I think you could probably describe me as a liturgically challenged Christian. Growing up in a non liturgical Christian world, I have had trouble adjusting to the boundaries that define Seekers worship and the way we pass through each season of the liturgical calendar. Even though I have been here at Seekers and have participated in at least 20 complete liturgical seasons, I still feel like I don’t "get" it. Having never grown up with the liturgical calendar it has somehow never gotten embodied in me and I always feel a bit discombobulated by the changes in the seasons. It offends my story telling sensibilities as we seemingly lurch from one season to the next with little or no transition. And here we are, case in point, celebrating the last Sunday of the season of Christmas/Epiphany and on Wednesday it will be Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent- that season of 40 days of reflection and deprivation.
This week’s lessons didn’t seem to help me with my dilemma. This is Transfiguration Sunday, a time of becoming conscious of the transfiguring nature of being in relationship with God- a time of hope and joy. This triumphant story seems so incongruous next to the long sorrowful story of Lent.
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is one that never really caught with me. It is so "other" that I really have had a hard time feeling any rapport with this story. The only memorable part for me is good old Peter bringing the story back to reality when he says, "Let’s try and keep this going; what if I build something to contain all this glory!" And of course, as usual, that was the wrong thing to say.
As I reread the story again I was struck by the context of this story- that it comes to us after a whole series of other stories about the early life of Jesus. The story of his birth, the story of being in the temple and his parents searching for him, the baptism of Jesus and the words from heaven saying that he is "Beloved,( a word that is echoed in this Sundays’ lesson); the story of turning water into wine, Jesus’ reception in his hometown after his reading in the synagogue, the surprising fishing trip and the challenge he gives to his followers to become fishers of people , and finally last Sunday where we find Jesus choosing his disciples and preaching about the topsy turviness of the Kingdom of God in the sermon on the mount.
This story of transfiguration comes at the point where Jesus is really getting started with his ministry and has begun to experience both success and opposition to what he is saying and doing.
Interestingly, Luke starts the story by placing it in a particular place in time. About eight days after a particularly tough conversation with his disciples about loosing yourself, dying to self, and not fearing for your own safety, but taking up your cross and following him, Jesus takes Peter, John and James with him up into the mountains to pray. And it is there that this almost dreamlike event occurs. Jesus is seen talking to two men who the disciples somehow know as Moses and Elijah. They are glowing with a light that is described in some translations, as like lightening. And just as Peter suggests that they should somehow capture this glory in some way, the cloud comes over the three figures and a voice states "This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him." Then Jesus is alone and the three disciples, traumatized by what they have seen and heard never talk about it again.
So why did this happen?
Who did it happen for?
The standard answer to those questions was that it happened so that the disciples would see that Jesus was the real thing. This explanation seemed satisfactory to me and I never questioned it until I had to think about it for this sermon. Somehow that didn’t make sense…Jesus only took three of his disciples with him and then in the end they were so stunned by this event that they never talked about it. If you want an event to have some kind of impact this is not the way to go about it. So maybe this wasn’t about the disciples at all, maybe this was about Jesus.
We don’t often talk about what Jesus needed…. What was he going through as he began this transition into a completely new career? Did he wonder if he really had anything to say that anyone would want to hear? Did he think he might have somehow misread the signs of his calling? Or after changing the water into wine, did he wonder if he would ever get people to really listen to what he was saying rather than being sidetracked by the good wine they were drinking. And as he began facing into the tough choices that lay ahead, of losing himself and taking up his cross, what did he need to sustain him?
So there he is on the mountain and he is praying and his disciples are sound asleep. And then somehow Jesus is meeting with two other famous leaders of Israel; Moses the Law Giver and Elijah, one of the greatest prophets in history of his people. .And in the midst of this Jesus hears the voice say, "This is my Son, my Chosen."
What did those words mean to Jesus?
It was certainly a declaration by God of the belovedness of Jesus and for Jesus to hear those words of blessing, in that time, facing what he did; they must have been very reassuring.
What would happen to us if we had this kind of experience?
Several years ago when I decided to apply for the leadership team here at Seekers, I wrote about what I felt I was being called to and how I wanted to share my gifts with the community and sent it to the search team. Afterwards I struggled with what to say to my parents about this new path I was exploring. My parents, as you know are conservative, and I wasn’t sure how they would react to me, a woman, applying for a position of some leadership within this community. But I sent my application to my parents and explained as best I could what this role I was applying for was about. After a short while I got a letter from my Dad saying how happy he was that I was taking this path and then went on to give me some words of advice and support for the new journey that was ahead of me. That year for Christmas and my birthday, my parents gave me Matthew Henry’s Commentary in One Volume and Zondervan’s Illustrated Bible Background Commentary and my Dad’s own book of Spurgeon’s sermons, in order, they said, "to help with your sermon preparation." Not to long after that I sent them a copy of one my sermons and my Dad after reading it responded and said, among other things, "Good Job, Keep up the good work. Remember practice makes perfect. A preacher doesn’t get all the smarts the first time he shares the Word. It takes time. Little by little. God help you each day. We are praying for you."
As you can tell those words of blessing were very profound for me.
How much mores so those words that Jesus heard, must have been for him.
So, back to our story… I find it intriguing that the two other people with Jesus on that night were Moses and Elijah. These two men were probably Jesus’ heroes. Men whose stories he had heard from the time he was a little boy, men that he wanted to emulate. I imagine it was a bit intimidating to meet them, and yet what the disciples see is the three of them talking as if they are equals and they are talking about Jesus’ Lenten journey.
Jesus was certainly not following the path of Moses as law giver, instead he said that he was fulfilling it. The sermon that he had given on the mount was certainly not something that Moses would have said.
And what about Elijah? Elijah spoke truth to power- speaking to the kings of Israel saying, "Woe unto you." He was a mighty warrior for God, killing many foreign priests who seduced the Israelites from worshiping the God of Israel.
Jesus spoke truth to power as well, but his was a different style and with a different take on the message. Would it have been surprising if Jesus, who had grown up thinking that these men and the other heroes of Israel were following God’ call and speaking God’s Word, wondered if he was on the wrong path or that maybe what he had to offer was not what people needed to hear?
And so when the voice from the cloud speaks these words of affirmation in front of these other two men, it must have been truly empowering. It was a moment where Jesus was affirmed for his own gifts and for the message that he was bringing. And since those words were spoken in the midst of these two other chosen people of God it must have given Jesus a new understanding of the value of what he had to offer. These giants of Jewish history had very different gifts, and very different understandings of God and they each had a very different relationship with God and yet, just like them, Jesus was also chosen by God.
Do you, like me, get caught up in the "I am not like Gordon Cosby, Mother Therese, Gandhi or whoever the giant is that you are not like, and does that stop you from bringing your gifts and the message that only you can bring? Has it stopped you from fully living into being one that God has chosen?
I watch quite religiously two TV shows called Clean Sweep and Clean this House. Some of you may have seen them, but they are shows where homeowners call in a team to help them clean up their messy homes. These homes do not have the normal clutter that we all live with. These homes are overwhelmed and stuffed to the gills. Usually the reason these homes have gotten that way is because, as one of the hosts says, there is just "plain old foolishness" that is getting in the way of their being able to deal with their mess.
Can we like Jesus claim our worthiness to bear God’s message into the world, or are we held back by "plain old foolishness." What is the clutter in our lives that holds us back from fully claiming the gift of Choseness that we have been given?
We say that we believe in an open pulpit, that each of us is given a Word from God to share and so we share this space with each other so that we are sure to hear from each other what we believe is God’s word to us. But, I don’t think it ends with this pulpit. What if we lived everyday as if we were in this open pulpit, not just on the Sundays that we signed up to preach?
What is the Word that the world needs to hear from you?
As you may or may not know I have a pretty strong enneagram 7 in me. 7s are party people, people who love to celebrate, and enjoy life and never want to get caught in the downers of life. They see the cup as half full instead of half empty and in their most negative form they tend to be escapists.
One of the books that I read when I was trying to decide what type I was, told the story of a minister who came to one of the authors’ enneagram weekend retreats. The minister was having a hard time adjusting to his new church which he described as too serious. As part of his effort to lighten things up, at the end of the first Sunday in Advent he arranged for the congregation to sing "Joy to the World." The author of the book claimed that the minister was completely shocked and baffled at the horrified and negative response that he got from his congregation. (That minister must have been liturgically challenged as well!) The author was of course very derogatory of the minister for his solecism in not being able to stay in the Advent period of expectation and waiting and having to move right way into the joy of Christmas.
After reading that story, I knew that I must be a 7. I totally got that minister. For me "Joy to the World" should be a Christian theme song! We should probably sing it every Sunday. For me it holds up the hope that Christ’s birth brings to the world. I want to see the glass of this broken and fallen world as half full instead of half empty.
But I am often scared to say this out loud…I don’t want to be perceived as a Pollyanna or an intellectual light weight, or to commit the solecism of not following the liturgical calendar correctly.
That moment on the mountain where Jesus and Moses and Elijah are all talking with each other and are glowing with the inner knowledge of being fully loved and fully chosen of God, is also a reminder that we each have an important word to add to God’s evolving story of redemption. Without Moses the people of Israel would not have had the law that gave them a way of separating themselves and distinguishing themselves from all the other people and gods around them. Without Eiljah, who harassed and held accountable the kings of Israel to loving the God of Israel and forsaking all others, the nation of Israel would have lost their way, and without Jesus who showed us a way of Love and how the Kingdom of God is full of surprises and unexpected grace, we would not be here having this conversation.
Without me and without you, how will this story of God’s redemption continue?
Peter, Kate and I (Seekers Servant Leadership Team) are pretty different.. An enneagram 7, a 5 and a 2. Two fairly strong introverts and one middle of the road extrovert. One optimist, one realist, and one who is an "imagineer." During one of our discussions, I remember having a vivid insight, an epiphany, if you will, that we were all talking about the same thing, only from very different perspectives. All of a sudden I realized that I could stop trying to explain myself; that I didn’t have to be right and that I could just let the conversation continue. I realized that I didn’t need them to see things my way in order to resolve the problem or issue at hand. And suddenly that was very comforting to me. There was more than one way to see things, and if I could just let go of my own vision long enough, I might be able to see what else could be seen.
And so it is that this kind of "plain old foolishness," this fear, this wanting to be "right," and to have people see things my way and my pride that most often keeps me from saying what may be the most important words that I have to offer you and us and the world.
Maybe this foolishness is something that I should give up for Lent….
God chose Moses and Elijah and Jesus, and God chose me and each of you. (God must love variety!)
In 2 Corinthians Paul says that because we no longer where a veil over our faces as Moses had to after seeing God face to face, "…we all reflect as in a mirror the splendor of the Lord; thus we are all transfigured in God’s likeness, from splendor into splendor; such is the influence of the Lord who is Spirit. Seeing then that we have been entrusted with this commission, which we owe entirely to God’s mercy, we never lose heart!" (NEB; My emphasis.)
As we enter this time of Lent, let us remember the transfiguring nature of being God’s chosen ones and never lose heart!
P.S. And as our last hymn, we all sang "Joy to the World!"