2/19/12

the glory of god in the face of jesus christ

A sermon preached at a shared service of five United Church congregations on the west-side of Vancouver on Transfiguration Sunday, February 19, 2012.

Mark 2:2-9; II Corinthians 4:3-6

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart”. This is how the story of the Transfiguration begins. “Six days later”. It begins in the middle of the story. Six days earlier the gospel has reached a climax. It is the dramatic conclusion of the opening act. Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. To which they reply: “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets”. When Jesus asks them who they say he is Peter eagerly raises his hand and says: “You are the Messiah.” Jesus responds by “sternly” ordering them to keep quiet about this. Then he begins to talk in ways that they do not expect, in ways that they have never heard him speak before. Jesus predicts that great suffering lies ahead. He says that he will be “rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” He says it openly. They all hear him. There is no mistake. Peter is the one who takes Jesus aside and tells him that he is crazy to talk this way. Peter rebukes Jesus. He yells at Jesus. At which point Jesus turns to the congregation of disciples and rebukes Peter, calling him Satan to his face. It is the first recorded church fight. Not the last, but then we know that! Note that Jesus does not hold his temper. What would Jesus do if told the gospel does not lead to suffering and death? Apparently he would be as mad as hell. Peter is saying that a Messiah who suffers and dies will never gain a following. Jesus replies that Peter is setting his mind “not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus goes on to say that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it.” It is the first mention of a cross in the gospel. Take up a cross - take up a burden of pain and grief and illness, take up a death of hopes and dreams, take up the weight of injustice that leaves too many hungry and homeless. It is not only a cross for the Messiah. It is a cross for each disciple who says “yes” to Jesus. Then the curtain comes down. Act one ends. The audience is left abuzz.

When the curtain rises on act two the narrator says: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them.” Jesus takes three disciples, three representatives, his inner cabinet up a mountain. They are blind. They cannot see who he is. Paul says that for people like them “the gospel is veiled”. He is remembering the time when Moses comes down from the mountain top with the commandments, having had a personal audience with the Almighty. Because Moses has been in such close proximity with the LORD (with Yahweh) he is shining, shining so brightly that the Israelites ask him to put a veil over his face to protect their eyes. God, you see, radiates glory, energy, power. God is, in a word, radioactive. To get close to God is to come in contact with the glory of God. In Greek the word for glory is “doxo” from which we get “doxology” - words of glory, giving God glory. In Hebrew the word for glory is “kabod”. It is the Hebrew word meaning “heavy, massive, weighty”. To say that God is glorious is to say that God has gravitas, has mass, has power, is immense. The disciples know this about God. They have been to Hebrew class. So when they realize that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Anointed One on earth, they assume the kind of power and persuasion and awe and grandeur that human beings associate with glory. The glories of a sunset perhaps. Or a great and glorious victory over evil. Jesus says that this is worldly thinking, not Godly thinking. He says that those who seek to save their life, to take control of their life, to glorify their life inevitably lose their life. He says that the glory of God is revealed in a Messiah who is scorned, rejected and crucified. When he takes Peter and James and John up to the mountain top it is as if he is leading three branches of Christianity - Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism - on a journey to sight. Or perhaps they are three denominations - Baptist, Presbyterian and - oh, why not - the United Church of Canada. Or maybe there are, this time, five disciples - five congregations - who long to see the glory, to feel the power, to touch the mystery. The point is that the disciples who go up the mountain with Jesus are blind to the glory of the LORD. Paul says that “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.” The unbelievers are legion. We are regularly numbered among them. The god of this world seeks devout worshippers who place their trust in consumption and comfort, who become blinded to the suffering of neighbours. Paul says that to be blinded in this way is to be perishing. He says that being given eyes to see the gospel of Jesus Christ is a matter of life and death. Jesus does, too. He says a life of ease is death. He says a cruciform death is life.

Peter still thinks this is hogwash. So, too, James and John who will yet ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands when he takes over the government in glory. Now comes the moment that they will never forget. Jesus is transfigured before them. He becomes radiant, dazzling white, filled with the energy - the glory - of God. Jesus confers with Moses and Elijah - the two greatest prophets, the two figures from the Old Testament whose graves were never found, who (it was surmised) had been taken up into the presence - the glory - of God. If this is the Mount Rushmore of the Bible Jesus has just had his image carved alongside the greats. He has entered God’s Holy Hall of Fame. Peter blurts out an offer to build three shelters, to house the glory in a place, to make the space - rather than the experience - sacred. Just then a cloud overshadows them, a cloud like the one that enshrouds Sinai when Moses climbs the mountain long ago. Out of the cloud, a voice speaks the words from the second Psalm that are spoken at every coronation of a new king, a new Messiah, the words that are spoken from heaven when Jesus comes up out of the baptismal water in the Jordan river: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” But now there are three more words, three new words, three words that they have not heard before: “Listen to him.” And that is it. It is over. Just like that. No more radiant energy. No more Moses or Elijah. No more cloud. No more voice. Just Jesus with Peter, James and John who have - for just a moment - been given eyes to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is like one of those summer nights on the prairies when there is no moon, when it is pitch black and when the thunder and lightening storms rouse you from sleep. You look out the window into the darkness waiting for the lightning to fork in front of your eyes. Then, for a split second, the lightning reveals the landscape for miles around. After it is gone and the darkness has returned you can see the outline of the horizon in your mind’s eye. That is how it is with the three disciples, the three denominations, the five congregations as they come down from the mountain top. For a split second they have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and heard the voice of the LORD preach, in no uncertain terms, a powerful three word sermon: “Listen to him.” Now, even in the darkness, they know the lay of the land.

Jesus is very clear. He tells the three not to say a word about what they have seen and heard until “after the Son of Man has risen from the dead”. If they begin to spread the word of this glorious transfiguration now it will be like the blind leading the blind. It will be all about the glory that the world expects - the glory of increased market share, the glory of a church that has marvelous programs and wonderful people, a very human, worldly glory. Jesus is very clear. The message about the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ will be proclaimed after the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, not before. It will take the entire second act of Mark’s gospel for the disciples to come to sight. Only at the end of the story will they be able to sing “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see”. Then they will tell the story of seeing the face of Jesus Christ in agony on the cross. Then they will tell the story of seeing the face of Jesus Christ as his corpse is wrapped in a cloth and laid in a tomb. Then they will tell the story of seeing the face of Jesus Christ resurrected, risen, present. Then they will know the story of the glory of God, the power of God, the energy of God, the immensity of God, the weight of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And then they will never look at another human face in the same way ever again. They will not look at a neighbour’s face in the same way ever again. They will not look at a stranger’s face in the same way. They will not look at a parent’s or a child’s or a spouse’s face in the same way ever again. They will not look at their own face in the same way ever again. Because they will not look for the presence of God’s glory in the same way ever again. Now the glory of God will be waiting to be revealed in weakness, in suffering, in vulnerability, in brokenness. Now the presence and activity and energy of God will not be associated with human success stories but, rather, with God’s capacity to carry humanity through suffering to newness, through broken relationships to reconciliation, through death to life.

I wonder if the year ahead will be one long journey up the Mount of Transfiguration for the five congregations gathered here on this historic occasion. It is surely historic for I am quite sure that our five congregations have not worshipped together before. I am absolutely sure that we have never gathered in the face of such challenging circumstances. We are not alone. Across the Lower Mainland - in Langley, in Burnaby, along the Lougheed corridor, on the North Shore - congregations have begun meeting as they wonder where Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is leading us. Given the evident power of the god of this world that is reflected in churches with shrinking, aging demographics and buildings badly in need of repair it is not at all clear that Jesus is leading us at all, never mind where he intends to take us. In such a circumstance it is a great temptation to take things into our own hands, to side with Peter and to rebuke Jesus, to get busy creating the kind of a church that is marketable and sensible. Peter knows the kind - a church without a call to suffer and die, a church that sells itself as a nice place to be with nice people to be around and a nice message to carry home. If we are not careful our conversations may amount to the blind leading the blind as we talk in circles about our future, about our church, about us.

But it is not about us. Paul says: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus sake. For it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” We do not proclaim ourselves. We do not market our church, our glossy new ideas, our creative vision. We proclaim that in the face of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, God has opened the eyes of our hearts so that we might glimpse the glory - the presence - of God. There we see that it is not about us but that it is about God’s glory. Will there be a church here in ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred years? Let me ask it this way - will God’s glory - the glory that made light shine out of darkness, the glory that raised Jesus from the dead - will God’s glory suddenly evaporate? For heaven’s sake, no! We have seen the glory of God in the face of the Suffering One who calls us to live his cruciform life together, a life of compassionate burden bearing. That glory always and everywhere calls into being a peculiar people who cannot keep quiet about it, whose lives are transformed by it, who give God the glory, glory no matter what flavour of church is in or out of vogue. Of course there will be a church here in ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred years. And its ministry will sound something like this: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Your slaves for Jesus’ sake. Now there is an interesting name for a church. Imagine putting that on the sign out front. This is what ministry is, of course. Minister is Latin meaning “slave”. Our ministry, ordained and lay, is slavery for Jesus’ sake. We are recruits in the ministry of Jesus Christ, which is to say that we are in servitude to neighbour and stranger for Jesus’ sake. We are not free to abandon the lost and the lonely. We do not have the option of ignoring another’s pain - including the pain of a neighbouring congregation. This ministry, this shared suffering, would be too much for us to bear and to accomplish if it were not for one thing. Paul says it in the very next verses: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed .... So we do not lose heart.” For our eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord in the face of Jesus Christ. Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!

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