It's Transfiguration Sunday. I have to admit that although this is a big deal as church celebrations go, I've always had a hard time figuring out why it ought to be a big deal to me. It was great for Peter, James, and John, I'm sure. But 2000 years later, what do I do with this?
Theologians have worked on that question for almost 2000 years. One angle is in your bulletin today. Another more prominent angle is to show the parallels between the Old Testament reading with Moses and the Elders having lunch with God on the mountain. Mountains in both readings. Invitations from God in both readings. Glimpses of divine glory amidst human fellowship in both readings. And then Moses goes further up the mountain, and Jesus goes down the mountain and to his death in Jerusalem. Moses is the go-between with Israel and God, Jesus is the better, perfect go-between with God and us. We take away joy and confidence that Jesus is now at the right hand of God interceding for us until He comes again in glory.
Every bit of that is true and good and duly comforting at a certain level. And yet, the problem remains a matter of what do we do with this? The Israelites were relieved to have Moses acting as their go-between, except that when he didn't come back for 40 days or so, they decided that it must be time to switch to plan B and they built a golden calf. After waiting for Jesus all of our lives, chances are pretty good that there are some golden calves in our lives. Things that we put our trust in because as comforting as our mediator Jesus is, we still have to figure out what to do today.
We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what it is that God wants us to do both spiritually and practically, forgetting that the two really aren't as separate and distinct as we'd prefer them to be. I've been to churches where that's all they ever talk about in worship – what they're doing and what they ought to be doing. What is it that God wants us to do? Why aren't we doing what God wants us to do? Let's sing about what God wants us to do! Maybe we'll all somehow come up with the strength and desire to do what God wants us to do this week! You can't be a Christian if you aren't doing what God wants you to do, so get out there and do it more and better!
Our tendency is to always come to Scripture and read about ourselves. Basic Instructions before Leaving Earth, right? Yet if the instructions are so basic, why do so many Christians struggle and agonize over what they say? Why after dozens of translations are we still mining it for secret codes and something other than what it actually says? Is the Bible about us or not? What does God want us to do with this Bible and this Transfiguration Sunday?
We could focus on the Transfiguration as a moment not so much about God, but about us. Jesus revealed himself to the disciples so that they would be sure and be obedient and steadfast in their faith even to martyrdom. Likewise, the elders of Israel encounter the glorified Son of God so that they will be good and obedient and faithful in leading God's people and teaching them his Word. The Transfiguration should inspire us to greater obedience, greater fervor, greater missional activity, greater tithing – choose your desired outcome – that's what the Transfiguration is supposed to spur us on towards.
Except for two things. First, you and I haven't experienced the same sort of Transfiguration as the Israelites and the disciples did. And secondly, more often than not, the Transfiguration doesn't accomplish these things in our lives. We are not particularly spurred, not particular inspired, not particularly more obedient, more excited, more open, more generous.
This might be crushing and depressing and we often feel that way, either because a brother or sister in the faith makes us feel that way or because we make ourselves feel that way. After all, it worked for the Israelites and the disciples, why aren't I properly motivated? Except that in both cases, this isn't what happens. These two divine encounters do not create super-disciples. All of the people involved in both these divine encounters fail in their obedience in one way or another. James and John almost immediately start arguing about which of them is Jesus' favorite. All the disciples will flee in fear when Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane. Peter will bluntly deny his Lord three times. The Israelites in 40 days will have created the golden calf either as a representation for their god (directly violating the commands they've just agreed to) or as a replacement for their god, who might have just burned up Moses on the mountaintop. In neither situation is the event something that seems to have the effect we think it ought to have on us.
Where does that leave us?
Perhaps Peter is instructive in today's lesson. Or more accurately, God is instructive to Peter and therefore to us. You remember Peter of course. Peter is the guy with at least one foot in his mouth most of the time. This morning, in the midst of divine revelation and holy conversation, Peter decides it's time to work out sleeping arrangements for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter's idiotic suggestion to build some shelters on the mountain misses the mark so badly that God the Father literally has to break in and interrupt him and tell him to shut up.
In fact, the only instruction from God the Father in this whole event is essentially to shut up. Shut up and what? Shut up and do something else instead? Shut up and be a better disciple? Shut up and quit putting your foot in your mouth? Shut up and be a better evangelist?
No. Shut up and listen. This is my son. Listen to him!
In case the disciples (or we) miss the point, what is the Son of God's one instruction to the disciples as they come back down the mountain? Shut up!
Peter presumes that what is expected of him in this moment is to contribute something. God must be waiting for Peter to react, to respond, to demonstrate his faith or his love or his devotion. Peter assumes that this moment must be a call to action and response, yet the only thing he can figure out to suggest is building tents. He has no clue what to do, what to offer or contribute to the moment, how to fulfill God's expectations.
I think that's the whole point. There is nothing for him to do. He has nothing to offer or contribute. Nothing is expected from him beyond watching and listening. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have not called the disciples to this mountaintop in order for the disciples to do anything. I suspect the same is true for you and I.
The Transfiguration stands as a reminder that it isn't what we do that matters, but what God does. God is far less interested in telling us what He wants us to do, and far more interested that we stop and shut up and listen to what He has already done for us. It's really that simple. That mind-numbingly, counter-intuitively simple. It isn't about us, it's about him. God doesn't really care what we do, but He cares a great deal if we listen.
Like Peter, we need to shut up and listen. Listen to the love that God expresses for us through his Word, that He has demonstrated in human life and history and not just a book that gathers dust on our coffee tables. Listen to the love that God demonstrates in crafting such an amazing creation. Listen to the love God demonstrates by not destroying all of creation when we sinned, but rather promising to rescue us from the death that our sin brings us. Listen to the love that God demonstrates as He patiently and lovingly guides ordinary people, shaping the history of the world around his love and commitment to you and I.
Listen to the love that brings the Son of God willingly into our world not in magnificence to judge us and strike terror into us. No, like the text of Exodus says, He does not raise his hand against us! Listen to the love of the Son of God that comes not to judge but to save, to suffer, to identify with us in our suffering, and to bear our sin to the cross and the grave. Listen to the love of God the Father that speaks the Son alive again, breaking him out of his tomb, restoring him to life and glory.
Listen to the love of God the Holy Spirit that allows you and I to be joined to that death and new life through faith. Listen to the love of God the Holy Spirit that speaks us into the family of God in baptism. Listen to the love of God the Holy Spirit that invites us - his children - to once again dine with him, to be fed not simply in the presence of of God the Son like the Israelites, but with the very body and blood of God the Son made man, in with and under the simple bread and wine.
God doesn't really care what you do. But He wants you to care a great deal about what He has done for you in Jesus Christ. It is this that matters, this that makes the difference between life and death, heaven and hell, action and inaction – what God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has done, is doing, and will do. It is this we are to shut up and listen to. And miracle of miracles, when we shut up and listen, we find that we begin to be transformed into the likeness of our Savior, to the joy and relief of our neighbors and spouses and children and colleagues and government.
The Transfiguration isn't about what God expects from you. It's completely about what God offers to you in Jesus Christ. God the Father who created you, God the Son who redeemed you, God the Holy Spirit who brings you to faith and trust in the death and resurrection of God the Son – it has always been and will always be about this Triune God, not about what you do or don't do.
Shut up and listen.
Date: First Sunday in Lent, March 9, 2014
Texts: Genesis 3:1-21; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Context: We begin the season of Lent. An Old English word for the season of spring, it has been used for over 1000 years to translate the various terms in other languages that meant 40 days, the length of the Lenten season. As early as the fifth century there were Christians who attributed a 40-day period of fasting prior to Easter to a practice or teaching of the Apostles. Many scholars feel that this is not accurate though, since there appears to be a diversity of practices regarding this period of fasting—more than would be likely if the practice were handed down strictly from Apostolic authority. It remains today a season associated with penance and self-searching, seeking to better recognize the sinfulness in us that requires the death of our Savior on Good Friday.
Genesis 3:1-21 — How fitting it is to begin a season of penance and repentance with the retelling of the fall into sin, the primal moment of disobedience, of assertion of the self against the directive of the divine from which all sin springs. Eve and then Adam presume to know better than God, to seek a way around or through his commands. They encounter only sin and shame and the death that must inevitably follow rebellion against God. Even here there is mercy. God does not destroy, but He details the intimate ways that sin will make every aspect of our lives brutal and agonizing. For man, the caretaker, work will now be a source of constant struggle and frustration. For woman, the life-bringer, birth will now entail pain and suffering. Both men and women will constantly struggle with one another for superiority and dominance (3:16b). Death hunts us all. Even here there is mercy. God expels Adam and Eve, yet the first sacrifice occurs, off-stage, so that Adam and Eve might not be ashamed of their nakedness (3:21). Even here, the sacrifice that God ordains for the rescue of his creation is prefigured both in verses 15 and verses 21.
Psalm 32:1-7— The beauty of confession is poetically described here. We can well imagine the guilt and suffering of Adam and Eve hiding in the bushes from God. We can empathize with the bitter-sweet release of confession, of their actions being revealed and not eating away at them secretly and silently. What joy there is in coming to confession week after week, laying our sins at the foot of the cross and knowing that our Savior takes them up with him. What sweet release to hear the words of absolution declaring us forgiven, reassuring us that in Jesus Christ there is no condemnation, for He did not come to judge and condemn but to save (John 3:17)
Romans 5:12-19 — Paul beautifully weaves together the opposing figures of Adam and Jesus. Adam through whom sin came to all the world, and Jesus through whom hope came to all the world. The parallels between the single, initial sin of Adam and the single, final death and resurrection of the Son of God are powerfully described. All are stained by sin, but all have hope now in Christ!
Matthew 4:1-11 — Jesus arrives as the second Adam, borrowing from Paul’s connections in Romans 5. Jesus comes uniquely free of original sin, and therefore truly able to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, just as the first Adam could. No other human being since Adam other than Jesus has possessed this moral neutrality.
It is no surprise then that as soon as Jesus is revealed at his baptism to be the Son of God, Satan appears. In fact, God the Holy Spirit ensures that the two meet up. For the first time that we are privy to, and for one of the first times since Genesis 3, Satan explicitly reveals himself in order to tempt into sinfulness. Does Satan understand the full scope of what God the Father intends to accomplish in God the Son? It is tempting to think so, but then that ascribes greater knowledge to Satan than might be necessary or wise. At the very least, he is aware that Jesus is as yet unstained by sin. Satan cannot seem to bear this. All creation is marred and scarred by sin—except Jesus.
Satan tries three angles of attack. He only needed one with Eve and Adam. But unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus does not even indulge in the temptation of considering Satan’s plans. Both in Genesis and here in Matthew Satan strikes at the issue of identity. Will the creature be obedient to the creator? Or can the creature be swayed and tempted to act contrary to the creator? Can the creature be made to think that obedience can be achieved through disobedience?
He tempts first simply with food, as he tempted Eve and Adam, and in both cases the temptation of food is intertwined with a confusion of identity. You will be like God if you eat this fruit. If you are the Son of God you can create manipulate creation for your own personal desires. You don’t have to remain merely human. You do not have to play by the same rules as humans since you are more than human.
When Jesus doesn’t budge, Satan tempts him to reveal his identity by throwing himself off the Temple. He tempts him to allow everyone to know his full identity, his full glory. Rather than carefully selecting those who would see his glory as in last week’s reading from Matthew 17 (the Transfiguration), Jesus is tempted to grandstand for all of Jerusalem.
Finally, Satan tempts Jesus to accomplish his goals through alternate means. Presaging Jesus’ struggle and prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his arrest, Satan offers Jesus a Plan B here and now, at the beginning of his ministry. Without the suffering and frustration, without the pain and death and tomb. It’s the end that matters, right, so who cares about the means?
Unlike Adam, Jesus remains obedient. He refuses to seek to grab hold of more than He has been called to in his incarnation, in his humble identity not just as the Son of God, but as Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary. In refusing Satan’s temptations, Jesus is now free to begin his ministry. Succumbing to temptation would have made any other efforts on Jesus’ part pointless. But because of Jesus’ obedience here, and his continued obedience to the cross and tomb, you and I have hope of forgiveness and grace through faith in him. Jesus is the undoing of the curse, by doing what Adam should have done in the first place, remain obedient.
We begin the season of Lent, the season of repentance and self-examination in the light and hope of forgiveness and grace. What we are not, Jesus is. What we cannot do, Jesus has done. Let this knowledge sustain us as we journey towards the cross.