February 26th 2017, Sunday before Lent.
Main passage – Matthew 17:1-23
In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain. Mountain. In Greek, Hebrew, Roman and Asian religious literature mountains were always places where the human could touch the divine. Sure enough, at the top of that mountain with Jesus, a wonderful thing happened. The apostles began to see Jesus in a new way. The apostles got a brand-new insight into who this Jesus really was — dazzling, consuming, literally enlightening. They began to see Jesus differently.
What they see at the top of that mountain is, at least, unexpected and certainly disturbing. You see, at the top of that mountain before those apostles, Jesus does not appear with Aaron the priest, who was the interpreter of the law. Jesus doesn’t appear there with David the King, the defender of the state. No, Jesus does not appear with symbols of royalty or ritualism. Jesus appears to those apostles with Moses, Elijah, the prophets. Moses, who led the people out of oppression; Elijah, whom King Ahab had called, “that trouble of Israel,” because he condemned the people’s compromise between true and false gods as the underlying cause of their problems.
In a gospel apparently about the mystical dimension of religion, there is a troubling, undercurrent, a struggle between piety and real Christianity, a struggle between religion for real and religion for show. The gospel shows us that Peter, in your name and mine, opted for piety. “Let’s settle down here, Jesus, and build three booths.”
It looks like Peter was opting for a religion of temples, institutions and shrines, a religion that stays out of the world. But God interrupted, put a stop to that idea and said, “Listen.”
If we understand the transfiguration properly, the story seems to say we shall understand it as a call to ‘go out’ with Jesus in his exodus, to go beyond the walls of our culture and our safety zone to where the cross is to be found. It may be an exodus in which we are challenged first as individuals, concerning what cost we are prepared to bear for Christ’s sake, in our use of our resources – our giving of money and skill, our willingness to simplify our lives for the sake of justice for all or for the future of our environment, our readiness to give personal time to be still with God in worship. It may be an exodus for our church community – facing change.
And there is the exodus that faces all of us, as we come to terms with the reality that the world is not under our control, that we cannot solve the appalling problems of our day by simple bursts of well-meaning activism in national or international affairs; we must go out into the strange desert land of patient, prolonged work, listening, watching, and slowly transforming, inch by inch, the landscape of human wretchedness under God’s patient guidance. The exodus also that takes us into the isolation of witnessing for God’s faithfulness and justice in a world where so little notice seems to be taken of the need for dependable relationships, trustworthy structures, in family life or social life
Then something happens that we too often forget. The gospel is completed by a portion that is usually unread as it is today, too little remembered, too much unfulfilled. At the very moment, when it would seem that Jesus is emphasizing the mystical and transcendent dimension of religion, Jesus himself takes the apostles away from visions, away from privatized religion, to meet the ones who needed them most in the town.
The disciples stumble down the mountainside and the first thing they meet is a human tragedy, a person possessed by powers that seek to destroy him. Those self-destructive powers are still there to meet us and test us to the limit. And Jesus says that they will not be cast out without prayer and self-denial – without the prayer that is offered in his name and power, and our taking up the cross and challenging our own greed and idleness. So maybe we can pray and fast just a little this Lent with this experience of the disciples in mind.
Real religion is not about building temples and keeping shrines. Real religion is about healing hurts, speaking for and being with the poor, the helpless, the voiceless and the forgotten who are at the silent bottom of every pinnacle, every hierarchy and every system in both state and church, church and state.
Real religion, the scripture insists, is not about transcending life; real religion is about our transforming life. The gospel of the transfiguration calls us to Sabbath; calls us to change our attitudes about the role of religion; calls us to understand the nature of religion itself
Critics of Religious faith often point out that it is not rational because it is based on faith in the existence of an unseen, unproveable God and this is a strong criticism; but religious belief calls us to trust not just cold logic (which is not to say our faith is illogical) but to trust the Beatitudes, to the works of mercy, to the casting out of demons, to the doing of miracles for those in need, to being and acting the irrational love and burning justice of God. That is what the Transfiguration is about, that is what religion is really about, changing ourselves so we can change the world.
Once upon a time a group of disciples asked an elder, “Does your God work miracles?”
The elder said, “Well, it all depends on what you mean by a miracle. Some people say it’s a miracle that God does the will of the people. We say, it’s a miracle when people do the will of God.”
Transfigurational faith is one to transform the world, to come to see the world as God sees the world and to bring it as close to the vision of God as we possibly can. What God changes, God changes through us.
The changes needed in us in our transformation isn’t a small thing. It’s not a fresh coat of paint. It’s not even an upgraded operating system.
It’s metamorphosis. It’s wholesale change. From the bottom up. From the inside out.
And, to be honest…it’s not always something that we want.
I like how I am. I like my sinful indulgences. I’m used to my petty discriminations. The way I am, as broken and flawed as it is, is at least comfortable. I know it like the back of my hand. It’s easy. I don’t even have to think about it.
Other times though, I want to change. I want to do a new thing. But, summoning the energy to begin that change, or sustaining the energy past a few days or so, seems nearly impossible.
So, when the disciples are overcome with fear on the mountaintop, I get it. I think I’d be too.
I’m not so sure that they’re overwhelmed by the pyrotechnics. They’ve seen a good deal of what Jesus can do.
But, the mountaintop is a place of transformation, of metamorphosis. Jesus went to the mountaintop not just to be transfigured himself, but to offer Peter, James, and John the space to be transfigured with him.
He was offering them wholesale change. He was offering them the opportunity to shine like the sun too.
And that scared the you-know-what out of them.
Because sometimes staying right where you are, in the shadows, is far more tempting.