelve apostles, had, just a few verses before today’s Gospel lesson, made a confession about Jesus. When Jesus asked the twelve, “Who do you say I am?” Peter said simply, “The Messiah [that means, the Christ, God’s anointed king]…The Messiah of God.”
But those may have been simply disembodied words for Peter, which is probably why Jesus responded to his confession by telling Peter and the other apostles: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
These words of Jesus would not have computed in the minds of the twelve apostles. The Messiah to suffer in the holy city of Jerusalem? The Messiah rejected by the very religious leaders who should have hailed him as king? The Messiah killed? Those thoughts would have been so mind-numbingly confusing to them that they would hardly have taken notice of the most incredible claim of all, that after being murdered, the Messiah would rise again.
But on this Saint Valentine’s Day, it’s important to remember that love is more than words, especially the love God has for us. And so, God gives the three disciples closest to Jesus more than words. He will show them how the Messiah can be both God of all and servant of all, crucified like a criminal yet the King Who brings life.
In our lesson, while Jesus prays, He blazes with the very fire of heaven. Peter, James, and John couldn’t have helped but remember reading from the book of Exodus about the time when God had called Moses to Mount Sinai and covered the mountain with a cloud. After seven days, God had called Moses out of the cloud and, we’re told, “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire…”
At the Transfiguration, in the presence of Peter, James, and John, 1300 years after Moses had encountered God on Sinai, Jesus was soon joined by Moses, who had died about 1240BC, and Elijah, whom God had taken to heaven in about 840BC. They discussed Jesus’ departure—literally Jesus’ exodus*—His impending death and resurrection.
Thinking that he could bottle up the glory of this moment, Peter suggests that three booths should be built, one each for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.
At that suggestion, the cloud of heaven’s presence overshadowed and terrified Peter, James, and John, and the voice from cloud said, “This is My Son, the Chosen; listen to Him!”
God is more than a disembodied voice. God is embodied in carpenter from Nazareth Who, sinless, willingly sacrificed Himself on a cross so that all who disavow their sin and entrust their lives to Him, receive the power to live this life whatever the circumstances and a new life that goes beyond the grave in an eternal kingdom with God.
But these free gifts do not come to us without a price. They cost Jesus suffering and death on a cross. And they call us to die to sin, to die to all our human desires for importance or power, and to simply draw our life from the crucified and risen Savior. The voice from heaven told the disciples and that voice tells us today, “Do you want to know Who God is? Do you want to know God as more than a disembodied voice? Get to know Jesus. This is God the Son. Listen to Him. Listen only to Him.”
And what will we hear when we listen to Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection?
We will hear, first of all, that God loves us and seeks relationship with us. In one of Jesus’ most famous parables, He tells the story of a father who leaves all dignity behind in order to run to a son who had become lost in sin. He kisses his boy, puts new clothes on him, and rings on his fingers and throws a party. Just so, Jesus says, God throws a party in heaven every time one of us realizes our sin and our need of God and turn to Him for forgiveness and life.
When we listen to Jesus we also hear that God’s expectations of us as human beings has not changed. God still hates the sin while loving the sinner. Jesus affirms that to build our lives on anyone or anything other than God is sin. Neither our families nor our countries, neither material acquisitions nor influence are strong enough foundations to sustain our lives; only the God we know in Jesus Christ is!
You know, I wish that we had the same attitude and understanding of God's commands, as succinctly stated in the Ten Commandments, that the ancient Jews had. We have the same feeling toward God's law as we're likely to have toward the skunk who crashes the party. We think they mean God is a spoilsport.
But the ancient Israelites understood that God's commands are gifts. "Within the parameters of this commands," God says, "there is life and happiness and relationship. Transgress them and you walk away from relationships with others, with your true selves, and from Me."
Jesus said that He came into the world not to overthrow the law, but to fulfill it.** But God's laws still function as a mirror for us all, showing us our need of God and, as was true of the son in Jesus' parable, to run go back to the Lord Who runs to His children.
But we also hear this when we pay attention to Jesus: We can be forgiven. We can be made new.
True story: He had been going his own way for a long time. He had joined a small startup company with a newly minted Masters of Business Administration degree and, as the business had grown, so had his prosperity and prestige. He had become a big shot and he knew it. Later, he revealed that there had been some fudging along the way, little deals that might have gotten him in trouble were it not for the fact that he counted prosecuting attorneys, police chiefs, and even a state attorney general among his friends.
But it was all good, he told himself if ever he had second thoughts about his ethics. He had everything he wanted: the nice house, the new cars, the sumptuous vacations, the beautiful wife, the 2.1 perfectly coifed and orthodontistized children. All went well.
Then near-tragedy struck. A twin brother to whom he was close nearly died. He watched his brother’s family through the long months of hospitalization and realized that, in spite of their lower middle class lifestyles, they had something he didn’t have. They didn’t have the answers. They didn’t have an unimpeachable promise of a trouble-free life. But they had a lifeline to the God of the nail-scarred hands. They had Jesus Christ. And even though he knew it meant dying to the power of all of the things for which he had lived and striven all his life, this man grabbed hold of Jesus. Today, he and his wife strive to ensure that in everything they do, they strive to honor God.
Being a Christian isn’t about being perfect. (If you want confirmation of that, look at me. At the top of my blog, in my personal profile space, I say that, "I am an imperfect sinner." A few weeks ago, a guy wrote to me and said, "Mark, I bet if you worked at you could be a perfect sinner.") Being a Christian isn't about being perfect.
It’s about listening to Jesus.
It’s about hearing that God wants nothing more than having a relationship with Him.
It’s about dying to sin and making what God wants for us more important than what we want for us.
It means knowing that even when we fail to love God and love others as we love ourselves, we can be forgiven.
God isn’t a disembodied voice. God has come to us body and blood in the person of Jesus Christ with a simple message: Turn from sin, follow me and learn to live as I made you to live, as My child, as My son, as My daughter, now and forever. Amen
*The exodus, recounted in the Old Testament book that bears that name, is the central event of Israel's history: God's miraculous deliverance of ancient Israel from slavery in Egypt. Jesus' death and resurrection play a similar role in the New Testament. It is through Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection that He is able to lead all who follow Him out of slavery to sin and death. Whereas, the Old Testament exodus is foreshadowing, through His chosen people, of "coming attractions," Jesus' exodus is of cosmic significance. Jesus' exodus has brought the inevitable establishment of a new heaven and a new earth which His followers only experience dimly at best today, but will come in fullness when Jesus returns at the end of history.
**Jesus also says that He came to fulfill the word given by the prophets, an interesting and important point when considering that the two ancient Hebrews who met Him on the mount of Transfiguration were Moses, the one to whom God first gave the moral law, and Elijah, the greatest of the ancient prophets.