Jesus is on a mountain with the A-Team – Peter, James, and John – and Moses and Elijah pop in for a briefing. Welcome to transfiguration. It baffles and humbles my mind.[i] During the week I read this story literally and wrote a sermon. Then I wrote another sermon after reading the story symbolically as if it didn’t actually happen.
The meanings that came from both of these attempts – one conservative and one liberal – were the same. The text is neither conservative nor liberal. Jesus is neither left-wing nor right-wing. Everyone is convinced Jesus is on their side, but Jesus has often made moves none of us saw coming. In fact, he was so elusive the only way his enemies could keep up was to nail him on a cross. George Lakoff, in The Political Mind, tells us that the left-right metaphor is destructive and unhelpful. If you think that Jesus somehow would favor one side over the other, you need to think again. Jesus has no use for the labels we use, nor do I think would he care for our labels. He wants us to be disciples, followers, servants, saints. So putting aside our left-right obsessions we have this text and its overarching performative function: passing out massive portions of encouragement. The encouragement pours out of the cracks and crevices of the mountain rocks, falls out of the clouds, rolls across the valleys, and covers the ground like manna from heaven. Encouragement here. Encouragement there. Encouragement everywhere.
In the critical moment before choosing to be nailed to a cross or driving nails for a living at the bench of a carpenter, Jesus heard these words: “This is my beloved Son.” Isn’t that just like God? When we are up against it, when we can’t take it any longer, God speaks words of encouragement. “Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them.” St. Paul tells us that God is a God of steadfastness and encouragement. There is no greater blessing than that of a father. In the last few days of his life, my dad placed his hands on my head and said, “Son, you have been such a blessing to me.” Wow!
Then of all things, standing on either side of Jesus: Moses and Elijah. Luke tells us they were speaking to Jesus about his departure. His departure? Like taking a plane to a new destination. Isn’t that an intriguing way to speak of death? Well, Moses went up to Mount Nebo and he died and God buried him there. Elijah had a more dramatic departure. Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Jesus is encouraged by the two most powerful figures of Hebrew history. Moses took on Pharaoh and set God’s people free. Elijah took on Ahab and Jezebel and lived to tell the tale. Moses equals the Law; Elijah the prophets. Together they are the Word of God for the people of God. It is no little thing that we read the Word in worship as an encouragement to our faithfulness.
Even when church people have stopped reading the Bible, when there seems to be a famine in the land of hearing the Word of God, the word of God still encourages. If you are facing a crisis or a cross, something more than the latest “How To” list from social media will be required. The Word is given, for, among other reasons, for our encouragement. Romans 15:4 reads “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”
After the verbal affirmation, encouragement tumbles out of the sky in visual form. Matthew describes the scene as a bright light and the cloud – symbols of God’s almightiness. It is the first statement of our faith found in our pledge of allegiance known as the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” It may be hard for us to trust those ancient words. British philosopher Onora O’Neill argues that the defining trait of our culture is the loss of trust in almost everything and everyone. We no longer believe our authorities and institutions are working for us. We have learned to be suspicious and some have learned how to make us even more suspicious. It’s the oldest trick in the book. The serpent in the garden hissed: “Did God say?” and thus introduced suspicion to make us so fearful that the man and woman even hid in the Garden of Eden. Nothing spoils perfection like suspicion. But against the tides of this suspicious culture there’s this one statement: I believe in God the Almighty. We take refuge in God – God is where we belong. We can put our confidence and trust in God. He is not manipulating us to get something from us – our vote or our money or any junk like that. We can trust the purposes of God because God doesn’t actually need anything from us. I believe in the almightiness of God has always been enough to sustain my belief in creation against all the criticisms and atheisms that have risen and fallen over the centuries. I’ve never felt the need to add any other human theories to my belief in the Creator: I don’t need a literal six-day creation, or intelligent design or scientific creationism taught in public schools to believe in creation or even the fantasy of an 8,000 year old earth to believe in creation.
I have no use for the stifling “certainties” that energizes so many American Christians. It must surely be boring to have everything figured out and all the puzzles about God solved. I ditched the alleged comforts of certainty for assurance decades ago.
In the words of Sheldon Vanauken:
Between the probable and proved there yawns A gap. Afraid to jump, we stand absurd, Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse, Our very standpoint crumbling. Desperate dawns Our only hope: to leap into the Word That opens up the shuttered universe. Now, the attention shifts to the three disciples. In other words, it’s our turn, and maybe we need more encouragement than just about anyone else in the world this morning. Three little words packed with meaning: “LISTEN TO HIM.” LISTEN TO JESUS. In a world that listens to anyone with a mouth, a microphone, a blog, a tweet, or other social media outlet, we are commanded to LISTEN TO JESUS. Do we get it?
Then, of all things, the gospel shines its white-hot heat right into our hearts and shows us Peter, James, and John, face-down on the ground, scared senseless. We claim that we are not a people scared of God. Well, why are we so scared of our own shadows? Why are we more possessed by the need for security than the need for peace? Why do we have leaders who are so frightened of Islam they want to lead a new Crusade of Christians versus Muslims? Why are we so scared of cultural change? Why are we so scared of what will happen to our money? Why are people who will probably never encounter a transgender person so obsessed and fearful of transgender people? The national news on Thursday evening was dominated with talk about bathrooms. Bathrooms? The less we fear God, the more we fear everything and everyone.[ii]
If you are going to be fearful, at least make it a positive fearfulness: the overwhelming sense of God’s presence – the knee- bending reality that there are experiences we can’t fathom, understand, or comprehend. It is the excess of God’s presence, the massive and overwhelming nature of the moment. God’s excess overcomes, submerges, exceeds, and saturates the measure of each and every one of our concepts. Sam Wells says, “Overwhelmed by ‘God’s inexhaustible creation, limitless grace, relentless mercy, enduring purpose, fathomless love,’ we turn away, finding such a God ‘too much to contemplate, assimilate, understand.’” So God calls us, draws us, provokes us to go to a place we cannot go and a place we cannot resist so that we learn again that God has given us everything we need. And so Jesus is encouraged that he has all he needs to face the cross, drink the cup, and be baptized into a cruel death. He is ready to face the worst that the enemy can do to him.
And here, at last we grasp that Jesus is encouraging us. He comes to his white-knuckled, knee-bent, heart-shaking disciples. He comes to them across their fear. This is one of Jesus’ patented moves. Then Matthew tells us that Jesus touched them. Now encouragement comes as kinesthetic affirmation. To hold people and to touch them when they are afraid is a powerful therapy. Now, we learn that we can’t use Jesus up. There’s no end to his encouragement. In the Word and at the Table we learn that the more the body and blood of Christ are shared, the more there is to be shared. This is how we learn to stop the spread of fear. We do it with the Word and the Supper in order to teach the world that courage instead of fear must and can shape all our relations – including our economic relations. We have been given all we need in order not to be possessed by fear or greed.
Then Jesus tells the disciples, “Get up.” Isn’t that just like Jesus? When our faces are stuck in the dust, when we are scared to death, he tells us to stand up and speak up. A group of fine Baptists once burned a cross in the yard of the parsonage where we lived. As I watched the flames of that cross burning in my yard, I saw the fear in the eyes of my little children, and I pulled them close and told them not to be afraid. I told them that I wouldn’t let anyone hurt them. And I went to church that Sunday and I stood up and preached against hatred and bigotry and racism. Once we stand up, we are not capable of standing down ever again in the face of injustice. After all, if you never stand for anything, you will fall for anything.
And finally Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”[iii] It’s written loud all over the gospels. Stand up and do not be afraid. That’s a full meal of encouragement.
So if you’ve come to this place this morning feeling like those disciples, feeling like you can’t handle the truth, can’t have a deeply moving spiritual experience, feeling like putting your face down to the ground because reality is too much for you, then hear the gospel of Jesus Christ today. “Do not be afraid.” Lift up your hearts! Square your shoulders; stand up straight and follow Jesus!
[i] Those of you who apply science, reason, and facts to the story will find it unbelievable and there’s not one thing I can do about that. The story is one of risk and fear where heaven intersects earth.
In American religion, a brutal affair with belief rages. The primary battle: who is right and who has rights? To paraphrase Soren Kierkegaard[i], a religion of belief divorced from practice has gradually percolated through the churches so that no one any longer bothers to experience God. The Bible is a weapon and verses are bullets. Immeasurable harm is being done to the churches. Beliefs are fortifications of excuses and escapes; for there is always something to be defended, something about which to be angry and fearful, something to attack. Christianity is being hurt by too much belief. Belief for the sake of belief makes Bible reading a furious search for texts to prop up our assumptions. If you read the story of the transfiguration literally and see it as a miracle, as an event of fact, history, something that really happened, you will be using the text as a weapon against those who don’t do the supernatural well. The text is rendered powerless because you only have one purpose for it, and that is to defend your belief in the supernatural. What the text is doing, the action taking place, what the text requires of you in practice, what Jesus is trying to tell you, what Matthew is doing is now blocked.
If you read the story of transfiguration as a liberal, you see it as impossible, not true, and therefore of no value. Again the text is rendered powerless because you only use it to protect your assumptions, to advance your agenda. This is not what it means to be a people of the book. Belief can block our ability to hear the Scripture because our minds are made up in advance.
During the past week I read the text literally and wrote a sermon based on that reading. Then I read the text metaphorically and wrote a sermon based on that reading. Guess what? In both instances the text does the same things, teaches the same lessons. We need to get away from hammering people about right beliefs and concentrate on what God is doing. After all, the subject of the Bible is God.
[ii] There’s even a network dedicated to making sure we stay scared. The FEAR network where the news people are always telling us that there is a war on Christmas, a war against Christians, a persecution of Christians, a loss of Christian rights. Christianity isn’t about rights, it’s about mercy.
In C.S. Lewis’s fictional book, The Great Divorce, two former work acquaintances meet in the after-life. One is now a ghost who resides in hell, the other, a murderer is now a Solid Person who lives in heaven.
“I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? That’s the sort I was and I don’t care who knows it…You may think you can put me down because you’re dressed up like that (which you weren’t when you worked under me) and I’m only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?”
“Oh no. It’s not so bad as that. I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear…”
“What do you keep arguing for?… I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.”
“Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought…”
“I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.”
“I’d rather be damned than go along with you. I came here I came here to get my rights, see? Not to go snivelling along on charity tied to your apron-strings…I’ll go home. I didn’t come to be treated like a dog. I’ll go home. That’s what I’ll do. Damn and blast the whole pack of you …”
Doesn’t this accurately portray the Christian culture of much of America? Church people sniveling about their rights. How odd that a servant people, a turn the other cheek people, a people who are slaves to righteousness, would go around insisting on their rights.
[iii] “Do not be afraid.” It’s written loud all over the gospels. “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God.” “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,” for your prayer has been heard.” To the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”