Thursday, December 27, 2018

What can we say February 23? Transfiguration Sunday

   For Transfiguration, I’ll focus on the Gospel – but how fabulously the Old Testament sets it up and reminds us of the theological framework the earliest Christians would have had in mind on first hearing it – and then the Epistle a remarkable confirmation of the reality of something so mystical and incandescent. Later I'll fix on the problem of thinking about "mountaintop experiences" - but the fact that these revelatory moments happen on a mountain reminds me of philosopher Roger Scruton's thoughts on the difference between a pastoral landscape (grassy, trees, hills, a stream running through) and a mountain crag. The first is "beautiful." The crag rises to the level of the "sublime" - which is less accessible; your mind lunges to grasp the scope, the raggedness; you're drawn to it, but there's peril. With Moses on Sinai and Jesus transfigured we've soared to that subset of the beautiful: the sublime.

   Exodus 24:12-18. I love it that the Lord invites Moses to come up – and wait. These texts are about stillness, wonder, glory, without takeaways or go thou and do likewise admonitions. We wait. Moses has to wait, as do the elders on the plain below (and their inability to wait proved disastrous with the golden bull in chapter 32!). A cloud, glory, the devouring fire: none of this can be explained, only noticed, imaged, marveled at. It’s the same Moses who shows up with Jesus – and it was at this same mountain that Elijah realized God was not in the storm or fire but only in the still small voice – or the utter silence.

   2 Peter 1:16-21. This letter is often dissed as a late composition, barely sneaking into the canon. I find myself drawn to and even agreeing with Ben Witherington, though, who notices its lateness and yet firmly believes it bears direct eyewitness testimony from Peter himself. Witherington claims the early church was battling a leadership crisis; “our author responds to this crisis by dusting off a piece of Petrine tradition, a piece of material from Jude, the Lord’s brother, and also alludes to the Pauline tradition, weaving these things together, like a student using excellent sources and putting together a good term paper.” When I narrate the Matthew vignette, I’ll portray that Mt. Sinai background every good Jew would have resonated with on hearing it, and do a If you are skeptical about such things, Peter himself, years later, swore it really happened as reported.

   Matthew 17:1-9 is my parade example of how well-intended preaching goes wrong. As a young preacher, I did it myself – the laughable sermon that says You have a mountaintop experience, but then you go back down into the valley to get busy with God’s stuff. This is no mountaintop experience. It’s not about us at all – although preachers err by making every sermon about us. This text, like so many, is about God. There is no moral, no takeaway. The sermon should invite people to marvel, to wait, to stammer in puzzlement and delight. What did the disciples who were there do? They didn’t theologize, they didn’t plot a mission trip. No, “they fell on their faces in awe.” I dream of the sermon that will cause people simply to be in awe.

   "Awe" isn't the same as "hokey." Artistic representations of this moment typically make Jesus look like a glowing ghost, or else as if he is radioactive somehow. He's still very much human, just shining... Icons tend to treat it more literally, and hence better - although such a shimmering glimpse into eternity, into the resurrection life to come, would inevitably foil the best photographer or sculptor.

   The intertestamental echoes are there, of course: six days, paralleling Moses’ wait on Mt. Sinai; Jesus took assistants, as Moses took Joshua; there’s a cloud, and brilliant, blinding light. Here are the key details, not to be missed: Jesus was “transfigured.” The Greek is metamorphothe. Metamorphosis! A brown crawling thing, encased in a crusty cocoon, emerging in metamorphosis as a colorful butterly flitting upward. It’s the same thing, but in a radically new form. Jesus just a minute earlier had been in a grimy tunic, with dirty feet and oily hair. Then he’s dazzling, his face (the same one they’d just been relating to about his imminent crucifixion!) “shining like the sun.”

   And he has company: Moses, Elijah, both long gone, presiders over the Bible’s two pillars, law and prophets – and both with downright baffling deaths, departures, and lack of burial. I love the simple detail: “They were talking with him.” Maybe the 3 greatest ever, chatting, in conversation. The intimacy, the love, the wisdom. What were they talking about? I’ll ask in my sermon, knowing we don’t know. I’ll let my people be still for a minute and wonder themselves – which the text invites us to do.

   Jesus’ identity is exposed – as in the Baptism: this is my beloved Son. Not the mighty warrior, not one to lord it over you. Beloved. My son. So much love, and tenderness. We think we’ll pray or say something in reply. But the text has God tell them and us: “Listen to him.” Be quiet. Be available – not to go and do, but to be and adore.

   Peter utters the greatest understatement in all of Scripture: “Lord, it is good that we are here” (v. 4). Good? It’s fantastic, fabulous, fantabulous, exponentially amazing. I think the text invites us to realize our oneness with Peter. It is good that we are here/there as well. Peter, like many preachers and believers, wants to do something, he needs a task, a takeaway: let’s build booths! But no, it’s just time to marvel. 

   As I repeatedly insist in my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word, sermons are about God, the beauty of Jesus, the wonder of Christ. Let it linger right there. What could possibly be more transformative than our people simply falling in awe, stammering in joyful wonder, at the glory that is Christ? Let it linger. Don’t do anything with it. Be still. Know that God is God. Ours is to be riveted, awed, flabbergasted, lost in wonder, love and praise. Reaching for an illustration? Nothing compares to this. Nothing is like it. It is its own illustration. Trust the glory of Jesus.

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