Sunday, March 06, 2011

Transfiguration: Really Seeing Jesus

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 17:1-9
I grew up in the city and because of that, believe it or not, I didn't see a sight that many of you may have seen many times in your life, until I was twenty-nine. It happened in Benzie County, Michigan, a place so small in population and size that it didn't even get its first traffic light until the late-80s. It's a place of real beauty with lakes and sand dunes that set next to Lake Michigan. Some people would say it's remote. Ann, Philip, and I spent a year there when I did my seminary internship. I'll never forget going to bed on the night we arrived, looking out the window, and seeing a shooting star flash across the sky. I'd had to get away from it all in order to see it, my first shooting star!

Maybe that was why Jesus took Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain, as we’re told about in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus may have wanted to give these three key followers, the ones He had chosen to be the leaders of His Church, the chance to get away from it all so that they could catch a clear vision of Who He is.

The account of what the three disciples saw that day also shows you and me Who Jesus can be for us.

And, what Peter, James, and John saw was spectacular! While standing on top of a mountain, Jesus was “transfigured...and His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Then, two Old Testament figures showed up. One was Moses, the one to whom God had given the Ten Commandments and who had been Israel’s leader out of Egypt, through the wilderness, about 1500 years before the birth of Jesus. The other was Elijah, a prophet whose ministry began about 870 years before Jesus was born and came to an end when God sent a chariot to taxi him to heaven.

The two of them represent the two great strains of Old Testament tradition: the law and the prophets. It was the Law and the Prophets that, hundreds of years before Jesus was born, pointed to His coming. Now, in a moment of fulfillment, Jesus stood talking with Moses and Elijah, underscoring that Jesus is the center of history and the bringer of all our best hopes.

Peter and the others were understandably impressed by this sight! Peter was so impressed, in fact, that he spoke up, foot firmly in mouth as always, and said, “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.” That word translated as dwellings could mean everything from huts to temples. I think it’s safe to bet that Peter was thinking in grander terms at that moment. He wanted to build three religious shrines.

It didn’t take long for his suggestion to be vetoed. A bright cloud came down from heaven and from it, a voice--the Voice, the same Voice that had confirmed that Jesus was the Son of God when Jesus was baptized at the Jordan River--said, “This is My Son, the Beloved; with Him I am well pleased; listen to Him!”

This command to listen to Jesus would have hit Peter like a punch to the gut. Just six days before, Peter had confessed his belief that Jesus was the Son, or the very reflection, of God, on earth to be our Savior and King. Jesus applauded Peter's answer. But then He told Peter and the others that He was to be crucified in Jerusalem and rise again on the third day after His death.

The very mention of Jesus being crucified had been repulsive to Peter. "This will never happen to You, Lord," Peter tried to tell Jesus. But Jesus, angered by this well-intentioned attempt to thwart Him in His mission of dying and rising for us, turned to Peter and said, "Get behind Me, Satan."

"Listen," Jesus was telling Peter, "to what I'm saying; not what you want Me to say!" This past week, our son Philip sent along a quote from a theologian he'd run across. It addresses preachers of God's Word: "You are required to believe, to preach, and to teach what the Bible says is true, not what you want the Bible to say is true." Jesus was emphatic that He would be our Savior in the way God chose, not the way we might prefer.

Now, on the mount of Transfiguration, after hearing the Voice from heaven command that he listen to Jesus, Peter may well have remembered the rebuke Jesus had issued to him six days earlier. Whatever was in his mind, Peter did the thing that made the most sense at that moment: He shut up and, along with the other two disciples, fell to the ground, understandably terrified.

Jesus went to them, touched them, and told them, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” As the three lifted themselves off the ground and tentatively looked up, they discovered that, Moses, Elijah, the cloud, and the dazzling brightness were all gone. Only Jesus remained.

The same was true for those disciples as is true for us: When life frightens us or jolts us or throws us or hurts us, the only reliable helper guaranteed to be there is the compassionate God we know through Jesus Christ!

So, what was the point of this incredible incident? There were many points, I suppose. But I want to zero in on just a few this morning.

Point number one clearly was that Jesus is God the Son, in the flesh, come to earth with the full approval of God the Father. On the Mount of Transfiguration, He was revealed in the same way God was revealed on Mount Sinai to Moses and the elders of ancient Israel nearly fifteen centuries earlier.

Point number two is seen in God’s implicit rejection of Peter’s proposal to build three shrines. Several years ago, Ann’s mom took her and her family to the Mediterranean. Among their stops were Rome and the Vatican. I was interested in Ann’s impressions of the Vatican, with its grand basilica and priceless works of art. Ann, you know was an Art major who formerly worked for the art museum and the Arts Council in Columbus and is a talented artist herself. I shouldn’t have been surprised by her reaction, but I was. Like almost every person I’ve ever known to go the Vatican, my wife said that she was totally turned off by all the money spent on a religious shrine and wondered whether God was really glorified by it all.

It’s a good question. God isn’t necessarily glorified by buildings, icons, symbols, rituals, stained glass windows, or much-recited words. The Bible says that we followers of Jesus are temples of God's Holy Spirit, bought and paid for with the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross. In other places, it says that we’re to be living stones built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. Too often, our religious stuff may be nothing more than monuments to our own egos, designed to impress the world, not glorify God. But the God we know through Jesus Christ doesn’t build His kingdom with brick and mortar. He builds it in the lives of those who turn from sin and follow Jesus. That, I’m sure, is one reason that God cut Peter off when he offered to start building those three dwellings.

A third point that I think the disciples were to take from their experience on the mountaintop is maybe the most important one. It can be seen in that simple, moving moment when Jesus approached the frightened disciples, touched them, and told them to get up and not be afraid. The God we meet in Jesus Christ wants us to let Him into our lives. He wants us to welcome Him into all that we say and do and are each day. Jesus can do wonderful things when we do that.

The late E. Stanley Jones was a missionary, evangelist, and author. In one of his books, he tells the story of a man known to be, “the biggest grouch in Trenton.” One day, this man called someone he knew in another town and said, “All Trenton’s different---everybody’s different this morning since that meeting in the high school last night where we heard [the evangelist]. Of course, only I may be different, but all Trenton seems different.”

When we let God into our lives, everything is different. We have a different relationship with God and so, we can build different relationships with those around us. We can face life with hope and openness. We live in the confidence that our sins, which would otherwise earn us eternal separation from God, have been forgiven and that God will help us resist temptation in this world and that in eternity, living directly in the presence of God, sin will have no more power to mar our characters or our lives. We can be like the backwoods Christian I’ve mentioned before who said, “I ain’t what I want to be and I ain’t what I’m gonna be. But I thank God, I ain’t what I was!” “If anyone is in Christ,” the New Testament tells us, “there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” God wants us to let Him into our lives so that we can be made new.

But I think there’s another reason God wants us to let Him into our lives. A pastor was driving along a country road, came to a corner, and saw an elderly woman walking along with a heavy load in her arms. He stopped beside her, rolled down his window, explained that he was the pastor of a neighboring church, and offered the woman a ride. She recognized him and said that she would love a ride. She climbed into the front seat and closed the door. As they pulled away, the pastor asked her, “Why don’t you put that load in the back seat?” “Oh, it’s kind enough of you to give me a ride. I can still carry this, though,” she said. They rode in silence for a time and then the pastor said, “Thank you for giving me an inspiration for my next Sunday message.” “How did I do that?” the woman wondered. “Well, I think our relationship with God is a lot like you and that heavy package you’re still holding in your arms. We trust God to get us through life, but not to help carry the burdens.”

I could almost write a book about all the times I thought for sure my life was going to go bust. But each time that happens, I’ve learned the importance of letting the God we know through Jesus into my areas of deepest concern. When we do that, our burdens become lighter and He shows us what to do, if we only let Him.

The God Who came to this world and touched the frightened disciples on the mountain, Who went to a cross and rose from a grave, wants to come to you this morning and each day of your life. He wants to help you carry your burdens. He wants to be your chief counselor, the One you turn to even when the whole world seems to have turned away. This week, why not make this your prayer at the beginning of each day?:
Lord Jesus, all day long, show me when I’m wrong. Affirm me when I’m right. Help me to make good decisions. Make me an agent of Your love. Today, I choose to let You into every moment of my life.
And then, like the disciples becalmed by Jesus on the mountain, face your day with confidence!

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