Sermon 3/6/11 Epiphany 9A
Matthew 17:1-9 Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ; the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he 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. Then Peter 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.” While he was still speaking, suddenly 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!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
On a lazy Saturday afternoon in a well-known beverage bistro, four men strolled into the store dressed in leather jackets, with wallets on their chains, and tattoos on their arms and probably on other unrevealed body parts. This place was no biker bar, and these people at first seemed to be out of place. They were not rowdy or loud, they simply went to the counter ordered their drinks and sweet treats and proceeded to go outside to enjoy their delectable delights. Another patron standing nearby chuckled and commented, “I wonder if they are recovering hippies in leather jackets or Harley-riding, mid-life crisis lawyers and doctors in disguise?” This poor, misguided patron just didn’t get it. Appearances can be deceiving. We invariably make the mistake sometimes of misjudging people without knowing them. We look at the other person’s appearance and our preconceived notions right or wrong causes us to label them.
The disciples made the repeated mistake of mis-identifying Jesus. Some thought him to be a mere rabbi, maybe a prophet, or maybe a yet to be revealed great leader. However, there was plenty of evidence for the disciples to determine who he was. At Jesus’ baptism, a voice came loudly from heaven proclaiming, “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Yet, the closest disciples wouldn’t recognize Jesus as God in the flesh. We must wonder what it was that they expected from him; a sign of power was what some of the leaders of the people required. Even when on one night during a storm, Our Lord miraculously walked across the water appearing like a ghost, the disciples still didn’t get it. They did not recognize the true nature of God that was being perfectly revealed in Christ. Oh yes, there was evidence of a power greater than humanly comprehendible, but the message, that message of Jesus was a bit hard to reconcile.
On the mountaintop, the three closest followers namely James, John, and Peter encountered the presence of the Living God in Christ in an unusual way. Our Lord took the three up to the mountain and right there before them, he was transfigured. In other words, God’s glory was revealed in his clothes and face that shone as brightly as the sun. Elijah and Moses were also there speaking to Jesus in that moment of glory and radiance. Some say that the inclusion of these two characters in the event supported the connection of Jesus with the Law and the prophets. This revelation of glory though had some other connections. Some theologians assert that their presence reminds us that Moses and Elijah originally were rejected by the people that they had come to serve and lead, yet God later vindicated them. Both Elijah and Moses were advocates of the covenant (the manual for relationships with God and neighbor), both worked miracles, and both were considered by first century Judaism to be transcendent figures that did not die, but were taken into heaven. The connection between these two figures and Jesus could be that Jesus belongs to the heavenly world of divine vindication associated with his life as the suffering servant, raised to new life. In other words, this glory revealed on the mountain is intimately connected to the suffering of self-giving love.
The event of the Transfiguration happens in the context of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem to suffer on the cross. Jesus reminds his disciples as they come down from the mountain, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Rewind for a moment to the narrative right before the Mount of Tabor. One of the first times Jesus revealed to them that he would suffer was when the disciples were gathered at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asked them this question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Most of the disciples made guesses, (Elijah, a prophet, etc.) but they didn’t have a clue. Peter spoke up, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blesses Peter for his divinely inspired insights, but reminds him that the Son of Man must suffer. Peter rebuked our Lord, “This must never happen to you.” Peter as usual still didn’t get it. Appearances were deceiving for Peter. He saw Jesus through the eyes of the worldly power structure. The Messiah Peter had wished for would have wielded earthly power to establish a worldly kingdom. The true promised one of God wielded the power of self-giving love that clearly revealed God’s heart to all of creation. The Transfiguration was a glimpse for us into the miraculous Glory of God, and it leads us to see the connection of suffering to the glorious self-giving love and obedience Christ reveals even unto death. Now, fast forward to the Mount of Tabor and Peter once again struggles to see Jesus for who he was.
Peter sees the dazzling light and the glory and then awkwardly offers to build three booths. Rather than accept the moment, he wants to capture it and keep it in a box. Some say the booths Peter envisioned, connotes the tabernacle and the fiery cloud that led the Israelites through the wilderness. Thus, Peter wanted to preserve the continuing presence of God among the people. Peter who six days prior, proclaimed Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, still didn’t get the fact that the glory of God would be revealed by leaving the mountain for the valleys of suffering. Through the cross, Jesus would suffer just as humanity suffers, Jesus died just as we die and yet, through that loving connection with humanity God’s very creation, the way for the sanctification was opened for us all. God’s love for creation was poured out and thus, Christ Jesus calls his followers friends. God calls us friends, and God celebrates and suffers life with us, just like us. God knows our sufferings, and God knows our joy. Suffering and Glory are intertwined in a dance of love.
Suffering is not something that we aspire to in our society today. Simply watch early morning television and you’ll know what I mean. As consumers, we seek luxurious comfort, tighter abs, fewer wrinkles, and perfect cuisine. The very idea that suffering is a virtue is ludicrous to us. Yet, God invites us into suffering and demonstrates that the way of glory is through the cross. Jesus and the three went up on the mountain and God’s glory was revealed in Christ. How wonderful it might have been to remain on that mountain top experience, but what lie ahead for our Lord was suffering, torture, shame, and death; not only for Jesus, but for those he came to serve. Sick folk, blind folk, and the lame were awaiting Jesus at the foot of the peak. Turn the page on today’s gospel and Jesus is drawn into the suffering of a demon-possessed boy to whom Jesus brings healing and restoration. In this miracle, the glory of God’s restorative love is once again revealed in the midst of suffering.
Glory and Suffering. This life is filled at times with moments of elation and joy, and other times with uncertainty and pain. Life is a co-mingling our own suffering with the suffering we share with others and there are many examples of bearing each other’s pain. Sitting with someone experiencing the pain of recent surgery, that is bearing his or her suffering with him or her. Holding the hand of a widow or widower who has recently experienced the ultimate loss, that is bearing their suffering with them. Listening to the destitute and impoverished as they share their story of hunger and emptiness, that is bearing their suffering with them. This is the ministry of God’s presence to which we as Christians, as followers of Christ are invited to share Jesus. We are not merely invited to the mountain top experience, we are sent out to bear the burdens of others, just as Christ bore our burdens and suffering on the cross.
The Church is invited to share each other’s suffering as well as each other’s joy. Life together in community is intentionally formed to be co-mingled and not sugar coated. That is messy sometimes and we don’t always get it right. Unfortunately, people sometimes unintentionally get hurt. The Church is not perfect, because we are not perfect, but it is a place where the hope and reconciliation are possible. The Church is at best, human brokenness gathered and transfigured into the brightness and glory of the crucified, self-giving, suffering Lord. Jesus Christ, Our Lord whose love is beyond our imagine brings us together to bear each other’s burdens, not to remain on the mountaintop, but to strengthen us to go out and bring that same restoration to the entire world.