Wednesday, October 25, 2017

What can we say come February 11? Transfiguration of our Lord

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Transfiguration Sunday – and we are blessed with two texts narrating the days two pe
ople slipped the bonds of mere peoplehood.  As I’m writing, I’m not sure if I’ll fix our attention on Elijah, or Jesus – or to try to connect the two, as 2 Kings is the premise for how Elijah was in a position to show up for Jesus’ shining, along with Moses, whose death and burial were left shrouded in mystery by the writer of Deuteronomy 34.

     Let me begin with Mark 9 before attending to 2 Kings 2:1-12, on which I wrote a blog (entitled “Onward to Mordor”) for Christian Century (the full article is displayed below).  When I try to wave my magic wand over the world of homiletics, the Transfiguration is the first text I point to – as it is the prime example of the understandable but deeply flawed way even well-meaning preachers take a text that is most clearly about God, and try to turn it into something about us.  In my preaching book, The Beauty of the Word, I explain how so many texts are about how amazing God is – and it’s sufficient just to ponder the amazingness of God in the sermon! But we have to make it about us, our faith, our to-dos, our doubts, our serving… and then we struggle and wind up botching things. 

     With the Transfiguration, I’ve read and heard so many sermons like a few I tried when I was young – with some ridiculous attempt at “Okay, you have a mountaintop experience, and then you go back down into the real world…”  All 3 Synoptic versions of this moment have as their “point” the simple fact that Jesus is amazing, someone to be worshipped, gawked at, and the only takeaway is to be lost in wonder, love and praise.  Mark shows us the way the plodding disciples tried what preachers try: Lord, let us do something.  Let us build three booths!  Mark’s comment reveals a kind of mercy on them, and on us: “For they did not know what to say.”  Indeed. 

     What the preacher knows to say is that Jesus quite shockingly started glowing, shining; the Greek means literally metamorphosized.  He shimmered.  No ordinary guy, this Jesus; we get a preliminary peek into his eternal glory.  The only conceivable responses are recorded in Scripture.  In Mark, Peter does offer the greatest understatement in religious history: “It is good that we are here.”  Matthew 17:10 is even better: “And they fell on their faces in awe.”

     I want to preach the sermon that simply causes me and my people to say “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place – and it is good that we are here,” or that would make me and them simply blush in awe.  This sermon won’t attempt to resolve any personal or societal dilemmas, it won’t allow notes to be taken to put into practice on Tuesday morning, it doesn’t even try to get me to do anything but observe a bit of a sabbath from doing things like building booths or even being religious, and simply let my jaw drop over how cool, how very different and glorious this Jesus is. 

     I have attempted this myself a few times.  Here are two samples on YouTube - on Mark 9 and on Matthew 17.

     Mind you, the material extolling the beauty and glory of Jesus is plentiful.  The birth, the incarnation – God becoming small to show us God’s heart.  Wow.  Jesus’ words, his holiness, the people he touched, the marvel of his healing.  The temptation narrative (another one we botch by making it about how we overcome temptation): we see Jesus achieving what you and I wouldn’t have a prayer of doing – resisting the devil’s seductive allure.  His suffering in silence, his compassion on the soldiers who just nailed him up, his tenderness toward a thief, his love for his mother.  “What wondrous love is this?” 

     Am I veering from Mark 9?  I don’t mind if I do – but the timing of Mark 9 invites this very speculation: Jesus has just asked the disciples about his identity, and he has just explained his vocation to go to Jerusalem, suffer and die, despite the strenuous objections of those who knew him best.

     Jesus.  His resurrection, and ascension.  Gee, I’m going to need a heckuva lot of time to explore “Fairest Lord Jesus, Beautiful Savior.”  Even the appearances of Moses and Elijah: people try to make hay with them as Law & Prophets, which may well be.  But for me, they may ‘represent’ something; but it’s way more important that these two guys, who last lived on earth centuries before, are standing there with Jesus shining.  This only enhances how unfathomably amazing Jesus is.

     The only remote takeaways might be two: first, to try to do the awe thing every day… and then second, as the voice from heaven (which echoes the voice at Jesus’ baptism) quite sensible suggests, “Listen to him.”  Yeah, the guy who glowed, the one who is God and who healed and touched the untouchables and gave his life?  Listen to this guy and not all the other pretenders who’ve frankly never glowed for a nanosecond.

     Jesus does hush the disciples: Don’t tell anybody about this moment! – as if he intuited the way his shining would be misunderstood, and charlatans would try to capitalize on such dazzling.  Later, of course, once it was clear Jesus wasn’t just a dazzler, but a humble, holy, earthy one whose mission wasn’t dazzling but dying, they did tell loads of people, including us.

     So now we turn back to 2 Kings 2.   The mantle is intriguing; Gandalf's remark below is fabulous.  Pondering Elijah as Elisha's mentor is too; I'd commend a recent book I contributed to and edited on mentoring - Mentoring for Ministry.

    Regarding our text, I can’t do any better than the Christian Century piece I wrote: 

  Go back, Sam. I’m going to Mordor alone!” “Of course you are,” responds Sam, “and I’m coming with you!” He plunges into the river, gets in over his head and almost drowns before Frodo pulls him into the boat. Once Sam catches his breath, he explains: “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo. Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee, and I don’t mean to.”

     As dogged as Sam, Elisha would not leave Elijah alone, although Elijah tried to shed Elisha like a pesky gnat. Why? Biblical narrative habitually refrains from reporting motivations and feelings. Was he sparing Elisha? Did Elijah simply prefer to die alone? When Jesus, who like Elijah had miraculously fed the hungry and healed dozens and gotten cheeky with the powers that be, said, “I go to prepare a place for you,” did the disciples think of Elijah trudging off to die alone?

     What complex feelings stir when a great leader, a wise sage, a stellar saint departs? Is our grief less because we know that the leader is with God? Or is our grief heightened because of the sanctity lost, or because of the liberation of the heart that was learned at the feet of the one we loved and lost? We cannot know if Elisha felt delight or dread in Elijah’s being whisked away into the heavens.

     We sing “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home,” although in all the annals of history we know of only one chariot that accompanied a homecoming. This chariot defies explanation—as the author no doubt intended. Too much of our preaching is confident, because we foolishly think our task is to make the mysterious clear. Elisha could do nothing to explicate the things of God except point to the mystery, shrug and thereby usher people into the presence of the holy and living God. Not surprisingly, it is the mystifying Elijah who shows up in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. The preacher had best close his eyes, shake her head, hem and haw, and then the sermon will be pitch-perfect.

     Most of us have seen no chariot of fire, no phantasms like Moses and Elijah. We still “mourn in lonely exile here.” Did Elijah feel lonely, even if his loneliness was self-imposed? I think of Roland Murphy, the Carmelite Old Testament scholar who was my dissertation adviser and lifelong mentor. He shared a lot of wisdom with me; I never made an important decision without exploring things with him. But he did not, as he could not, vouchsafe to me what his dying moments were like, or what he saw when the door of this life closed and he took the first step of his journey into . . . we do not know. He died on the feast day of Elijah—fitting for a Carmelite, and a Hebrew Bible guy! Were there chariots or some dimly lit, beautiful silence? We trust, perhaps because we harbor in our souls some mysterious confidence that all must be well with someone who lived so well and loved us so well.

     Elijah had his protégés, but 2 Kings narrates the life of only one. Elisha, pitifully and rather heroically, asked the dying Elijah for a “double share” of his power. Commentaries explain how an oldest son would receive a dual portion of an inheritance. But I prefer to think Elisha knew that with Elijah gone he would need not only his own resources or what he had soaked up from Elijah over the years, but an extra dosage. Evidently he received that extra dosage. Elisha’s miracle output exactly doubled Elijah’s, 16 to eight!

     Jesus promised the disciples that they would do “greater things.” How could anybody top Jesus? Of course, the church has never competed with Jesus, because the church is Jesus. We are the body of Christ down here. “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.” The remarkable narrative in 2 Kings 2 invites us not to trust in our divinely endowed skills or to put our abilities to work for God, but simply to make a promise to plunge headlong into the water, to refuse to let the other alone: “I’m coming with you.” Feeling a bit foolish, having loved and lost, and with no real idea what the future might hold, we emerge from the water, and a mantle is draped around our shoulders. At first it doesn’t fit; we pray for a bigger share, some burst of power we know won’t really be enough. And the mantle?

     Gandalf rather unwisely left the course of affairs in Middle-earth to the diminutive, fun-loving, timid Hobbits. “Despair, or folly?” said Gandalf. “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!”
   The images are Raphael's Transfiguration, the Christ Pantocrator from St. Catherine's monastery at Mt. Sinai, the scene in The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf comes to the fellowship as the white wizard, a Russian icon's depiction of Elijah and the chariot of fire, and Gandalf with Pippin at the battle of Minas Tirith.
 My new book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, now has a study guide with videos, making it more useful for small groups!

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