Sermon delivered on the Sunday next before Lent, February 19, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9.
In this morning’s epistle lesson, the apostle Paul talks about the gospel being veiled (or hidden) from those who are perishing because they are blinded by the god of this age, i.e., the Evil One. This is a fearsome picture Paul paints, in part, because he is talking about the eternal fate of unbelievers if somehow the proverbial scales don’t fall from their eyes. Paul suggests that unbelievers don’t believe because they cannot see the light and glory of Jesus, whom Paul describes as being the very image of God. In other words, many, if not most, unbelievers do not think that sin and the alienation it causes is a problem and so they don’t bother looking for a solution. And even if they do realize the terrible predicament in which sin puts us, many think they can fix the problem themselves. They don’t consider looking to a crucified Messiah for the solution because they don’t see or understand that that crucified Messiah is God himself coming to rescue his estranged and broken people. And somehow behind it all is the Evil One. This is truly a grievous thing to contemplate and no one who loves the Lord and people should take any pleasure in it. We need to be praying for these folks in an urgent and concerted manner.
But I would also argue that it is not just unbelievers who can fail to see the light and glory of Jesus. I think this is a constant threat for believers as well, even for the most faithful among us. It is a threat, in part, because we get so easily distracted in the commotion of our daily lives. We are also exposed constantly to the deist lie that the God we worship is a remote God who only occasionally interacts with his creation and creatures, and then usually just to zap us for the wrongs we do. This, combined with our innate human pride that keeps us hostile toward God, makes it easy for the Evil One to whisper in our ears that God really doesn’t love us or care about us, or that God is powerless to rescue us from our sin and all that bedevils us. So this morning, I want us to look at that strange story in Mark better known as the Transfiguration and see what we might learn from it because I am convinced that it can help keep us from being blinded by helping us hold an adequate conception of God in our heart and mind so as to bolster our faith and discipleship as well as improve the quality of our worship.
It was Sunday, February 22, 2004. I was riding my stationary bike and as I often did when I exercised at that time, I was musing about my divorce, my move to Columbus, and the deleterious effect both had on my kids. To say that I suffered chronic and acute guilt is understatement. Despite my prayers to be healed and the burden of guilt lifted from me, I continued to be afflicted by a crushing guilt. Simply put, it was killing me and I think it would have eventually done so had not the Lord intervened that day.
That particular Sunday I was feeling especially guilty. I was convinced that I had abandoned my children and was an utter failure as a father. So as I exercised, I started praying and asking forgiveness for being such a wretched man. All of a sudden I was enveloped in what I can only describe as a white mist which was quite bright. As I prayed through my tears I saw two arms with pierced wrists emerge from the mist for me to observe and in my mind I heard these words. “It’s OK Kevin. It’s OK. Look at my wrists. I have taken care of your sins.” By now I realized I was in the presence of Jesus and started to protest, asking him how he could possibly forgive someone like me. But he put his hand to my mouth and told me to stop. It was all right and I was his beloved. A huge wave of peace swept over me, God’s peace that passes all understanding, and I could feel myself starting to lose my balance. And then as if he knew his presence was beginning to overwhelm me, he was gone—and so was my guilt. It’s been almost eight years since that happened and while I have felt guilt over other things, I have never once felt guilt for the things that were once killing me. It was truly a transformative experience.
I share this story with you because I think I had my own transfiguration experience of sorts that day. Now before I go any further, I want to emphasize that I don’t think experiences like this are the norm for Christians. They certainly weren’t the norm in the NT and we don’t have any indication that they were the norm for the early church. I don’t know why God visited me that day, other than perhaps he realized my condition needed his radical intervention. I’ve not had anything remotely close to that happen to me since nor do I expect to have a similar experience in the future (then again, I didn’t expect to have that kind of experience that day). But it was a game-changer for me, just as it was a game-changer for Peter, James, and John in today’s gospel lesson. And the Transfiguration story can be a game-changer for us all if we will take the time to muse and reflect on it regularly. Because in this story, God reveals to us who he is and shows us his face, the face of Jesus, so that we can get a glimpse of God’s glory and a preview of coming attractions when God’s promised new creation finally comes in full.
In telling the story, Mark gives us all kinds of hints that in Jesus we are standing in God’s very presence, that we are seeing the face of God in a human. The unusually precise chronology of six days that Mark uses, going up to the mountain with trusted friends, being enveloped in the cloud, and hearing God’s voice all remind us of Moses’ experience when God called him up to the mountain to give him the Law (cf. Exodus 24.12-18). Whenever the Bible evokes cloud imagery, it is talking about God’s presence and here we are reminded once again of the glory of God, the Shekinah glory, the same glory that manifested itself in the pillars of fire and cloud that led God’s people Israel out of their exile from Egypt. And then there is Jesus’ transfiguration itself, where we get a glimpse of his eternal glorified existence. As we think about this, we are reminded of the images of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7.9 and of John’s description of the risen and ascended Lord in Revelation 1.9-18. It certainly was enough to evoke fear and awe in the disciples and we get a poignant glimpse of Peter as he fumbles around for the right words in a futile attempt to capture the indescribable and make it last a bit longer. This dazzling light and presence reminds us that here is a God worth our best devotion and worship, that the light does indeed shine in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to overcome it (cf. John 1.1-5). Do you have this kind of awe and reverence when you think about God and come into his presence to worship him or is it just business as usual?
Mark’s description of the Transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah (who like Moses, had also been caught up directly in God’s glory as today’s OT lesson attests) also remind us that Jesus’ coming was (and is) part of God’s eternal plan to rescue us from our sin. In Jesus’ transfiguration we see God demonstrating in a powerful and mind-blowing way that his promise to come and live among his people is true, a promise foreshadowed in the law (Moses) and foretold by the prophets (Elijah), and that God is indeed good to his word. How many times in our lives when we have reached the end of our rope do we need to be reminded of the truth of this promise so that we can have confidence that God has not abandoned us? The God of the Bible is no remote God who only cares about us nominally. No, here is Jesus, fully human and fully divine as his transfiguration powerfully symbolizes, having worked to bring in God’s kingdom and preparing to go to the cross so that we might have our exile from God ended forever and a chance to really live. What is there not to love, worship, and adore about that?
And here we return to a major reason for the Transfiguration. Like Peter trying to hold onto the moment, we need to hold onto this truth firmly so that we don’t lose heart or hope. We see this illustrated in the placement of the story itself. The Transfiguration occurred shortly after Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah, even though Peter clearly did not have a clue as to what that meant, and Jesus’ disclosure to his disciples that he was not going to be the kind of Messiah they either expected or wanted (cf. Mark 8.27-38). He wasn’t going to be a conquering warrior or political superstar. Instead, Jesus had told the twelve that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be crucified as a common criminal. This was surely both terribly disturbing and discouraging to Jesus’ followers and it cannot be mere coincidence that his Transfiguration happened shortly after Jesus had disclosed all this. Glory there would be but not before the suffering that was necessary to redeem God’s broken and hurting people.
That is why Jesus told Peter, James, and John not to tell anybody about their experience until after he had been raised. The disciples were clueless about what Jesus meant and semi-clueless about what the Transfiguration meant. But after they had witnessed Jesus’ death and resurrection, they would have the needed experience and perspective to understand. The resurrection was (and is) a tangible reminder that God’s promised new creation is launched, not fully, of course, because evil, sin, and death have not yet been fully vanquished. But they have been defeated on the cross (Colossians 2.15) and we are living as part of the new creation. After Jesus’ resurrection, the Transfiguration would surely have reminded the disciples (as it does us) that Jesus is indeed Lord and big enough to handle all our problems. We have not yet seen his glory in full as they did. But in this story we see it, albeit imperfectly, through the eyes of faith and that, combined with the presence of the Spirit living in us, sustains us and gives us hope, power, and purpose.
So what are we to do with the story of the Transfiguration? First, we are to read it, reflect on it, pray about it, and make it our own. Doing so will allow the Spirit to remind us we have a God who is active in our world and lives, and big enough to handle anything that life can throw at us. We need to reflect on this story (and others like it that remind us of who Jesus is) because as we saw earlier, we are easily distracted and when we get distracted we become an easier target for the Evil One. As powerful as my own experience was eight years ago, I regularly lose sight of it and get discouraged from time to time. My distractibility serves to rob me of the peace of God that I felt so powerfully that day. And so we need to remember constantly stories like the Transfiguration to remind us that we have a God worthy of our love, service, and worship.
Second, we need to pay attention to God’s voice in the cloud. “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” We do that, of course, through regular prayer, Bible reading and study, worship, fellowship, and partaking of the sacraments. And because we are living on this side of God’s new creation and have the power of the Spirit in us, we are also called to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow Jesus by bringing his love to bear on others. Each one of us has a ministry we are called to do in Jesus’ name so that God can use us, both individually and collectively as a congregation, to bring his healing love to others. Do you know what you are called to do? If not, are you listening? And just as importantly, if you are listening, do you believe you have God’s Spirit living in you and equipping you to answer that call? As we have seen, the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration reminds us, in part, that we have a God big enough to meet all our needs, including his call to us to be his presence to the world through the power of the Spirit. Paul understood this truth when he wrote to the Corinthians that, “We all…are being transformed into [Jesus’] image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3.18). The same verb Paul uses for transform, metamorphoo, is the same word Mark uses to describe Jesus’ Transfiguration. Is that not just way too cool?
The kingdom work is not finished but it is certainly started and one day we will see the crucified and risen Lord in all his glory when he returns to usher in his promised new creation in full, just the way Peter, James, and John did. In the meantime, if we really believe that promise, we will continue to do the work to which God calls us. In the process, we will discover that this is one way God reaches out to the unbelievers of this world and saves them. Make no mistake, we cannot save the lost. Only God can do that. But God can and does use his people for that task through selfless service and a love that insists on showing others a better way, the way of the cross, the way of Jesus. At times this is not particularly fun or easy and we can expect to be persecuted and suffer for the Name. But we don’t really mind because we have seen the glory of God in the transfigured face of Jesus and we have the hope of new creation to sustain us.
Simply put, we do not labor in vain. Our future is secured by the love of God poured out for us on the cross and we have the Shekinah glory of the Lord to shine in and through us so that we can be his light to a world and its people who desperately need to be exposed to that light. When we say yes to God’s invitation to us to embody Jesus’ presence to others, we will not only know what it is like to worship the great and glorious God reflected in the Transfiguration through our service to others, but we will also know what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.