Who Are You Listening To?

The Transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-13

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018.

Lent, which begins this week on Ash Wednesday, invites us to journey to the cross with Jesus. Though not easy or fun, this is one of the most profound and meaningful seasons of the church year. By submitting to suffering and death on the cross, God through Jesus, enters into and shares in all our human experiences of hardship and distress. The Passion of Jesus on the cross is where God delivers on the promise of Jesus’ birth, to be Emmanuel, God with us.

But before Lent begins we retell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus, with the disciples Peter, James and John, climb a high mountain together and there, we are told, Jesus is “transfigured” before their eyes. His clothes become dazzling white. Other gospel accounts of this story say that Jesus’ face shines like the sun.

I often suggest, in response to the miraculous stories of Jesus, that we not dwell upon what exactly happened or how, that is, that we avoid the “how is that scientifically possible,” questions, instead asking what this story meant to those who first heard it, and what it means to us today? Instead of what and how, we might ask why. Why did Mark tell this story?

In the previous chapter Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples all have different answers, but each compares him to one of the beloved and powerful Jewish prophets. Some say that Jesus is Elijah, others John the Baptist, and some name other prophets.

Though the other disciples believe Jesus to be a prophet, Peter responds, “You are the Messiah,” meaning that Jesus is the long anticipated one, anointed by God to free Israel from Roman rule, and restore it to glory among all nations. But when Jesus begins to tell the disciples what lies ahead, that he must submit himself to persecution, suffering and death at the hands of political and religious authorities, Peter protests.

All the disciples, Peter included, assume that Jesus, whether prophet or Messiah, has come for their own benefit. Going back hundreds of years, this is how God has functioned for Israel, taking their side against their enemies. Leading Israel to victory and others to defeat.

This is when Jesus utters the well-known rebuke of Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus is saying, I am more than just another earthly leader here to reward you and punish those you judge.

So this is the background, preceding Jesus’ trip up the mountain with the disciples, the disciples still misunderstanding who Jesus is, presuming he is another prophet meant to restore the fortunes of Israel, and more specifically of the disciples themselves.

We read, that while on that mountain top, the disciples see two powerful prophets from Israel’s past, Elijah and Moses, alongside Jesus. This seems to confirm the disciples’ understanding that Jesus is simply another great man. In response they suggest making a structure for each. The translation I read uses the word, shelter, but the Common English Bible uses the word shrine. I like this better. Here are three great men, think the disciples, let’s demonstrate our loyalty to each of them by building a monument.

At this point a cloud descends upon all of them, and God’s voice comes from the cloud in much the same way it did when Jesus was baptized, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love, listen to him!” At this the visions of Moses and Elijah disappear, and only Jesus remains.

I suggested that we not get sidetracked trying to figure out what happened and how, instead focusing on the meaning of this story. The meaning is this. Jesus is different. He is not just another prophet, an earthly leader meant to “Make Israel Great Again.” He isn’t even a Messiah in the sense Peter means.

Jesus represents a unique connection to the divine, and we are invited to listen to, follow, and enter into relationship with God through him in a way that is unparalleled in human history.

So where do we find ourselves in this story today?

A recent study out of Stanford revealed that Americans’ strongest sense of attachment, the characteristic most essential to our identity, greater than race, culture or religion, is our affiliation to a political party. Politicians are our modern day prophets. Much like the disciples, we identify most strongly with those earthly leaders who promise to take our side, and we line up against those who take the other side.

Like the disciples, we too put earthly leaders ahead of our identity as followers of Jesus.

Imagine being on the mountain top with Jesus, who would appear next to our Jesus? Donald Trump and Paul Ryan? Or Barrack Obama and Nancy Pelosi? And what would it say if we were to build a monument to all three, Donald, Paul and Jesus? Or Barrack, Nancy, and Jesus? What would this say about our loyalty, our identity, our attachment? And more importantly, what would it say about our understanding of Jesus?

Like the disciples’ suggestion that they erect monuments for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, this would make Jesus small. The Transfiguration defies the disciples earthly understanding of Jesus, and, by the way, challenges the notion of many contemporary Christians, of Jesus simply as an example of how to live.

Do you know the contemporary term, the acronym, GOAT? It stands for Greatest Of All Time, and is used to describe sports stars like Tom Brady. Brady is said by some to be the greatest quarterback of all time, the GOAT. Still, Tom Brady is evaluated as a quarterback compared to other quarterbacks, and many would argue about who deserves this GOAT title.

This is what the Transfiguration is about.

In the Transfiguration we learn that Jesus is not just another earthly leader, not even the GOAT. Jesus provides a unique connection to the divine. Through the Transfiguration of Jesus, God is telling us, your identity is in Jesus, not Trump, not Obama, but in Jesus the Christ.

What would it mean, if when asked if we are a Democrat or Republican, we responded, “I am a Christian.”

My guess is that some of you felt a wave of discomfort wash over you at the thought of saying that. I can relate. For many, our faith is private. We are cautious about “imposing” our faith on others. We might worry about sounding like one of “those” Christians that is always thanking “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” Did you see the Philadelphia Eagles’ coach and players after the Super Bowl? Many of them said exactly this.

But we feel no such compunction about letting people know we are a Republican or Democrat, do we? Interesting, isn’t it?

This morning we baptized two beautiful babies, Joey and Campbell, and this is exactly what they will be baptized into, not into a party, but into a unique and essential relationship with the divine through Jesus.

The Transfiguration challenges us not to make Jesus small, but to leave behind our earthly loyalty to Democrat and Republican prophets and follow Jesus, just as Jesus accompanies us, through the world’s hardship and suffering, all the way to the cross and beyond.

 

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