February 7, 2016
If you are one of those people who keeps track of church seasons, then you know that we are about to enter the season of Lent: a time of introspection and self-examination. Lent is a period of about 6 weeks in which we walk with Jesus towards Good Friday and the cross that awaits him in Jerusalem.
This Lent, we’ll be focusing in worship and in our Gateway groups on the Book of Psalms – the ancient book of hymns and prayers used for thousands of years by Jewish and Christian worshipers. Each Sunday, we’ll use four different psalms in a variety of ways, and we’ll also learn about different ways of praying. A devotional book that uses those same psalms and explores many different prayer practices will be available for you to use on your own and in your Gateway group, if you are part of one.
This devotional book, Praying the Psalms, will be available starting this Wednesday, at our 7:00 PM Ash Wednesday service and then at our Sunday morning services through the season of Lent. It’s already available on our church website.
Lent is a time in which we remember who we are: beloved, but flawed and sinful human beings, in need of God’s healing and salvation. The Scripture reading for this Sunday before Lent, however, is about who Jesus is. It’s the story of the Transfiguration.
If it were a movie, I imagine that the Transfiguration would be filmed by a camera moving slowly up the side of a steep, rocky mountain, finally revealing the peak, shrouded in swirling clouds. The sky would darken and the music in the background would be in some eerie, minor key.
Peter, James and John trudge slowly but obediently behind Jesus as he climbs the mountain. They are tired, and unsure of what’s happening. They follow behind, silently. Jesus reaches the top before them. He stops and begins to pray, and while he does so, Luke records, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Waking from their sleepy fog, rubbing their eyes, Peter, James and John behold a strange and unreal sight. Jesus stands before them: he is still Jesus, but he is somehow different, changed. The light is so bright it seems to shine right through him. What is he? An angel? A prophet?
As if in answer to their question, two other figures appear, standing on either side of Jesus. One holds a stone tablet: it must be Moses, the great giver of the Law, the Commandments. The other…ah…it is Elijah, the prophet who was taken up into the heavens by a divine chariot, so that someday he could return.
By this time James and John have their backs against the large boulder that marks the path down the mountain. They’ve had enough of this unworldly experience. As soon as their legs stop shaking and start taking orders again, they plan to make as speedy an exit as possible.
Peter, on the other hand, has never been one to turn down the opportunity to put in his two cents’ worth. Peter has never been shy. His legs shake, too, but this is a chance he just can’t pass up. He was right! Didn’t he just tell them that Jesus was the Messiah? Didn’t he just say that? He was right! This whole bizarre scene in front of them proves it!
Somehow he must show Jesus that he knows what all of this means. He knows that Jesus is no ordinary man; Jesus is special, sent from God like Moses and Elijah. They are not regular human beings; they deserve special treatment. Peter collects his courage. “Teacher! Rabbi! It is good that we are here. Let us build you three booths, three places befitting your status, so that we can come and worship you as you deserve.”
But Jesus will not allow himself to be kept in a special place. He will not sit still, waiting for worshipers to pray at him. He will not be kept in a box. Jesus steps out of the bright white light and moves towards the disciples. He puts his arms around them, and, even as Peter protests, starts back down the mountain.
Before Luke the Gospel writer wrote about the 3 disciples’ mystical encounter with the human-yet-divine Jesus, the Apostle Paul – who had never met the human Jesus – also took a turn at describing the paradox of one who is fully human and fully divine. Christ, he said, set aside his divine status in order to empty himself, to humble himself, as a human being. Christ chose to be completely and thoroughly human, and to be part of the messy, painful life that human beings lead.
“Though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”
Paul didn’t actually come up with that language himself; he was quoting a very early piece of liturgy: a prayer or a hymn. This passage that Paul wrote might be the closest we can come to hearing what the very first Christians believed – that that Christ was “with God” or indeed “was God” (as John would later say) but chose, with great courage and vulnerability, to be one with us, even in the way he died.
What James, John and Peter encountered that day on the mountaintop must have been frightening. But what Jesus intends for them as they make their way back down to the real, everyday world, what he wants for them (and for us) can be seen as even more momentous. It requires courage and vulnerability. They saw his transfiguration; but Jesus wants our transfiguration.
Because Jesus is not worried about who he is; he is concerned with who we are. What Jesus sees as he looks around at Peter, James and John, at 1st century Palestine and at 21st century Michigan, are people who are not the whole people God intends them to be. Jesus sees people who live half-way: people whose lives are smaller, narrower, more protected and more timid versions of what they could be.
Any cardiac patient can tell you that trying to go through half-hearted is a constant struggle. You struggle to breathe, you struggle for comfort, you struggle to climb, you struggle even to rest. All these are symptoms of what you face when you live life half-heartedly.
Some people live half-lives because of exterior forces that confine them: poverty, discrimination, war, famine and illness. Others live this way because of forces that work from the inside: anxiety, fear, greed, envy.
Truthfully, almost all of us live with some sort of heart defect. A defect that limits our ability to love, to give, to enjoy, to risk, to rejoice, to praise. Some people try to fix their own hearts: some with big homes or big cars or big vacations; others with loud parties, loud music and loud friends. There are those who try to fix their hearts with food or alcohol or drugs or sex.
But this is not the kind of life God intends for us. God’s intention is for each one of us to live whole-heartedly.
Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, defines whole-hearted people as those who are able to be both courageous and vulnerable. They are able to experience failure without damage to their self-esteem. They are whole-hearted because they’re willing to risk being broken-hearted.
This wholeness of heart is also called salvation. It’s the transforming heart surgery that God offers each one of us. Not as something that happens only after death, but as a life-altering, life-saving transfiguration that happens in this life. It happens when we come to know ourselves as beloved, forgiven, wholly-worthy children of God.
Our whole hearts are the reason Christ chose not to claim equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
There is so much half-heartedness in the world. But God’s desire is that we live whole-heartedly. God wants us to lead full, abundant, courageous, vulnerable lives. So God sent Jesus back down the mountain and into our lives: to heal us, to transfigure us, that we might experience whole life. We cannot do it alone; we cannot apply our own bandages and expect real change to take place. It is the work of God through Christ, the Great Physician.
Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor tells a wonderful story about her first meeting with Jesus and the transfiguration of her life that followed from that meeting. Raised to be “too smart” to need religion, Barbara encountered two young missionaries for Christ in her dormitory doorway during her first year of college. She describes their youthful zeal to make a convert of her, and how she cooperated with them “as much out of curiosity as anything and because,” she says, “I thought that going along with them would get them out of my room faster than arguing with them.” Before they leave, the two evangelists persuade Barbara to kneel and say a prayer, asking Jesus to come into her heart.
“I admired their courage, in a way, but nothing they said really affected me. Most of it was just embarrassing, the kind of simplistic faith I like the least. But something happened to me that afternoon. After they left I went out for a walk and the world looked funny to me, different. People’s faces looked different to me; I had never noticed so many details before. I stared at them like portraits in a gallery, and my own face burned for over an hour. Meanwhile it was hard to walk. The ground was spongy under my feet. I felt weightless, and it was all I could do to keep myself from floating up and getting stuck in the trees.
Was it a conversion? All I know is that something happened, something that got my attention and has kept it through all the years that have passed since then. I may have been fooling around, but Jesus was not. My heart may not have been in it, but Jesus’ was. I asked him to come in and he came in, although I no more have words for his presence in my life than I do for what keeps the stars in the sky or what makes the daffodils rise up out of their graves each spring.”
Who is this man who puts his whole heart into us, even when we cannot give our own to him? Who is this man who can stand on top of a mountain radiating light, his clothes dazzling white…but who insists on coming back down again? Who is this man who feeds people with bread we cannot see, who offers water from a well that never runs dry, who touches lepers and eats with sinners?
He has answered before and he will answer again, but it is rarely the same answer twice. He is the shepherd, the vine, the light, the bread. He is the way, the truth, the life. We cannot nail him down. We tried once, but he got loose, and ever since then he has been the walking, talking presence of God in our midst, the living, courageous, vulnerable presence of God in our lives.
Brothers and sisters, this Lent I hope you will take time to walk with Jesus up the mountain and back down again, so that God may work a transfiguration in you, bringing you to fullness of life and wholeness of heart.