Monday, February 23, 2009

Sermon on Mark 9:2-9, for Transfiguration Sunday, "Life in the Valley"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our sermon text is the Gospel reading you just heard recited and summarized in song by our preschool children, the story of the Transfiguration. This special Transfiguration Sunday comes at the end of the church’s season of Epiphany, that means the special revealing of Jesus as God’s Son. Epiphany began with the visit of the Wise Men that we remembered in early January, and ends with this unparalleled revealing of Jesus’ glory in His Transfiguration. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of our journey into Lent. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all have a religious ‘mountaintop’ experience like the disciples witnessed at the Transfiguration? High on a mountain, alone with the Lord, Peter, James, and John had an experience like no other, seeing Jesus unveil His glory as true God. Plenty of people today chase after an elusive religious experience—wanting some mystical encounter with God. “If God would only show Himself to me, then I could believe He exists!” “God, just give me a sign!” Life in the world of the mundane, the ordinary, workaday routine seems so unspiritual to us. Miracles, the supernatural, the voice of God, all seem inaccessible or even far-fetched to us. They’re beyond our everyday experience, and so rare is it for anything unusual to intrude into our daily life, that we’ve a hard time believing that it can happen. So we want the visible proof in our own life—our own personal religious ‘mountaintop’ experience. Maybe it would even be convenient if it were tailor-made to our particular needs or desires. But we can’t live off of the supposed “mountaintop” experiences.

The disciple Peter tried. He was so overwhelmed and terrified and amazed by what he saw, that He tried to make the experience last. In his confusion he suggested to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three tents—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Whatever sense of joy or elation at this experience, Peter wanted to stretch it out so that it wouldn’t come to an end. Looking back down from the mountaintop into the valley or the plain of life seems pretty uninteresting. We want excitement and grandeur, not the steady, seemingly boring life on the plain…wake up, go to work, come home tired, go to sleep, start all over again. But when Peter spoke up to make his well-intentioned, but misdirected suggestion, he was interrupted by a voice from the cloud that enveloped them: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!” Another extraordinary event—God’s own voice speaking from heaven, identifying Jesus as His beloved Son—reminding them to listen to Him! It would become clear to Peter that he couldn’t live on the mountain, but would have to return to the valley below—back to the ordinary plain of life—but that he was to listen to Jesus there.

But let’s look a little more closely at what happened. The original Greek word that we translate “transfiguration” is where we get the word “metamorphosis.” You know, like when a caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis to change into a butterfly? It’s transfigured, or it’s form changes from one form into another more glorious form. Jesus underwent a metamorphosis, albeit a temporary one, to change form and reveal His true glory for the disciples. He’s truly human in every way, but hidden within that unassuming exterior, He’s also truly God. God in human flesh. So for ever so short a time, He allowed only those three disciples to see His glory and get a glimpse of who He really was. This must have forever changed the way that they looked at Jesus. The radiance and brightness of His clothing became so pure white that it says no one in the world could have bleached them that white. It’s like they’re grasping for words just to describe how dazzling and blinding His appearance was. Even though the disciples knew from His miracles before that He had extraordinary power—this was altogether unexpected—and confirmed that He really was who He said He was.

In fact Jesus didn’t even need to speak for Himself here; God the Father spoke from heaven to identify Jesus as His Son whom He loved. This is directly parallel to the only other time in the life of Jesus that it’s recorded that God spoke audibly from heaven—and that was at Jesus’ baptism. Almost the same words were spoken at His baptism, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well-pleased.” Jesus’ identity was clear, and it was clear that He had God the Father’s approval. Lest the disciples miss the importance of this, or fail to get the point, God reminds them, “Listen to Him!” Do we need that kind of reminder sometimes? Of course the voice of God isn’t going to boom from heaven to tell you to Listen to Jesus. But it’s there in black and white in our Bibles. It’s there in the voices of the children reciting His Word to you. “Listen to Him!” In searching for the miraculous voice from heaven or the great religious mountaintop experience, we’ll miss the still, small voice of God coming to us through His Word, reminding us to Listen to Jesus. We won’t find it high on the mountain, but here in the valley.

You also notice that during Jesus’ transfiguration, He was accompanied by two people who weren’t originally with the disciples. They saw not only Jesus, but Moses and Elijah with Him. Who were Moses and Elijah? Why were they there? Moses was the greatest leader and Old Testament prophet, who’s known for leading the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan, sometime around 1445 BC, some 15 centuries before Christ. God performed miracles through Moses’ hand to demonstrate to Pharaoh that God was able to deliver Israel from Pharaoh’s hand. Moses also is known for his personal encounters with God on Mt. Sinai—encounters that’re described in very much the same way as the Transfiguration on the Mountain in today’s reading. During Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, he received the 10 Commandments, and all of the rest of God’s Law for Israel. Moses wrote all this down in the first five books of the Bible, which are called by various names: either the Torah, which means ‘Law’ or ‘Teaching;’ or the Pentateuch, which means ‘five books.’

Listen to Moses’ description of a greater prophet he said would follow him: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). Not at all coincidence that God the Father said, “Listen to Him!” The Greater Prophet that Moses predicted was now here, confirmed by Moses’ special appearance, and by the witness of God the Father who said, “This is my Son, whom I love, listen to Him!” Moses said this Greater Prophet would have the words of God in His mouth, to speak all that God had commanded Him. Jesus was this Greater Prophet, and because He had the Word of God in His mouth, we are to listen to Him.

And another prominent Old Testament prophet, Elijah, appeared with Moses and Jesus. Elijah was another one who had great religious ‘mountaintop’ experiences with God. He’d seen God’s power in a contest with the prophets of a foreign god on Mt. Carmel. He’d gone to the same Mt. Sinai where Moses had walked centuries ago, and God showed His presence to Elijah in a remarkable way. First a powerful wind, then a earthquake, then a fire passed by Elijah, but the Lord was not in these. And then the presence of the Lord came to Elijah in a still, small voice. A gentle whisper. Moses and Elijah were among the select few who had such direct and miraculous encounters with God on the mountain, and together they represented all of the Old Testament—the Law and the Prophets. Moses the author of the Law, Elijah the great Prophet. Here they were once again, participating in another miraculous mountaintop encounter with God. Yet they had both died centuries ago!

What does this tell us? First it shows the truth of the resurrection, that God is the God of the Living, not of the dead. Believers in God, Old Testament and New, are together with God in heaven, alive. Also, the fact that Peter and the disciples recognized them, gives us good reason to believe that when believers die and go to heaven, we’ll be able to recognize our loved ones and they’ll recognize us. We retain our unique individuality, and aren’t absorbed into a meaningless sea of blank faces. We don’t become anonymous or turn into angels, but our soul is glorified, to await the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day when Christ returns. Even to the disciples who’d never seen nor met Moses and Elijah, they were instantly recognizable. So we may take comfort to know that we’ll be able to see those who have died in faith in Jesus, and know them, and even saints we never knew will be as familiar to us as Moses and Elijah.

But for as miraculous as this Transfiguration of Jesus was for the disciples, just as quickly it was over, the glory was gone, and the disciples saw only Jesus. When the dazzling light and glory, and the appearance of Moses and Elijah was gone, it was only Jesus. Jesus, who strictly charged them not to tell anyone what they’d seen, until He’d risen from the dead. His glory could not be fully revealed again until He’d died on the cross and risen from the dead. Why not? Jesus could’ve walked around like a dazzling light show, blinding and terrifying everyone with His presence. But God’s intent was for His glory to be cloaked. For His full glory to shine out after He’d carried the full weight of the cross, and the sin that bore Christ down. This was Jesus’ pivotal challenge, His battle—and the glory would not come until He’d earned it through His death and resurrection. And without the miraculous sign of His Resurrection from the dead, who could believe that He was really the Son of God?

The truth is that Jesus couldn’t just come down on earth in God’s unveiled glory. Moses and Elijah both knew this, from their encounters with God. Moses had begged to see God directly—to see His face. God warned, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). Sinful man would perish in the presence of God’s holiness. It would be like putting paper in front of a consuming fire. But God did permit Moses to get a shielded glimpse of the glory of God, by looking at His back. Likewise, Elijah couldn’t face God in the windstorm, the earthquake, or the fire, but God instead came to him in the gentle whisper. This is what Jesus gave us. This is what Jesus gave the disciples. He came from God, shielding His glory in the humility of His human nature. Yet with all the brilliance and fire and authority of true God. The glimpse of this for the disciples at Transfiguration was enough to show them and us who He was, but not to blind them, not to let them perish in the brightness of His holiness.

And when the glory faded, He brought them back down from the mountaintop to live in the valley and on the plain. Life there might seem pretty mundane and unspiritual. But the glimpse of the Transfiguration, this glimpse of heaven lifted their spirits and ours as we walk through the valley. But there’s a way that Jesus’ Transfiguration is carried forward in you, and that even the ordinary life is made holy in service to God. The reading from 2 Corinthians today says: “We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” That word transformed is actually the same metamorphosis or ‘transfiguration’ that shows up in Jesus’ Transfiguration. It’s saying that we’re being transfigured into Jesus’ likeness by the Holy Spirit. But why would we be transfigured into Christ Jesus’ likeness? Because in our fallen, sinful state, we again would perish in the uncovered splendor of God’s holiness. So we must first be transfigured into Jesus’ image of purity and holiness, of utter sinlessness. And this can only happen through Jesus’ death on the cross and the forgiveness He won for us there. Through His death and resurrection we’re clothed with His innocence, His righteousness. Our clothing will be bleached whiter than anyone can bleach it, dazzling and whiter than snow (Is. 1:18). Clothed in Christ, transfigured by forgiveness into His holy image—then we can stand in God’s presence one day.

So in this life, by faith the Holy Spirit is transfiguring us, causing us to undergo a metamorphosis as we repent and put away our sins, and trust in the beloved Son of God, Jesus Christ for our forgiveness. And like a caterpillar entering its chrysalis, our body must one day die, after which we’ll emerge transfigured into Jesus’ image in the resurrection of the body. For then at last, we’ll have arrived at our final destination. Then at last the glory of Jesus and the glory of God will be fully seen and unveiled. For our destination is the heavenly mountaintop (Is. 25:6) where the glory will last, and the sad, mundane life in the valley will be forgotten, and we will stand worshipping in God’s presence, not perishing from His holiness, but alive and reflecting its brilliance. Then we will no longer leave the mountaintop, but will truly say, “It’s good Lord to be here!” Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
1. Have you ever had a religious ‘mountaintop’ experience? What’s the problem with chasing after such an experience, or trying to live off such experiences?
2. How did Peter try to prolong the experience? What did the voice of God tell him to do instead?
3. Transfiguration comes from the Greek word, “metamorphosis.” How was Jesus transfigured, and what did it mean?
4. Who were Moses and Elijah, and what did their presence indicate? What Biblical hope does their presence bear witness to? What does it imply about our condition in heaven?
5. Why did Jesus’ glory need to remain cloaked or hidden while on earth, until His death and resurrection? Why can’t humans see God (yet) in His unclothed glory?
6. How are we as believers being transfigured, and why? How does this transform our mundane or earthly lives into spiritual lives? What mountaintop destination are we headed for, and what sights await us?

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