February 26, 2017
Transfiguration of Our Lord, Pastor Javen Swanson
Read today’s scripture lessons: Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9. Sermon audio is available by clicking the microphone in the upper right corner.
I’ll confess that, when it comes to children’s sermons, I feel like I’m stuck in a bit of a rut. Maybe you’ve noticed. I worry that whenever I have an opportunity to lead the time with children, I end up sounding like a broken record. It doesn’t matter what the assigned scripture readings are or what else is happening that day. It’s some variation of the same message, every time. That message usually goes something like this: “God loves you. God loves each and every person, no matter what. Nothing you could do could take that away.”
I suppose it’s not the worst thing in the world that our children hear that message so often around here. In fact, maybe it’s important that they hear that message over and over again and get it firmly planted in their brains. Every couple months we have a baptism orientation workshop for parents who are preparing to have their child baptized. In that workshop we talk about the importance of being claimed as a child of God in baptism. We tell parents that, as their children get older, they are going to enter into a world that tries to tell them a particular story about who they are. The world will try to make them believe they’re not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not talented enough, not this enough, not that enough. It’s heartbreaking sitting in one of these baptism workshops, seeing these precious newborn babies, imagining what the world has in store for them when they start to grow up. But at baptism, we tell them a different story. Here at the font today, in just a few moments, we will say to little Louisa: “You are a child of God. You are loved by God. You are enough, and you always will be.” And we will tell her parents and sponsors that their job is to remind her of these baptismal promises often, to repeat this message over and over again, because the world will be relentless in its efforts to make her believe a different story. So maybe it’s not so bad, whenever we have the opportunity here at church, that we reinforce that message: “God loves you. God loves each and every person, no matter what. Nothing you could do could take that away.”
I’d guess it’s not just the children who need to hear that message. All of us live in a world that tells us lies about who we are, and lies about who our neighbors are. We all need to be part of a community that counters the lies of the world by telling a different story. Otherwise, there’s a risk those lies could begin to take hold.
Lately I’ve been watching a TV series called The Man in the High Castle. The show is set in the early 1960s and it’s based on a frightening premise: It imagines that the Axis Powers won World War II. After the War, according to this dystopian alternative history, the conquered United States was divided in half, with Imperial Japan controlling the western part and Nazi Germany ruling east of the Mississippi. In the first episode we meet John Smith, who had been a U. S. Army captain during the war but switched allegiances after the American defeat. Fifteen years later, he has become Obergruppenführer John Smith—a high-ranking Nazi official, essentially the governor of the American Reich and the foremost proponent of Nazism on this continent.
Throughout the series, you can’t help but wonder how this thoroughly American military man John Smith so quickly abandoned the American ideals he fought for in the war—how he succumbed to Nazi ideology and became Obergruppenführer Smith, a staunch defender of cold-blooded fascism. I suppose if we banished from our memory those self-evident American truths about all people being created equal, endowed with unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; if we eradicated those lofty ideals altogether and instead were brainwashed with an ideology of racial hierarchy and totalitarianism, maybe those dark ideas would begin to take hold among us, too. Maybe we would find ourselves surrendering the values we hold so dear and beginning to believe this horribly different story.
I think these reflections help us understand what’s going on in the story of the transfiguration in today’s Gospel reading.
It helps to start with a little context. In the verses just before today’s reading, Jesus has broken some terrible news to his disciples. He has told them that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Peter responds the way any of us might have. He pulls Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it! This must never happen to you.” Jesus replies to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:21-23).
At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is on a death march, entering the darkest and most difficult period of his life. Now, Jesus may understand that his death will ultimately be undone and that this is how God plans to destroy the power of death once and for all, but his disciples? They can only see Jesus’ impending death the way the world has trained them to see it—as a dead end. The world has taught them to believe that death has the final word. When Jesus tells them he must go to Jerusalem and die, all the disciples’ hopes and dreams for this movement that has sprung up around him are shattered.
That brings us to today’s reading, six days later, when Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain, and he is transfigured before their eyes. They see Jesus standing on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, two heroes of the Jewish faith. His face is shining and his clothes are dazzling white. Then they hear the voice of God echoing the words spoken on the day of Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
If the news they had heard six days earlier left them feeling anxious and afraid, disillusioned and dejected, this experience on the mountain must have boosted their spirits. Despite all the horror Jesus has told them lies ahead in Jerusalem, the disciples have now heard it reaffirmed that Jesus is the Son of God. They can feel assured that God will be powerfully present with them even as they march with Jesus toward the cross. I like the way Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz describes what is happening in this story: Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus up the mountain after hearing the news of Jesus’ imminent death, and the transfiguration gives the disciples “eyes to see God’s light in the chaos to come.” She says that “God prepares people in the transcendent encounters of our lives to endure the world below, the world of the cross, the world that has the ability to break us and yet is never beyond God’s redemption… The mountain was [the place where God prepared] a human band of companions for the sacred journey, [and offered] something to hold onto when they descend into the crushing reality of the world below.”
The mountain is where God offers us something to hold onto when we descend into the crushing reality of the world below. Maybe the mountain is the time with children on Sunday mornings when we remind our little ones that they are beloved children of God before sending them back down into a world that tells them they’ll never be good enough. Maybe the mountain is where we are reminded that all people are created in God’s image before being sent back down into a world that tells us some are “illegal” or suggests some are less human than others. Maybe the mountain is where we hear Mary’s song about God casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly before being sent back down into a world that tells us the wealthy are overburdened but poor people need to buck up and work harder. The mountain is wherever we feel ourselves plucked up out of the world to be reoriented and re-grounded in a different story, so we can go back down the mountain, endure the chaos and horror that awaits us there, and resist the lies the world wants us to believe.
People say the Christian church is in decline, that it is irrelevant, that a 2,000-year-old faith doesn’t have anything meaningful to say to the world today. But I think the church is more essential today than ever. We have a treasure in our hands—the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When the world tries to brainwash us with lies about who we are and who our neighbors are, we cling to a different story. We are immersed in that story on the day we are baptized, just as Louisa will be immersed in that story today. And we keep coming back to this font and to this table, and back to the Word of God, week after week, month after month, year after year, to reorient ourselves and re-ground ourselves in this story. We keep coming back and going up the mountain with Jesus to see the truth for ourselves, so we can go back down into the world and endure the chaos that surrounds us there.
In his book, The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis writes a final word from Aslan, the great lion who rules Narnia. Aslan says: “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.”
Here on this mountain God speaks a message to children and grown-ups alike: “God loves you. God loves each and every person, no matter what. Nothing you could do could take that away.” As we go back down the mountain, we will find ourselves surrounded once again by chaos, inundated with lies. Take great care that they do not confuse your mind.
Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz, “Matthew 17:1-9: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, (New York: HarperCollins, 1981), quoted by Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz.
Thomas G. Long, Matthew, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997).