(If you want to listen along, you can click here. Sermons are best heard rather than read, kind of like Guinness is best straight from Ireland, and not from the local grocery…)
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
There’s No Such Thing as a Brief Mystery
Be changed in front of us, God
So that we might be changed.
As we sing our last Alleluias
Put a different
Song in our hearts for a while.
My friend lives just outside of New Orleans, and this time of year his social media feed is flooded with picture after picture of brightly colored masks, beads, and parades galore. And while I don’t really celebrate Carnival with any sort of regularity (except for the eating of many fatty foods on Fat Tuesday, and here’s a free commercial: come to the youth fundraiser this Tuesday for some pancakes and sausage before the fasting of Ash Wednesday and Lent start up), but even though I don’t really celebrate Carnival in any sort of way, I love the idea.
I like the idea of taking a season of your life to feast intentionally, to enjoy things. Carnival is about enjoying things, and notoriously for indulging too much in them, which I don’t suggest. But remember that life is not all sackcloth and ashes, beloved. My favorite verse from the Jewish writings, the Talmud (and the only real verse I have memorized), says, “We will have to give account in the judgment day of every good thing which we might have enjoyed but did not.”
Think about that for a moment.
I also like the idea of taking some time to pretend. Halloween and Carnival are both feasts where we dress up as other things, pretending for a bit. The other day Alistair, our 4 year old, brought in his nurse’s kit to the living room and informed me it was time for a check-up. But the check-up couldn’t begin, he told me, until he had put on his name tag which identified him as Nurse Alistair. Nothing could start until that happened.
Go all in, buddy.
I like the idea of Carnival because it is about things being more than they appear, and so I like that every year the Transfiguration story, which is what we have here before us, comes during Carnival because part of the point of this story is that Jesus is much bigger, much better, much more amazing than Peter, James, John, Larry, Cathy, Karen, or Joe understand him to be.
Now this is a short sermon, so let’s all not follow the disciple’s example and fall asleep, OK?
Actually, that’s kind of my point: we’re usually just kind of groggy when it comes to thinking about God, me included.
So often we consider Jesus to just be some sort of prophet, shouting about God on a street corner like you might find in downtown Raleigh. You know, at every street festival here in Raleigh, I’ve always found one street preacher, sometimes literally on a soapbox which is just the height of irony because I want to be like, “Get off your soapbox!”
And they’re warning people about God’s wrath or anger, a “turn and burn” sort of message. And we look at ourselves and think, “Oh, that’s not us. We’re not that kind of Christian…” But how easy is it to have our first reaction toward a situation in our lives, where something bad happens to us, be “God must be mad at me for this to happen…?” Or, “What did I do that made God do this to me…?”
I remember hearing a story about the prophetic and prolific Reverend William Sloane Coffin where, just after his son had died in a tragic accident, had someone come over to his house to bring a casserole. And she said under her breath in confusion at the whole thing, “I don’t understand the ways of God…” implying that somehow God was involved in causing the accident. Reverend Coffin flew up in a rage and said, “I’ll say you don’t! God had nothing to do with it…”
We can easily turn God into an angry prophet, causing pain and punishment.
Or, likewise, we can turn Jesus into an angry law-giver, too. Follow the rules, we say. Tow the line. Do right and punish wrong. For some Jesus is a rule-giver, and God is making a list and checking it twice…
This is why, Beloved, in this mystical, mysterious moment Jesus appears with Elijah, the preeminent prophet on the one hand, and Moses, the preeminent law-giver on the other: because Jesus is not an angry prophet, though sometimes he is full of righteous anger, and he is not the supreme law-giver, though he does provide a new lens through which we look at the law.
Jesus is so much more. Jesus is the embodiment of God with skin on. And Jesus, with his life and love and death-defying work on the cross, will sometimes break the law in order to love in a more Godly way, and will stay silent in the face of damning prophecy, like he does with the woman caught in adultery, to love in a more Godly way.
Jesus is so much more than we allow him to be, so much more than sometimes our religious organizations, like this recent heartache in the United Methodist Church, allows him to be, so much more than our pasts allow him to be, our brains allow him to be, and even our callous hearts allow him to be.
Jesus is God’s indulgent love for a world drunk on rules, and right belief, and judgment.
But here’s the thing: it’s hard to see sometimes. And it takes a long time to see sometimes. And it’s difficult and takes so long because God’s work in Jesus is mysterious.
We so often pretend like God’s work in Jesus is one where a problem is solved, right? Humanity is lost, we don’t know the way, and so God in Jesus shows us the way and all we have to do is act like Jesus, or believe in Jesus, or follow Jesus and, problem solved. Sometimes the church has even presented it like this, as if Jesus is some part of a divine math equation.
But following Jesus has never solved any of my problems. Actually, it’s made them all more complex! It’s made loving more complex because I’m forced to love people I don’t want to love. It’s made buying things more complex because I’m forced to think about the impact of my purchase power because people’s lives and livelihood are at stake. It’s made voting more complex because…well, we can’t pretend that’s easy for any of us, can we?
God’s work in Jesus is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be held. It’s why Peter is so wrong when he wants to build a tent for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, as if you could ever cement something so awesome in one place. Jesus will not be some guru on a hill living in a tent that you can visit whenever you have a problem and get the right answer.
No, God’s work in Jesus is mysterious. We will learn to do mysterious things we never thought possible, like lose our lives to gain them. Like become the least so that we can know what it’s like to be the greatest. Like love our enemies, even though that makes no kind of sense.
The Transfiguration shows us that God’s work in Jesus is going to be bigger, more mysterious, more dazzling, than we can ever fathom, and so we should stop trying to peg God down in the tents of rules and “should/should not” and “these people are sinful and these people are not” and instead lean into that most mysterious of things: graceful love. Following Jesus is about learning grace again, and again, and again. Which is not easy.
Because there’s no such thing as an easy mystery, friends.
You know, we’re about to head into Lent in just a few days, and here’s a thought: if you’re looking to give up something this Lent, think about some way where you think you might have put God, or Jesus, or something spiritual in a tent, enshrined, in cement. Maybe some idea of God from your childhood that you just can’t let go of. Or maybe it’s that thing you’ve always thought about God that you wish you didn’t because it’s caused you pain, or caused others pain.
Or maybe that’s not it for you. Maybe you need to give up something that you’ve long held about yourself, something that causes you pain, that you think might not be true when seen through God’s amazing Christ-lens.
And maybe, this Lent, give it up. Give it up for Lent. Imagine that God is more dazzling than that view you’ve long held. That, in Jesus, you are more dazzling than you think. Maybe God has a surprise up Jesus’ sleeve.
And, sure, you may not be able to give it up in forty days. But that’s ok. Because these things take time, and God’s work in Jesus