Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blinded by the Light: Jesus as The Light of the World

How do we adjust our eyes to the brightness of Jesus and the Gospel ?

Year A • The Fourth Sunday of Lent
1 Samuel 16:1–13 • Psalm 23 • Ephesians 5:8–14 • John 9:1–41

Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures

Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here,
as an Audio File by clicking here, Coming S.
and as a PDF by clicking here.
The Sermon
Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire.  Amen.

Blinded by the Light
I grew up on a family farm in Woodward, Oklahoma, which is a small town located in the northwest corner of the state. As you might expect, we had to get up really early to get our chores done, especially on school days, because the bus picked us up around 7:00 o’clock. For me, there were chickens and rabbits to be fed and watered, and breakfast to be eaten. In the winters, chores took longer because warm water from the house had to be hauled out to the animals, since we couldn’t use the outside faucets for fear of them freezing. I remember many a morning loading up a wagon with six or seven jugs of warm water, and dragging the wagon through the snow to the chicken coup.
     Needless to say, none of this was particularly fun or easy. But my Dad was really great. He did what he could to make all of this as painless as possible. For example, when he got me up in the morning, he would come in quietly with a candle, sit down on my bed, and softly say, “Hey Son, it’s time to get up.” And I would wake up slowly.. It was wonderful.
     Or rather, it would have been wonderful had it actually happened that way. But it didn’t; not even close. Instead, Dad would throw open my bedroom door at 5:30, flip on the overhead lights, and say in a rather loud voice, “Get up you lazy bum.”
I think this was Dad’s idea of a joke. You know, anybody who could still be in bed as late as 5:30 must be sleeping in. The problem is, I never quite found the humor in this little morning routine. This had to be one of the worse ways to wake up, this being blinded by the light.

Light is Not Always Welcome
I tell this story to make a point. Light is not always welcome. Light is not always perceived as a blessing. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus proclaims himself to be The Light of the world, and he demonstrates his claim by healing a blind man. Pretty amazing stuff. Pretty wonderful, isn’t it? Well, not for everybody. For the blind man, certainly, and for some others. But not for everyone. Not for the Pharisees and many of the other Jewish leaders.
     Jesus of Nazareth is The Light of the world, and he was sent by God to bring the light of life to a world groping about in the darkness of death—the darkness of sin and violence, the darkness of hatred and injustice. But not everyone was eager for the Light. Having grown accustomed to the darkness, some had a hard time adjusting their eyes to brightness of the gospel. This is what we see dramatically played out in today’s reading.
     But from the very beginning of his gospel, John has prepared his readers for those who would resist the coming of the Light. In the prologue, John writes:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.… [I]n him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.... He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:1, 4–5, 11–12).
The Light came into the world that had been created through him. He came to those who owed their very existence to him. Yet they did not recognize him; they did not acknowledge or welcome him (1:11). There is a bit of a mystery there.
     Later, Jesus talks with Nicodemus about the polarizing effect that his coming will have. He speaks first of God’s love for the world, of God’s desire to rescue and restore all humanity, but then he offers this candid assessment of the world’s response to the light.
This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God (John 3:19–21).
So again, Light is not always welcomed. Though the Light came to bring life to the world God loves, not everyone perceived it as a blessing. The Light pierces the night of our brokenness and our estrangement from God. And while some are drawn to the Light like a moth to the flame, others flee in fear, hiding themselves in the shadows.
     The Light is not going to win everyone over, at least not initially. In this way, John prepares us for the mixed response that Jesus’ words and actions will evoke. So, readers of John are not particularly surprised by the Pharisees’ negative response to Jesus’ healing of the blind man.

Rejecting the Light
Of course, Jesus doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in winning any popularity contests. He certainly hasn’t gone out of his way to endear himself to the Jewish leadership. Prior to today’s healing, he has criticized their running of the temple, he has healed on the Sabbath, and he has said things like, “You are not from God” (8:47b), “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires” (8:47b). So, it is little wonder that, by the time we arrive at today’s episode, many leaders are ready to do away with Jesus, this false prophet from backwater Galilee, who is deceiving the people with his signs and wonders.
And nothing Jesus does today changes their opinion of him. In fact, his healing of the blind man only serves to reinforce their view that he is a sinner and a false prophet. But why? After all, Jesus heals a blind man, and not just any blind man, but a man who has been blind from birth, a man who has never seen anything. Jesus does not simply restore this man’s sight, he gives him sight. He truly is The Light of the World. As the man himself so eloquently testifies,
We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing (John 9:31–33).
The Pharisees and the Sabbath
And yet, the Pharisees maintain that Jesus is a sinner. Why? Because he healed the man on the Sabbath. But why should that matter? Well, I wish we had time to explore this in greater detail because, as I have said on numerous occasions, if we do not understand why Jesus’ opponents were so violently opposed to him, if we simply dismiss them as petty or legalistic, then we miss something of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. Moreover, in dismissing the Pharisees, we are in danger of overlooking how we might be like them.
So let me say this. For the Pharisees, as well was for most first-century Jews, the keeping of Sabbath was a very serious matter. Not only had it been commanded by God—it is after all one of the Ten Commandments—but it was also a key marker of Jewish identity, which was especially important for a people who had been living under foreign occupation for the better part of five hundred years. In fact, along with circumcision, kosher food laws, and the reading of Torah, Sabbath keeping was one of the practices that had sustained the Jews during their exile in Babylon. Moreover, in 167 b.c., these pillars of Jewish identity were all outlawed by their pagan overlord, Antiochus Epiphanes. And rather than forsake those things that God had commanded them, the Jews fought back, and many died.
     So, when Jesus comes along healing on the Sabbath, it causes great offense. In part, because he seems to be showing contempt for Jewish identity; he seems to be dishonoring the memory of those who had given up their lives rather than break the Sabbath. And so, I would argue, that the offense Jesus generated by healing on the Sabbath is comparable to the offense that is triggered when somebody today burns the American flag.
Moreover, healing on the Sabbath seems to count against Jesus being from God. Because as everybody knows, God himself rested on the Sabbath after the six days of creation. How can Jesus claim to be performing the work of God, when God himself doesn’t work on the Sabbath? Listen to the response a Jewish leader makes in Luke’s gospel when Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath. “The leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day’” (Luke 13:14).
     That’s such a great line: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” It offers such insight into the mindset of the Pharisees. It helps us gain an appreciation for how someone could look at a miraculous healing of a blind man—regardless of the day on which it occurred—and conclude that it was anything other than the work of God, that it was anything other than a sign that this Jesus was in fact The Light of the World, sent by God, to reflect the very glory and grace of God.

Adjusting Our Eyes to the Light of Christ
I belabor this point because I don’t think that the Pharisees are unique or exceptional in their blindness. I see evidence of their blindness in myself, in our American society, and even in the Church. And this raises some questions. 
     Are there things that we value—not just as individuals, but as communities, as a nation and a society—are there things that we value that blind us to who Jesus is? Are there things, dark things, that we have grown accustomed to, things that we have come to rely upon in order to maintain our identity and our way of life, things that define us which are contrary to God’s vision for the world, things that make us shield our eyes when the Light of the Gospel reveals them for what they are?
     In short, where are our blind spots? It’s a critical question, and one worthy of serious reflection, especially during this time of Lent, this season where we are called to “self-examination and repentance; by [means of] prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP 264–265).
     And when our blindness is revealed, what can we do about it? After all, blind people cannot heal themselves. That’s one of the reasons why we flee from the Light in the first place. When the Light shines into the dark recesses of our lives, we feel naked and exposed. We feel the guilt of our brokenness and the shame of our past failures, we feel the shame and guilt of our inability to change and our unwillingness to be changed. We know that we are blind, and we would just as soon forget it. For if we could make ourselves see, then we wouldn’t be blind in the first place. So what’s to be done?
     Very simply, we need to come into the Light. Or at a minimum, we need to resist the temptation to hide when the Light reveals something in us that is contrary to the Gospel. We need to come into the Light, and remain there until we grow accustomed to the Light. Sometimes, the Light blinds us and that can be very painful, but if we remain in the Light, our eyes will adjust, and we will be able to see.
     But how is this done? It begins and ends with acknowledging that Jesus is indeed the Light of the World. It begins and ends with putting our trust in Jesus as the one who reveals most fully the grace, truth, and love of God. Jesus grants us the power to become children of God (John 1:12), he empowers us to live as children of the Light (Eph 5:8). So it all begins and ends with him.
Recall that Jesus did not simply give the blind man physical sight, he returned later and granted him spiritual sight, which began with trust.
Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him (John 9:35–38).
Now, I should add, that putting our trust in Jesus is not a one-time affair. It is an ongoing process, a daily process of acknowledging who Jesus is, of believing in him and worshipping him. It is a relationship of increasing dependence & reliance upon him.
     Moreover, this trust will grow and mature as we develop the habit of bringing things into the Light, as we develop a habit of acknowledging our blindness and our resistance to change and offering these things up to Jesus.
     We do this in prayer, we do this in worship, and above all we do this in community. So I invite you to come into the loving, life-filled Light of Christ, again and again and again. At times, you may find yourselves blinded by the Light, but resist the temptation to throw the covers over your head. Just remain in the Light, and listen to the voice of your heavenly Father who says very gently, “Wake up Daughter; Wake up Son; it’s time to get up.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Delivered on Sunday, March 30th, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

The Scriptures
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Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Conversation That Leads to Life: Jesus and Nicodemus

How do we know if Jesus is from God?

Year A • The Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a • Psalm 121 • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 • John 3:1-17

Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures

Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here.
as an Audio File by clicking here,
and as a PDF by clicking here.
The Sermon
Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire.  Amen.

Locked in Without a Sermon
Good Morning on this fine blustery, spirit-like day. This past Friday night, I was at Eighth Day Books working on my sermon. I had been reading and writing throughout the day, but I still had no idea what I was going to preach. It was 8:30 in the evening; the Eighth Day staff had gone home; and I was locked in the bookstore…. On purpose, mind you, not by accident. I wasn’t trapped or anything. Warren Farha, the owner, is very generous and thoughtful. He lets me stay late when I am working. I just let myself out when I am finished.
     Anyway, I was struggling with what I was going to focus on in today’s sermon, really struggling with how to even begin it, when I looked up. There across this room filled with books, was a book whose title caught my eye: Sermons that Work. “Holy cow,” I thought, “I could sure use one of those.” So I walk over, picked up the book, and read the full title: Sermons that Work: Ten Prize-Winning Episcopal Sermons. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. If this isn’t a sign from God, then I don’t know what is. I begin feverously flipping through its pages to see if there might just happen to be a ready-made sermon on John, chapter three: Genesis 22, Genesis 18, Mark 6, John 21,… I go through all ten sermons, but not a single one has anything to do with John 3.
     But maybe, just maybe I could modify one of these award-winning sermons. I flip to the beginning of one sermon and read, “When I was in the Navy in the Philippines…” Well, that’s no good. I’ve never been in the Navy, nor have I ever gone to the Philippines.  So I turn a few pages more, and the next sermon begins with, “My great aunt’s name was Lolo.” I did have a grandmother we used to call Momo, but no Great Aunt Lolo. “Oh well,” I said to myself, “I guess I better just bite the bullet and write my own sermon.” But as I think back, finding that book wasn’t a total loss, it may not have given me a sermon, but it did give me a way to begin.

Enter Nicodemus
And, it raises a question. Was seeing that book of sermons a sign from God, or not? Perhaps it was just my unconscious self pointing me in that direction, because it knew I needed a sermon, and it had seen the book out of the corner of my eye? Or perhaps it was all just a coincidence? But how do we know? How do we decide? How do we determine when something is from God, and when it isn’t?
     These are the questions that kept Nicodemus up late at night. These are the questions that compelled him to leave his house after dark in order to seek a clandestine audience with this Jesus of Nazareth, this new Jewish rabbi who has been causing such a stir. Is Jesus from God, or not?... And, does it even matter?
Well, it mattered to Nicodemus; it mattered a lot, in fact. For Nicodemus, it was a matter of life and death, not just for him personally, but for the nation. You see, Nicodemus was a leader among the Jewish people; he had some political responsibilities. He was also a Pharisee, a man devoted to studying and living out God’s law, something that had become increasingly difficult in a world that was being taken over and shaped by those pagan Romans. And now, he is faced with another dilemma. Jesus of Nazareth has been performing some noteworthy signs, but where do they point? Do they point to God, or somewhere else?
     For example, Jesus attended a village wedding in Cana of Galilee. It was reported that on the third day of the celebration, he turned water into wine. And it wasn’t just a small amount of water; it was a hundred and fifty gallons worth. And it wasn’t just any water, it was the water used in Jewish rites of purification. The Pharisees had worked so hard to remain pure and undefiled. They had also worked hard to get all the Jews to live pure and undefiled lives as well, all in the hopes that God would finally forgive his wayward people and send his Messiah to rescue them. And now, this Jesus had transformed ritual water into wine. And not just any wine, the best they had ever had. Was this a sign from God?
It sure seemed like it, until Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. He was visiting the temple, when suddenly he started going about like a crazy man. He made a whip and drove out all of the vendors and the sacrificial animals. “Take these things out of here!,” he shouted, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Many people believed in Jesus because of these signs, but some didn’t (2:23).
Nicodemus seems genuinely undecided. On the one hand, Jesus turned water into wine, but on the other hand, he engaged in a public demonstration against the temple. Is Jesus from God, or not? Does he speak for God, or not? These are tricky questions because Nicodemus would no doubt have been familiar with some Old Testament texts that warned God’s people against being taken in by false prophets. For example, in Deuteronomy 13 we read:
1 If prophets… appear among you and promise you omens or portents, 2 and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods… and let us serve them,” 3 you must not heed the words of those prophets…; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. 4 The Lord your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. 5 But those prophets… shall be put to death…. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deut 13:1­–5).
Then, in Deuteronomy 18, the Lord God, speaking to Moses, says:
Any prophet who… presumes to speak in my name, a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die” (Deut 18:20).
So the question of who Jesus is, is a tricky one. It is not as simple as pointing to his miracles because it is just possible that he is a false prophet trying to lead the people astray. So how is Nicodemus going to decide if this Jesus speaks and acts on God’s behalf? It’s critical that he make the right decision, because if Jesus really is from God, then he must be followed and obeyed. But if not, then he needs to be eliminated. There is no middle ground. And so, Nicodemus goes to meet Jesus, but he does so at night because he doesn’t want anybody to know.

Enter Jesus
Shifting gears a bit, I have a question for you: Have you ever been in one of those conversations where the other person keeps changing the subject?—Perhaps I should also ask, have you ever been that person?—Anyway, you know the sort of conversation I am talking about. You feel like you are always trying to catch up. You are never quite able to get a word in edgewise, maybe a question here or a head nod there. And when it is all over, you feel a bit exhausted and a bit confused.
     I wonder if that’s how Nicodemus felt when he was talking to Jesus, or rather, when he was listening to Jesus talk, because Jesus pretty much takes over the conversation from the very beginning. Each man speaks three times, but Nicodemus’ contributions get shorter and shorter, while Jesus’ get longer and longer. Granted, if you had the opportunity for a one-on-one conversation with Jesus, I think you would want to listen more than talk. But the problem is, Jesus keeps changing the subject, so that even we readers of the story sometimes find it hard to follow the logic and flow of Jesus’ thought.
     For example, Nicodemus begins the conversation very politely by saying,
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God (3:2).
To which, Jesus responds:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (3:3).

Well, Nicodemus hadn’t said anything about the kingdom of God, but he goes along with it, and he responds with a couple of questions.
How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can a person enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? (3:4)

Jesus picks back up with talking about the kingdom of God, but now, instead of talking about being born “from above,” he talks about being born “of water and the Spirit.” “What is born of the flesh is flesh,” Jesus says, “and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:6). Then, when Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?,” Jesus leaves off talking about the kingdom and the Spirit altogether and instead begins talking about snakes in the desert, the Son of Man being lifted up, and about eternal life.
     I should say that I don’t really think that Jesus keeps changing the subject, but he does employ a variety of metaphors to refer to the same reality: seeing the kingdom of God, being born again, having eternal life, being saved. He also employs a number of stark contrasts: heavenly and earthly; spirit and flesh; life and death; light and darkness. These contrasts suggest that there is no middle ground when it comes to Jesus. Today, there isn’t time to explore these images, metaphors, and contrasts in detail, but they will reappear in the weeks ahead as we listen in on Jesus’ conversations with other individuals—a Samaritan woman, a blind man, and the sisters of Lazarus. But today, the question we must answer is this: Through all of these images and metaphors, what is Jesus trying to convey to Nicodemus? What does it all boil down to?

The Point of It All
Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is. He wants to trust Jesus, to believe in him. He has an inkling that Jesus is from God, but he wants a greater level of certainty because so much is at stake. But here’s the deal, we cannot know for certain who Jesus is apart from the exercise of faith, apart from actually putting our trust in him. Seeing with our natural eyes and reasoning with our natural minds can only take us so far. For Nicodemus and for us, there has to be a leap of faith. It isn’t a blind leap of faith, nor is it an irrational leap of faith, but it is a leap of faith nonetheless.
     For example, a child standing on the edge of a table cannot know for certain that his father will catch him until he jumps and is caught. Certainly, the child sees the father standing there with arms outstretched. So the child has some reason to suspect that his father is willing and able to catch him, but the child will never know for certain until he exercises faith and jumps, again and again and again.
     This is what Jesus offers to Nicodemus and to us. The signs that he has been performing point to his identity as the Son of God, but they do not constitute proof. Evidence, certainly, but nothing like irrefutable proof, which is why some believed and some didn’t. The signs Jesus performed were true, but ambiguous, at least when observed without the lens of faith, without being born of the Spirit, which is itself as mysterious as the movements of the wind. It’s there, you see the effects, but you can’t quite pin it down. It takes faith, which is to say, that it takes submitting ourselves to the movements and inklings of the Spirit. For you see, faith is not something that we generate. We exercise it; we put it into practice. But faith does not originate with us; it is a gift given to us by God. More specifically, faith is the gift of the Spirit, that is, faith is the gift of the indwelling presence of the Spirit. To be possessed by the Holy Spirit of God, that’s what it means to be spiritual. That’s what it means to be born of water and the Spirit, to see the kingdom of God. And this gift has been made possible by another gift, the gift of God’s one and only Son who became flesh and blood for our sakes, who submitted himself to human death, that we might have the opportunity to possess and be possessed by God’s divine life, which is, the eternal kind of life.

What Became of Nicodemus?
There is so much more than could be said about his, but I am sure that you are all dying to know what became of Nicodemus. Did he get his questions answered? Did he ever figure out who Jesus was? Here’s the rest of the story.
     Nicodemus appears two more times in the gospel. In his first reappearance, Jesus is causing another disturbance in the temple precincts. The temple guard are dispatched to arrest him, but they are unsuccessful. When they return to give their report, they are reprimanded by the chief priests and Pharisees. However, Nicodemus stands up and asks, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51). His colleagues bite back, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (7:52). Nicodemus’ question may not be a public declaration of allegiance to Jesus; nevertheless, he is putting his reputation and standing at some risk by posing the question.
     Nicodemus’ final appearance occurs during the postlude of the crucifixion. Jesus is dead, his disciples are in hiding, and his body still hangs limply on the cross. Out of the shadows come two men. Joseph of Ari­ma­­thea and Nicodemus. Joseph secures Pilate’s permission to remove the body, and Nicodemus joins him, having brought along a hundred pounds of burial spices. They prepare the body according to Jewish custom, and lay it in a tomb. By why? Why would these two respected members of the Jewish community risk their reputations and possibly their lives to bury a man, a criminal, an enemy of the state who was obviously a false prophet, for the crucifixion of Jesus was the surest sign yet that he was not from God.
     Their actions just don’t make any sense, unless… unless their eyes had been opened to see who Jesus really was, a king of a very different sort of kingdom. And so I think we have our answer, Nicodemus’ presence at the tomb was an exercise of faith. In the cross of Jesus, he had seen the kingdom of God by faith, he had seen God’s love by faith, and now he was in possession of eternal life by faith.  
     Thanks be to God!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Delivered on Sunday, March 16th, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

The Scriptures
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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Getting All the Way to Easter: The Vision and Grace of the Transfiguration

How are you getting to Easter this year?

Year A • The Last Sunday After Epiphany
Exodus 24:12-18 • Psalm 2 or 99 • 2 Peter 1:16-21 • Matthew 17:1-9

Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures

Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here,
as an Audio File by clicking here,
and as a PDF by clicking here.
The Sermon
All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, 
are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; 
for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
                                                                    — 2 Corinthians 3:18

Getting All the Way to Easter
Good Morning. I have a question for you: “How are you getting to Easter this year? How are you getting from here all the way to Easter?”
     Today is the Last Sunday of Epiphany. It is also known as Transfiguration Sunday because on this day, on this last Sunday before Lent, we are present with Jesus up on the Mount of Transfiguration. And we are looking across the valley that lies under the shadow of death, the valley in which we live our lives. And as we look south across this darkened landscape, in the distance we can see the glimmer of Easter, but only faintly because it’s largely hidden from view. Darkness looms in the distance, and a dark shape rises out of the shadows and obscures Easter. It’s very dark, but if we look closely, we can see the faint outlines of three cross-like structures against a sun-eclipsed horizon. That dark shape, of course, is Calvary, the place of the Skull, the place where our Lord gave up his life. Some people call it a hill, but it’s really a mountain. After all, mountains are places where heaven and earth meet, and heaven and earth certainly met on Calvary, long ago, on a dark Friday, we call Good.
     But again, I wonder, “How are we getting to Easter?” I pose this question because it is the same question that is confronting Jesus’ disciples in the events leading up to today’s Gospel reading.

The Lead Up to the Transfiguration
Today’s episode that takes place on the Mount of Transfiguration is situated along a fault line in the narrative of Matthew’s gospel. It is part of the turning point, for it is at this stage in the story that Jesus sets his face like flint toward Jerusalem. After today’s episode, Jesus will walk off the mountain of his glory and begin making his way down into the valley, the valley that will funnel him toward his death.
     But let’s step back and take in some of the events that lead up to today’s gospel reading. We are at the midpoint of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is at the height of his popularity. His ministry of healing and teaching, of proclaiming the arrival of God’s kingdom in word and deed has generated quite a buzz. Jesus has fed crowds of 5000 and 4000. He has cured hundreds people, delivering them from all manner of trouble, sorrow, need, and sickness. He makes the deaf to hear, the mute to speak, the blind to see. He makes the lame to walk and the maimed whole (Matt 15:31).
     But all of this popularity has attracted the attention and sparked the suspicion of the powers that be. The Pharisees and Sadducees confront Jesus. They question him. They lay traps for him. So Jesus withdraws from public life for a time. Taking his closest followers with him, Jesus heads North. He leaves his familiar Jewish homeland behind and makes his way deep into Gentile territory.
     While there, Jesus interviews his disciples. He asks them, “People are talking about me? Who do they say I am?” The disciples reply, “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The crowds are getting close, but they don’t quite have it yet. Jesus is a prophet, to be sure, but he is more than a prophet. Jesus turns the question on his disciples, “So who do you say that I am?” Without hesitation, Simon Peter—the spokesperson for the Twelve—stands up and announces, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). It’s a glorious moment. Peter and the disciples have finally recognized what we readers of the Gospel have known all along, that Jesus is the Lord’s Anointed, the very Son of God.
     But the moment is short-lived. As soon as his true identity becomes known, Jesus swears his disciples to secrecy. And from that point on, Jesus begins to talk openly about the fate that awaits him. He must go to Jerusalem and endure great suffering at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and they scribes. He will be killed, and on the third day he will rise. But poor Peter is not having any of it. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (16:22). Peter’s rebuke earns him an even harsher rebuke in return. For in Peter’s words, Jesus hears the voice of the Evil One trying to discourage him, trying to divert him from his vocation. Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (16:23).
     Jesus then calls all of his disciples together, and begins to instruct them on the nature and cost of discipleship.
If any want to become my followers, he says, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Matt 16:24-25).
Servants are not greater than their masters. If the Son of God has a cross in his future, so do his disciples. No doubt, this all came as quite a shock. After all, Jesus has been doing all manner of wonderful and powerful things; God was clearly with him. So how is it that he will be rejected by God’s people and be killed? And, if this is his fate, how will his disciples follow him? How are they going to make it to Jerusalem and beyond? In short, how are they going to make it all the way to Easter?

The Transfiguration of the Disciples
That’s where today’s episode comes in. Six days after all of this talk about crosses and death, Jesus takes with him Peter, James, and John, and he leads them up on a high mountain, by themselves. There, they see Jesus transfigured before their very eyes. His face shines with the brightness of the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white. And, as if that were not enough, two ot celebrities suddenly appear out of the past: Moses, who represents the Law; and Elijah, who represents the Prophets. These two extraordinary figures share something in common. They both had encounters with Yahweh—the God of Israel—on the top of a mountain, and here they are again on a mountaintop speaking face-to-face with God in the person of his Son. The message is clear. Jesus of Nazareth is the One who fulfills all the Law and the Prophets.
     But the revelation of Jesus’ glory does not stop there. Suddenly, a bright cloud overshadows the disciples, and out of the cloud, they hear the voice of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is the same voice that was heard at Jesus’ baptism, and it is speaking the same words. Except for that last bit; that last bit is new. Listen to him!... Listen to him!... Those words are meant for the disciples. In fact, the whole transfiguration of Jesus was for the sole benefit of the disciples. Just look at the pronouns that are used. Seriously, when you go home today, take a bulletin with you. Then, this afternoon, read through the transfiguration story, and highlight the third-person plural pronouns, the “theys” and the “thems.” This is a technique that we teach at my school; it’s called marking the text.
     When you do this, when you mark the text, you will see that what take place on the Mount of Transfiguration is directed at the disciples. For example, the text doesn’t just say, “Jesus was transfigured,” it says, “Jesus was transfigured before them.” Likewise, it doesn’t just say, “Suddenly there appeared Moses and Elijah,” but rather, “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah.” And the episode continues in this vein, “a bright cloud overshadowed them,” “Jesus came and touched them,” “And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.”
By the way, that is an assignment. Next week, I want to see some highlighted bulletins. You can place them in the offering plate. Just make sure your name is on it so that you can get full credit.
So what’s the significance of all of this? Why does it matter that the Transfiguration was put on solely for the benefit of Jesus’ disciples? And how exactly does it benefit them? Let me answer the first question first. When Jesus is transfigured before the disciples, it isn’t Jesus who is transfigured so much as it is the disciples who are transfigured. Jesus isn’t becoming the Son of God; he already is the Son of God. When he is transfigured on the mountain, Jesus is not becoming something that he wasn’t before; he is revealing himself to his disciples. As one author put it, “The transfigured Jesus is changed, not in essence, but in the way he is seen.” In other words, on the Mount of Transfiguration, it is the disciples’ vision that is being transfigured. Jesus’ disciples are being given the gift of sight, the gift of seeing Jesus in all his glory, the gift of seeing Jesus as he truly is.
     But why is that important? How does that benefit them in their discipleship? Because that is how the disciples are going to get to Easter, and that’s how we are going to get to Easter.

Getting All the Way to Easter
As we all know, Easter is the time when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. But Easter is not only about Jesus’ resurrection, it is also about our resurrection. Easter is about our participation in the resurrected life of Jesus, our participation in his victory over death. Yet, there is no Easter without Calvary; no resurrection without death. And that’s the purpose of Lent. Lent is a journey to Easter, but a journey that necessarily takes us through the valley of deep shadows.
     But how can we make that journey? Where can we find the strength and courage to take up our cross and follow in the footsteps of our Master? If only we could see the light of Easter at the end of the tunnel, then we might be willing and able to make the journey. But Easter is hidden from view by Calvary; Calvary dominates the landscape, so much so that, as we get closer and closer to Easter, all we can see is the outline of our own cross coming into focus.
     On Ash Wednesday, we will hear these words from the Book of Common Prayer:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word (BCP 264–265).
Sin, self-examination, repentance, penitence—those are not exactly inspiring words. I mean if you were to pick up a travel brochure, and a vacation was described as being filled with prayer, fasting, and self-denial, who would want to go? So again, where do we find the strength and courage to make the dark and difficult journey of Lent? We find it on the Mount of Transfiguration. When our vision of Jesus is transfigured, when our eyes behold the brilliance of the Son of God, when see Jesus as he is (if only for a moment) and we bask in the light of his unconditional love and forgiveness, then we can do almost anything. We can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil, for we will know that our Lord is with us. And we will find that even his rod and his staff are a comfort to us because he cares for us.
     We find encouragement and empowerment on the Mount of Transfiguration because it is there that we are granted a vision, not only of who Jesus is, but of what we become as we follow him to Calvary, a vision of what we become as we take up our cross and engage in the work of self-examination, repentance, and prayer. “The transfiguration of Jesus offers a glimpse of what is possible, not only for Jesus, but for all humanity.”[1] As one author puts it,
Who is Christ? Who am I?... The dazzling light that shone from the face of Jesus reveals to us his true stature as the eternal Son of God. It reveals to us also the highest potentiality of our created nature, our ultimate vocation as human beings.”[2]
So beloved, “I invite you,…, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” It can be a long journey so travel light, that is, travel by the light of Christ who loves you, who empowers you, and who will guide you all the way to Easter, all the way to the resurrection life that awaits us on the other side of Calvary.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Lori Brandt Hale, “Luke 9:28–36 (37–43):  Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, Volume 1 (eds. David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor; Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 454.
[2] Andreas Andreopoulos, This Is My Beloved Son: The Transfiguration of Christ (Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete, 2012), from the Forward by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

Delivered on Sunday, March 2nd, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

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