Sunday, February 18, 2006

Transfiguration Sunday
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36 [37-43]

But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit.

You have a choice. Someone has offered to send you on a vacation and they have given you two places from which to choose. On one vacation you will be pampered like royalty, waited on hand and foot at a beautiful resort in the balmy Caribbean. On the other trip you will be working on a ranch. The activities will include slopping pigs and cleaning out the horse stalls in the barn. You’ll even have to help with the cooking and cleaning each day. Which vacation would you choose?

Peter, James and John were not really given a choice, but they were given an awesome opportunity. Jesus went up a mountain to pray and they went along with Him. It seems like the disciples always fall asleep when Jesus was spending time in prayer – they did it on the Mount of Olives when Jesus went to pray before He was arrested. Prayer, at least prayer the way Jesus did it, was exhausting – perhaps boring – so much so it put them to sleep. Luke says that they were “heavy with sleep” while Jesus spoke to Moses and Elijah. Something caused them to become fully awake – perhaps it was the brilliance of the light or the conversation between Jesus and the two men of God.

It helps to know what is happening around the disciples at this time. At the beginning of chapter nine in Luke’s Gospel Jesus sent the twelve disciples out to the country to preach the gospel and to heal. They went without any traveling gear, just their faith in God. They did what Jesus commanded and had some success. Luke says, “And they departed, and went throughout the villages, preaching the gospel, and healing everywhere.” They had success in the ministry Jesus sent them to do. They had so much success that the crowds even came to them for healing when Jesus was on the mountain.

They had even experienced one of the greatest miracles of Jesus – the feeding of the five thousand. Though they had no idea how they would feed so many people with five loaves and two fish, they did what Jesus told them to do and saw another great success. Then Peter confessed faith in Jesus, telling Him that he believed Jesus was the Christ. This was an amazing admission, very astute for a disciple that did not always seem to understand what Jesus was trying to do or say. Jesus answered Peter’s faith with a shocking revelation – He had to die. Then He added something even harder to hear – faith means following Jesus wherever He goes, even unto death.

It was about eight days later when Jesus took Peter, James and John to the top of the mountain. They followed Him to His destiny – glory – only to find out that the brilliance and magnificence of that moment was fleeting. Peter did not want it to end. He did not know what to do with the experience, except perhaps to grasp onto it as a symbol of the hope they had that Jesus was to be the One sent to save them from their earthly troubles. Peter offered to build a permanent structure, tabernacles for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. He didn’t know what he was saying.

Peter was interrupted by a voice from heaven. A cloud came down and covered them and they were afraid. “This is my Son, my chosen: hear ye him.” Isn’t it interesting that the voice did not command the disciples to bow down to Jesus, or to worship Him, or do obey Him. God commanded the disciples at this spectacular moment to hear Him. They were to listen to Jesus. Whatever it was that they thought Jesus was meant to be or do, they were to hear Him and they would know. Jesus came to die. He told them before they went up the mountain and then He repeated it when they came down. This was an important thing for the disciples to know, to grasp, to understand. Jesus did not come to be glorified in a tabernacle or in a palace, but to suffer and bleed. It was something they would not be able to grasp until they had the full measure of the Holy Spirit. Once Christ was truly glorified they would understand.

That’s why Jesus herded them back down the mountain. Their mission was not up there. There mission was amongst the people. It might seem odd that the people who developed the lectionary chose to add the second section to Luke’s story of the transfiguration. After all, there is more than enough in that story to talk about in a fifteen minute sermon and it seems completely unconnected to the event on the mountain.

However, the two stories have an interesting dichotomy. In the story transfiguration they are high on the mountain. In the story of the demon possessed boy they are down from the mountain. When they are up everything is beautiful, brilliant, amazing. The atmosphere down below is filled with violence, dirt, dis-ease. They believed on the mountain, they doubted below. The transfiguration is how we want it to be – in our ministries, in our lives. Just like the disciples, however, Jesus herds us down the mountain to where the real needs are waiting to be met. He doesn’t call us to live in glory, but to get down and dirty for His sake.

Moses provides for us an example of that old way of thinking. When he was on the top of the mountain, his experience in the presence of God was so overwhelming that his face shown with light reflecting the radiance of God. This light was so great that the people were frightened of Moses, they did not recognize him. They were comforted by his voice and they recognized the authority that Moses had by the glow in his face. They listened to him as he passed to them the commandments of the Lord. However, the glory of that experience was not permanent, just as the Law which was given to Moses was not permanent. The glow faded.

The passage from Exodus does not tell us why Moses veiled himself after speaking to the Israelites, but Paul gives us an explanation in his letter to the Corinthians. Moses did not want the people to see the fading glory. He did not want them to see that everything was back to normal. Perhaps he was afraid that they would no longer listen to him because the sign of his authority was gone. However, the veil kept them from the truth – the truth that our life in God is not meant to be spent on the mountain top, but rather in the midst of the people doing whatever it is we are called to do.

We rarely talk about Martin Luther except around October 31st, which is Reformation Day. However, Sunday February 18th is Martin Luther’s “saint day,” it is his heavenly birthday, the day he entered into eternal rest. I find this conjunction of dates very interesting, particularly with this particular pericope. There are few theologians throughout history who have understood as well as Martin Luther the glory found in the cross. There are few Christians who better knew what it was like to get down and dirty in service to God in the name of Jesus Christ.

It is probably inappropriate to call February 18th Martin Luther’s “saint day” because I do not think Martin Luther would want to be called a ‘saint’ except in the most basic understanding – as a believer and part of the communion of saints. He had respect for those who had been given that special honor, but Martin realized as he grew in understanding and faith that the real joy of life was found in the ordinary. He taught that people glorified God in their everyday work, worshipping Him by doing what it was they were called to do in this world. It is not so easy to see our daily tasks in life as being holy and worshipful. As we think about the most disgusting work we can do, such as changing diapers or collecting the garbage, we do not even imagine God to be near us at those moments. We are certainly not singing His praise for the opportunity to do slop the pigs or clean out the horse stalls. Yet, as Luther understood vocation, it is even at these times we are called to thank God and worship Him with our work. These are holy callings when done in faith, because in these tasks we are serving God by serving others.

This does not make sense to us. We want to hide our mistakes and our failures so that others will not see. We want the glory and we want to ensure that everyone sees our accomplishments. We would love to take that vacation in the Caribbean and have everyone wait on us – after all, we deserve the rest, right?

However, we are reminded in these lessons that the glory does not last. The glory in Moses’ face faded. The glory of the Law faded. Every year the people had to present sacrifices to atone for their sins. For the briefest of moments they were redeemed and righteous in the eyes of God according to the Law. The glory of that moment always faded. Year after year they had to return to the temple to present a new offering. The veil that is over the minds of those who hear the Law is this theology of glory – that we can do what is necessary to overcome sin in the world. We think we can be good enough, righteous enough. When we fail, we provide a sacrifice and try again, but we fail again. The glory of the Law always fades.

Paul writes, “But whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” Jesus fulfilled the Law. That’s why He came. The Law would not be fulfilled on the mountaintop. From the moment of transfiguration, Jesus set His eyes and His feet on the path to the cross. He was the Chosen One, but the Messiah did not come to be an earthly king or to live in a glory that would fade. He came to be the final and perfect Lamb of God. When we turn to the Lord, we see the real glory, the glory that is lasting. It isn’t on the mountaintop. It is in the dust and the dirt of everyday living.

Moses did not want the Israelites to see the fading glory. We are just like Moses, hiding our failures and uncertainties. We do not want the world to think that the power we have been given goes away. We don’t want it to appear as though God has abandoned us. But Paul reminds us that the life of a Christian is an open book. We don’t hide behind a veil to cover-up our imperfection. Instead, we live each day in the truth that our hope rests on one thing – Jesus Christ. Each day we are being transformed into His image. We aren’t complete, God is still working on us. Martin Luther used a phrase that describes our life in Christ: “simul justus et peccator” which means “at the same time saint and sinner.”

Paul writes, “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit.” Our faces have been unveiled; we see the glory in Christ reflected in our lives. This is good news! There is a glory that is lasting and we are being transformed, day by day, into that glory. We aren’t there yet. We have a ways to go. We have to die. But as we live we are being changed by the Spirit of God which draws us ever closer into the heart of God. This doesn’t happen on the mountain tops, it happens at the foot of the mountain as we experience the opportunities to share God’s mercy and grace with the world. We are, at times, humbled by the experience because we will fail. Yet, we are also awed by the power of God as we see Him do what He has come to do – bring freedom, healing and restoration.

I began this devotional with a choice between two vacations. What would you choose? What if you discovered that choosing the vacation in the Caribbean would be the highlight of your life and nothing after could ever compare to it, while the vacation on the ranch was just the beginning of something spectacular? If you could look beyond the moment, would you choose the glory? Or would you be able to see the value of a life lived in service to another, glorifying God as you praised His name as you worked in the dust and the dirt of real life? In Christ we have seen the glory. It is not found on the mountain top but in the dust and dirt of the kingdom work, taking freedom, healing and restoration to those who need God’s grace in the world.

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