Sunday, March 6, 2014

Transfiguration of Our Lord
Exodus 24:8-18
Psalm 2:6-12
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

And Jesus came and touched them and said, Arise, and be not afraid.

There is a term that is used particularly in television circles that describe the moment a show begins its inevitable decline. The term is “jumping the shark” and is a reference to a point in “Happy Days” when Arthur Fonzarelli (Fonzie) ski jumps over a contained shark while on a visit to California. It was a crucial moment in the show because it indicated a transition from the wholesome show about a family in the 1950’s to a focus on the near superhuman powers of the not so wholesome Fonzie. The show lasted another seven years, but it was never quite the same. When Fonzie jumped the shark, the character of “Happy Days” changed.

So, the term “jumping the shark” indicates a moment when something changes in its character, taking it in a new direction. That moment is usually something extraordinary, or at least out of the ordinary, and it leads to a decline in popularity. While it is most often used in reference to television shows, it has been said about politicians, products on the grocery shelves and other things that begin to decline after a particularly unexpected moment. It happens when a politician says something shocking or when a food product changes its formula. The public looks at them differently, rejects them, and thus the decline.

This is Jesus’ jump the shark moment. After nearly three years of healing and preaching ministry, Jesus has set His face toward Jerusalem and the cross. The difference between Jesus and the television shows, however, is that Jesus did not change character or purpose. He was always headed toward the cross. This is the moment when people started seeing Him differently. He still had followers, but they began to doubt whether or not He was the Messiah. He was not the victorious military leader they expected. His enemies began looking more closely for opportunities to destroy Him.

Jesus and His disciples were in Caesarea Philippi six days before the transfiguration. Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” At that moment, Peter confessed his faith in Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blessed Peter and told him that the only way he could confess such faith was by the hand of God. God revealed the truth to Peter, but even then his understanding was not complete. The expectation was political; they were looking for an earthly king.

After that moment, Jesus began sharing the plan of God with his closest friends. He told them He must die. Peter took Him aside and said “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Peter did not really understand his confession only moments ago. He knew the prophecies that promised a Messiah, but he did not see that Jesus had to fulfill the role of suffering servant, the pure Lamb of God, which is also found in scriptures.

Jesus took Peter, James and John to a high mountain. While there, Jesus was glorified and stood in the presence of Moses and Elijah, who represented the Law and the Prophets. They came first in the history of God’s people, but they pointed to Jesus as the fulfillment. Once again Peter did not understand and he tried to build permanent tabernacles for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Peter thought this was the beginning of His time of glory, but it was just a foretaste of what was to come. It was a beginning; it was the beginning of the end of Jesus’ life. After this moment, He set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross.

The permanence of those shelters was not the only problem with Peter’s plan. See, a tabernacle is a meeting place, and the tabernacle of the Jews was a place where God’s people could meet with Him. Moses was the first; Moses entered the tabernacle in the desert to hear God’s word which he then reported to God’s people. The people came to the tabernacle to meet with Moses, to receive God’s word from Him. It was a place of mediation between God and His people.

Our Old Testament lesson for today shows Moses in the role as mediator before there was a tabernacle. The Israelites were at the foot of Mount Sinai, having escaped Egypt. They were preparing to go toward the Promised Land, but first they had to receive the gift of the Law.

This is an amazing moment. Moses and the Israelite leadership went up to meet with God. This passage says, “They saw the God of Israel.” The God on that mountain was the God of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not know Him very well. They had spent four hundred years in Egypt. The Israelites 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. This God on the mountain was different. He was powerful. He was present. He spoke like thunder and looked like fire. They thought that if they saw the face of God, they would die. This was a special moment. “And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: and they beheld God, and did eat and drink.” They saw God, but God did not lay His hands on them. They did not die. Yet, they continued to misunderstand this God who is their Savior.

Imagine what it must have been like at the foot of the mountain when Moses went to talk with God. It must have been frightening to the people to see that cloud descend down the mountain as their leader 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?

Forty days and forty nights are a long time. We begin to worry if someone is out of our presence for even a day or two. How could Moses survive up there? For Moses it was an extraordinary experience. For forty days and nights he was in the presence of God, learning how to lead God’s people. He learned about the tabernacle, the laws, and the worship. He received the tablets of stone. When he came off the mountain, he retained some of the glory of God. It shone in his face. By then, however, the people had forgotten and they were worshipping an idol, running from that which frightened them by trying to placate the gods in a manner that they knew. In less than forty days they forgot the one who had delivered them out of bondage and returned to the ways they had known for four hundred years.

There was a time when the people could go to Moses and Elijah to hear God’s Word. They liked having someone to mediate for them. They were afraid of that God on the mountain. They were afraid of the unknown. The Law and the Prophets served a purpose; they gave the people a way to connect with the God that seemed so distant and untouchable. They gave the people instruction on how to live. They answered their troubles for today and gave them hope for tomorrow.

But they also pointed to the Jesus who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. Peter wanted to build meeting places for all three, making it possible for the people to continue to seek God’s Word from Moses and Elijah, but that was no longer necessary. He was making Moses and Elijah equal with Jesus, giving continuity to the Old Testament, but Jesus exceeds that which came before Him. Jesus is the only one who should have a meeting place. He transcends Moses and Elijah, the Law and the prophets. He is the place of mediation between God and His people.

We have reached the end of a very long Epiphany. We’ve seen the Light of God shining in the world and experienced Jesus’ presence with us in the reading of the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve learned what it means to live as Christians in this world. We are blessed not when we live on the mountain top, but when we wallow in the valley with the poor, sad, meek and hungry. We are blessed, happy, when we are dwelling among those upon whom God has mercy. We celebrate the holiness of God when we praise Him and obey His Word. We are saved and forgiven so that we will be like Him, sharing His light and His mercy in the world.

But now that Epiphany is over, we are about to set out on another long journey, that of Lent. Ash Wednesday is next week, but we don’t get there until we see the Light glorified on the mountain. The Transfiguration is the end of Jesus’ ministry and the beginning of His journey to the cross. Things will change now, as we begin to see the world reacting to God’s grace with confusion and hatred. But first we see Jesus as He is completely and perfectly. He is transfigured on the mountain, glorified so that those with Him will know that He is all that He has said that He is. It may seem like Jesus has jumped the shark, but we know that Jesus is revealed as He was sent to be: the perfect Lamb of God.

There are parallels between Moses and Jesus in the texts we read this week. 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. Moses waits on the side of the mountain for six days before he is invited into the presence of God and the story of the Transfiguration happens six days after Jesus reveals His true purpose. 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 right and necessary. 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.

The Israelites 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.

Peter might not have tried to lift himself into heaven, but he did try to find a way to stay on that mountaintop. We are constantly trying to find ways to raise ourselves into the heavenly realms or bring heaven to earth by our own power. The ultimate human sin is that we want to become as gods. We want to be righteous by our works. We want to control the world. We want to control God. Peter wanted take the divine into his own hands and control the place where God meets man. We do the same today when we try to make God be what we want Him to be.

Thomas Aquinas was a teacher and theologian in the thirteenth century. He was a student of Aristotle’s philosophy, which was popular at that time. Aquinas found connections between that philosophy and the beliefs 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.

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 from men. Aquinas found the Gospel in the popular philosophy of his day and he taught the people how to balance faith with intellect. He didn’t change the Christian message to fit society or culture but juxtaposed philosophy with the Gospel. False prophets change the message to fit their prophetic utterances.

Peter writes, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto 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 men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” Peter understood this better than anyone. Remember: his grand confession of faith was not something he came up with on his own. He answered Jesus’ question, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” but even then he didn’t truly understand what Jesus was about to accomplish. He, like the rest of the world, thought Jesus was jumping the shark. “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” He was only able to confess his faith by the power of God, but just moments later he was rebuking Jesus for revealing a plan that didn’t make sense to him. And then six days later he was trying to control God’s plan again by building tabernacles for the Law and the Prophets, alongside and equal with Jesus.

Jesus is where God meets man. He is the mediator. He is the one through whom God now speaks. He hasn’t made the Law and the Prophets obsolete, but He has fulfilled them. We don’t need to go through the Law to see God and we don’t need the Prophets confirm to us that Jesus is the One for whom we have been waiting. Even today’s prophets must speak words that point to Jesus, or they are not from God’s mouth. Many of the prophetic voices of our day are speaking not 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.”

There are many popular preachers who teach a false gospel. Some focus on the mountaintop experiences, choosing to embrace the glory while ignoring the suffering of the cross. Others want to build tabernacles for Moses and Elijah, giving a place for the people to seek God by way of the Law and Prophets, rather than through Christ. If our works are good enough, then there is no need for Jesus to die on the cross. They make Jesus to be a good man obedient to the Law, a teacher, a rebel who fought for some type of justice.

The preachers of false Gospel do these things because they think God jumped the shark. They think the cross is outside of His character. They retell the story. The call it a myth or give it a new meaning. 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.

But God does not jump the shark. He doesn't change His character. The plan from the very beginning was for Jesus to come and die in our stead. He came to take our sin to the cross, to pay our penalty so that we can be saved. Peter, James and John were blessed to see a brief glimpse of what is to come, but we can’t get there without the cross.

We tend to listen to Jesus when He speaks things we like to hear, but we would rather ignore the hard words. We will listen when He speaks about the promises of God, but we reject the talk about sacrifice. We listen when Jesus speaks about the love of God, but we would rather not consider how Jesus suffered His wrath on the cross. We accept His words about mercy and forgiveness when it has to do with our own sin, but we are less than willing to give mercy and forgiveness to others. Jesus told Peter, James and John just six days before the transfiguration, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Perhaps Peter forgot, or perhaps there are just some things Jesus says that we would rather not hear.

The experience ended when Jesus went to the frightened disciples and said, “Don’t be afraid.” He was no longer shining like the sun, but rather looked like the man who climbed the mountain with them. He touched them, offering healing and peace in the midst of their turmoil. Then He led them back down the mountain and commanded them to not tell anyone what they have seen until the right time.

The day did come when they would share their vision of the transfiguration with others, when the Son of Man was raised. They were His witnesses in the world. Peter wrote of his experience in today’s epistle lesson: “For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there was borne such a voice to him by the Majestic Glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: and this voice we ourselves heard borne out of heaven, when we were with him in the holy mount.”

In the end Peter finally understood what it was all about: Jesus doing His Father’s will. He was one of the witnesses and we have seen God’s glory through his words. Now that we have been given a glimpse of His glory, we are sent out into the world in faith to reveal to others the true character of God, so that they too might see His glory and be transformed by His grace.

The way will not always be easy. We’ll see over the next few weeks how difficult it was for Jesus. During Holy Week we will watch as He is beaten and rejected and eventually killed. We will experience the disappointment that He is not the victorious military leader who will become an earthly king. We will wrestle with the reality that our sinfulness leads to death, but find hope in the promise that God has saved us with the most radical solution. We've seen Jesus in His glory on the mountaintop, but we’ll see the even greater glory of the cross. It is there that Jesus was crowned Eternal King, and it is there that God truly meets us, where heaven really did touch the earth.

We need not be afraid because God will never lay His hand upon us; we can see God and dwell in His presence forever because Jesus is our mediator. In faith we take up our cross and follow Him. This is not simply an acceptance of the bad things that will come our way. Once we've seen the glory on the mountaintop, we are called to follow Jesus to the cross. We begin that journey on Ash Wednesday, as we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Our journey takes us to the cross of Christ where we also die. We die to self. We die to our own ambitions, our own understanding, our own interpretations.

It was no good for Jesus, Peter, James and John to stay on top of the mountain. Jesus had to move forward. He had to get to the cross. The Law and the Prophets said many things about Jesus, but here’s the most important thing: Jesus, the beloved Son was sent by the Father to fulfill all righteous by suffering for the sake of God’s people. It might seem out of character, but it was the plan all along. Christ died so that we can live.

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