Vision of Glory… ​The Image​ of the Cross – A sermon for Transfiguration

Imagine you were Peter, James or John and Jesus pulls you aside and tells you he wants to show you something on a hike up a mountain. Not wanting to disappoint him, you’re like, “Sure, Jesus. I’ll meet you early tomorrow morning for this hike to see a different perspective, or whatever it is you want to share with me.”

The next morning rolls around, you awake and meet the other two and set out on a journey of not knowing what is in store, but that you are led with curiosity about Jesus is up to. So, you head out with the other two and spend the day climbing up the side of a mountain with your spiritual teacher. You reach the top, and it is a holy moment. The feeling that you’re close to the Creator. It’s a God moment as you look down on the rest of the world and see other people like ants. Then your focus is redirected to the leader who is not who you thought he was. Your sight of him is altered. Things are starting to get weirded out when you not only see Jesus as the Bible says “dazzling white” but also Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus.

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So, Peter is the first speak up, and all he can think about is hanging out with the prophets. Let’s stay forever in this glorious moment. It’s perfect. Let’s dwell with you here.

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The Bible says that Peter was frightened and didn’t know what to say. We can relate to that feeling, right? Those moments we are terrified and the words we want to say to express what we are thinking? So, whatever we word we come up with are the best at the moment, only to remember to ourselves later, “What was I thinking? Asking Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to dwell with me here on the mountaintop.” At the moment, it seems like that the right thing to do. Who wouldn’t want to dwell in glory forever? We all want to be blessed by God and God’s beauty to shine forth.

Then reality hits. The voice of reason and logic settles into our thoughts. In the biblical text, it’s the voice of the Father speaking: “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” Sisters and brothers – the last time we heard the Father speak these words was when Jesus was baptized. The voice of the Father came and uttered to Jesus “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  This time, though, God is speaking to the three companions – the Father is speaking to the humans. “Listen to him.” In other words, “follow him.” The word for “listen” Mark uses is also the same Greek word as “obey.”  Obey Jesus. Abide in Jesus. Don’t feel the need to speak, be quiet and just listen to Jesus. This is the promise we need to make it to the other mountaintop experience on the other side of Lent where the real glory of God was shown through the cross on which this Jesus was hung.

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We are reaching the pinnacle of Epiphany with the mountaintop transfiguration story, and the thing that hit me in this gospel is that the vision of glory that Peter, James, and John saw an image, but the real message God is sharing with the disciples is that of abiding with Jesus. Not working for Jesus, but resting, remaining. Heck, not even serving others with Jesus, nor practicing good works. Just being present and aware of who Jesus is right here, right now.

Then the vision disappears and what is left is the reality of the moment, and the words of the Father, sight and the subsequent image from view become irrelevant. Fact is returning. Now, what comes next? How are we to make sense of this moment? Then it is back to reality. All that remains is the hope of a God of glory. Of course, this vision of fame is what will be, and they sustain us in a future hope for what will be. But this idea is not and cannot be the reality. Sure, we all want a God of glory, but what we get is a fuller revelation of who God is a cross on which hung the savior of the world.

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And therein lies the rub. We all want the glory of God, but that is not the full reality. Even Moses and Elijah in our text bear witness that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah, and it was revealed that Jesus is the Messiah, but the Gospel doesn’t end here. Moses came off the mountain with the Law for the people, but Jesus comes off the mountain with the grace of God.

Thinking theologically about the glory of God is not enough as it will always fall short. It diminishes the powerful effects of sin that grip our lives. This vision of fame is right to hold, but it falls short because it will never point out the gaps between our sin and self-centered living.

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If this is the case, then God’s glory and suffering cannot be separated. Of course, no wants to suffer. The avoidance of pain is one thing; the complete intolerance, or renunciation of it, is another. I want you to think back to a time when someone to you a compelling story of pain, loss, and suffering. Perhaps, you, yourself have a story to testify about grief and loss, or plight.  But I want you to think about how people talk about something that is painful. And by painful, I want you to think about where God is at in pain. It’s hard to see the glory of God isn’t it when we hear a story that pains us.

If someone has just undergone an ugly divorce, for example, he might be dismissive of the situation by belittling the other person- “I won’t miss her anyway  Then there is the kind of reasoning that justifies a painful situation by trying to minimize the impact of the loss. “Well, at least I learned a lesson from this horrible experience.”

This kind of reasoning tries to make something bad sound like it is good. It is a coping strategy to avoid looking pain and grief directly in the face, to avoid acknowledging that we wish life were different but are powerless to change it. So, we try to turn a bad situation into something that allows us to avoid the hard work of internal processing and dealing with any negative emotion of anger or sadness for the loss. It is merely a way to minimize the damage caused by sin.

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Martin Luther coined the term the theologian of glory as this approach to life. This kind of theology and practice of the Christian life tries to minimize or remove difficult and painful things or to move past them rather than looking them square in the face and accepting them.

As Luther puts it, the theologian of glory “does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.[1] The theology of glory is the natural default setting for human beings addicted to control and measurement. This perspective puts us squarely in the driver’s seat, after all.

Despite the glory of the moment, the three disciples returned with Jesus from the mountain, apart from the rest of reality. It was time to move from the sacred toward the profane where the world is. The world that God loves and where we dwell. The world where we are invited to embrace our own vision of glory through the cross of Jesus.

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Catholic sister and author Joan Chittister shares a parable about our ability to block out Jesus when we return from the glory of the mountaintop to the valley below.  The fable Sister Chittister shares go as follows:

“Where shall I look for Enlightenment?” the disciple asked.

 “Here,” the elder said. “It is happening right now?” the elder answered.

         “Then why don’t I experience it?” the disciple persisted.

         “Because you do not look,” the elder said.

          “But what should I look for?” the disciple continued.

            “Nothing. Just look.” The elder said.

                  “But, look at what?” the disciple asked again.

“At anything your eyes alight upon,” the elder answered.

“But must I look in a special kind of way?” the disciple went on.

“No. The ordinary way will do,” the elder said.

“But don’t I always look the ordinary way?” the disciple said.

“No, you don’t,” the elder said.

“But why ever not?” the disciple asked.

         “Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,” the elder said. [2]

            We need this promise of glory to journey through Lent towards the cross. The hope of glory is what will sustain. Hope where “neither death nor life… nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Abide always in this hope of glory wherever Life finds you. Amen. 

[1] Timothy F. Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. William R. Russell, 3rd edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012). P. 157.

[2] Joan Chittister and John August Swanson, There Is a Season, First Edition edition (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1995). P. 23.


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