Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, whom Peter called Majestic Glory, the world is all grown up, at least it thinks it is. Satisfied with how much we know and all that we have accomplished we get swept up in the glory of our own mountains. Even still we try harder, often afraid we will get passed by. Bring us rest, your light and your presence in the Good News that is Jesus the Christ. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
Matthew 17:1-9; Exodus 24:12-18; Ps. 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21
Fleming Rutledge, Episcopal Priest, relays a story that might be more common today than it was in 1999 when introducing a sermon.
A good friend of mine is a rector of a church in the Massachusetts Berkshires. She tells a story about her husband and his Sunday School class. Her husband is a physics professor at Williams College. He was teaching a class on the Transfiguration to some twelve to thirteen-year-olds. As he related the story of how Jesus’ clothing turned brilliant white, Moses and Elijah appeared, and so forth, one of the boys said, “Mr. Crampton, I don’t believe that story, and neither do you.”
The world is all grown up. Many find the stories in the Scriptures too fantastical to believe any more. They just don’t fit the body of knowledge we have assembled as human beings. And, even if there are bits we cannot explain, we find it too childish to attribute what we don’t know to some transcendent force, like God. Even twelve to thirteen-year-olds know this.
It seems some of us are embarrassed to admit we really do believe these stories. We don’t talk about them much outside of our own group. We hear the question, “Do you literally believe this?” from skeptics, even cynics. It is a trap question. If we answer, “Yes,” we are dismissed as believing in fairy tales. If we answer, “No,” we are quizzed about our ongoing participation in a local church. The consequence is that those who seem to have no trouble believing are not sure what to do about those among them who do, have trouble believing. What if those who have no trouble created space for those who do? It might take some work. But, a re-discovery, what one writer called a Second Naïveté, actually makes the space given to the doubting a more imaginative witness for a world that is all grown up.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It is the key moment in the telling of Jesus’ life that marks the more intentional turn to Jerusalem where the cross awaits. The Church has taken up this story the Sunday before Lent as the Season of Lent provides us forty days to reflect on the depth of God’s love revealed in Jesus and our participation in a world all grown up and thinks it is no longer in need of God. These forty days end with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Black Saturday and Easter Sunday.
The Transfiguration of Jesus is verified in the second letter attributed to Peter. Maybe you read it this week and saw that among many of the events that Peter could have recounted in his experience with Jesus, he points to the Transfiguration.
For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Peter began this reading with,
Therefore I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you.
A grown-up world, even we who count ourselves grown-up Christians, needs reminding. Peter knew well how important it was to be reminded. Hearing Jesus repeat it over and again that once they made their way to Jerusalem Jesus would suffer death was too much for Peter to grasp. When the time came that Jesus was arrested, Peter lost his memory. He denied all he had heard Jesus say and more, he denied Jesus. Now, nearing his end, Peter knows the value of reminding, particularly for those all grown up.
Before the world grew up, it has been described as enchanted. That is, human beings were once more aware of their limitations and what they could not understand they attributed to gods or God. Voices from heaven, transformed clothing and the appearance of two figures with Jesus would not have been thought the imaginings of the inebriated. If Peter were drunk on anything it was the experience with the God who set him free from the laws of Church and State that kept him bound to make enemies of those not like himself. Talk about a personal transfiguration!
So when we look at our readings for today it helps us hear what the Scriptures is saying, what it is doing. Take Peter’s opening words to his first letter,
To the exiles . . . who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood:
Today we are not sure what to do about references to blood and sacrifice. But, those in Jesus’ day would have been well aware. We rightly hear blood and sacrifice as pointing to death. What we miss is that blood also points to life. In Israel’s story, one that seems to be in the back of the Transfiguration, the people gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai. There, God called Moses to come up the mountain.
Then he took the book of the covenants and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken, we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it [sprinkled it] on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Sprinkled with the law of their confession of obedience, they were now bound to it all. Would the law bring them life? Or, would the law hang like a weight over them at every turn? It is not that the Law of God is the problem. It is that the Law of God exposes, reveals, our problems with obedience.
The Transfiguration recreates the story of Exodus 24. Like John offering a dramatic re-telling of God liberating the people as he baptized in the Jordan, God the Father goes all in to re-create the mountain scene to say, in Jesus, Majestic Glory, is well-pleased.
Six days later, Matthew begins. The difference between a literal reading and being literal-minded is how we hear what Matthew is doing when he provides that these events occurred six days later. What did God create on the sixth day? Human beings. Hearing Matthew read may have startled those listening in Antioch. Six days. Rather than zero in on the question of “Six days after what”, they likely would have had Genesis in mind. And for Matthew, it would have signaled that God is creating something new in Jesus.
What the people could not do, did not do, what we have not done, what we do not do, when it comes to keeping the Law has been fulfilled in Jesus in whom the Father is well-pleased. Do you see what is happening? Blinded by a reading that limits what we hear, early hearers would have made the connection that the story is pointing to a new Adam, Jesus Christ. Six days later God reveals that Jesus will do what Adam did not. So, in a sense, in a very real sense, Matthew tells the story of Jesus in a way that points out that Jesus is greater than Adam. If Adam stands in for us all, as Paul writes in Romans, Jesus now stands in for us.
Jesus fulfills the covenant for us that was ratified but the sprinkling of the people at the foot for Mt. Sinai. For Peter, sprinkled by his blood would frame the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as the one who is obedient for us and calls us to a new life of trust in him rather than ourselves. It would be as if that day Jesus were standing in for the people in response to all that Moses read to them that day. Jesus then says for us, “All of this I will do.” And he did.
Once Moses came down from the mountain he received instructions for the building of the tabernacle. Maybe you remember that it was that mobile worship center for Israel. Rather than return to the mountain to encounter and hear from the LORD, to see his glory, God came to dwell with the people in worship and as the cloud and fire by day and night.
When the three disciples looked up from cowering in fear, they noticed only Jesus. He encouraged them not to fear and he touched them. The God who dwells, who lives in illuminating light, whose glory prompts awe and fear, reached down to touch the disciples in their fear. Don’t miss this. God did not expect human beings to reach the mountain in order to see Godself. Rather God came to us and revealed himself, John says in Jesus we see God’s glory. No longer concealed but now revealed.
Peter’s response is noteworthy. First, keep in mind that just before this experience the last think Peter says provokes Jesus’ strong rebuke, “Get behind me Satan, for you do not have in mind the things of God.” Peter had rejected the idea that Jesus would suffer and die and rise again. Here Peter is all in,
Let’s make three booths.
Let’s make three dwelling places, three tents, three small tabernacles if you will. The reference was to a festival of rest. And that is what the writer of Hebrews tells us we find in Jesus – rest. Shabbat, sabbath.
There is, therefore, a sabbath rest for the people of God.
It is Jesus. He is our rest. Having stood in our place to fulfill the law and at the same time to bear the sins that prompted the rejection of Jesus, he makes a way of rest.
In response to Peter’s exuberant, emotional response, Jesus says we must go down. And that folks is what binds us to one another. There are people whose condition calls for us to declare the Good News of God in Jesus the Christ.
We may meet their fear with presence – the very presence of God.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen here.