This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14, Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5.1, 13-25, Luke 9.51-62). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the location of the Lord, mantle-passing, lament, the divine reality, Herbert McCabe, freedom, the fruit of the Spirit, Gilmore Girls, hellfire, and the seriousness of the Gospel. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Freedom Of The Christian
I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Why the United Methodist Church?
This is a question that I receive fairly often throughout the comings and goings of my life. I’ll be sitting in the stands watching my son play tee ball when the subject of employment comes up which inevitably leads to why I serve in the UMC. Or, I’ll preside over a wedding with lots of strangers only to be bombarded with questions about denominational affiliation as soon as the service ends. Or someone will see me working on a sermon at a coffee shop with my clergy collar on and they walk over to ask, “So what kind of Christian are you?”
For what it’s worth, I am a Christian before I am a Methodist. Or, put another way, I’m a Christian who happens to be a Methodist.
I follow Jesus, not John Wesley.
And yet, I find that Wesley’s understanding of the Gospel to be spot on.
There are a great number of moments from his life, and even more from his sermons, that resonate deeply in my soul, but nothing quite compares to his Aldersgate Street experience when he was 35 years old. This is how we wrote about it in his journal:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” – John Wesley, May 24th, 1738
What makes his experience all the more profound is how little he felt an assurance before that moment, even though he had been ordained for a number of years!
I love the hymns we sing in the UMC, I love the connectional nature of our church and how we are bound together with other churches, and I love the incarnational focus of our ministries going to where the Spirit moves. But more than anything, I love the relentless proclamation of prevenient grace; God’s love precedes all things.
While sitting at the society meeting at Aldersgate Street, Wesley experienced what I have experienced and what I hope every person will come to experience: There is nothing we have to do to earn God’s love except trust that it is true. And when we live into that trust, we are living in the light of grace which changes everything. It changes everything because it means all of our sins, past/present/future are nailed to the cross and we bear them no more.
The work of Christ frees us from the law of sin and death so that we might live abundantly for God and for others. It is, quite literally, the difference that makes all the difference.
If you want to know more about how God works in the heart through faith in Christ, you can check out the Strangely Warmed podcast which I host. Every week we bring you conversations about the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and we do so without using stained glass language.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
“Christians are people who tell the truth. And, if we cannot tell the truth, then at least we should not lie.” I have those sentences scratched in a notebook that I carried with me during seminary. And, if my notes are correct, I heard those words from a professor named Stanley Hauerwas during a hallway conversation after morning prayer.
His conviction about our truthfulness is nothing new. Martin Luther famously said that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil whereas a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.
Translation: tell the truth.
But telling the truth is no easy endeavor, particularly because we live in a world that runs on lies. Every ad we consume presents a false vision of reality so long as we purchase a particular product. The nightly news is designed to terrify us so that we will keep watching until we know what side we are supposed to be on for every subject. And even in our domestic dramas we often lie because we are trying to be good: we don’t want to tell our spouses how we really feel, we don’t want to upset the applecart at a family get together, we’d rather brush something under the rug than bring it to the surface.
All the while, as Christians, we worship the one who not only tells the truth, but is, himself, truth incarnate.
When Pontius Pilate was told that Jesus was the one who had come into the world to testify to the truth, he asked, “What is truth?” Jesus gave no response because Pilate was literally looking at the answer to his question. Therefore, should we truly desire to be a community of the truth and by the truth then we need not look further than Jesus Christ and him crucified.
The “and him crucified” is crucial. For, truth-telling is a dangerous adventure. But without an example of a truth telling community, the world has no alternative but to continue to run by lies.
Jesus leaves peace with his disciples and the peace Jesus leaves runs counter to the peace of the world. The peace of the world is achieved, kept, and maintained by violence. Whereas the peace of Jesus comes through vulnerability, sacrifice, and even suffering.
Part of the hard truth that the church has to speak into the world today is this: we have a problem with violence.
Mass shootings have become so commonplace that it’s hard to keep track of what happened and where. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can simply avoid going to churches, malls, supermarkets, concerts, cinemas, parks, pre-schools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, college campuses, mass transportations, and any other place where a mass shooting has taken place.
We’ve become so accustomed to the war torn images of Ukraine (and war in general) that it leaves us feeling apathetic. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can let things continue on their merry way while more and more people are displaced, separated, and killed.
Speaking truth to power is no easy thing. But until we’re willing to call a thing what it is, we are doomed to call evil good and good evil. Or, put simply, the beginning of a faithful imagination comes with telling the truth.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” and they asked for answers to their query. Hundreds of individuals responded with hundreds of examples. GK Chesterton, writer and theologian, simply responded with two words: “I am.”
There are many versions of Christianity in the world. And not just the different denominations you can find throughout your neighborhood like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Catholics, etc. Even within “one” church like the United Methodist Church there is a great diversity of opinion about what it means to be a United Methodist.
But the one thing that might unite all churches, even more than our commitment to baptism or communion, is a desire to appear as welcoming and as inclusive as possible.
All you need to do is check a church website, or a front lawn marquee, and you can find a self-imposed description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church.
In the UMC we like to say that we have open hearts, open minds, open doors.
What a righteous slogan.
The only problem is the fact that we regularly close off our affections toward certain people, we are clearly cemented in “the ways things were” rather than the way things can be, and more often than not the doors to the church are locked.
Inclusivity is the buzzword among most, if not all, churches these days. Though, we are not altogether clear about what it really means to be inclusive. True inclusivity, after all, is not just a matter of having different kinds of people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning; true inclusivity means a total and unwavering commitment to something that is frankly impossible for us: love.
I know that might sound strange: the impossibility of love in the church. But it is, in fact, against our nature. We can’t, or at the very least don’t, love everyone.
It’s like those churches with signs on the front lawn proudly claiming: “Hate Has No Place Here.”
That’s a worthy hope, but it isn’t true.
All of us have hate in us whether we like to admit it or not. And, to make matters worse, saying that hate has no place in church affirms that the church hates people who hate!
It is true that we are commanded, by God, to love one another just as Christ loved us. And yet, sometimes, I fear we confuse the two. That is: we assume that we have to love one another in order to get God to love us. When, in fact, the opposite is true: God loves us, and when we come to grips with how strange it is to be loved by God, we are then freed to love one another with the same reckless abandon that God loves us.
Notably, Jesus commands the disciples to love one another (as Jesus loves them) right after the foot washing. It’s this remarkable moment that encapsulates the humility (read: humanity) of God). And then, shortly thereafter, the disciples betray, deny, and abandon God to the cross.
If the story ended with the cross, none of us would have ever heard about Jesus. But the cross is just the beginning because three days later Jesus is raised from the dead. And not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but he returns to the same disciples who failed to respond to the commandment of love!
We worship an odd God. Jesus chooses the unworthy and undeserving ragtag group of unloving disciples to be the people through whom the world is turned upside down. In short: there is nothing that can ever stop God from loving us.
Therefore, if there is anything truly inclusive about the church it is not our love for one another, but God’s love for us. It is the triune God who opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. It is the triune God who opens up our eyes to view others in ways we never have before. It is God who opens up the doors of the church to be a new community where strangers now are friends.
The proclamation of the Gospel is that God loves us even though we are what’s wrong with the world. But, at the same time, the Gospel is an adventure in which God’s love actually changes us so that we might begin to love one another.
Years ago I was asked to preside over the funeral for a man who drove me crazy. He was older than dirt and he treated people like dirt and just about once a week someone from the church would wander into my office in tears because of what the man had said to them.
And then he died.
In the days leading up to his service of death and resurrection I lamented the fact that hardly anyone would be coming. Even though he pushed all my buttons, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.
And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church in my robe ready to begin the service for a small scattering of people when, all the sudden, cars started streaming into the parking lot. One by one church members who had been so wronged by the man during his life paraded into the sanctuary for worship.
The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the now-dead man’s insults and I grabbed her by the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated him.”
To which she replied, “Preacher, don’t we worship the God who commands us to love our enemies? Didn’t you say, just last week, that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died? Don’t the scriptures remind us there is nothing that can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus? Then so be it!”
And with that she marched right into the sanctuary for worship.
Love one another just as I have loved you – easier said than done. But without love, we have nothing.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting not he right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
I hid in the tomb for what felt like hours but was only 30 minutes. It was Easter Sunday half of my life ago, and I had been volunteered to participate in the sunrise service. Out on the front lawn was a fake tomb and a fake stone that we set up every year. The idea was that, on Holy Saturday, you would drive by and see the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb and then, on Easter Sunday, you would arrive at church to see the stone rolled away like all those centuries ago.
But this particular year the associate pastor had a plan to give the people an Easter they’d never forget. He conscripted me to arrive before everyone else, don an angelic costume, and wait inside the tomb with a fog machine until the perfect moment to proclaim the resurrection.
So I sat crumpled up in the corner with my cherubic wings folding in on themselves. Neither of us had anticipated how cramped the space would be, not did we think about how difficult it would be to hear my cue from inside the tomb.
Therefore, after the congregation arrived, and the service began, and I heard what I thought was my first cue, I turned on the fog machine and waited to make my dramatic entrance.
But the space filled with the smoke very quickly and I couldn’t see or hear anything.
I began coughing in the tight space and tried my best to stay hidden until I could no longer stand it and I kicked down the papermache stone and stumbled onto the front lawn.
As the smoke dissipated, I took in the scene around me. Genteel Christian folks were arranged in a semi-circle of fold up camping chairs, the pastor was standing by a podium no doubt only halfway through his sermon, and everyone was starring at me.
I don’t know quite what I looked like, but I certainly looked more like someone who accidentally slept in the tomb overnight than I did an angelic messenger of the Lord.
For the briefest of moments I panicked, unsure of what to say or do. I had memorized a monologue to proclaim but it completely evaporated from my mind. Instead, I shouted “The Lord is risen!” And I ran for my life.
To this day I don’t know what everyone made of that moment. We tacitly agreed to never speak of it, though I’m sure more than a few walked away that Easter afraid.
Much has been made about the women fleeing from the tomb in fear that first Easter morn. Some say that Mark did not intend to end the gospel in such a way, that perhaps he died mid sentence, or the earliest manuscript was torn in that exact spot, on and on the speculations run wild.
We don’t why Mark ends the Gospel this way, only that the first of us to experience the resurrection walked, actually ran, away from it with fear.
I’ve always found that detail to be rather staggering every time the liturgical calendar comes around. For, in a few hours, most of us will be inside our actual churches with lilies, and pastel–color outfits, and peppy hymns, and smiling congregants.
Nothing about Easter screams fear.
Except for the strange new world of the Bible.
It is good and right for us to be here in worship in a cemetery. It’s the same kind of place where the first Easter happened, and it reminds us of the stark promise of salvation. That is, no one ever goes to a cemetery expecting to encounter a resurrection.
We go to cemeteries to commune among the dead.
It’s also good to be here this early, because Easter, resurrection, it happened in the dark.
New life always starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.
In addition to the dead, and the darkness, I think the other reason is is good to be afraid on Easter is because it has little, if anything to do with us.
We aren’t the ones who makes Easter possible. God is the one who makes a way where there is no way, God is the God of impossible possibility, God is the God of resurrection.
It’s why we can call the Good News good.
But if the Good News is in fact, good news, then why do the women run in fear?
All life ends in death, the bell will toll for us all. How else, then, could anyone respond if the one certainty in life was no longer certain?
Easter confronts us with the scary reality that we aren’t in control, because God is.
That’s a frightening thing to accept because God truth means our obsession with earthly things really amount to nothing. All of the things we fret over most, life, beauty, security, wealth, power, careers, property, even our families cannot hold a flame to the promise of the resurrection.
Jesus does for us what Jesus does whether we deserve it or not. God in the flesh comes to dwell among us and we return the favor by nailing God to the cross. And, three days later, he is resurrected.
You see – Jesus doesn’t wait behind the stone until his disciples have just the right amount of faith before breaking forth.
Jesus doesn’t tell them that he will be raised only when they’ve evangelized the right number of people.
Jesus doesn’t even given them a to do list to do before Easter happens.
The promise of the resurrection for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death, it is a way out simply by remaining it, it is everything for nothing.
And it just might scare the living daylights out of us.
Easter isn’t perfect. For some it creates more questions than answers. For the women at the tomb it was scary and astonishing. For the church folk gathered when I bumbled out of the fake tomb it was strange and a bit bizarre. Easter can both excite and terrify. And thats because is shatter all of our expectations about how the world is supposed to work. Easter means everything is changed forever.
The end of Mark’s gospel, this weird and wonderful detail about the women running away in fear, it’s no ending at all. It is the great ellipsis in which the story continues through us. The women at the tomb, all of us in this cemetery, we are now caught up in God’s great story of salvation. We are here not because of what we’ve done or left undone, but because something was done to us. That something has a name: Jesus Christ.
Hear the Good News: The end has no end.
He is risen. Hallelujah! He is risen indeed! Amen.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Lent is such a strange time in the life of the church.
Yes, during Advent we re-await the baby born King in Bethlehem, which is bizarre in its own right. The author of the cosmos condescends to dwell among us through the least likely of people in the least likely of places.
But Lent? During Lent we hear about sin and shame – the need to lament and repent. We sing songs about death and crucifixion, we gaze inwardly at our wanton disregard for the good, the true, and the beautiful.
But Lent, contrary to how we might convey it or even embody it, isn’t really about sin and it definitely isn’t about punishment. It is a time set a part to behold God, so that we might see ourselves and all in things in light of God’s devotion to us.
In other words, Lent is a strange time of good news because in confronting the truth we are able to do away with falsehoods and trivialities. Looking at the cross, and our complicity in it, gives us the space to admit that nothing is as it should be.
Just here in our local community we’ve seen, over the last week, an entire apartment complex being forced to vacate into a market where there are no available rentals, a student fired a gun inside a middle school bathroom, and a campsite for homeless people caught fire.
Each of these incidents, sadly, can be attributed to our own sinfulness and selfishness. When we care more about our wealth, our freedom, and our clean streets, than the wellbeing of others, we only further prove that we have behaved badly.
And it’s not even just the headlines that we can read in the paper. Lent, oddly, forces us to come to grips with the fact that even Beauty is not as it should be.
Beauty cannot save the world, at least not in the ways we want it to be saved.
Our cultural achievements, our aesthetic sophistications, our programs of spectacular morality cannot deliver us from the evil at work without or within us.
It’s notable how often the strange new world of the Bible and the tradition of the church warns us about the dangers of beauty; beauty tricks us into believing that all is well when, in fact, all is hell.
Beauty is fleeting and finite, and no matter how hard we try and how much effort we put into things, they cannot save the world.
On Tuesday there was a benefit concert that featured the music of Ed Sheehan, Camila Cabello, and other artists that raised over 21 million dollars for Ukrainian refugees. It was a two-hour live streamed collection of performances during which the myriad array of musicians pleaded for an end to the war in Ukraine waged by Russia.
21 million dollars is no small feat.
But you know what happened in Ukraine? Nothing.
The bombs kept falling. Cities continued to crumble. And families fled out of fear for their lives.
In Jesus’ prelude to his Passion, on the eve of Palm Sunday, he arrives in Bethany and goes to the home of Lazarus. Mary and Martha decide to throw a little dinner party for the Lord and while their kicking back over appetizers, Mary bends down to the floor with a pound of Chanel No.5, pours it out on Jesus feet, and then she wipes them with her hair.
Judas, of course, jumps up from his seat and puts her in her place, “Woman, what’s wrong with you? That perfume is worth $50,000, why didn’t you see it and give the proceeds to the poor?”
Jesus, ever calm, responds to his soon-to-be-betrayer, “Leave her alone. She bought it for my burial. There will always be poor people, but I won’t be here forever.”
Its Lent which means, hopefully, we’re all in a space to admit that we agree with Judas. We know we’re not supposed to identify with him, he is after all the one who gives up his Lord, but he has a point. It’s such a waste to pour out the perfume on Jesus feet when it could’ve been used to make the world a better place.
And Jesus’ words are downright offensive, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
C’mon Jesus! Don’t you know being a Christian is about transforming the world? What a waste! Think about what we could’ve done with all that cash!
It’s embarrassing to hear the Lord speak in such a way.
And perhaps embarrassing isn’t the right word. It’s threatening to hear Jesus talk in such a way. His proclamation here to Judas threatens to upend everything we think we know.
Our world is built on the assumption that whatever ails us can be fixed by us. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is good and right for us to dig deep into our wallets and purses to help those in need. We do have an obligation to love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves. We need to believe in a better world. We need hope.
But we aren’t the hope of the world. If we were then we would not longer need newspapers to tell us what’s wrong in the world because there wouldn’t be anything wrong in the world.
Remember: some of the most horrific events in human history were done in the name of progress.
Transcendent hope, real hope for things not yet seen, can’t come from us, it has to be done to us. And that kind of hope has a name: Jesus.
The extravagant gift of the perfume poured out by Mary reveals to us that, unlike Judas, she knows that Jesus in the only hope in the world that we’ve got. She, therefore, can do something wild and reckless because she’s recognizes the wonder of the cosmos sitting at her table. She knows that true gifts, like the perfume and the incarnate One, cannot be controlled.
And, though we can’t help ourselves but agree with Judas, we also know (in some way, shape, or form) that Mary is right. We all encounter extravagant gifts that can disappear just as soon as they arrive.
A choir works for hours and hours only to stand up, sing for 4 minutes, and then it’s gone never to be heard again, at least not in that way.
A teacher does the same thing with every lesson just as a preacher does with every sermon.
Flowers are given in honor, love, memory, and respect only to die and wither shortly thereafter.
People like you and me put our money into offering plates week after week.
Even Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, only for Lazarus to die again in the future.
Well, love is a strange thing. As is hope. But without them, we are nothing.
Judas rebukes Mary for her waste because she could’ve help the poor. And yet, Judas lacks the vision to see that Mary is helping the poor. She pours out the extravagant perfume on the poorest of all: God in the flesh who condescends to dwell among us. She gives value and worth to the very people that Judas is advocating for.
But Judas has his mind stuck on earthly things – he believes that the only real and important changes can come out of his own goodness and charity.
Mary, however, has her mind on the divine, she perceives, somehow, that the One sitting at the table is the only One who can ever really make something of our nothing.
Does this mean that we are no bear responsibility for the last, least, lost, little, and dead? On the contrary, this dinner party disagreement is a profound declaration about the role of the church in the world. The world is an absolute mess and yet the church is a constant witness to the value and the worth of those the world throws away like trash.
Lazarus was dead, wrapped up in a tomb. And Jesus brings him back.
The 5,000 have nothing to show for their faithfulness except the hunger in their bellies and Jesus feeds them.
The 12 disciples abandon, deny, and betray Jesus and he still breaks bread with them and returns to them on Easter.
Wherever the world sees failure and brokenness, Jesus sees value and beauty.
And beauty is a fickle thing. It is often fleeting and wasted. And it will not save the world. But it might make the world a little more bearable.
Only the world that cannot save itself will be saved by God. And only the beauty that cannot save the world is worth saving at all.
Do you see? In God’s weird and wondrous way, Jesus himself is the nard purchased at a great price, to lavish upon the dying world. As Christ’s body in the world we are called to be symbols of broken beauty for a world that cannot and will not save itself.
We have hope because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified. Hope measures the distance between the now and the not yet. Hope is only intelligible amidst hopelessness. Were it up to us alone the world would never ever change. But it’s not up to us – Jesus is the hope of the world.
The anointing of Jesus’ feet is a reminder that, by the end of the week, those feet will be nailed to the cross. Jesus comes into a world that does not request him, nor even want him, because when push comes to shove we’d rather take matters into our own hands.
Or, put another way, when Jesus arrives with proclamations of grace and mercy and forgiveness, with announcements about a new age called the kingdom of God, we nail him to the cross.
Things are not as they should be.
No matter how hard we try there will always be more to do. But here’s the Good News: the one thing that needs to be done is already finished in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Though we are unworthy, Christ makes us worthy. Though we have sinned, Christ offers pardon. Though we feel empty, Christ proclaims that we are enough.
We are freed from the burden of being God. We, like Mary, can do wild and reckless things because Christ is the hope of the world, not us.
There is nothing beautiful about the cross. It is a sign of torture and death. And yet, for God, it is our salvation. Beauty will not save the world, but God does. Amen.
Luke 15.1-3, 11b
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons…”
The strange new world of the Bible is downright scandalous.
I mean, the first two human characters in it, Adam and Eve, spend most of their time in their birthdays suits before they decide to cover themselves with a handful of fig leaves.
The patriarch of the covenant, Abraham, passes off his wife as his sister on more than one occasion to save his own behind.
David, the handsome shepherd king who brings down the mighty Goliath, orders the death of one of his soldiers after an afternoon peeping session with the aforementioned solider’s wife.
And those are just the first three stories that popped in my mine.
When Jesus shows up on the scene, the scandalous nature of the Good News ramps up to eleven.
He eats with all the wrong people, he heals all the wrong people, and he makes promises to all the wrong people.
In the beginning, Jesus attracts all kids of people. The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the holy and the sinful, the first and the last.
But at some point along the way things start to change as do the people who find themselves listening to Jesus.
All the tax collectors and all the sinners come near to listen. The tax collectors are those who profit off their fellow Jews by upping their take for the empire’s pockets. And the sinners, well you can just imagine your favorite sinful behavior, and you can picture them near the Lord.
And so it is the last, least, lost, little, and nearly dead who hang on his every word. Not the respectable Sunday morning crowd we have at church. Not those who sleep comfortably at night knowing their padded bank accounts are safe and secure. Not the people who have all the powers and principalities at their fingertips.
No. Jesus has all the gall to hang out with the sinners.
And the Pharisees, the good religious observers (people like us), are concerned about the behavior of this would-be Messiah, and so they try to dissuade the crowds: “This Jesus is nothing but bad news! He welcomes sinners into his midst, and not only that, he eats with them! Can you imagine? And he calls himself the Son of God!”
So Jesus does what Jesus does best, he tells them a story.
There’s a man with two sons. The family business has been good to the family. The little corner grocery store is a staple in the community and the family know the names of just about every person that walks through the door.
And the father is a good father. He loves his sons.
But one day the younger son gets it into his head that he wants his inheritance right then and there. He doesn’t have the patience to wait for his old man to buy the farm so he marches into the back office and triumphantly declares, “Dad, I want my share of the inheritance now.”
In other words, “Drop dead.”
And the father really is a good father, so he decides to divide his assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes out some investments and gives him his half in cold hard cash.
Only a few days pass before the younger son blows all of his money in Atlantic City. At first he is careful, a few passes at the roulette wheel, a handful of bets at black jack. But the more he loses, the more he spends on booze, girls, and more gambling,
His fall from grace happens so fast that he walks up to the closest pit boss with empty pockets and begs for a job.
“Sure,” the man says, “we’ve got an opening in janitorial services and you can start right now.”
Days pass and the younger son cleans out the trashcans throughout the casino. He’s able to stave off the hunger at first, but he hasn’t eaten in days and one particular half-consumed doughnut at the bottom of the trash can starts to look remarkably appetizing.
And that’s when he comes to himself.
He realizes, there in that moment, that he made a tremendous mistake. Even the employees back at the family grocery store have food to eat and roofs over their heads.
He drops his janitorial supplies and beelines out of the casino while working on a speech in his head, “Dad, I really messed up. I am sorry and I am no longer worthy to be called you son. If you can give me a job at the store I promise I’ll make it up to you.”
He says the words over and over again in his head the whole way home, practicing the lines like his life depends on them.
Meanwhile, the father is sitting by the window at the front of the shop, lazily glancing over the newspaper’s depressing headlines. He can hear his elder son barking out orders to his former employees, and then he sees the silhouette of his younger son walking up the street.
He sprints out the front door, spilling his coffee and leaving a flying newspaper in his wake. He tackles his son to the ground, squeezes him like his life depends on it, and he keeps kissing him all over his matted hair.
“Dad,” the son says, “Dad, I’m sorry.”
“Shut up boy,” the father roars, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party the likes of which this neighborhood has never seen!”
He yanks his prodigal son up from the asphalt, drags him back up the block, and pushes him in front of everyone in store.
“Murph,” he yells at a man with a broom standing at the end of an aisle, “Lock the front door and go find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got. We’ll start roasting it on the grill out back.”
“Hey Janine!” He yells at a woman behind the cash register, “Get on the PA system and call everyone to the front, and open up some beers while you’re at it. It’s time to party! This son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found!”
And the beer caps start flying, and the radio in the corner gets turned up to eleven, and everyone starts celebrating in the middle of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the inventory and comparing figures to make sure that none of his employees are swindling him out of his money, and he hears a commotion going on down the hallway. He sees Murph run past the door with what looks like beer foam in his mustache, and what looks like a leg of lamb under his arm, and the elder son shouts, “What in the world is going on?”
Murph skids to a stop in the hallway and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home! And your father told us to party!” And with that he disappears around the corner to get the grill going.
The older brother’s fists tighten and he retreats back to his office chair and to his ledger books.
Try as he might he can’t focus on his work. All he can think about is his good for nothing brother and all of the frivolity going on mere feet away. His anger grows so rapidly that he grabs the closest stack of papers and flings them across the room.
And then he hears a knock at the door.
His father steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles, “Hey, what’re you doing back here? You’re missing all the fun!”
The older son is incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘What am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job! I’ve never missed a day of work, I’ve been working like a slave for you and you never once threw me a party, you never told me I could go home early. And yet this prodigal son of yours has the nerve to come home, having wasted all your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”
The father sobers up quickly, and maybe it’s the beer or maybe it’s is own frustration, that causes him to raise his voice toward his eldest son, “You big dumb idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve only been working for yourself. Last time I checked, it’s your name on the back of the door, not mine.”
The elder son stands in shock.
And the father continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him the inheritance? Well I trusted you with this, the family business. And what does your life have to show for it? You’re so consumed by numbers and figures, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, all the while you’re chasing some bizarre fantasy of a life that doesn’t exist.”
“Don’t you, ‘But Dad’ me right now, I’m on a roll. Listen! All that matters, the only thing that matters, is that your brother is finally alive again. But look at you! You’re hardly alive at all. There’s a party going on just down the hall and you can’t even bring yourself to have a good time. Well, remember son of mine, complain all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”
The father makes to leave and rejoin the party, but he turns back one last time toward his elder son and says, “I think the only reason you’re not out there cutting up a rug with the rest of us is because you refuse to die to all your dumb rules about how your life is supposed to go. So, please, do yourself a favor, and drop dead. Forget about your life, and come have fun with us.”
And, of course, we know what we’re supposed to do with the story.
At times we’re supposed to identify with the younger brother, having ventured off toward a handful of mistakes, and we need to repent of our wrong doings.
At times we supposed to identify with the father, with our own wayward child, or friend, or partner, and how we have to pray for them to come to their senses and receive them in love.
At times we’re supposed to identify with the elder brother, when we’re disgusted with how some people get all the good stuff even though their rotten.
And just about every time we encounter this parable, whether in worship, Sunday school, or even a book or movie, the same point is made – find yourself in the story and act accordingly.
But that ruins the story. It ruins the story because it makes the entire thing about us when the entire thing is actually about Jesus.
If it were about us it would certainly have a better ending. We would find out from the Lord whether or not the elder brother decides to join the party, if the younger brother really kept to the straightened arrow, and if the father was able to get his sons to reconcile with one another.
But Jesus doesn’t give us the ending we want. We don’t get an ending because that’s not the point.
The point is rather scandalous – no one gets what they deserve and the people who don’t deserve anything get everything!
In Jesus’ parable we encounter the great scandal of the gospel: Jesus dies and is resurrected for us whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son, we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life with love. Like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the party, save for ditching our self-righteousness.
Contrary to how we might often imagine it, the whole ministry of the Lord isn’t about the importance of our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God have a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.
That’s what grace is all about. It is the cosmic bash, the great celebration, that constantly hounds all the non-celebrants in the world. It begs the prodigals to come out and dance, and it begs the elder brothers to take their fingers out of their ears. The fatted calf is sacrificed so that the party can begin. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross so that we can let our hair down, take off our shoes, and start dancing.
We were lost and we’ve been found. Welcome home. Amen.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do preacher, but I don’t come to church to hear about what’s going on in the world. I come to church to hear about God.”
I received that comment after worship one Sunday many years ago and I will never forget it. I can’t remember what exactly I preached about that day, nor do I remember what hymns we were singing, but I remember that comment.
It’s a notable one. On one hand, the admission that the church exists to proclaim who God is and who we are in relation to God is remarkable and downright faithful. But on the other hand, the dismissal of the world in the church is a denial of the very reality of reality.
Preaching is never done in a vacuum. A time and a place are always present in a preacher’s work, but that does not mean that the preacher notices or recognizes where they are. Even preachers who try to do the work of preaching without acknowledging their time or place cannot help but reflect time and place in their work. We preachers are reflections of the world around us whether we like it or not.
The theologian Karl Barth is known for noting that preachers should work with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That surely sounds like good advice: what we experience helps us to understand the scriptures and the scriptures help us to understand our experiences. The only problem is the fact that the newspaper is just as likely to mislead us regarding our time and place. And that’s not even mentioning the question of which newspaper we should be reading. We, indeed, live in a strange new world, made clear to us by various headlines, but when it comes to the life of faith, the strange new world of the Bible is our world.
An atrocity has taken place in the holy city, it’s the front page headline of the Jerusalem Times – Pilate Cuts Down Galileans In The Temple. We don’t know why they were killed, or even how they were killed, only that in their executions their blood was mixed with the sacrifices they brought to the Temple.
You can imagine the commotion this caused among the faithful.
So much so that some in the crowd approached Jesus and demanded to know why such a thing took place among God’s chosen people: What had they done to deserve such an awful fate?
“Nothing,” Jesus says, “They were not greater sinners than any other Galileans.”
And then the Lord pulls out another headline, another catastrophe on the hearts and minds of the people. A tower had fallen in Jerusalem, in the neighborhood of Siloam, just south of the Temple. 18 people died in the incident. And Jesus says, “They were not greater sinners than others either.”
The rain falls on the good and the bad alike, as do famines and other such things, Jesus says in another part of the Gospel. Which can sound like unmitigated bad news. And yet, it is strangely Good News. It is Good News because God is not keeping some great ledger book in the sky and then raining down blessings or curses accordingly. God is not a warden watching over the prisoners to see how well, or how poorly, we behave.
If God punished us according to the choices we make, not one of us would be left around to make any choices at all.
Instead, God arrives in the world in a totally fragile and vulnerable way so that even if a tower falls on our heads, or if our lives are taken by a dictatorial political emissary, or if we die peacefully in our sleep, that it will not be the end for us.
What we believe shapes how we behave. The cross and empty tomb give us the freedom, here and now, to live bold and faithful lives for the Lord and for others because the most important thing in the history of the world has already taken place. No headlines, bad or good, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.
So, sure, take the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, but never forget that the former is far more determinative than the latter.
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Here we are, in worship, on the second Sunday of Lent, the season in which we are called to lament and repent. In the scriptures we continue to confront the condition of our condition and the tones of abject disappointment from the Lord as the cross grows clearer on the horizon.
Jesus, it seems, has grown frustrated with God’s people refusing to hear and heed the summons to return home.
Jesus, it seems, doesn’t have much time to spare for the ruler of the people because he has better things to do.
Jesus, it seems, sees few alternatives left other than the one we adorn our sanctuary with.
As Jesus’ ministry progresses, his lamentations increase just as the obstacles standing in his way increase.
For some reason the political and religious establishments are threatened by the poor and wandering rabbi with his messages of the Kingdom of God. They are threatened because talk of the meek inheriting the earth calls into question all of the power and prestige they have acquired.
Which makes the beginning of this scripture all the more strange. It is rather peculiar that the protective warning comes from the Pharisees who, up to this point in the Gospel, have been anything but concerned for Jesus’ wellbeing.
“Get out of here Jesus! Herod wants to kill you!”
And Jesus brushes the threat aside, “You tell that dirty rotten scoundrel that I’ve got work to do and places to be.”
During Lent the strange new world of the Bible keeps pointing to the cross. Just as the city of Jerusalem is on Jesus’ radar, so too it is for us. Jerusalem is the end.
And Jesus loves Jerusalem.
But it is a strange love.
Jesus describes his own love for the city as a mother hen who endeavors to wrap her wings around her helpless chicks.
And yet, Jerusalem has responded to God’s love and mercy with rebellion, with selfish ambition, with violence.
Jesus loves Jerusalem, but in the end his love for her will be the death of him.
And though it pains us to admit, the same is true for us – Jesus’ love for us, in the midst of our sin-sick souls, it such that it leads to his end.
There are some texts in the holy scriptures that seem to be nothing but trouble. Jesus, here, complains about the wandering hearts of Jerusalem, and how they fail to see the truth right in front of their faces. “See your house is left to you,” sounds like a threat from the Lord.
And yet, biblically speaking, whenever trouble is present, grace isn’t far away.
There is a divine inversion between what is good and bad, in and out, elect and reject.
Cain kills Abel and though God sets Cain to wander the earth for the rest of his days, he is also marked so that no one will bring the same fate that he brought to his brother.
Jacob swindles his brother Esau out of the inheritance and is confronted with an angel of the Lord who knocks his hip out of joint for the rest of the days shortly before he reconciles with his brother.
The favor and blessing of the Lord moves from Saul to David, and yet David commands the people of Israel to weep upon the death of their former king.
Whenever we encounter someone or a group who appears to be rejected by God, there is also some sense of election.
Grace, what we talk about all the time, isn’t so amazing unless there’s a reason for it. Put another way – the law of God is given in order that grace might be sought, and the grace of God is given in order that the law might be fulfilled.
We need rejection and election.
We need law and gospel.
Because that’s what life is like.
Karl Barth put it this way: “There is no light which does not also know darkness, no joy which does not have within it sorrow; but the converse is also true; no fear, no rage, which does not have, far or near, peace at its side. No laughter without tears, no weeping without laughter!”
John Wesley once said that every law contains a hidden promise.
In theological speak we might call it a hermeneutic of inversion – an understanding of things being flipped upside down.
In our passage, Herod wants to kill Jesus. And yet, at the same time, Jesus wants to save Herod.
Jerusalem will bring about Jesus’ death. And yet, at the same time, Jesus’ death will bring about Jerusalem’s salvation.
There is always more to the story than the story itself.
As I said last week, try as we might to move through the motions of Lent, at some point or another we will raise the question that Christians have been asking since the beginning: Who in the world is this Jesus we worship?
I mean, why is Jesus so upset about Jerusalem? Why does he lament what they have done and what they will do? In another part of scripture Jesus will command the disciples to brush the dust off their feet when they encounter a town that does not receive them. Why then does Jesus desire to gather the wayward city under the loving care of a mother hen’s wings?
Luke doesn’t tell us that Jesus wept over Jerusalem. But Matthew does.
And it’s rather revealing.
I did a funeral once for a man whose daughter had not one kind thing to say about her Dad. He was awful to her, he did truly despicable things. It was a miracle she even showed up for the service. And after we put him in the ground, she couldn’t stop crying. And when I asked her why she was crying all she could say was, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
What good is it to lament the bad?
The target is on Jesus’ back, Herod wants him dead. And Jesus brushes away the threat of the Pharisees like it’s nothing.
And then he laments. Not over his life shortly coming to an end. But over Jerusalem, the killer of prophets.
He laments, he grieves, he weeps.
Lent, for us, is the season that provides a chance to lament. Whereas the world always wants to drag us from one thing to the next, Lent compels us to pause. It is a time to sit and grieve and acknowledge that all is not right with the world.
Nor with us.
We’ve behaved badly.
We have done things we ought not to have done.
We have left far too many things undone.
And yet, when it comes to lament, we are far more inclined to lament what happened to and with other people and other places.
It’s not hard for us to imagine Jesus’ lamenting over Jerusalem, because we can just as easily picture him weeping over Russia.
O Russia, O Russia. Look at what you’re doing to the people of Ukraine! You’re dropping bombs on maternity wards, displacing children from their parents, you’re destroying your own souls! O how I have longed to hold you within my lovingly embrace! Look at what you’ve become!
And yet, the inconvenient truth of the Gospel is that for as much as Jesus weeps over the state of other places and other people, Jesus also laments over us.
I wonder, how Jesus would react to us today? What would happen if Jesus looked down upon us from the top of Mill Mountain. Would Jesus cry?
Would he lament?
This is what prophets do: they call into question the powers and principalities regarding all their power and prestige. Prophets point right smack dab at our hearts and our desires and our sins and our shortcomings, they hold up a mirror to who we are, and they beg us to see the truth.
No wonder prophets live such short lives – no one likes being told the truth.
Will Willimon tells a story about how, when he was younger and living in Greenville, South Carolina, the whole place was abuzz with the news that Billy Graham was coming to town. There was going to be a revival. All the churches made plans for the special occasion and even the most ardently unChristian folks were still hoping to hear a word from the evangelist.
And, at Will’s church, they had a meeting about whether or not their church would participate in the revival. The pastor stood before the gathered body and made an impassioned plea – Graham is setting souls on fire, he is winning people for Christ, what a remarkable opportunity for our town, for our church.
And then someone else chimed in, “I’m not so sure pastor. Billy Graham seems charismatic and all, but did you hear that he lets black folk and white folk sit in the same section during his revivals? I don’t think we should be involved with someone who supports integration.”
And that’s all it took. The board voted right then and there to protect the church from Billy Graham’s sinful racial mixing.
After the meeting, Will says that he walked through the church to leave, but forgot something in the social hall so as he turned around in a hallway he heard the sound of sobbing. He crept down the hall. And there was the pastor’s door left slightly ajar. Will peeked inside and he saw his pastor, kneeling on the floor, holding his head in his hands, weeping.
There is something deeply profound and deeply troubling about the cross. It is, of course, the sign and marker of our delivery from Sin and Death. But, in the cross, we discover our reckless rebellion from the one who came to live, die, and live again, for us.
Jesus laments the city of Jerusalem. He weeps with the knowledge of his desire to gather the people in love and their constant refusal. And he declares the house is left to them.
When the house is left to us we like to decide who is in and who is out. We like to formulate our own rules about who is first and who is last, who is right and who is wrong, who is rejected and who is elected.
And so long as the house is left to us, it will not look like the kingdom of God.
Instead it will be a place that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.
God in Christ desperately desires to gather us in, the lost and forsaken, like a hen gathers her brood under her wings. And we refuse.
So Jesus leaves the house to us.
But not forever.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “ you will not see me until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Those are the words sung by the crowds while waving their palm branches as Jesus enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
Those are the same words that we, ourselves, will be singing in a few weeks.
You see, the Good News is that Jesus, in fact, does not abandon us to our own devices nor does Jesus leave us to our own houses. Instead, he arrives in the strangest of ways, banging on the doors of our own creation and says, through death and resurrection, this is my Father’s house.
Blessed is Jesus who comes in the name of the Lord because he is like us and so unlike us. He weeps and laments and loves precisely in our undeserving. He desires to gather us even when we push away. He still mounts the hard wood of the cross knowing full and well that, when push comes to shoves, our Hosannas will turn to Crucify in the blink of an eye. He still breaks forth from the tomb even though we put him there.
Jesus says to us, even today, look at who you are, and look at what you’re doing! Jesus still laments and cries, even for us.
Keeping up with the disruptive and demanding movements of a Holy and righteous God, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s enough to make you cry. Amen.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
He was a fisherman, and not even a very good one, when the Lord showed up and made him into a fisher of people.
And Pete, he’s seen some things, witnessed moments he can’t explain. First it was the teacher calling him to follow. That’s all it took. He and his coworkers, his fellow fishermen, left it all behind on the shore, including nets full of recently caught fish.
Then it was the episode with his mother-in-law. She was busy trying to meet the needs of the Teacher and his new disciples when he touched her and made her well.
And there was the time when the crowds grew so large, and stuck around so long, that they need to eat something and the Teacher turned scarcity into abundance, and everyone left with their bellies full.
And the stories! Mustard seeds and prodigal sons and wayward vineyard workers. That’s what Pete liked best, the stories.
It’s no wonder then, having seen all he’s seen and heard all he heard, that when the Teacher asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Pete was the first to shout, “The Messiah!”
But it’s also why, having confessed the truth of the incarnation, when the Teacher told him and the others that he was going to die, Pete was the first to rebuke him for saying what he said.
“JC, I don’t think you get it. The Messiah can’t die! You’re here to restore all the promises to Israel, which is something you can’t do from the grave.”
And do you know what the Teacher said to Pete? “Get behind me Satan, for your head is stuck on human things, and I’m here for heavenly things.”
And now, 8 days later, they’re walking up a mountain to pray. They arrive at the top, bending in humble adoration, lifting up their prayers to the Holy One, when the Teacher’s appearance changes drastically. His face isn’t the same and his clothes are whiter than the brightest light anyone of them can handle.
Suddenly, two other figures appear, its Moses and Elijah and they’re talking with the Teacher. They are glorious and they talk about his coming departure in Jerusalem, his exodus for the rest of us.
Moses and Elijah are making movements as if they’re going to leave and Pete shouts out, “Lord, it is good and right for us to be here! Let’s make dwelling places here on the mountain so that we might never leave.”
As the words leave his mouth, a cloud overshadows them completely, and the disciples are full of terror. But from the cloud comes a voice, a voice unlike any other, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Suddenly they are alone again, and the Teacher says, “Say nothing to anyone about what you have seen and heard.”
Today is a major turning point in the church year. The transfigured Jesus turns his blazing and radiant face toward a violent fate in Jerusalem at the hands of roaring crowds. This week, the church turns away from the light of Epiphany and toward the shadows of Lent.
Not all churches mark this occasion, but to ignore the Transfiguration is to miss out on the future made manifest in the present. It is a moment of transcendence that lifts the veil of all the good, true, and beautiful in the world.
The Transfiguration is part of what makes the strange new world of the Bible so new and so strange.
And it is indeed a strange story, so strange that as I referenced it with and among individuals from our church this week, more than a few confessed that they were unfamiliar with this moment in the Gospel.
Which makes sense! This story, even among the strangeness of the Bible, is quite bizarre. Jesus has just rebuked his chief disciple for missing the mark, yet again, they go up on top of a mountain during which Jesus is flanked by two of the most important figures from Israel’s history, only to have it all stop just as soon as it started.
And, notably, this is the only instance in any of the Gospels when Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him.
He completely ignores Pete’s request for a motel franchise on top of the mountain.
There are so many things at stake in this triumph of transfiguration, but most of all it is a preview of the Gospel. It is the future present.
And we can’t really wrap our heads around it! Because, we confess, we don’t know what to make of moments that we can’t explain.
Our default mechanism for living in the world today is living in and by the natural and explainable rather than, and at the expense of, the supernatural.
The challenge of our being is that we are stuck living in an unthought way – we are addicted to certainty in a world that is inherently unstable and uncertain.
Our comprehension of events is such that we are convinced we no longer need a religious or mystical explanation for things that happen, or don’t happen. And yet, we are equally obsessed with self-justification, which is inherently a mystical adventure.
Put simply: We’re all on a journey for meaning in the world and more often than not we derive our sense of meaning out of what we can accomplish. Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, never amounts to much. But we keep trying and trying and trying anyway. We add new habits or we drop bad ones. We set out to create some permanence in a world that works only through impermanence. We try and try and try and find ourselves disappointed whether we work harder or not.
We, in some way, shape, or form, are looking for transcendence, but we can’t find it.
Which is odd when you consider how often, in church of all places, we try to take the strangeness of the gospel and turn it into something practical. We take the impossible possibility of God’s grace and we transform it into a list of three things to do to become a better version of yourself. We take the mount of Transfiguration and turn it into some form of moralism about what we should, or shouldn’t, be doing in the world today.
But the Transfiguration isn’t about what we are supposed to do – it’s about being in the presence of God.
Christian art is an endlessly fascinating phenomenon. And the Transfiguration has, for centuries, commanded the imagination of artists.
Here is the Transfiguration as portrayed by the Renaissance painter Raphael. It was the last painting he created before his death, and it was conceived as an altar piece for a cathedral in France.
The top of the painting depicts the scene we encounter in scripture and notably, the bottom half conveys the next part of the story when Jesus and the disciples descend from the mountain to heal a young boy.
Notice how the light of Christ’s Transfiguration is juxtaposed with the darkness of the lower scene.
And here is a modern and abstract depiction of the Transfiguration by an artist named Jaison Cianelli. Like Raphael’s, the painting conveys a hyper focused change that is wrought with lasting consequences.
And finally, this is a modern icon created by a Ukrainian artist named Ivanka Demchuk. The cowering disciples in the bottom portion stand in for all of us, who when encountered by the One who encounter us, can’t help but tremble in fear.
The Transfiguration is one of those moments in the Bible that we can never fully wrap our heads around. It’s one that we need art and music and other aspects of expression to help us come to grips with this bewildering proclamation.
It is beyond our ability to explain and certainly beyond our ability to comprehend because it transcends all modes of our being.
Without the supernatural, without transcendence, without mystery, the church becomes nothing more than a country club, or the next best self-improvement clinic, or a sub par social services agency.
And to be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking out fellowship, or trying to better one’s self, or providing needs to the last, least, lost, little, and dead. But if that’s all we have, if that’s all the church is, then we have no business calling ourselves the church.
There will always be plenty of other institutions that can bring us better friends, or help us get from where we are to where we want to be, or make substantive changes in the world. But they don’t have the one thing that we do: Jesus Christ and him crucified.
The wonderful and weird witness of the Transfiguration is that the only thing we’re told to do is listen to Jesus. From this point forward, Jesus is going to do what Jesus is going to do. He will still stir up the crowds with stories of treasure in a field, and proclamations about the signs of the times, but when push comes to shove Jesus will mount the hard wood of the cross regardless of all our goodness or lack thereof.
We can point to all these bewildering details on top of the mountain, but it’s important that we don’t miss out on the timelessness of the scene. The Transfiguration, a moment indelibly in the past, shows us a glimpse of the future.
Tell no one what you have seen or heard until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.
This moment is made indelible only by the ending that the disciples can scarcely imagine, even though Jesus just hit them up over the head with it.
They are sworn to silence because they are not yet ready for the transcending truth. They have not made it from their reality to God’s reality. They witness something remarkable and inexplicable, but it is not yet the resurrection, the great transfiguration of all things.
Today we, like the disciples, are called to live according to the wondrous nature of the Transfiguration – we can stumble around like fools grasping out in fear for comfort – and then we will hear the words, the only words we need to hear: “This is my Son, the chosen; listen to him.”
But, and it’s a big but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to listen to Jesus. We’d rather listen to ourselves.
We’d rather listen to ourselves because we are downright addicted to control. Or, at least to thinking we’re in control.
Do you know how God responds to those who think they’re in control?
It is humbling to be laughed at by anyone, but when God’s laughs at us it’s another thing entirely. But perhaps we need to hear that laughter, particularly when we wake and sleep believing that it’s up to us to make the world turn out right.
The world has already turned out right. We know the future in the present. The tomb is empty!
We don’t have to be the hope of the world because Jesus already is. The only thing we have to do is live accordingly.
And that’s why Lent beckons us. It’s why Christians, for centuries have marked and observe the season that starts on Ash Wednesday because it reminds us of our inconvenient truth – we can’t make it out of this life alive. But, like the Lord in the tomb, God refuses to leave us that way.
We are a people desperate to be in control of our lives and we’re living in a world in which we are not in control. Moreover, we can scarcely imagine what it would look like to live in the light of Jesus’ transfiguration. It leaves us quaking and bewildered like those three disciples.
But if we do not reflect the glory of the One transfigured, then the world has no light to see that all is not darkness. Amen.