In an attempt to live into my fear, I stepped up to the pulpit without a pre-written sermon and offered this about The Transfiguration…
In an attempt to live into my fear, I stepped up to the pulpit without a pre-written sermon and offered this about The Transfiguration…
When I was in seminary we had all sorts of assignments that were designed to get us engaged with scripture. When I took a class on the gospel according to Mark, I was required to read all 16 chapters out loud, in my spare time, at least once a week. When I was learning about biblical Greek, I was tasked with memorizing the Lord’s Prayer in Greek and I would mutter it under my breath everywhere I walked on Duke’s campus. And when I was enrolled in a class on the art of preaching, I had to work with a group to come up with a strange and exciting way to bring a scriptural text to life.
My group broke up parts of the worship service; one person would do the call to worship, one person would lead the rest of the class in singing a few hymns, one person was responsible for all of the prayers, and I was assigned the “sermon” section. Rather than waxing lyrical about the particular text (Jesus’ Transfiguration) we agreed that I should just retell the story in an exciting and dynamic way.
I prayed over the text during the days leading up to the worship service and decided that I would tell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration from Peter’s perspective, from the future looking back on the incredible event. Like a lot of group of assignments, it felt like everything was just thrown together, but we were confident that God could make something out of our worship.
When the day of the assignment arrived, everyone in the group nailed their respective parts and I eventually had to stand before the gathered class and give my rendition of the Transfiguration. As I went on and on as an older Peter remembering the past, I could tell that the class was starting to lose interest, so I started elevating my volume and delivery. I began building the story up through a crescendo until that pivotal moment when Jesus was clothed in white and everyone in the room went wide eyed. I, at first, thought that my command over the scripture had blown the class away, but I soon realized what had happened: While I was talking, one of my peers had slowly started to dim the lights in the room until it was rather dark (I was so focused on what I was saying that I didn’t even notice it). But then at the exact moment I described the dazzling whiteness of Jesus’ garment, she turned on the projector and I started to glow.
Transfiguration Sunday is an important event in the liturgical calendar as we bask in the glory of Christ right before we enter the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Important for us is a willingness to be knocked back by the dazzling power of Jesus’ life and work. We take the time to be blown away, just like Peter was, by how God’s love really knows no bounds.
This week, as we prepare to celebrate the Transfiguration, let us look for moments where God’s glory shines in our midst. We might see it in a perfect sunset, the laughter of a child, or in the still small silence of prayer. And whenever it happens, let us give thanks for the glory of the Lord.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
I love asking that question. Whether in the middle of painting a house surrounded by middle-schoolers on a mission trip, or in the midst of a counseling session with a member from the community, identifying with people from the bible can be eye-opening. For instance: Middle-school age boys almost always say they identify with David (during the fight with Goliath) probably because of their current physical changes and the pressures of school and social developments. Middle-school girls often identify with Esther probably because they want to establish their independence and unique responsibilities for taking care of others.
The question was first asked of me during a Clinical Pastoral Education session. Our group leader wanted us to begin understanding our own limitations and strengths when it came to meeting people in the midst of suffering, so we began with acknowledging our perceived biblical counterparts. At the time I was getting used to seeing the world through a scripturally shaped imagination and had already paired up my group members with people from the bible. I was therefore thrilled when some of them identified with the characters I had imagined for them. When it came time for me to answer, I responded without hesitation: “Peter”
Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the stories involving Peter from the New Testament. I loved imagining Peter mending the nets on the boats to then being brought to his knees in humble reverence for the Lord in his midst. I loved picturing him jumping off the boat to meet Jesus walking on the water. I loved his willingness to speak up and act first while the other disciples remained quiet in the background.
As I have grown older my identification with Peter has taken truer form when I spent time with the more embarrassing stories of his life. I truly fear that if I was placed under the same kind of pressure I would deny Jesus three times. I wonder how similarly I would have responded if I had been on top of the mountain during the transfiguration. And I am ashamed knowing that if Jesus had explained the need for his death prior to resurrection, I probably would have pulled him aside to rebuke him for making such claims.
I identify most with Peter. I see myself in him when I read from the New Testament and therefore have learned how to respond to God’s grace in my life in a way so as to not make the same mistakes that Peter once did.
Who do you identify with in scripture? Are you going through something in your life right now that aligns with a particular story from the bible? How can you use the living Word to help shape and mold the direction your life is heading?
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
I love asking questions. Whether I’m sitting around the dining room table with family and friends or I am holding a ladder so that a middle-school student can paint a ceiling in West Virginia; asking questions is something that brings me joy. Of course there are the standard and typical “What’s your favorite movie?” and “What was the last good book that you read?” and even “If you could go on vacation anywhere, where would you go?” I love asking these types of questions because they afford an opportunity for everyone to respond and it often sparks a much longer and deeper conversation.
For as much as I love to ask questions, there is one in particular that I enjoy asking more than any other: “Who from the Bible do you most identify with?” I last asked this question of a handful of middle school students on our recent mission trip and it was so exciting to see them ponder over the question and eventually offer their response. However, when some of them were unable to answer the question I made it my mission to learn enough about each of them to tell them who I thought they reminded me of from the Bible by the end of the week.
In my life I identify most with the apostle Peter. I was not called out of a simple career to leave everything and follow Christ, I have not had a defining moment where I denied Christ three times, but when it comes to Peter’s personality I line up completely. Like Peter, I always have an answer to every question, I often volunteer for leadership positions, and I regularly speak on behalf of many others. Moreover I see the connections between myself and Peter most vibrantly in the story of Peter getting off the boat to walk with his Lord. When I feel that God is asking me to do something I usually do whatever it takes to jump right in, yet sometimes when I have already left the boat I notice the strong winds of life that make me doubt what I have done. I, like Peter, need to hear Jesus’ question over and over: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
As we prepare to take steps into a new week I encourage you to reflect on who you identify with from the Bible. Do you feel like David, small but able to accomplish great things? Do you feel like Martha, always busy and working hard to take care of all the chores? Or do you feel like me, which is to say, do you feel like Peter, ready and willing to rush into anything for God? Who from the Bible do you most identify with?
1 Peter 5.6
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.
I got the phone call on Thursday afternoon letting me know that Mrs. Betty Lancaster had passed away. Sitting on my couch at the parsonage I realized that I have been at St. John’s for nearly a year and this phone call meant that I was going to preside over my first funeral. I got to the Lancaster’s room at Brightview Baldwin Park as quickly as I could and I sat with the grieving family as they accepted the fact that Betty was gone.
Over the weekend I met with the family on different occasions learning more about the kind of life Betty lived in order that I might do justice to her life during the funeral service on Monday afternoon. The family shared with me particular stories about her life; her love to travel, her expertise in the kitchen, and her dedication to instilling important family values. I heard about how she and Ray met on a Greyhound bus on their way to Radford/Blacksburg, and how their marriage of 63 years began in a service station here in Staunton when a clerk from the court met with them to preside over their martial vows.
I made phone calls to a few of Betty’s friends that still live in the community who confirmed the family’s belief that she was one incredible woman, ready to do whatever it took for others. The more I learned about her life, the more I wished I had been able to spend more time with her myself.
But the one thing that stuck out among all the other details was a simple comment that Ray made as soon as I made it to his room after Betty died. Sitting in his chair, barely looking up from his lap, he softly said, “To us, Betty was always a star, but she never went in for all the glitz and the glamour.”
Humility is a lost art in our current culture. With the need and the drive to outshine everyone else (whether for employment, college applications, or just selfish desire) we no longer appreciate the importance of remaining modest. Life, at times, seems like one giant competition where we have to make sure that we come in first place. However, the kingdom of God is not like the world we live in. Instead of cutthroat competition dominating everything we do, we are called to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt us in due time. In life we will have opportunities to shine for God, but we must remember that when we do our best, we do so for the kingdom of God and not ourselves.
The call of discipleship today is to live like Betty Lancaster did, which is to say we are called to live like Christ did; ready to listen, prepared to love, and humble in all that we do.
1 Peter 2.21
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
The argument broke out during a discussion on the Philosophy of Religion with a few of my peers in college. “Dying for someone is the ultimate sacrifice!” someone yelled. “Don’t be such a martyr!” someone ironically interjected. The conversation started politely enough; I made mention of a passage from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and was curious what others thought about it: “I could die for you. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, live for you.” Before too long an argument had erupted regarding the necessity of physical sacrifice for others. A few of my friends adamantly believed that our ultimate call was to give our life for others so that we completely mirrored Christ’s life in our lives.
However, one young woman was unconvinced. She stayed quiet for much of the fight but eventually, with a calm and collected voice, she said, “I think dying for someone else is easy. Not that Christ’s death was easy; but his death is not our death. Christ died for the salvation of the world, so that we would not have to. I think the far greater challenge is to live for one another. Living for someone else requires us to love the way Christ did. It would be so easy to sacrifice my own life for someone else. But to live for someone that I despise? Thats what Christianity is all about.”
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” For those of us living in the comfort of Christianity in the United States, our faith will probably never require us to give our lives. Christianity has become such an accepted reality that faith rarely frustrates or disrupts our society. However, we have been called to so much more than just sacrificing ourselves for others in death. The call of Christ on our lives is to sacrifice ourselves for others in the way we live. Just like the young woman proposed during our argument, to love someone that we despise is precisely what being a Christian is all about.
In this Easter season, a time of new faith, new beginnings, and new realities I wonder how we are all sacrificing ourselves for others? Today might be the best day to ask ourselves whether or not we are really following in the steps of Jesus.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.
Six days later. An innocuous beginning to our scripture today. In order to properly experience the depth of the transfiguration, we have to go back six days in the life of Jesus and his disciples. Before hiking the mountain with the inner circle of Peter, James, and John, Jesus asked the disciples about his identity. “Who do people say that I am?” “Well Jesus, some call you John the Baptist, and others call you Elijah or one of the prophets.” “Okay, but who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.”
Jesus then immediately taught his disciples about his impending death, and predicted his resurrection for the first time; “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter, the great representative for the rest of the disciples, the great representative for all of us, pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke him for making such claims: “the messiah cannot be rejected by the elders and be killed Jesus, thats not what a messiah is supposed to do.”
Jesus quickly stopped Peter in his tracks, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
And so, six days later, perhaps when the disciples needed a reinforcement of faith after such a strange episode, the inner circle was invited by Jesus to the top of a mountain. I can imagine their wavering faith as they slowly walked along the path, unable to comprehend the new understanding of what it meant for their Lord to be the Messiah.
In the cool of the morning, with the dew still hanging in the air, Jesus was transfigured before the disciples. His clothes became dazzling white beyond human comprehension. And there, on either side of Jesus appeared Elijah and Moses. Then Peter said aloud, perhaps while cowering in fear, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Suddenly, a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a great voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.
Today, we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday. In the life of Jesus the Transfiguration was a defining moment that would come to determine the course of his mission to the world. From this point forward the trajectory of Jesus and his disciples was set toward Jerusalem. For the modern church, Transfiguration Sunday is celebrated immediately before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Just as the Transfiguration trained the disciples’ eyes to the coming death and resurrection of Jesus, so too we are training ourselves to make our way through the coming forty days of Lent preparing for the celebration of Easter.
What do you think of this story? It has forever been a favorite of mine for many reasons. What does the appearance of Elijah and Moses mean for the disciples and Jesus? What must it have felt like to be there with Peter, James, and John to have witnessed Jesus transfigured before them? How powerful and enveloping was the cloud and God’s voice declaring Jesus as his Beloved? A whole sermon series could be devoted to these 7 verses. However, today we are going to focus on Peter’s peculiar request to build three dwellings on top of the mountain.
Peter is both frightened and ignorant. Within the last week he had made the stunning confession of Jesus as the Christ and then he was connected with the likes of Satan and commanded to move behind Jesus. Like many Christians, Peter was willing to go wherever Christ called him, though that didn’t necessarily mean he understood everything that was going on. This event had to have been remarkable for the three disciples present. In a brilliant fashion Jesus was validated as the Son of God. In spite of the shock regarding his own suffering and approaching death, this transfiguration confirmed him as the Lord’s anointed, the beloved Son.
Perfectly timed as a reinforcement for the disciples’ faith, particularly in the wake of Peter’s movement between perfection and ignorance, Peter responds to this glorious moment with the desire to build three dwellings. Behind his words was the need to prolong the experience. Who among us would not want to stay up there on the mountaintop with the transfigured Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah? This was a moment high worth; the true, embodied, and illuminated understanding of Jesus. It was an experience that any of us would have liked to make permanent. However, life is not made up of mountaintops alone, for every glorious mountain there is a equally draining valley. It was good for Peter to experience the transfiguration, but it was NOT good for him to try and prolong the experience. Life must continue to move on.
A few months ago I was blessed with the opportunity to preside over my first wedding. Brian and Sarah are a delightful couple and I was thrilled with the invitation to join them together in marriage. The wedding went off without a hitch, well thats not exactly true, I had to remind the nervous father of the bride to stand with her until he gave her away, and then I had to direct him to sick back down after he had finished. Nevertheless, when it came time for the homily, I stood before Brian and Sarah, remarking about the sanctity of marriage and the role that God plays in all of our unions. I ended the homily with something I tell all couples preparing for marriage:
“From this point forward your individual stories are coming together. I want to tell you something that most will try to claim the contrary. Today will NOT be the happiest day of your lives. If you limit the joy of what you can experience in marriage to this one particular Saturday afternoon, it will cease to be organic and life-giving but instead repetitive and dull. You have an incredible story in front of you, one that has yet to be written, you are traveling as strangers into a strange land. There will be countless mountains and valleys and so much of your horizon is still beautifully unwritten.”
Like Peter, many of us want to desperately hold on to those “transfigured” moments of our lives. We want to experience events where we get a little slice of heaven, but as soon as they fall in our laps we are often unwilling to let them go. The excitement of Christmas is often replaced by the anxiety and dull atmosphere of January. The beauty of a newborn baby is quickly rivaled by the long nights of crying and wailing. The joy of summer break from school flies by too quickly and before we know it we are sitting in a new classroom surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Life is made up of both mountains and valleys. Neither one can, nor should, last forever.
Transfigured moments are all around us, particularly here in worship. Worship is supposed to be a shining hour, high and lifted up, an event where the glory of God the Father, Son, and Spirit shines radiantly throughout our space. Like the disciples gathered on the mountain, worship is supposed to surround us like a cloud when Jesus and his revelation of God are made known to each of us. Worship, when done well, produces a glow unlike anything else on earth. Worship, beauty, joy, love; all of these are those wonderful transfigured moments that surround us daily. A life that has no transfigured hours of worship is poor, no matter how rich and decadent the elements may be.
So, just think for a moment, imagine the many areas in which the mood of Peter, when he said, “Lets just stay here” blocks the possibilities of life. Life cannot just be one big wedding celebration, nor can it be replaying our favorite song over and over and over again, nor can it be a endless worship service here at St. John’s. Whether we like it or not, we cannot stay on top of the mountain forever, we have to move and go on to new experiences of life, faith, and understanding.
As the disciples grew closer and closer to their Lord, his words and proclamations became increasingly difficult to understand and follow. While making their way to the inevitable result of Jerusalem, the disciples needed to hear Jesus. The voice from the cloud echoed out, “listen to him!” and I can think of no better words for all us to hear this morning.
When I was 16, standing on the sidewalk along Ft. Hunt road in Alexandria, Virginia on a cold and dark December evening my life was forever changed. I am a product of “listening to him.” I stand before you as the pastor serving this church because I was enveloped in that strange cloud of God’s grace, without a big booming voice, without particular words, and yet I somehow knew that I could do nothing with my life other than serving the church. My life has been filled with mountaintop experiences, some of them on literal mountain tops, but there have also been deep and seemingly endless valleys.
And so, what are to make of us this Transfiguration? That day when he took the three disciples to the mountainside to pray, his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame. Two men appeared, Moses and Elijah came. Lost in the cloud a voice, have no fear, we draw near, lost in a cloud, a sign, Son of Man turn your ear.
We are just like those disciples standing on the mountainside with Jesus. We are given glimpses of heaven regularly in our lives. We are blessed to be showered with transfigured moments if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. However, life must be made of both mountains and valleys. Like the disciples we are called to listen to Jesus when the time comes to re-enter the reality of life. We have the privilege of listening to Jesus and having his words become incarnate in the ways that we live our lives.
If you want to truly experience a transfigured moment in your life, look no further than this table with the gifts of bread and wine. This banquet that has been prepared for you and me is an encounter with the divine, it is a little slice of heaven for us. This is our mountaintop, that incredible and glorious moment when Jesus’ true radiance shined in a way unlike anything else on earth. In this communion we are brought into union with the triune God, we are nourished with the grace of God for our journeys of faith.
So, as we prepare to feast at Christ’s table, remember that we cannot stay on the mountain forever. We will depart from this place and enter the world filled with the body and the blood. Listen to him in the valleys of life knowing that we are always going on to something new and wonderful. Let us all strive to be transfigured and delight in God’s will, walking in his ways forever. God is with us at the wedding receptions and in the hospital waiting rooms, God is with us when we fall and love and when we lose our jobs. God is with us when we cradle new-born children for the first time and when they leave us to begin their own lives. God is with us on the highest mountains and in the deepest valleys. Listen to him.
"Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto."
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