Sunday, February 23, 2020

Transfiguration of our Lord
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2:6-12
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.

We have reached the end of the Epiphany season, although we do so with one great flash of light. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been enlightened with the words of the Sermon on the Mount, giving us instruction on what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It hasn’t been easy to hear, since Jesus put before us expectations that at times seem impossible. The Beatitudes demand living upside down in the world. We are salt and light. Avoid anger and lust. Do not divorce, make oaths or retaliate. Love your enemies. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Perfect? Impossible.

We’ve heard Paul warn us, as he warned the Corinthians, against division in the church. Our focus is now and ever shall be Jesus Christ, for it is through Him and His work on the cross that we have received grace and salvation. God’s temple is holy and we are that temple.

Holy? Impossible.

Paul warns the Corinthians, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone thinks that he is wise among you in this world, let him become a fool, that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He has taken the wise in their craftiness.’ And again, ‘The Lord knows the reasoning of the wise, that it is worthless.’ Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come.” And he then encourages them with these words, “All are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (1 Corinthians 3:18-23)

You are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. The rest doesn’t seem so impossible now, does it?

We are warned to be careful to discern what we hear coming from men, and to always remember to keep our focus on God.

I often look back at my twenty-plus years of archives for ideas for this daily devotion. Sometimes I repost slightly edited previous devotions; sometimes I just use the ideas with new insights. One thing I found during one of those searches is that I used today’s Epistle lesson from 2 Peter on September 11, 2001. I must have written early because I did not mention the horrific events of that day, but the warning was appropriate to what would come.

In that writing, I talked about how people interpret the signs in creation in relation to the coming of Christ. “Prophets and prophetic interpreters watch for things to happen and they try to decipher what they mean and how they relate to the biblical descriptions of the last days.” This was certainly true in the days following the horrific events of that day. Many people used the disaster as a launching point for their prophetic utterances. Grief and fear made people flock to religious centers, to gather for prayer and worship, to comfort one another and seek answers to the questions on their hearts. Many voices were willing to give answers, but so many of those voices did not agree.

Unfortunately, many of the prophetic voices of our day do not speak from God’s power or Spirit, but from a sense that if they speak it loud enough or long enough, then it will happen. It is humorous to watch a prophet explain away his mistake, justifying his misinterpretation by reconciling it with actual events. Many prophets will wait to release a “word” until after he or she can make it fit the circumstances of the day. “See, I received this word, but now I see it is true and reveal it to you.”

Peter writes, “For we didn’t follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” And, “For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” How do we know which voices are right and which are false?

We can ask a couple of questions. What is the focus of the prophecy? Who is the subject of the “word”?

Thomas Aquinas lived in the thirteenth century. He was a teacher and a theologian. The thirteenth century was a time of philosophical rebirth. The work of Aristotle was making a renaissance, very popular among the educated in that day. Thomas Aquinas studied the works of Aristotle and found connections between his philosophy and that of the Christians. He believed that truth is known through both reason (natural revelation) and faith (supernatural revelation.) Natural revelation is available to all human beings as they use observe and experience the world in which they live. Supernatural revelation comes to men through the scriptures, the church and prophets.

Some prophetic utterances are worth our attention. God does still speak to His people. We are reminded, however, that we are to discern that which comes from God and that which comes out of the desires of men. Is that prophetic word confirmed by that which has been revealed to us already? Does it stand up to the light of Christ? Aquinas found the Gospel in the midst of that which was popular in his day and he taught the people how to balance faith with intellect. He didn’t change the Christian message to fit into the society of his day but developed a method of using philosophy to explain Christianity. The false prophets are those that change the message to fit their prophetic utterances.

The voices are becoming louder and longer, these days, aren’t they? Self-proclaimed prophets will shout from podiums that others are not living according to the scriptures, even while they do not live according to the scriptures. They see through a window, without realizing it is a mirror, pointing the fingers at others while actually pointing at themselves. Of course, they have twist the scriptures to make it, just as the prophet twists circumstances to fit their “words.”

I don’t usually talk about politics for multiple reasons. First of all, I know that the readers of this devotion come from many points of view. Though American politics can have an impact worldwide, many of my readers are from other nations. They have greater concerns in their own little corner of the world. This is not a political blog, it is an inspirational devotion. So, while our opinion on the politics of the day might be tempered by our religious perspective, it is not necessarily a topic appropriate to devotional writing. The other reason I avoid politics is that a number of readers are from other nations. American politics is not a topic that will enhance our spiritual lives.

It is impossible, however, to ignore the reality of our world at this moment: politics is a part of our lives. Unless we never listen to the news or pick up a newspaper, we can’t avoid the topic. Even if we do avoid the media, it is a topic that will inevitably come up in our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces. Our neighbors have political signs in their yard. Political discussions are happening in our churches. There is no doubt that an important election is just a few months away because the world around us has politics on its mind.

It is sometimes interesting, sometimes disturbing, to listen to the debates and discussions about the upcoming election and the candidates. Some people are deeply rooted in their opinions and discussion is about converting others to a similar point of view. To them, any difference in opinion is a condemnation of a person’s sanity, intelligence, or even faith. It is not the opinion that is questioned or debated, but it is the person who has the disagreeable point of view that becomes the focus of the discussion. The person with an opposition opinion becomes an enemy, someone who is less in some way. This seems to get worse every year.

This happens in all aspects of life. It happens in religion, in science, in academia. It even happens on subjects that are totally inconsequential. Try starting a debate about regular tea and sweet tea someday. Or types of soda. Or which burger is the best. The person who is passionate about his or her opinion will often put down the other point of view. I don’t think that this is the way a majority of people act. Most people can sit down and have a discussion without becoming nasty or arrogant. Most people recognize that there are different points of view.

Early in Psalm 22, the psalmist asks why the nations want to revolt against the Lord God Almighty. The question is not a cry of arrogance against the other nations, but a question of surprise. When we sit down with a person with a different point of view about politics, we often think to ourselves, “I just don’t understand how he or she can think like that.” We don’t understand because we see the world in an entirely different perspective. Unfortunately, we are too rarely interested to hear the other point of view; we simply dismiss it, and the person, as being wrong. The psalmist knows the loving grace of God and simply can’t understand a perspective that can’t see that grace. The psalmist is amazed by this point of view because he or she knows that any revolt against the LORD is fruitless.

In the Old Testament lesson from Exodus, the Lord says to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and stay here, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commands that I have written, that you may teach them.” That place was where heaven and earth mingled, where God met man face to face. The man, in this case, was Moses. A cloud covered the mountain and the earth trembled at the presence of God. All others were warned to stay at the foot of the mountain. I don’t think they minded holding back since the mountain seemed to burn with fire.

Imagine what it must have been like at the foot of the mountain when Moses went to talk with God. Though he was meeting with the God of their forefathers, the Hebrews did not know Him very well. They had spent four hundred years in Egypt. They had lost touch with their God. They knew the foreign gods and recognized that the signs of nature could be interpreted as communication from the divine. It must have been frightening to see that cloud descend down the mountain as Moses was climbing up. Was it a bad sign? Was Moses going to be safe? What did the fire mean? Would this God really save them from their suffering?

They weren’t very patient people. Moses was on the mountain for forty days, and the people feared he was dead. Instead of waiting for him to come, they turned to the gods they knew from Egypt and convinced Aaron to create an idol of gold. They worshipped the idol and sought its protection and guidance. God was not idle during those days and Moses was not dead. The people looked to themselves for salvation instead of waiting for God. They tried to take the divine into their own hands, to lift themselves into heaven.

The cloud covered the mountain for six days and then God called Moses out of the cloud. He was invited into the presence of God, and during the forty days Moses received God’s Word for His people. They received that Word, but failed to live by it over and over again. They revolted against God, not in an open rebellion as it at the foot of Mount Sinai; they revolted by turning to the strength and power of men and nations for help. They revolted by going their own way instead of the way of God. They revolted by doing their own thing. That’s sin. We are all guilty of that sin. We all go our own way. We all think that we know better than God. We all think that our way is the right way.

Matthew writes, “After six days...” as he begins the story of the Transfiguration. The event that came previously is the confession of Peter. Jesus asked him, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blessed Peter, but told him that he did not speak those words on his own. Six days later Jesus took Peter, James and John to the top of a high mountain and there they saw the truth of Peter’s confession. He was transfigured on the mountain, glorified so that those with Him would know that He is all that He has said that He is. Things changed on that mountaintop, as we begin to see the world reacting to God’s grace with confusion and hatred.

Jesus began and ended His ministry with a mountaintop experience. In Matthew 4, Satan took Jesus to a high mountain and offered Him the kingdoms of the world. In that temptation, Jesus was given the opportunity to avoid all the messiness of obeying God’s plans. Satan gave Him the chance to rule without the cross. It would be easy for any of us to take the easy way out, to accept our own ideas and take control of our own destiny. But Jesus knew that God’s way was the right way. He had to go through the cross to complete what God began. God’s justice demanded a price and Jesus was willing to be the sacrificial lamb. On the mountain of transfiguration, God commended Jesus for His obedience and called Him the beloved Son, just as He had at Jesus’ baptism. With Him, God was well-pleased.

There are parallels between Moses and Jesus in the texts we read this week. First of all, Moses waited on the side of the mountain for six days before he was invited into the presence of God and Jesus climbed the mountain six days after predicting His death. In the case of Moses, the people thought that he would die. Jesus knew he would. Both trusted in God’s Word and obeyed God’s command, knowing that He would do what was necessary for the sake of His people. Both Moses and Jesus entered into the glory of God. Both were totally covered by His Light. Both heard the voice of God and experienced His presence. In the Old Testament story of Moses and the Gospel story about Jesus, we see the place where heaven meets earth, where God mingles with His people.

Peter, James and John received a glimpse of heaven that day on the top of a mountain. They witnessed a miraculous event as Jesus was transfigured into a divinely shining being; the Light shined with glorious light. He was standing among the great men of their faith: Moses the father of the Law and Elijah the father of the prophets. They stood for everything on which their faith was built. Peter wanted to capture the moment, to build a temple on the spot to honor Jesus and hold on to the glory. While Peter was speaking, a cloud came over the scene and a voice commanded the disciples to listen to Jesus. Peter’s sense of assurance was overpowered by a sense of fear. All three fell on their faces when they heard the voice.

Peter reacted to the transfiguration as we all might have done. Peter was trying to seat Jesus as king over an earthly kingdom. God interrupted, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” God commanded them to listen to Jesus, the Word incarnate. He is the culmination of what was started on Mount Sinai. He is the Word made real and sent to dwell among God’s people. Jesus is the place where heaven and earth meet.

Peter wanted to capture the moment, but Jesus said “No.” He told them to keep it a secret. He told them to hide their experience away until the future day when “the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” Then Jesus went back into the valley and headed toward the cross to die.

The transfiguration, as glorious as that moment must have been, was a mountaintop experience that had no lasting value like the real glory to come. It seems backwards to us. It seems upside down. Didn’t Jesus deserve to be honored on that mountaintop? Of course He did, but He knew the real glory would come on the cross, where the word and work of God would be complete. He did not become King on the mountaintop; He became King when the world crowned Him with thorns. Peter, James and John would not understand until later. They would not see the truth until after the resurrection. That is why Peter wanted to make a lasting tribute on the top of that mountain.

How hard must it have been to go back down into the valley after seeing that glory and not be able to tell anyone! I would have wanted to share it with others, to let that glory linger, to act as a witness to the truth of Peter’s confession. “See, I told you He was the Christ!” Who would believe their story days, weeks, months or years after the event?

This is, of course, the problem we continue to have today as we act as witnesses for the Lord in this world. How many people reject the Gospel as nothing but myth? They explain it away, ignoring the reality of our sinfulness and our need for redemption. They reject God’s wrath and redefine Christ’s work to fit their own understanding, just like those Israelites waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai and the Jews who rejected Jesus in those final days of His life. It didn’t help that Jesus did not return immediately. Even today many claim that two thousand years is too long. “He’s not coming back. Stop living in a fairy tale.”

The world is filled with voices in politics, religion, science and academia. The voices we hear these days speak with so-called wisdom, but does not come from God. There are many people who seem to preach, but are speaking a different gospel. They twist the word to fit their point of view and ignore everything about the scriptures that reject their own way of living. They often focus on mountain top experiences and ignore the reality of sacrifice. They avoid the cross. In their own way, they have turned from God. They aren’t building altars of gold, but they are building altars that serve their own desires.

On the mountaintop, the voice of God told Peter, James and John to listen to Jesus. He is the focus of prophecy; He is the subject of true “words” from God.

Jesus invited the three to follow Him to the valley, to do the work of God. He did not tell the disciples to seek after the riches of the world or avoid suffering. He took them into the midst of poverty and pain. He taught them to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. He encouraged them to endure persecution. He died on the cross and invited all those who believe to follow Him. He experienced the glory on the mountain but left it behind for the true glory that comes with sacrifice. We might not understand. It is certainly easier to seek after the good things in life than to experience the bad. But God knows His plan and His purpose. He knows His grace. And He is faithful. By His grace we can be both holy and perfect because we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.

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