The Transfiguration—A God Big Enough to Worship, Love, and Suffer For

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.

Faith, Healing, and the New Creation

Sermon delivered on the second Sunday before Lent, February 12, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: 2 Kings 5.1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9.24-27; Mark 1.40-45.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Not too many years ago, I would read stories of healing like we find in today’s OT and gospel lessons and wonder about it all. I never doubted that God has the power to heal. After all, if we are ready to declare God to be omnipotent, we have to allow for (and expect to read) stories of this kind. And if God is omnipotent, then there is no such thing as a healing “miracle.” This is just business as usual for God and his kingdom, even if it sometimes violates our understanding of anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry and all the rest. No, what I wondered about is why God chose (and chooses) to heal some while others he apparently does not.

Now if you are hoping I am going to preach a sermon that answers this question, you are going to be greatly disappointed because I don’t have the answer. I have not been let in on the joke. None of us have. God will do as God will do. As Job learned, we must develop the wisdom and humility to be content with this truth because the Bible is quite reticent in explaining to us why God allows evil to manifest itself, in part, through insidious diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and a host of others. Instead, Scripture assures us that God has done and is doing something about the evil that bedevils his good but fallen creation. It promises us that evil and all the wrongs of this world have already come under God’s righteous judgment and will one day be banished forever (cf. Psalms 37, 73; Isaiah 55; Colossians 2.15; Revelation 21-22). As a result, we are invited to put our whole hope and trust in God and live in faith that God is indeed in charge, despite occasional appearances to the contrary. Scripture repeatedly assures us we are headed somewhere, and for the good. This is not unlike the message that Fr. Eric preached about last week when he shared with us his story about the trials and grace of faithful waiting.

I have become persuaded that this hope of new creation is the right approach to help us understand stories like the ones we read in today’s lessons as well as our own struggles with the various evil that confronts us and those we love. And so this morning I want us to put on our glasses of faith, along with our thinking caps, to see what these stories can tell us so that God might form in us ears that hear, eyes that see, and minds that understand so that we can turn to God and be healed (cf. Isaiah 6.10). But I am also going to suggest to you there is more to be had from these stories than just the hope of our own healing. Yes, it is natural for us to want to be healed. But if we are going to be followers of Jesus, these stories also suggest that we are called to be healers in his Name.

We all need healing, of course, because human sin has resulted in us being alienated and exiled from God, our source of life, health, and wholeness. God created us to have a relationship with him, one in which we reflect his glory out into his world and in which we are good stewards of his creation. But human pride entered the picture and we decided we weren’t content with being God’s creatures. We’d rather play God, and in doing so we cut ourselves off from our life support system, which, of course is not only bad for our health but also for our very survival! We see this dynamic illustrated poignantly in today’s OT lesson. Joram, Israel’s king, demonstrated the effects of being alienated and exiled from God when he misinterpreted his counterpart’s overture to him. Joram knew he didn’t have the power to heal Naaman and sadly he didn’t know God. Otherwise, his reaction would not have been one of fear and anxiety in which he thought the king of Aram was trying to start a war with him. Instead it would have been more like Elisha’s: So what’s the problem? Is there anything too big for God to handle? You cannot have that kind of faith without really knowing God. And when, by God’s grace, and your own efforts to develop your relationship with God through regular prayer, Bible study, worship, and intimate fellowship with other of God’s people you do know God as well as Elisha and countless other saints, you will discover (if you have not done so already) that your anxiety level will be dramatically and noticeably lower, if not gone altogether.

That is because God has both the power and needed mercy to heal us so that we can be agents of his healing love to others. I am not necessarily talking about physical healing here, although the Bible is full of stories about that kind of healing and we all know stories of folks who have experienced the wonderful and gracious healing power of God. Instead, I am talking about the kind of healing that Joram needed and we all need, the kind of healing that results when we are reconciled to God so that our separation and exile from him are ended forever. God made that possible for us when he became human in the person of Jesus and died a criminal’s death on a Roman cross so that God’s holy justice could be satisfied and we, his stubborn and rebellious human creatures, could be rescued from our exile from God. As Paul reminds us in Romans 8.3, it was sin in the flesh that God condemned on the cross, not humans. Without being redeemed and washed clean by Christ’s blood shed for us, a fact that is powerfully symbolized in our baptism, we have no hope of ever enjoying the kind of healing, life, and power over evil that God intends for us (cf. Romans 6.3-7).

This gift of healing and life is ours through faith and thankfully God has given us signposts along the way to help us develop and strengthen that faith. This is where the today’s stories of healing (and others like them) come into play. In Naaman’s case, his healing did not occur until his nascent faith was made manifest in his obedience, which in turn strengthened his newly formed faith. At first Naaman came to Elisha in pride and with a full set of expectations on how his healing was to be effected. By his hissy-fit reaction to Elisha’s command, it is clear that Naaman put more stock in human ritual and magic incantations than he did in God. And when those expectations were violated, he went away in a huff. If not for the courage and good sense of one of his underlings, Naaman never would have found the healing that was available to him.

By contrast, in today’s gospel lesson we see that the leper approached Jesus in faith and humility. He knew Jesus could heal him and he wasn’t about to tell Jesus how to do his work. He just asked Jesus to heal him so that he could be made clean and reintegrated back into society. What is even more astonishing than the healing is the fact that Jesus would touch this man in the first place because doing so would make Jesus unclean and an outcast like the leper. But Jesus didn’t care one lick about that. God’s love never turns anyone away who approaches him in faith, humility, and expectation, no matter who we are or what we have done.

Again, we need to be careful here in how we interpret this story because I am sure almost everyone in this room at one time or another has prayed in faith, humility, and expectation for healing for ourselves and/or our loved ones, only to have our prayers apparently denied. I cannot tell you why that is because as we’ve seen, none of us can understand fully the mind and purposes of God (cf. Isaiah 55.8ff). Instead, we are invited to see these healing events as tangible signs of God’s kingdom breaking in on us, not completely as it will be when Christ returns to usher in fully God’s promised new creation (even those Jesus healed and raised from the dead eventually died or died again), but rather as previews of what God has in store for those who love him and put their whole hope and trust in him. In the new creation all God’s people will be healed permanently and for all eternity, and we get glimpses of this in these healing stories.

This is our hope and promise as Christians and we are called to do something about it. If we really believe that in Christ God has ended our exile and alienation from him and that the promised new creation both awaits us and is breaking in on us, it means that we have work to do right here and now because this world and its people are important to God. And so we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow Jesus. Doing so allows Jesus to work in and through us to use us as his agents of healing, as signposts of his promised new creation, even if we are not all called to be physicians, counselors, or other professional healers (although some of us are called to serve in this capacity).

We can bring God’s healing love to others in the context of our daily lives by the way we treat them. We do so whenever we show patience and mercy to others when none is deserved. We can bring God’s healing to others when we choose to forgive them rather than to exact revenge when they do us wrong, or when we work tirelessly for reconciliation between estranged parties, especially if we are one of those parties. We bring God’s healing love to bear when we show compassion and concern for folks and their lives, just like we are doing by supporting Fr. Eric’s and Shirley’s future campus ministry, or when we brave cold weather to gather food for W.A.R.M. to distribute to those in need. We bring healing to others by bearing their faults and foibles with good cheer and charity. I see you do that all the time when you put up with my idiosyncrasies and foibles. We bring healing to others simply by being there when they need us. And of course we bring God’s healing love to bear on others when we pray for them on an ongoing basis, especially when they are our enemies. If you are still skeptical about the ability of God to use you to bring about signs of God’s healing and new creation, and since today is President Lincoln’s 203rd birthday, pick up Jay Winik’s masterpiece, April 1865, and read about how Lincoln’s humility, compassion, and willingness to forgive his enemies and be reconciled to them was critical in saving our nation at the end of the Civil War.

God will not call most of us to be an Abraham Lincoln. Instead, God calls us to bring his love and healing to bear on others in the most common and unremarkable ways. But that, of course, is the way of the cross. Never underestimate how God can use you to bring about healing, hope, and signs of his new creation to others, even if you are never aware of what God accomplishes through you! There are literally countless ways we can bring Christ’s healing love to bear on others. We simply have to be willing to embody Jesus in our daily living and allow him to give us a heart and a passion for whatever it is he calls us to do.

Whenever we are willing to deny ourselves in the name of Christ for the sake of others—not in an unhealthy manner, of course, but in a truly self-giving way—we open ourselves up to be channels of God’s great healing love, both for ourselves and others. Did you know the main Greek word for healing used in the NT, therapeuo, means to serve as well as to provide a cure? This implies that we can find our own healing whenever we serve others selflessly in the name of Christ! Is that just not way too cool and full of hope?

But let’s also be honest and approach our calling, whatever it may be, with eyes wide open. None of what I have been talking about is easy and this is where Paul’s epistle lesson comes in because following Jesus will take a lifetime of strenuous effort, precisely because we are so profoundly broken. Our faith will be challenged regularly and on multiple levels, and we have no hope of prevailing without the Spirit’s presence living in and among us. When we decide to follow Jesus we will immediately make multiple enemies, both human and spiritual. The powers and principalities do not want us to succeed and that is why we can only stay the course with the help of the Spirit. But as Paul reminds us, if we are willing to work hard for a crown of dried celery, i.e., for things that are temporary and of no lasting consequence, things like money, power, and prestige, why would we not be willing to work that much harder for the things that have such enormous and eternal consequences, for things that serve as signposts for God’s promised new creation so that others can believe the Good News and be healed? It just doesn’t make sense.

Do you have the kind of faith, hope, and love necessary to deny yourself, take up your cross each day, and follow Jesus so that he can use you as his agent of healing, hope, and new creation? We know new creation is coming because we have seen God at work among his people in Jesus and his prophets to introduce signposts for us to help us grow in our faith and stay the course of faithful obedience to God. If you have these fruits of the Spirit you really will find healing that transcends your mortal body as well as your deepest hopes and fears. And if you don’t see these signs of grace growing and maturing in your life, stop now and ask God to bless you with them so that you too can learn in full measure what life is all about. In the process, you will discover what it is like to have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: The Spiritual Discipline of Staying Put: Planting Roots in a Placeless Culture

From Christianity Today online.

Like Alan, though, we have felt the ground beneath the ladder shift from time to time. Maybe we saw it coming—a move to a new school, an internship in a new city, a long-hoped-for marriage to someone half a world away. Or maybe, like Alan, it blindsided us—a company transfer, a slouch in the economy, a sudden divorce. Whether as a result of carefully laid plans or catastrophic interruptions, few of us seem able to stay in one place anymore. Maybe we have survived the moves. (In some cases, our survival seems almost as miraculous as Alan’s.) We’re still alive, but our spirits are hungry. We long for connection with God and other people. We’re desperate for community. We’re hungry for a way to live that feels authentic and true.

Read it all.

A good, but haunting piece, and one that touches me at a deeply personal level. I have often thought about how our mobility is impacting us, for good and for ill. I have seen the same thing happen to my hometown of Van Wert, OH, that the author describes happened to his hometown, although not to the extent that Wilson-Hartgrove describes. After World War II, my dad’s generation came home and settled there. His was a remarkable generation and Van Wert (and thousands of towns like it) thrived because the best and brightest chose to return home and not move on, at least initially. Then the children of those who had chosen to stay in their home towns moved away and those small little communities started to wither and the once strong sense of community became diminished.

Let me be clear about this. This is not a judgment on those from my generation (and after) who stayed where they were born and raised. It is an observation of what our increasingly mobile society has done to our communities.

I can remember as a college student sitting alone in my room and musing on the ironic fact that I couldn’t wait to get out of Van Wert only to realize a few years later that it was better to be part of everybody’s business in a close-knit community and my home neighborhood than to be in “the big city” all alone, and where almost nobody cared if I lived or died. I am convinced that the breakdown of our communities has had a terrible and deleterious effect on our society, at least from a community perspective, and like the author of this piece, I pray God grant us the grace of stability and the revitalization of our communities.

In the meantime, this is a void that the Church can help fill because we are called to worship God and be Christians together. How sad it is that many folks today don’t understand that and rob themselves of the very thing they desperately seek–a sense of real community who lives life together with God-given meaning and purpose. I don’t know what the new creation will look like, but I am convinced that it will have strong, vibrant, and stable communities to fulfill our deepest and best God-given desires to love and be loved.

Timothy George and Chuck Colson: First They Came for the Catholics: Obama’s Contraceptive Mandate

From Christianity Today online.

As you probably know by now, Obama Administration has refused to grant religious organizations an exemption from purchasing health insurance that covers abortion-inducing drugs, surgical sterilization, and contraception.

The Catholic bishops in America have responded quickly, decrying the Administration’s decision for what it is—an egregious, dangerous violation of religious liberty—and mobilizing a vast grassroots movement to persuade the Administration to reverse its decision.

We evangelicals must stand unequivocally with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Because when the government violates the religious liberty of one group, it threatens the religious liberty of all.

Read the whole letter.

Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil ‘Predicts’ 6 More Weeks Of Winter; Buckeye Chuck Says “No Way”

Bummer. But what do those crazy Penn. groundhogs know anyhow???

From Fox News.

Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his lair to “see” his shadow on Thursday, in the process predicting six more weeks of winter.

The Groundhog Day celebration is rooted in a German superstition that says if a hibernating animal casts a shadow on Feb. 2, the Christian holiday of Candlemas, winter will last another six weeks. If no shadow is seen, legend says, spring will come early.

Read it all.

Update: Buckeye Chuck, the groundhog from OH, is clearly more prescient than his neighbor next door. Check it out.