Sunday, February 14, 2010

Transfiguration Sunday
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 96
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36 [37-43]

This is my Son, my chosen: hear ye him.

We have a few choices for focus with Sundayís scriptures. This is the last Sunday before Lent, so we can continue to follow the Epiphany readings or we can look at the texts for the Transfiguration. We can also consider the secular holiday of the day: Valentineís Day. Now, Valentineís Day, with its hearts and romance, is not really appropriate for Sunday morning worship. I canít imagine reading Song of Solomon as the center of our worship (although Song of Solomon 2:8-13 is offered as a choice a couple times in the Revised Common Lectionary.)

Some churches may have Valentineís Day dinners and dances for youth or seniors. The person giving the childrenís sermon may give Valentineís Day cards to the kids. Some pastors may focus on building better marriages and relationships. But with a powerful story like the Transfiguration, do we really want to focus on Valentineís Day even though it so rarely falls on a Sunday?

It is interesting that the feast of St. Valentine is no longer celebrated in the Catholic Church because so little is known about the man. Some suggest that Valentineís Day is meant to honor a number of different martyrs with that name. He is described as a priest or a bishop in Italy or a martyr from Africa. The myth that has grown up around his name, not found in print before 1493, is that Valentine was martyred for marrying Christian couples who were being persecuted by the Roman emperor Claudius. Claudius actually liked Valentine until he tried to convert the emperor, and then he was beaten, stoned and beheaded. This story is the reason why St. Valentineís Day became a celebration of love and romance. St. Valentine is still the patron saint of affianced couples, happy marriages and love.

But in reality, the man is a mystery, so, St. Valentine is not a saint whose feast we celebrate. And yet, on a day like today, it is worth considering the idea of a mysterious man whose life was about love. After all, the story of God is a love story between God and His people. It is also a love story between God and His Son. And finally, it is a love story between Godís Son and His people. The scriptures often describe our relationship with God as like a marriage. We are the bride, He is the bridegroom. Thatís what Song of Solomon is all about. He is the King, we are His beloved. There is some sense of this love in todayís scriptures.

After all, have you ever seen someone in love? They get this indescribable glow about them. It isnít an actual light radiating from their skin, but thereís something about them that seems different. They are happy and it shows. When they are in the presence of their beloved, they are transformed. Though they look exactly the same, there is something about their appearance that is different. Thereís a twinkle in the eye and a sense of contentment in the face that comes from this love.

I wonder if that is what we see in todayís Old Testament lesson. The scriptures say that Mosesí skin was shining in a way that frightened those who saw it. And yet, Moses was not aware of any change. Perhaps there was a literal light shining off his face, and yet it might just have been the same unexplainable glow that we get when we are in love. They knew heíd been in the presence of God and they believed that it was dangerous to be in Godís presence. Did they think he was no longer human? Did they think he was a spirit? There was something different about Moses. Heíd crossed the gap that separated the human and the divine.

Love does other things to us. Take, for instance, the person who will try something new because it is an interest of the beloved. Theyíll go hiking or attend the opera or eat Mexican food. They will boldly stand against friends or family. They will quit their jobs and move three thousand miles to marry the one that they love.

Love for God makes us, bold, too. Now, Paul shows us a different perspective than that we see in the first lesson. In Exodus we see that the people were afraid of Moses because his face shone with the glory of God. He took the veil off when he was in Godís presence, and reported Godís words to the people without the veil. After he finished, he returned the veil to his face. Paul gives us a hint as to why he used the veil: the glory faded. Moses did not want them to see that the glory disappeared. Perhaps he was afraid that they would not give him the honor and respect due his position if they remembered he was merely human.

Love fades. Well, love doesnít fade, but that initial glow does. We settle into the reality of life and the love is transformed from some romantic passion into the lasting relationship that gets through the bad and the good, the sickness and the health, the poverty and the richness. Does the golden anniversary couple love each other any less than the love-struck teenagers because there is no glow? Of course not. As a matter of fact, I would count on that anniversary love lasting longer than the passion of youth. If Moses was afraid of what the people might think as the glow faded, then he wasnít trusting Godís presence in his daily life.

And thatís what had happened to the Israelites. Paul writes that their minds were hardened. They preferred to keep God separate. With Moses as their mediator, it was not necessary for them to be in the presence of God. They could send Moses in to receive Godís commands; they could listen and then go about their daily work without concern for Godís closeness. They never had to risk being changed by God. Even in the days of Paul, they preferred having someone else deal with God directly. Then, when they failed to live up to the expectations of God, they could go about their business without fear that God would deal with their unfaithfulness.

It is frightening to become what God wants to make us, because to become His we have to let go of something of ourselves in the process, just like in marriage. Yes, we keep our individuality, the aspects of our lives that make us unique. But we have to let go of that which can keep us separate. In our relationship with God, He asks us to let go of our sin. Sin is that which keeps us separate from Him. But in Christ, we have nothing separating us from the love and glory of God. He has lifted the veil forever, so that we can dwell in Godís presence without fear. We do not need Godís glory to be veiled from us because by Godís grace we are able to look upon Him with peace. Yet, for now, we look upon Him as if in a mirror, for we are still bound by the things of the earth that keeps us from seeing Him fully.

I wonder what it was like for Peter, James and John to climb to the top of that mountain with Jesus. In the Gospel story, Jesus was praying on the mountaintop when His appearance began to change. His face was different and His clothes became a dazzling white. Iím sure that this description does not even come close to what those disciples saw that day, but what they saw was undoubtedly beyond human description.

Yet, in this scene, we have two menóElijah and Mosesótalking to Jesus as if they were just having a conversation about His future over the back fence with a neighbor. Peter, James and John wanted to take a nap, but they had not fallen asleep, so they saw this scene happening before their eyes. What a strange and wonderful vision this must have been for them. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets and it was believed would come again to announce the Messiah. Moses had experienced the presence of God so completely that he was transformed by it, and in those encounters he was given the Law by which Godís people were expected to live. Jesusí work, and His death, would bring about the completion of the work both Elijah and Moses had started. Godís people would be finally delivered and redeemed from that which kept them apart from God.

In a brief moment, Peter, James and John saw the reality of Jesus. They saw Him in His glory; they heard Godís voice declare Jesus as the beloved One. In this story, the men were frightened not by the glory, but by the cloud that enveloped them. Peter was in the middle of trying to make the experience permanent, by building booths in which Jesus, Moses and Elijah might dwell. But God had other plans. He covered the disciples with a cloud and said, ďThis is my Son, my chosen: hear ye him.Ē It is not for us to decide what to do with Jesus and His ministry. We are called to listen to Him and to do what He has said.

If Moses was concerned about the fading glory, Jesus was not. He did not stay on top of the mountain or try to dwell in the glory that had come over Him there. He had further work to complete. It was time to turn His feet toward Jerusalem, to finish the promise, to do what was necessary to set the people free. The first act of this final journey was the setting free of a young boy who was possessed by a demon. He, too, was an only son, seized and harmed by a spirit of the world, nearly to death. Even as Jesus is about to heal him, the demon throws the boy on the ground in convulsions. But Jesus is greater than the demon and with a word turned it away. The boy was healed and restored to his father.

In that brief encounter we see what Jesus is doing to experience in the coming days. It is interesting to note that the disciples were not able to deal with this one. He would be accompanied on His journey by the disciples, but they would not be able to do the work. Only He could overcome the spirit of this world. In the process, however, Jesus would suffer greatly, as the world would try to defeat Him.

So much of the story of God is mysterious. Even in todayís passages, there are questions we might never be able to answer. We can only trust that God is in control when we are faced with such mysteries. We need not fear because God is with us. We need not keep ourselves separated from Him, but instead live in the hope we have in Christ and boldly dwell in His presence. The psalmist reminds us that He is King. As King, He is worthy of our trembling, but even more so our praise. We donít deserve to dwell in His presence or to behold His glory, but He is merciful and forgiving. It is because of His grace that the veil has been lifted. We are free to love Him, to be made one with Him through Jesus Christ.

And as we are being transformed into His likeness, we are called to live in praise and thanksgiving, loving in Him in our thoughts, words and deeds. When we cry out to God, He hears us and He forgives, perhaps the greatest mystery of all. The psalmist writes, ďThou answeredst them, O Jehovah our God: Thou wast a God that forgavest them, Though thou tookest vengeance of their doings.Ē This is perhaps the greatest of the mysteries: that God is able to be both justice and grace. We are reminded that in that holy relationship brought to us through the work of Jesus Christ, we are still sinner even as we are saints. Godís grace helps us have the boldness to live in faith. Godís justice keeps us humble. Through it all we trust in Him because we know that He loves us with a love beyond our understanding.

So, while it might not be appropriate to celebrate in worship the life of this unknown man named St.Valentine, it is a good time for us to remember that the story of God is a love story. We are called by His grace to live in the most intimate relationship of all, drawn into His presence and embraced by His glory. We might be tempted, like Peter, to stay at the top of the mountain or like Moses, hide the fading glory. But we are being transformed by God to be like Jesus, and as we live in this world we should be like Jesus down in the valley doing the work of grace.

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