Sunday, February 19, 2012

Transfiguration
2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in them that perish.

For the past few weeks we have been following Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus at the beginning of His ministry. We saw Him call His first disciples, drive out an evil spirit, heal many people (including Simon’s mother-in-law), pray alone and move on to other towns to preach the Kingdom of God. Elijah was a foreshadowing of Jesus; he did many of the same things and experienced many of the same sufferings. Jesus was not the return of Elijah, but Elijah provided God’s people with a revelation of the Christ so that they would recognize Him when He came.

There were also many parallels between the life of Moses and the life of Jesus. Both Moses and Jesus had extraordinary infancy stories, with intrigues and danger. Both faced the possibility of death commanded by a king; both survived by being hidden. All three—Jesus, Moses and Elijah—provided food for the hungry, water for the thirsty and hope for all God’s people. They all offered the promises of God: Moses through the Law, Elijah through prophecy and Jesus through His life. That’s why it is so appropriate that Jesus met with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop.

We begin this week’s texts with the assumption of Elijah, when the chariot of God came to take him away in a whirlwind. In this story, we see Elijah and Elisha traveling through the prophetic communities of Israel so that Elijah can say good-bye. All along the way, Elijah told Elisha to stop following him. “I have to go one.” But Elisha refused to leave his master. All along the way the prophets told Elisha that he was about to lose his master. Nothing stopped Elisha; he was determined to follow Elijah every step of the way. Elijah was prepared to take this journey alone, but Elisha would not leave him.

This must have been a frightening time for Elisha. Was he ready to take on the responsibilities of being God’s prophet? Being a prophet was not a pleasant job, especially if the word God speaks is unpopular. Elisha knew that he would experience persecution and threats, but he also knew that it was where he belonged. He did not allow any fear to keep him from doing what he was called to do. At the end of the journey, Elijah and Elisha found themselves at the Jordan River. While this is the story of the passing of Elijah’s authority to Elisha, Elijah’s story is the one that matters today. Elijah was taken up into heaven suddenly in a fiery chariot, the sign of God’s blessing on Elisha’s ministry, and it is for this reason many believe that Elijah will return.

The Old Testament lesson takes us on a journey where Moses was never allowed to tread. Due to his own failings, Moses never entered into the Promised Land. Instead, the Hebrews were led across the Jordan River by Joshua as Moses watched from a hilltop. Then he died and God buried him in Moab. Joshua took the Hebrews through the Jordan, through Jericho, through Bethel to Gilgal where they were circumcised. All those who had left Egypt that had been properly circumcised had died in the desert. There, at Gilgal, Joshua restored the people to the covenant between God and His people by circumcising all the men. Elijah followed that same route, only returning to the very place that the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. On a mountain nearby, Moses died after watching the people cross into the promise. There are some who believe that Jesus was baptized in the same area of the Jordan.

These parallels are more than mere coincidences; they show us that God’s hand was guiding each chosen one into the fulfillment of all His plans. And so we see, on the Mount of Transfiguration, the glorification of Jesus. He was lifted up, placed in between the two greatest men of Israel and established as the One who brings it all together. It is in Christ that the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled. It is through Jesus that God has finally made all things right again. Of course, the transfiguration is not the end of Jesus’ ministry; it was truly just the beginning. From that moment, Jesus set His feet toward Jerusalem and the cross.

It might seem odd that we spent so much time on chapter one of Mark, and now we’ve jumped to chapter nine. Mark uses a literary technique called “bookending.” He says something, then later says something relating back to that first thought. Everything in between defines and explains the bookmarks. For the past few weeks, we’ve seen the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and today we see the beginning of the end. In the beginning of Mark, God is heard saying, “Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased.” In today’s passage, God says, “This is my beloved Son: hear ye him.”

In the beginning of Mark, God spoke to Jesus, gave Him the authority and the encouragement to do what He was sent to do. In today’s passage, God told the disciples to listen to Him. The words were meant for their ears. In between, Jesus did many wonderful things, miraculous things. He healed people and fed large crowds. His works were powerful proof of His identity, but as He drew closer to the cross it was important that those who believed listen and learn so that they could continue His work.

We live in a world with many voices screaming at us with opinions on blogs, on television shows, in print. Everyone is an expert, or at least thinks they are. Words are twisted and truth is sometimes very hard to find. It is hard to know to whom we should listen. Which one is right? Who is telling the truth? What is truth? God tells us what to do: “Listen to Jesus.” I,m not sure it is that easy, because there are so many voices trying to tell us what Jesus meant, and they rarely agree. But we can listen. We can pray. We can do our best to live as God calls us to live, serving Him with our hearts and our hands and our voices, knowing that God is faithful and that He is more powerful than our failure.

The epistle lesson is probably included in today’s texts because it speaks about the story of Moses. When Moses met God on the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, he came back glowing with an eerie light, a reflection of the glory of God. It bothered those who saw it because it was unnatural. It was a reminder of how unworthy they were to stand in the presence of holiness, how God was powerful. They thought they could not hear God’s voice or they would die. Moses was all that holy; he was human, with human foibles and faults. But Moses had seen God’s face and did not die. He had heard God’s voice and he lived. He was the one to whom God gave the Law. When Moses had that glow, he wore a veil to hide the glory because the people were uncomfortable looking upon his face. It was their fear that made them avoid experiencing God’s presence.

We aren’t much different than the Israelites. None of us want to be the prophet. None of us want to be the one to do the hard work with God. Even Peter, James and John were also afraid when they were confronted by the reality of God’s magnificence. They, like the Israelites and modern day Christians, wanted control. In their fear they tried to make God fit into their comfort zone. Peter responded by suggesting a building project. Do we respond to God in the same way?

Paul writes, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in them that perish.” Like the people who refused to see God’s glory on the face of Jesus, those who are ruled by sin and death refuse to see God’s hand in the world. They prefer to let God be veiled, to hear God’s Word from other people. They prefer to believe what sounds good to them rather than hear what God really has to say. Jesus came to speak God’s words in a new way, to cause God’s people to see Him as He is, not as the voices of His day had twisted them.

Not everyone hears Jesus. Paul knew this. He recognized that there were those in opposition to his ministry. They accused him of manipulation and lies. Those accusing him were those who ministered out of self interest, commending themselves so that they might gain positions of status and influence. They refused to admit, or even see, that they were the ones playing games. They cared nothing for the Gospel or Christ, but only for themselves. To them, there was no glory on the cross. To them, the truth was veiled. They could not see because they were blinded by the god of this world. They were also blinded by their own fears and their own desires.

Paul writes, “Seeing it is God, that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, who shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ was a moment of glory, more magnificent than the whirlwind that took Elijah to heaven or the glory that shone from Moses’ face. It might have seemed like that was the culmination of Jesus’ work. But it was merely the beginning of what was to come. Jesus was about to speak a strange and wonderful word into their lives, a frightening reality that included death.

The reality of God is frightening. The psalmist writes, “Our God cometh, and doth not keep silence: A fire devoureth before him, And it is very tempestuous round about him.” Moses experienced the bush that burned without burning. Elijah was taken to heaven in a flaming chariot. This is how God revealed His presence to the Law and the Prophets. God revealed the reality of Jesus to Peter, James and John on the top of the mountain. In the presence of Moses and Elijah, Jesus was transfigured into one covered in glory, and God spoke the words we are called to hear today. “This is my beloved Son: hear ye him.”

The Word often falls onto deaf ears, but that does not mean God is less powerful or Jesus any less authoritative. The god of this world continues to blind those who would prefer to keep the truth and glory veiled. But we need not fear the presence of God or the consequences of telling His story. He has called us into this relationship, invited us to experience His glory and then follow Him into the valley to do His work. It is frightening, but as we join Jesus on the journey to the cross, we need not live in fear. God goes with us, and He has assured us that He has the power to fulfill His promises. He can make it happen, and He does. We might not think we are ready to take on the mantle of responsibility, but God blesses those who have faith. Moses trusted God. Elijah and Elisha trusted God. Peter, James and John trusted God. Jesus trusted God. Now we are called to trust God, too, to follow Him wherever He leads and to listen to Him above all the other voices.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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