February 10, 2013

"Jesus in a New Light"

 

Exodus 34:29-35

Luke 9:28-36

 

Martin Noth, one of the great Old Testament scholars in Germany in the middle of the twentieth century wrote of the account of Moses from the book of Exodus that we heard this morning: “This story is hard to assess.”

And Fred Craddock, a widely respected preacher and teacher of preachers, said of the story from the Gospel of Luke: “There’s not much here that relates to our world.”

I like it when scholars talk like this. It means that I am not alone in my confusion. It means that you’re not alone, if, after listening to the scripture lessons this morning, you were asking yourself: “What was that all about?”

In the story from Exodus, in Luke’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus heaven and earth meet. We encounter scenes that are both beyond our understanding of reality and yet close to our hope for life.

Sometimes Jesus can seem a comfortable as an old shoe.

            We can look at the Healer without expecting wholeness.

            We can listen to the Teacher and hear nothing new.

            We can be so certain about who Jesus is—or isn’t; we can be so sure of how he works—or doesn’t—that large chunks of our lives can remain untouched by his transforming power.

Following in the way of Jesus Christ can become business as usual:

            Hearts no longer stirred to life by his puzzling life.

            Mind no longer challenged by the word he speaks.

            Souls no longer sparked by his Spirit.

The Christian life becomes one in which the depths of suffering find no answer in the heights of resurrection.

Maybe we can become too comfortable with Jesus.

When we as individuals or as a congregation become comfortable with Jesus—when he no longer disturbs or excites, when he no longer angers or comforts—we are mired in a valley of shadows. We no longer have enough light to see where we are going.

The way out of that valley is to climb the mountain with Peter and James and John. 

On the mountain we see Jesus in a new light.

The appearance of the face of Jesus changes. Matthew’s gospel says it “shone like the sun,” much like the face of Moses after his encounter with God. His clothes are a dazzling white. 

Something profound is happening in these stories—something that touches us at the deepest levels of the soul. Perhaps it is beyond our minds' understanding. The light is so bright that we might want to look away, but still we are drawn toward it.

This light reveals another face of Jesus. The weary healer, the dusty teacher does not appear before us. Here in the midst of his life we catch a glimpse of the future of Jesus. This future takes in and fulfills all the past. Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, centuries of faithfulness are embraced by the new life toward which Jesus moves.

This future illuminates the present. The growing opposition and persecution, the suffering to come are seen in the light of a greater life that Jesus claims.

This new light challenges all our easy understandings of who Jesus is. 

Do you think of Jesus as a healer? Here he stands in a light that blinds and strikes down. 

Are you comfortable thinking of Jesus as a great teacher whose words occasionally make life better? Here he says nothing. He shines. 

Do you rarely think of Jesus at all? Here he stands so strangely bright that he cannot be ignored.

The realm of God has come closer than we thought—maybe closer than we would have hoped.

On the mountain in dazzling light we see Jesus. But it is no longer the Jesus we are used to seeing. Comfort is gone.  Certainty is gone. A new light hints at future glory.

Suffering will not be the final word.

Death will not be the final word.

Beyond suffering, beyond death is light and life.

Peter responds to all of this by suggesting a building project. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

In the face of the grandeur of the moment it seems a pathetic and limited response. As an aside, Luke tells us that Peter is hardly aware of what he is saying. 
But if we are honest, we quickly realize that this could easily be our response as well. It's a very human reaction.

Faced with an overwhelming situation we often respond: “We’ve got to do something about this.”

            Hunger?

            Homelessness?

We've got to do something about this. We are part of the United Church of Christ, after all. We’re “Let’s get it done” people.

And that’s good—we should be. The danger, of course, is that we start to act before we understand the situation.

Maybe our inability to be still before God is at the root of much of our fruitless activity. St. Augustine identified the problem in his famous prayer: "O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee."

In the presence of the holy, in the presence of great need, we can feel small and limited. There is a vast difference between the image of Moses patiently waiting on God and Peter's frantic suggestion of building. If we are often overwhelmed by the enormity of the tasks ahead of us, if the challenges we face in life seem daunting, perhaps we will find new strength, new clarity of thought and purpose in being still before God.

Seeing Jesus in a different light, we also hear the word of God anew. God calls us to listen. 

Central to this story is the illuminating word of God that the disciples hear from a cloud. We’re not used to God coming to us in such ways, but we can still hear that word. 

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

Once more we encounter an epiphany—a revelation. For a moment the veil that separates the visible from the invisible is removed and the truth is revealed. It is the very glory of God that shines in Jesus, not just the light of a worker of wonders or a wise teacher. 

Jesus is so completely human that he is the Son of God in a unique sense. And because he is the Son of God we are able to see in Jesus what it means to be fully human. 

We who follow call Jesus our brother. Because of that we too are able to call God our parent—to cry "Abba, Father," to experience the motherly love of the God who gives us life. The God who claims Jesus as beloved Son claims us as God's own daughters and sons. Whatever you are, above all else, you are a child of God.

We announced this reality when we baptized Justin this morning. We all share that identity. Can we be still for a moment and let that sink in? Above all else, you are a child of God.

Jesus stands before us in a new light and we are told: “Listen to him.”

This is not just listening to what he says, but listening to what he does, listening to how he lives and how he dies.

            We listen to Jesus not just for the words of life.

            We listen not only because his acts of compassion attract our attention.

            We listen because God singles him out, because in him we discover that even suffering and death are on the path that leads to life.

God calls us, the sisters and brothers of Jesus, to listen to him.

To see Jesus in a new light, to listen to him, can seem overpowering. 

Hearing a voice they had never heard before, seeing a light they had never witnessed before, the disciples are scared into silence—as any one of us might be. An experience of the holy might lead us first, not to awe filled praise, but to hit the decks.

Every page of the Bible is filled with the testimony of fearful disciples:

Women who ran from the empty tomb on Easter morning because they were afraid.

            Men who hid out or ran away or fell to the ground because they didn't know what was happening.

            People who did things and said things, not because they were brave and fearless, but because they were quaking in their sandals before the living God.

Over and over we encounter people who lacked certainty but found faith.

We are not the first to doubt all that we believe.

We are not the first to have more fear than faith.

To see Jesus in a new light, to really listen to him can seem overpowering. Trembling together we join a long line of fearful followers. 

Many issues and problems push upon us and cry for our attention. This past week the Mission Board heard about efforts to establish a Worker’s Justice Center here in Iowa City in response to growing incidents of wage theft and other abuses in our community. KCRG reported on the growing problem of homelessness in Iowa City in spite of a new shelter. I am convinced that we have the resources and the gifts necessary for expanded mission in our community and the wider world. First, however, we need to find the strength, the energy, the spirit for this mission.

It’s easy to think that there’s not much that relates to our world when we first hear the story of the Transfiguration—and like the story of Moses is it is “hard to assess.” But through it we are invited to look once more at the Christ whom we seek to follow.  We are called to listen to him as he speaks in scripture, through prayer, as we meet together.

We listen as this story speaks gently to us: Be still. Be open to receive the gifts God offers.

There are times for retreat for prayer, meditation, and rest, when the shape of the whole may become clear to us. We may find that in the midst of struggle, at a bedside or a graveside, the meaning of the gospel and the nature of God become clear to us in ways that transcend ordinary experience. In the throes of a hard fight for justice, we may discover a purpose or a calling that casts a light over the rest of our lives.

We encounter transfiguration. We ourselves are transformed.

We rise and continue to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, whom we see again in a new light. We follow on a way that leads from death to life, from glory to glory.