Sunday's Sermon - Feb 6
Last Sunday after Epiphany
- Matthew 17:1-9
Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
So what is this story about? What is the significance of Jesus being transformed, glowing, shining, so glorified that even his clothes radiated light? What difference does this make to us? How is this good news?
John Henry Newman said, "Life is short; Death is certain; And the life to come is everlasting." Every year that I live, it becomes clearer to me that this is true. Every year it becomes clearer that life in short. Every year it becomes clearer that death is certain. So every year I ask myself more pointedly, in light of the shortness of life and the certainty of death, how should I live my life-- especially since the life to come is everlasting.
Thinking about this always reminds me of another idea, perhaps you've heard: “Everybody wants to go to heaven; nobody wants to die.” And yet it is quite clear that apart from death, there is no way for us to get to heaven. But what if you could? What if you could get to the end of your journey right now, without having to go through death? I wonder if that would be appealing. "I don't mind the idea of death -- I just don't want a be there when it happens!”
Or to put it another way, suppose you found yourself in heaven –having completely bypassed death, would you want to come back to face death, especially if your death were not only certain, with certain to be horrible, ugly, and painful beyond imagination?
These are questions raised by the Transfiguration. What happens to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration shows us two things about our lives. First it shows us the future -- it shows us where we are going and what is going to happen to us. Second, it shows us how to live while we are on the journey to the future.
First it shows me the future. What happened to Jesus? Jesus told his disciples that some of them would not see death before they had seen the kingdom of heaven, and some days later, he took Peter, James, and John up the mountain. And who do they see? Moses and Elijah. Two dead people! Dead for centuries! And yet here they are, as plain is than those in your face, fully alive. Not spirits, not ghosts, not memories living on in our hearts. Two living dead people. And Jesus, no longer as he was, but transformed, glowing, shining, radiating light. Do you understand what has happened to Jesus? He has gone to heaven! He told his disciples they would see the kingdom of heaven, and there they are -- Jesus in glory with living dead people. This is what we long for when we pray, "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We long for the transformation of our world, when living people will glow and the dead will live at last.
And that is the future. My future and yours. Peter, James, and John up the mountain saw that "Life is short; Death is certain; And the life to come is everlasting." In Christ our destiny is to be transformed, glorified, glowing, shining, radiating light and we live in the presence of the living God – with all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed. The future is not the end of the life, but the incredible transformation of humanity.
But the story goes beyond showing the future. Way beyond. It shows us the present, the here and now. It shows us how to live while we are on the journey to the future.
To see this, you have to remember where the Transfiguration comes in the Gospels. The Gospels structure the story of Jesus like this: the first half is an upward movement, culminating in the Transfiguration, and the second half is a downward movement, culminating in the cross. Jesus appears, and begins preaching the good news that the kingdom is very near. He heals the sick, feeds the hungry, casts outs the demonic, raises the dead. His fame, popularity and influence increases -- until he reaches the pinnacle -- the top -- the Mount of Transfiguration. From then on it is all downhill. Increasing resistance, hostility and opposition from the scribes, the religious establishment, and even his own friends. It will all end ugly and horrible. There is nothing ahead except betrayal, rejection, abandonment, treason, loneliness, and murder at the hands of the government that is supposed to protect the innocent. The Transfiguration is the pivotal moment in this story. Once Jesus gets there, the Gospel writers tell us he turns his face toward Jerusalem, his face like a flint -- hard, utterly determined, unable to be dissuaded.
This raises the really interesting question: Why in the world did Jesus come down from the Mount of Transfiguration?
He had arrived! He had reached the goal – the Kingdom of Heaven. He had attained glory. He was in heaven already, transformed, glowing, shining, radiating light, in communion with people like Moses and Elijah. So why in the world would he give that up? What could he possibly gain by walking away from heaven, and descending down into the valley of the shadow of death, only to ascend that other mountain, Mount Calvary? What was in it for him?
There was nothing to be gained by coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration. there was nothing in it for him. Nothing but pain. Nothing but agony. Nothing but betrayal, rejection, abandonment, treason, loneliness, and horrible death. There was nothing in it for him… nothing at all… except… us.
And that is what he gained: us. That is what was in it for him: others. He made himself poor that he would enrich others.
That is why the story of the Transfiguration goes beyond showing us our future. It shows us how to live in the present, the here and now. Once we have seen the future, once we know that heaven is ours, that our destiny is transformation, we then, like Jesus, set it aside for now, in order to give our lives in service for others. That is what it means to be a Christian… to be like Christ. Rather than clinging to the joy of the mountaintop, we let it go… we willingly and intentionally descend into the valley the shadow of death, with Jesus, for the good of others. I appeal to brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves, sacrifices: living, holy, acceptable to God – for this is your reasonable service.
Some would have you believe that the choice that faces us is the barren life of materialism or a higher life of the spirit. The truth is, it’s not that I’m noble that I pursue the spiritual life rather than a material life. I pursue the spiritual life because it’s more fulfilling – more fun. It turns out that I’m nothing more than a spiritual hedonist. If it had been me on the Mount of Transfiguration, there is NO WAY you would have gotten me off. I had arrived! No way you would have gotten me to come back down, even if were not to face the horrors that Jesus willingly faced and accepted. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there is no nobility in my self-centered, self-absorbed hedonism, even if it is a hedonism of the spirit rather than of the flesh.
"Life is short; Death is certain; And the life to come is everlasting." In light of the shortness of life and the certainty of death, how should I live my life-- especially since the life to come is everlasting? The Transfiguration shows the future… where the living will glow and the dead will live. I don’t have to worry about it. Our destiny is secured in Jesus. Christ has died… Christ is risen… Christ will come again. Knowing our destiny is secured in Jesus, we can afford to be generous with our lives here and now. The Transfiguration shows the future… but when Jesus comes down the mountain, he shows us the present. He turns, looks us straight in the eye and says softly, “There’s more to life than seeking your own good… even if it is a spiritual good. Would you like to save your life? Then lose it in service for others. Would you like to live? Then let yourself die. Take up your cross… and come… follow me.”